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Friday, September 9, 2011
Pushing For Reform In Bahrain
The small island kingdom of Bahrain has emerged as a crucial test
of the Obama administration's response to the Arab Spring. But Washington has
been too passive so far: it has far more leverage over the ruling Khalifa
family than it is currently wielding.
By Joost R. Hiltermann
since the Arab Spring began, Washington has been faced with the question of how
to ease autocrats from power. After former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was
forced from office in February, President Barack Obama said that the United
States had been on the "right side" of history, suggesting that that
is where Washington would position itself in the Arab world's transition to democracy.
What exactly this should mean in practice remains an unsettled question --
especially in states presided over by dictators whose stable rule and pro-U.S.
orientation were long-standing cornerstones of U.S. strategy in the Middle
dilemma is particularly salient in the case of Bahrain, a small island kingdom
in the Gulf and a longtime U.S. strategic ally. For months now, Bahrain has
been engulfed in protests against the repressive rule of the Khalifa family;
the most recent demonstrations in late August claimed the life of a 14-year-old
boy, the latest casualty in the regime's drive to restore order.
Egypt, Mubarak fell from power with the rhetorical urging of Washington, but
not before the United States faced criticism from across the region -- from
many Egyptians, who believed that Washington dithered and weighed in too late,
and from Saudi Arabia, which saw the Obama administration's endorsement of
Mubarak's ouster as a deep betrayal of Saudi Arabia's friendship and alliance
with the United States. In March, fearful of a repeat scenario in its own
neighborhood, Riyadh sent troops to Bahrain to prop up the ruling Khalifa
family under the guise of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Like the Mubarak
regime was, the Khalifas are U.S. allies who have come under sustained pressure
from an embittered populace.
nominal ruler, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, reportedly extended the formal
invitation to the GCC, of which Bahrain is a founding member, to invade. The
real power in Bahrain, however, is the king's uncle, Khalifa bin Salman
al-Khalifa, the longest-sitting unelected prime minister in the world, who over
the course of his 40 years in power has seen his country gain independence from
the United Kingdom in 1971, transition from his brother Isa to his nephew Hamad
as monarch in 1999, and turn from an emirate into a monarchy in 2002.
the same time, despite its lack of significant oil and gas reserves, Bahrain
has grown into a regional economic and financial powerhouse. Prime Minister
Khalifa stakes his legitimacy on having shepherded this growth. But his
repressive tactics against dissent and his failure to curb corruption and widen
the space for political participation fueled the protests that began in
is concerned. Bahrain is perhaps even more important to U.S. policy priorities
than Egypt: The country is an Arab state strategically located across the
Persian Gulf from Iran and hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. Moreover, Bahrain
is a critical link to the decades-old U.S. effort to protect the Western
world's access to Gulf oil.
the Arab Spring unfolded, the Khalifas were not very different from other
U.S.-allied autocrats in the region. Although Bahrain is in some ways more open
than either Mubarak-led Egypt or Saudi Arabia -- political parties operate as
"societies," for example, and some independent media outlets do exist
-- the Khalifas remain just as unaccountable as their royal brethren in other
GCC states, seeking to pacify the population by spreading the country's wealth.
Moreover, in a nation with a majority Shiite population, a Sunni-led autocracy
has deepened sectarian fissures. For its part, Washington has been concerned
for some time that by keeping the Shia down, the regime might end up driving
them into Iran's arms.
demonstrations broke out in Bahrain, the Obama administration had to take
special care. It realized that Bahrain would be better stabilized by finding an
accommodation between the regime and the opposition than by repressing popular
sentiment. Washington therefore seized on King Hamad's initiative to allow
protesters to gather peacefully at the Pearl Roundabout several days after the
protests started in February and encouraged his son, Crown Prince Salman, to engage
in semi-secret talks with the main legal opposition groups. It initially seemed
there was a prospect of serious dialogue moving toward genuine political
protests grew and spread to other parts of the island, however, and protesters'
demands escalated from the removal of the unpopular prime minister to the
replacement of the monarchy with a republic, U.S. officials raced to keep alive
the faltering talks, hoping to stave off a violent response from the regime.
Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman shuttled
between regime and opposition figures, and between Bahrain and its GCC allies
for several days in mid-March. On March 12, Defense Secretary Robert Gates
visited Manama, where he criticized the regime for its "baby steps"
of this sufficed. Two days later, Saudi troops marched across the causeway
connecting Bahrain with Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, which also has a large
Shia population.A prolonged violent
remains impossible to say whether the GCC intervened to prevent the fall of the
Bahraini monarchy or to preempt the political compromises that Prince Salman
was publicly declaring he was prepared to make. Those reforms would potentially
have put the country on the path toward a constitutional monarchy with an
elected prime minister and a Shia-majority parliament, a prospect that
frightened both Prime Minister Khalifa, whose job was at stake, and the Saudi
ruling family, which sees a Shia ascendancy as tantamount to empowering the
mullahs in Tehran.
the heart of this enigma stands Crown Prince Salman himself: Was his offer to
the opposition genuine, or was it a ploy to gain time and persuade protesters
to go home? Both the Obama administration and Bahrain's legal opposition
societies appeared to trust him; many of the Pearl Roundabout protesters did
officials have invested a good deal of time and energy in the 41-year-old crown
prince, whose Western education and liberal outlook have made him a natural
interlocutor for Washington. By contrast, U.S. officials have had limited
access to Prime Minister Khalifa and the hard-liners around him. During the
height of the crisis, the Obama administration reportedly tried to find a way
for the prime minister to step down and make way for someone from outside the
ruling family. This attempt failed, and the GCC-sponsored crackdown may have
further entrenched Khalifa.
Washington should now proceed is an open question. If Crown Prince Salman is
serious about reform, then the United States should apply steady pressure on
the regime to move beyond phony attempts at national dialogue and return to
inclusive talks that embrace the spectrum of political opposition. Prince
Salman would essentially have to pick up from the point where talks broke off in
objective of such a process would be a transition to a constitutional monarchy,
the redrawing of electoral district boundaries to more fairly represent Shia
constituencies, and the empowerment of parliament to elect the prime minister.
Obama administration could aid this process by proffering incentives, beginning
with assurances that it will stand by the monarchy and provide further military
assistance, including joint training exercises. The Obama administration should
also laud any tangible steps toward reform as evidence of the regime's
willingness to open up. (Among other benefits to Bahrain, such support could
help restore its reputation as a regional banking center, which suffered when
Moody's downgraded Bahrain's government bond rating following the crackdown.)
however, the royal family (the crown prince included) has decided that it is
done with compromise and it becomes clear that any offers to that effect are
simply attempts to deceive the opposition into calling off street protests,
then the Obama administration will find itself in a real bind. The regime's
current track -- an ongoing crackdown and a dialogue with its own supporters
rather than with the opposition -- will almost certainly lead to further
sectarian polarization and political radicalization, and possibly to greater
Obama administration should test the regime's intentions by setting two clear
initial benchmarks: the prompt release of jailed opposition leaders and a
genuinely inclusive dialogue with them and the groups they represent. Should
the Khalifas fail this test, Washington would then have to consider assuming a
tougher posture, including threatening to scale down security assistance and
even to relocate the Fifth Fleet. Although the U.S. defense cooperation
agreement (which governs docking rights at the base) does not expire for
another five years, the discussion about the wisdom of keeping the U.S. Navy in
Bahrain has already begun among regime critics in Washington and elsewhere;
further repression would only give the notion greater currency.
these critics may find support in Bahrain itself. Until recently, many
Bahrainis viewed the naval base as a safety valve against even harsher regime
repression, but if they find the United States unwilling or unable to press the
regime toward meaningful reform, public opinion might soon turn against
Washington, including the Fifth Fleet's presence.
retains real leverage over the regime. Bahrain is firmly under the U.S. security
umbrella in the Gulf, and the United States provides Bahrain with funding for
military purchases ($19 million in 2010) as well as military training
assistance. The United States should be more assertive about using this
influence: The current policy of continuing military-to-military relations
without regard for the political and human rights situation is
counterproductive, could be interpreted as violating U.S. law, and exposes the
Obama administration to accusations of double standards in its approach to the
the moment, Bahrain is the first successful chapter of the Arab
counterrevolution spearheaded by Saudi Arabia -- it is the place where the West
has broken its promise to support the Arab people in their struggle for a
greater say in politics and greater control over their destinies. It is time
for the Obama administration to push the country back onto the road toward
reform, using pro-democracy forces within the regime, its supporters, and the
opposition to show the way.
-This commentary was published in The Foreign Affairs on
07/09/2011 -Joost R. Hiltermann is Deputy Program Director for Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group