U.S. Has Few Options to Curb Crackdown in Bahrain

Though the Persian Gulf island nation is a close U.S. ally and the host of its Fifth Fleet, there's not much that American pressure or diplomacy could do that it isn't already

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A teenager joins anti-government protesters as they try to get back to Manama's Farook Junction, also known as Pearl Square / Reuters

MANAMA, Bahrain -- On Tuesday, the U.S. reached a tentative deal to sell Bahrain, the site of a short-lived uprising and a brutal and sweeping crackdown with sectarian overtones, $53 million in arms. Though the arms deal is not final, it has already drawn criticism from human rights groups and inside Bahrain.

Very soon, the Arab uprising that the U.S. has said the least about is likely to make America's life in the Persian Gulf a lot harder. Bahrain dropped off of the radar this summer. This won't last.

With the international attention elsewhere and unserious attempts at a national dialogue going nowhere, protesters are taking back to the streets and clashing with police in villages around the capital Manama. By-elections to fill the seats of opposition parliamentarians who resigned during the uprising attracted a meager 17 percent of voters. Later this month, an independent investigation commission will submit a report and recommendations about the bloody events of February and March. Whether it will name those who directed the repression, call for a reversal of the often severe and unfair punishments inflicted on protesters, or serve as a national healing mechanism is still unknown, as is the willingness of the Bahraini government to implement its suggestions.

It is doubtful that the report, however needed, will be a game-changer. Two entrenched, increasingly sectarian narratives have crushed any goodwill and middle ground. The battered opposition is struggling to devise a political strategy and contain its frustrated youth, some of whom risk being radicalized. The opposition last week released a new platform, the Manama Document, which restates its demands but is unlikely to inspire its base. The Sunni ruling elite, confident that it won this round decisively and restored a measure of normalcy, is displaying as much complacency as intransigence.

For the U.S., too, this is an uncomfortable moment. It has been mostly silent on Bahrain recently, though President Obama's mentions of Bahrain (and his pointed naming of Al-Wefaq, the largest Shia opposition group) in a May speech and again at the UN last month have ruffled the government and comforted the opposition, which fears the U.S. will ultimately side with the royal family.

For many in Bahrain and the U.S., though, this falls short of U.S. responsibilities to Bahrain. Criticism of the U.S. administration over Bahrain has abounded. The plight of Bahraini workers, teachers, and medical professionals has attracted attention from the international media and from Congress. Influential NGOs and a handful of U.S. congressmen are trying to block the arms sale to the kingdom.

At this time, however, direct U.S. diplomacy can achieve little and it would be unrealistic to expect the U.S. to be able to redress all that has happened in Bahrain or to block an arms sale at the risk of upsetting watchful allies in the region. In fact, the U.S. can hardly play a bridging role between protesters and the monarchy at this point. Many in the Sunni community, a minority here that includes the royal family, see the U.S. as a protector of opposition group Al-Wefaq, which Obama mentioned by name in his UN speech. This explains the Bahraini parliament and media's silly campaign against Tom Krajeski, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Manama. The parliament voted "no confidence" in the ambassador (who has not yet arrived in Bahrain) after he met with opposition groups.* "This diplomat has a volatile agenda against Bahrain and the nation and we can't accept having him here," member of Parliament Ali Ahmed said.

Some of the opposition's charges, such as that the U.S. has given Saudi Arabia carte blanche to interfere in Bahrain or that it keeps silent out of sheer strategic expediency, are simplistic. A better characterization is that Washington, having supported the daring but failed secret dialogue talks of Bahrain's crown prince, folded after Saudi Arabia intervened in March.

However chastened, the U.S. is still trying to help, scoring an important (if overlooked) win in April when it pressured the government against banning Al-Wefaq. To be sure, Al-Wefaq is a sectarian, socially illiberal movement headed by clerics (though this characterization equally applies to a number of Sunni groups). It made, by its own admission, significant mistakes during the secret dialogue (the Manama Document makes several references to the terms the crown prince had offered in March); failed to contain radicals at key junctures (though most remained peaceful, some protesters did resort to violence and intimidation); botched its outreach to Sunni groups; and misread regional dynamics.

Still, Al-Wefaq is no Hezbollah and hardly an Iranian pawn. It has shunned violence, sectarian rhetoric, and the dream of fringe opposition factions that Bahrain become a Shia-dominated republic. (Such a state would likely become politically isolated among wealthier, more powerful Sunni monarchies and economically unviable as most of the island's budget comes from an oil field whose production is a Saudi prerogative under an international treaty.) Al-Wefaq hopes that cooler heads in the ruling family will be able to re-enter the political game after losing credibility among many Sunnis for their willingness to engage with the opposition. It too, however, needs to mature.

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Emile Hokayem is a Bahrain-based Middle East analyst for the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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