Middle East

Protecting the U.S.-Bahraini Relationship

A six-year-old girl stands with anti-government protestors at the Pearl roundabout in Manama, Bahrain, on Feb. 21.

The United States has maintained a key security relationship with Bahrain since 1947, demonstrated most visibly by the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet located in Manama. As the political situation in Bahrain continues to deteriorate, however, the United States needs to re-energize its diplomatic efforts toward Bahrain, and prioritize real reform and accountability. Failure to do so risks an escalation of violence that could endanger the relationship both parties hold dear.

In February, an estimated 300,000 people—more than half of the nation's citizens—marched for greater political freedom and respect for human rights. In response, the Bahraini government resorted to brute force that has torn the fabric of Bahraini society at its seams.

In the ensuing crackdown, at least 6 percent of the Bahraini workforce has been suspended or fired, and at least four out of every 1,000 citizens have been jailed as political prisoners.

Months after the masses have been forced from the streets, the dialogue has largely been declared a farce. Members of the opposition remain in jail (some facing life sentences), and nightly skirmishes between protesters and riot police persist. On October 1, Bahrain held a second round of by-elections to fill 18 seats in the parliament vacated by the opposition in protest of the government's crackdown, amid dismally low turnout rates that indicate widespread disillusionment with the political process.

In a troubling development, the U.S. administration recently proposed a new $53 million arms sale to Bahrain. In response, the Project on Middle East Democracy has drafted a letter to Congress, warning that if the United States "resumes arms sales as though circumstances had returned to normal, Bahrain's rulers will have no reason" to take "meaningful steps toward accountability or political reform."

Some American diplomats fear too much pressure on the government could antagonize the monarchy to the point they would call for the Fifth Fleet to leave. At the same time, the chasm between the Bahraini opposition and the government continues to widen as the crackdown continues and trust-building measures appear elusive. 

Chances for both sides to return to the negotiating table are slim, but not non-existent. 

Given the vital Bahraini-U.S. relationship, the Obama administration has the opportunity to play a role in moving national reconciliation forward. One change they could use this influence to affect is the withdrawal of Gulf Cooperation Council forces from Bahrain, a presence that emboldens hardliners within the Bahraini government. In addition, the United States could expedite confirmation and deployment of Ambassador-designate Thomas Krajeski, tasked with the top priority of rebuilding trust and returning all parties to the negotiating table in a meaningful and substantive dialogue.

Bahrain also has incentive to take constructive steps because it highly values its image in the international community as a Gulf country that is stable, modern and business-friendly. The government's reaction to peaceful protests risks its rulers joining a club of regional autocrats bent on preserving power through repression. To preserve its reputation as a country of tolerance and prosperity, the Bahraini government could release its political prisoners, dropping politically motivated charges against them, under the rights afforded them by rule of law. 

Along a similar vein, Bahraini security forces could allow peaceful political protests, and the government could call for a process for meaningful accountability of Bahraini security forces involved in the arrest, torture, unlawful detention and deaths of prisoners of conscience. Accountability is a critical building block to restore protesters' trust in the sincerity of the government's devotion to reform, and allowing nonviolent protests creates a peaceful channel for Bahrainis to express their demands—a much preferred option to the armed conflict that has occurred in Libya and is quickly developing in Syria. 

The government could reinstate all public and government-invested enterprises' employees dismissed from their workplace for their perceived support of or participation in political protests, as another demonstration that they are willing to negotiate.

Failure by the United States to use its considerable leverage in Bahrain, and failure by Bahrain to reform and live up its desired reputation as stable, modern and business-friendly, would be short-sighted and jeopardize their valued security relationship. The U.S. administration and the Bahraini government have a responsibility to act and deliver meaningful reform and accountability, or risk the very scenario both wish to avoid. 

Cole Bockenfeld is director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service: www.commongroundnews.org. 

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