As the process of reform in Bahrain remains gridlocked, the United States continues to maintain close ties with a repressive regime in return for regional security cooperation. In an effort to shed light on Bahrain’s political impasse and its implications for U.S. policy in the Gulf, Carnegie’s Karim Sadjadpour moderated a discussion with Carnegie’s Frederic Wehrey, Toby Jones of Rutgers, former Bahraini member of parliament Matar Ebrahim Matar, and the director of the CSIS Middle East Program, Jon Alterman. 

Elements of the Bahraini Stalemate 

  • Social: Wehrey explained that while sectarianism has played a role in fomenting unrest, many Shia grievances are shared by lower class Sunnis who resent housing shortages, high unemployment, and low standards of living. Bahrain suffers from a “broken social contract,” Wehrey argued, and opposition to the regime has been exacerbated by repeated failed promises of reform since the introduction of the National Action Charter in 2001. Jones added that there is an absolute lack of trust among Bahraini citizens after a “sustained pattern” of cosmetic reform with no tangible progress.
  • Political: Wehrey asserted that there is significant division among Bahrain’s three main political actors: the regime, the Shia opposition, and Sunni Islamists. From the generational splits emerging among both the Shia opposition and Sunni Islamists, to the rise of the hardline al-Khawalid branch of the royal family, this fragmentation has hindered serious participation in negotiations and impeded reform as extreme elements from all three factions block compromise. Matar added that it is important to consider a fourth political actor—moderate Sunnis—who he argues are marginalized by the regime and lack sufficient representation. 

Tensions in the U.S.-Bahraini Defense Relationship 

  • The Fifth Fleet:  Sadjapour explained that the Fifth Fleet has played a key role in U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and continues to be a critical element of U.S. containment of Iran. Wehrey stated that calls to relocate the Fifth Fleet need to be weighed carefully.   Removing this base may serve to strengthen regime hardliners who argue that the United States is abandoning Bahrain.  On the other hand, the U.S. needs to develop some sort of contingency plans for drawing down the base to send a signal to the regime if the current talks fail.   Alterman added that while the status quo is unsustainable, removing the Fifth Fleet from Bahrain would be a “disaster” for both Americans and Bahrainis—the Fifth Fleet provides a economics benefit to the island and is one of the few places of employment that is non-sectarian. Jones, on the other hand, argued that the Fifth Fleet should be disbanded or removed. He cautioned, however, that if the United States does not find new ways to creatively engage Bahrain, the regime’s crackdown will become more brutal. 
  • Attempt to Restrict Arms Transfers: Wehrey explained that in the fall of 2011, Congress delayed the planned sale of arms to Bahrain in protest of government abuses. This measure did not have the desired effect, however, as the regime purchased small arms from elsewhere and viewed the move as an American political ploy. Furthermore, members of the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF) felt unfairly “punished” as the National Security Agency and the Ministry of Interior police forces, which were responsible for perpetrating some of the most egregious abuses during the government crackdown, were not penalized. 

Regional Dynamics 

  • “Proxy War?” Wehrey argued that the characterization of Bahrain as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is inaccurate. While Iran benefits from the unrest, it is not making physical attempts to get involved. Saudi Arabia, however, views the conflict as an extension of its own domestic attempts to control restive Shia in its Eastern Province. 
  • Potential for Spillover: Bahrain is like a “canary in a coal mine,” Alterman said, and once any Gulf monarchies “begin to shake, they will all start shaking.” Matar, on the other hand, asserted that change in Bahrain won’t lead to regional spillover as Sunnis will not follow a “Shia model” of reform. Wehrey disagreed, stating that political uprisings and calls for reform frequently cross sectarian lines, citing the 2001 Bahraini National Action Charter and its repercussions in Saudi Arabia as an example. 
  • U.S. and Saudi Involvement in Bahrain: Alterman asserted that the United States has “influence,” rather than “leverage,” with Saudi Arabia and its foreign policy. Disagreeing, Jones argued that the United States is a Saudi “security guarantor” that gives Saudi Arabia “carte blanche” to run its domestic and foreign policies without obstacles. 

The Road Forward

  • U.S. Involvement:  Wehrey argued that promoting reform must be part of U.S. policy. Matar added that he prefers the United States not be “involved negatively” in Bahrain as this will harm long-term U.S.-Bahraini security cooperation. He stated, however, that the United States and the international community are obligated to continue to place pressure on Bahrain from the outside.  Alterman asserted that the United States should encourage national dialogue and help persuade those who are skeptical of its efficacy to participate.
  • Ending the Zero-Sum Game:  If the opposition could productively engage with the regime, the regime would cease to view the opposition as an “existential threat,” Alterman said.  However, continued “opportunism” and sectarian rhetoric have fostered a “sense of constant threat” among all actors. Jones responded that the regime, rather than the opposition, should carry the “burden” of productive engagement. Matar added that negotiations will continue to fail until the ruling family is ready to share their wealth, power, and resources with the people of Bahrain. He added that the regime has an “absence of maturity” that drives its “revenge policy” against the opposition.
  • Reforming Civilian-Military Relations: Jones argued that as long as Bahrain relies heavily on foreign mercenaries in its security forces, tensions may continue to build. He predicted, however, that Bahrain’s political upheaval may drag on and follow the mold of the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Wehrey added that the presence of foreign Sunnis in the regime’s internal security agencies with no connection to Bahraini society gives the regime a powerful disincentive against compromise.   He stated, however, that the BDF—Bahrain’s external defense force, drawn from Bahraini Sunnis—is a different story.   Despite the hardline anti-reform rhetoric of BDF leaders, junior and mid-level officers appear to resent being called for internal policing functions.   The U.S. may therefore have an opportunity to engage with and shape the next generation of BDF officers.