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Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy

Posted on 26 April 2011 by hashimilion

Summary

Protests that erupted in Bahrain following the uprising that overthrew Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011, demonstrate that Shiite grievances over the distribution of power and economic opportunities were not satisfied by previous efforts to include the Shiite majority in governance. Possibly because of concerns that a rise to power of the Shiite opposition could jeopardize the extensive U.S. military cooperation with Bahrain, the Obama Administration criticized the early use of violence by the government but subsequently praised the Al Khalifa regime for its offer of a dialogue with the demonstrators. It did not call for the King to step down, and Administration contacts with his government are widely credited for the decision of the regime to cease using force against the protesters as of February 19, 2011. However, as protests escalated in March 2011, Bahrain’s government, contrary to the advice of the Obama Administration, invited security assistance from other neighboring Gulf Cooperation Council countries and subsequently moved to end the large gatherings. Some believe the crackdown has largely ended prospects for a negotiated political solution in Bahrain, and could widen the conflict to the broader Gulf region.

The 2011 unrest, in which some opposition factions have escalated their demands in response to the initial use of force by the government, comes four months after the October 23, 2010, parliamentary election. That election, no matter the outcome, would not have unseated the ruling Al Khalifa family from power, but the Shiite population was hoping that winning a majority in the elected lower house could give it greater authority. In advance of the elections, the government launched a wave of arrests intended to try to discredit some of the hard-line Shiite leadership as tools of Iran. On the other hand, Bahrain’s Shiite oppositionists, and many outside experts, accuse the government of inflating the intensity of contacts between Iran and the opposition in order to justify the use of force against Bahraini Shiites.

Unrest in Bahrain directly affects U.S. national security interests. Bahrain, in exchange for a tacit U.S. security guarantee, has provided key support for U.S. interests by hosting U.S. naval headquarters for the Gulf for over 60 years and by providing facilities and small numbers of personnel for U.S. war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bahraini facilities have been pivotal to U.S. strategy to deter any Iranian aggression as well as to interdict the movement of terrorists and weapons-related technology on Gulf waterways. The United States has designated Bahrain as a “major non-NATO ally,” and it provides small amounts of security assistance to Bahrain. On other regional issues such as the Arab-Israeli dispute, Bahrain has tended to defer to Saudi Arabia or other powers to take the lead in formulating proposals or representing the position of the Persian Gulf states, collectively.

Fuelling Shiite unrest is the fact that Bahrain is generally poorer than most of the other Persian Gulf monarchies, in large part because Bahrain has largely run out of crude oil reserves. It has tried to compensate through diversification, particularly in the banking sector and some manufacturing. In September 2004, the United States and Bahrain signed a free trade agreement (FTA); legislation implementing it was signed January 11, 2006 (P.L. 109-169).

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