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

December 3, 2012

Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy (PDF)

Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

The uprising that began in Bahrain on February 14, 2011, at the outbreak of the uprisings that swept several Middle Eastern leaders from power, began a political crisis that has defied resolution. The crisis since 2011 has been more intense than previous periods of unrest in Bahrain, and demonstrates that the grievances of the Shiite majority over the distribution of power and economic opportunities have not satisfied by reform efforts instituted since 1999. The bulk of the Shiite majority in Bahrain says it demands a constitutional monarchy in which an elected parliament produces the government, but many in the Sunni minority government of the Al Khalifa family believe the Shiites want outright rule.

In March 2011, Bahrain’s government rejected U.S. advice by inviting direct security assistance from other Gulf Cooperation Council countries, declaring a state of emergency, forcefully suppressing demonstrations, and arresting dissident leaders and pro-opposition health care workers. Although the state of emergency ended on June 1, 2011, a “national dialogue” held in July 2011 reached consensus on only a few modest political reforms. Hopes for resolution were raised by a pivotal report by a government-appointed “Independent Commission of Inquiry” (BICI) on the unrest, released November 23, 2011, which was critical of the government’s actions against the unrest as well as the opposition’s dismissal of all of the government’s reform proposals. The government asserts it has implemented most of the BICI recommendations—an assertion corroborated by a national commission appointed to oversee implementation and a “follow-up committee.” However, the upholding of prison sentences for prominent dissidents and government refusal to agree to more substantial political reforms, have stoked continued frequent demonstrations. Adding to the deadlock is that neighboring Saudi Arabia, which has significant political and economic influence over the Bahraini government, is backing hardline Al Khalifa officials that oppose compromise. Some fear that the unrest could evolve into violent insurgency, a concern increased by the discovery of bombs and other weaponry in 2012. Five bombs went off in Bahrain on November 5, 2012, killing two non-Bahrainis.

The Obama Administration has not called for an end to the Al Khalifa regime’s past reforms, but it has criticized the regime’s human rights abuses, urged the regime to undertake further political reform, and advanced ideas to narrow government-opposition differences. The U.S. position on has been criticized by those who believe the United States is downplaying regime abuses because of U.S. dependence on the security relationship with the Al Khalifa regime to containing Iranian power. Bahrain has provided key support for U.S. interests by hosting U.S. naval headquarters for the Gulf for over 60 years. Beyond that facility, the United States signed a formal defense pact with Bahrain in 1991 and has designated Bahrain a “major non-NATO ally,” entitling it to sales of sophisticated U.S. weapons systems. Partly to address criticism from human rights advocates and some Members of Congress, the Administration put on hold a proposed sale of armored vehicles and anti-tank weapons. However, in mid-May 2012 the Administration announced a resumption of other arms sales to Bahrain that it can potentially use to protect itself and support any military effort against Iran. Consumed by its own crisis, Bahrain has joined with but deferred to other GCC powers to resolve uprisings in Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

Fueling Shiite unrest is the fact that Bahrain is poorer than most of the other Persian Gulf monarchies. 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). The unrest has further strained Bahrain’s economy.

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