Anders Strindberg writes in a guest column for Informed Comment
All is not what it seems: Bahrain and U.S. strategic interests
On the last Friday night of September, Bahraini police shot seventeen-year old Ali Ne’amah in the back with bird shot, in the village of Sadad. He died on site. Ali’s family insists that he was engaged in peaceful pro-democracy protest – the now almost daily demonstrations in the Shi’a villages surrounding the capital Manama. The Ministry of Interior, meanwhile, claimed that he had been part of a “domestic terror attack” and that the “policemen defended themselves according to legal procedure.” During the massive protests that followed, crowds blamed Ali’s death on King Hamad bin ‘Issa Al Khalifah personally, and on the political system over which he presides. The slogan “may God burn your heart, oh Hamad, as you have burned the heart of a martyr’s family” gave a sense of the frustration and desperation.
Indeed, Ali Ne’amah was only one of over eighty individuals who have been killed as a result of the ongoing repression of Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement, which began with the assault on peaceful demonstrators at Pearl Roundabout in mid-February 2011. The government’s abuses of human rights and civil liberties in the course of these nineteen months have been carefully documented by foreign governments, journalists, and human rights watchdogs. Arbitrary arrests, false charges, torture, forced confessions, draconian jail sentences, denial of medical care to prisoners, intimidation, use of live ammunition against unarmed demonstrators, tear gas “flooding” of entire villages, collective punishment and individual harassment – the use of these practices is beyond empirical dispute. “The problem is not that no one knows about this,” I was told by one grassroots activist during a visit to Bahrain in July, “the problem is that Al Khalifah excel at stalling and making excuses.”
Indeed, the Al Khalifah government has been masterful in its implementation of a reformist “bait-and-switch” aimed at maintaining the status quo at any cost. Holding out the prospect of reform while repressing critics and tarnishing them as malcontents, foreign agents, or even terrorists, the Bahraini government has shown no signs of serious intent to implement reform. The purpose is to buy time in the international arena while systematically and decisively breaking the back of the pro-democracy movement on the ground.
Since the beginning of September, Bahraini courts have upheld lengthy prison sentences against nine medics whose crime had been to treat wounded protestors, and against thirteen leading opposition activists, who had simply called for democratic reform; seventeen-year old Ali Ne’amah was killed, Muhammad Mushaima (age 23) died due to denial of appropriate care in prison, and Hassan Abdul Ali (age 59), Haj Mahdi Ali Marhoun (age 65 plus) and baby Huda Sayyed Nima Sayyed Hassan (age 11 months) died from inhaling tear gas; Sadiq Rabe’a, a member of the Central Municipal Council, was one of at least a dozen individuals injured by police firing birdshot at unarmed demonstrators, and human rights activist Zeinab al-Khawaja was sentenced to two months in prison – for tearing up a picture of the king. This in addition to the several dozen peaceful demonstrators, including children, who have been attacked or detained by security forces for merely chanting slogans in the street. All within the past month and a half.
On October 14, at an open meeting in Ma’ameer, Shaykh Ali Salman, Secretary General of Bahrain’s largest legally chartered opposition party, the National Islamic Society (al-Wefaq), stated plainly what has been obvious for quite some time: “The national struggle in Bahrain has gone beyond the phase where it is possible to stop or retreat. The situation in Bahrain will not be restored to the pre-revolution situation. The choice to subjugate the people is no longer available.” In this he is absolutely right, and there is an urgent need for Washington to understand the relationship between the abuses of the Al Khalifah government, on the one hand, and the strategic value of Bahrain to the United States, on the other. If the abrupt end to U.S. relationships with Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt and Saleh in Yemen taught us anything, it was that reliance on repressive regimes for political tranquility is not only morally deficient, but strategically unwise. By opting for sustained repression rather than reform and dialogue, the Al Khalifah government is actively and systematically undermining the country’s stability, which constitutes a direct threat to U.S. strategic interests. This state of affairs has reached a point where Washington needs to put its foot down, informing Al Khalifah that Bahrain may no longer meet the standards for a safe port for the U.S. navy.
