On the eve of the second anniversary of the uprising in Bahrain, the administration of President Barack Obama is being urged to press the royal family to make genuine compromises with the predominantly Shi’a opposition.
Among other measures, experts here are calling on the Pentagon to prepare plans for relocating the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which has been based in the tiny island archipelago since 1995, as a signal of the seriousness of Washington’s concerns about the direction of events in the kingdom.
“Those who contend that U.S. concerns over human rights and democracy promotion should take a backseat to hardnosed realism and strategic imperatives will soon find themselves overtaken by Bahrain’s steady descent,” according to a new report released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“After two years of stalemate and worsening tensions, meaningful political reforms in Bahrain have themselves become strategic imperatives for the United States – crucial measures to stave off further destabilization that could one day put American interests and people at risk,” according to “The Precarious Ally: Bahrain’s Impasse and U.S. Policy,” by Gulf expert Frederic Wehrey.
Those in prison have a lot of followers, and if they are not engaged, this will fail.
The report – as well as a several discussions at prominent think tanks about the future of U.S. policy toward Bahrain timed to coincide with the anniversary – comes amidst considerable scepticism about the prospects for a new “dialogue” between the opposition and various pro-government groups that got underway Sunday.
Washington has “welcomed” the dialogue and the agreement by Al-Wefaq, the major opposition political party whose parliamentary members resigned their seats to protest the government’s violent repression or popular protests two years ago, to take part in it.
But even leaders of Al-Wefaq, which has reportedly lost ground to more-radical Shi’a groups organised loosely around the February 14 Youth Coalition, have expressed strong scepticism about prospects for much progress, particularly given government’s failure to release political prisoners and the fact that it has limited its own involvement to moderating the dialogue.
While Al-Wefaq is calling for a constitutional monarchy, the Youth Coalition, which has engaged in increasingly violent confrontations with the security forces, has demanded an end to the rule by the Al-Khalifa family.
On Wednesday, Bahraini police reportedly used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse hundreds of protesters in the capital called out by February 14.
“We want the ruling family to be there (at the table),” Khalil al-Marzooq, a senior Al-Wefaq official who served as first deputy speaker of the Bahraini parliament before his resignation two years ago, told a conference held Wednesday at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) here.
“Those in prison have a lot of followers, and if they are not engaged, this will fail,” he stressed, adding that such an outcome will bring “more trouble” on the streets and further polarisation of the country.
“I’m pessimistic (about) this round of dialogue,” said Toby Jones, a Gulf specialist at Rutgers University, bluntly at another discussion on Bahrain at the Carnegie Center Wednesday.
“There’s an absolute lack of trust on the part of the vast majority of Bahrainis toward the government. Absent political will by the government to make critical choices, there will be no change.”
While the Obama administration has continuously urged democratic reforms and dialogue between the Sunni-dominated government and representatives of the Shi’a community, which makes up between 60 and 70 percent of the kingdom’s indigenous population, it has been reluctant to exert serious pressure to achieve those ends.
Its strongest statement dates back to May 2011, when Obama himself complained that the government couldn’t conduct a serious dialogue with the opposition when “parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail”.
Washington’s reluctance to take stronger action is explained both by the presence of the Fifth Fleet, whose resources have been significantly boosted as tensions with Iran have increased over the past two years, and by the strong backing Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter and Washington most important regional ally and arms-purchaser, has provided the hard-liners in the Al-Khalifa family.
Indeed, concerned that King Hamad might have been tempted to compromise with demands by the opposition, which also included prominent Sunnis, Riyadh, along with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), sent some 1,500 troops and police across its causeway to Bahrain in support of the government’s violent crackdown in mid-March 2011.
In addition to charging that Iran was behind the unrest in Bahrain – a charge that has been mostly rejected by U.S. officials – Saudi Arabia has worried that any empowerment of Bahrain’s Shi’a community would encourage its own Shi’a population, which is concentrated in its oil-rich Eastern province, to agitate for change.
Indeed, the conflict has become increasingly polarised along sectarian lines, a development that Wehrey said was being deliberately stoked by the “al-Khawalid” branch of the Al Khalifa family led by two brothers – the royal court minister, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, and the commander of the Bahrain Defence Forces (BDF), Khalifa bin Ahmed Al Khalifa.
This faction has not only marginalised the U.S. favourite, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who is widely seen as a reformist interested in serious dialogue, but it has also promoted anti-U.S. sentiment, according to Wehrey’s study.
The Shi’a opposition has also broken into factions. While Al-Wefaq remains committed – if sceptically – to dialogue, the various tendencies identified with the February 14 Coalition, which consists mainly of militants in their teens and twenties, reject such efforts as futile.
Moreover, anti-U.S. sentiment has also grown within the Shi’a community, according to Wehrey and other experts. Despite Washington’s backing for dialogue, it is seen as supporting the regime, particularly after last January’s announcement that it was proceeding with the delivery of arms – albeit none that could be used for crowd control or domestic repression – that had been put on hold temporarily by Congress.
“The main weakness in U.S. policy is we’ve tried to have it both ways” by pushing for dialogue and reform on the one hand and reassuring the regime of its security commitment, Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), told the NED audience. “As a result, it has put us in the worst possible world.”
Malinowski agreed that Washington should begin considering alternatives to the Fifth Fleet’s base in Bahrain to impress the royal family with the seriousness of its concern. Washington should “be clear that if this round (of dialogue) fails, the U.S. will have to re-evaluate its security relationship.”
Wehrey noted that some opposition leaders were concerned that moving the Fleet out of Bahrain could actually bolster the hardliners in the royal family and result in Saudi Arabia filling the security vacuum.
But, “(g)iven the opacity of the royal family, it is unclear if this will actually be the case – or if using the Fifth Fleet as leverage might actually send the clearest signal yet that America will no longer countenance the regime’s current path.”
In addition to beginning planning to relocate the Fifth Fleet out of Bahrain, Wehrey urged Washington to consider conditioning Manama’s purchase of high-end weapons systems, such as the F-16, over which the U.S. has a monopoly that the BDF cannot buy elsewhere as it did when Washington held up the transfer of armoured personnel carriers.
Targeted financial sanctions, such as freezing the U.S. assets of senior Bahraini officials involved in human-rights abuses, could also help, according to Wehrey.