Bahrain has hosted an ever-expanding U.S. naval presence for over six decades, and is currently the site of Naval Support Activity Bahrain (NSA Bahrain), a naval base in Juffair, Manama, that is home to the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) as well as the U.S. Navy’s Fifth fleet. The strategic importance of the naval facilities hosted by Bahrain cannot be exaggerated. For Bahrain’s rulers, the U.S. naval presence brings investments, status and, above all, political protection. However, it cannot be enough to simply lease out fortified realty: there have to be guarantees that the neighborhood is sustainably safe – which Bahrain no longer is.
Speaking at a recent meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Michael Posner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, noted that “Bahrain is at a crossroads” and that “a stable, democratic healthy Bahrain, one where human rights issues are dealt with appropriately, is a country that’s going to be a strong ally and we need that.” Indeed. It is the historic stability and tranquility of Bahrain, not the bloodline of its rulers, that has been the island’s primary selling point as the host of the U.S. Navy. “The Bahrainis give us anything we want” is a phrase that has been heard on more than one occasion off the record, from U.S. diplomats and military personnel. True enough, but they are not giving the United States what is actually needed, and repeatedly (if all too gingerly) requested: sustainable domestic stability through robust political reform.
Conversely, there is nothing threatening to the United States, either in terms of geopolitics or domestic stability, about the clearly stated demands of Bahrain’s legally chartered opposition parties. Their demands center on a representative elected parliament under an Al Khalifah constitutional monarchy. In fact, in a show of extraordinary steadfastness and patience, this has been the opposition demand ever since the current ruler’s father, Amir ‘Issa, abolished the country’s fledgling, yet functioning and democratic National Assembly in 1975. Moreover, Bahrain’s legal opposition parties, including the Islamists, are known democratic entities. Their leaders (some of whom are currently in prison) are known to be among the most long-standing and consistent pro-democracy activists in the region – including the Islamists.
The only thing threatened by the opposition agenda is the privilege of unaccountability and impunity currently enjoyed by the ruling elite in all areas of public life. In the struggle to cling on to that privilege, the Al Khalifah rulers depend entirely on the alignment with Washington, and this is well understood at all levels of opposition politics in Bahrain. This is why the legal opposition parties, as well as human rights groups, have repeatedly reached out to the United States for help only to be gently rebuffed.
A democratic Bahrain will certainly be more complex to deal with, for the purposes of long-term security arrangements, than a king who guarantees security by riding roughshod over political rights. There are two things to say about this. First, anyone who paid even the slightest attention to last year’s popular uprisings in the region would know that the supposed stability of Arab dictatorships has already been exposed as utter fiction. For the United States to continue to rely on such relationships is strategic folly (in addition to being profoundly unethical). Second, even if there was something defensible about such arrangements, the Al Khalifah regime specifically is pursuing policies that are actively undermining Bahrain’s stability rather than guaranteeing it, and negatively impacting U.S. strategic interests rather than safeguarding them.
The tenor of the popular protest movement has changed rapidly over the past year. Frustration with the absolute lack of progress in the opposition parties’ negotiations with the government, coupled with the burden of state repressive measures, is fueling frustration and fury on the grass-roots level. As the legal opposition parties continue unsuccessfully to demand constitutional reform in line with the so-called Manama Document , some of the underground activists – the groups within the February 14 Movement – are growing increasingly vocal in their calls for revolution and regime change. Demonstrations in the villages are now a daily occurrence, leading to a spiral of tear gas versus molotov cocktails that is repeated almost every night. Some voices, although still isolated, have begun to call for the removal of the Fifth fleet. As more activists connect the dots of culpability, that demand is likely to spread. Absent an imminent shift in policy, the United States must expect to pay the price for inaction.
It has been absolutely clear from my conversations with leaders and activists from across the opposition spectrum, that robust political reform is the only thing that can prevent the country’s descent into bloody chaos. “It is a race against time” said Radhi al-Musawi, Deputy Secretary General of the secular al-Wa’id Party, when we met in July. Similarly, Jalil Abdulkhalil, head of the parliamentary group of al-Wefaq, argued that “we need to produce results in our negotiations with the government, or the people will stop listening to our calls for patience.” When I spoke with Radhi al-Musawi a few days after the death of Ali Ne’amah, he stated unequivocally that, “the situation is very bad now… if there is no real hard talk from the Americans and the British, the friends of the government, the ones who are able to influence them, there will be a very dangerous situation ahead. Not just in Bahrain but in the entire region. You see it already in the East Bank of Saudi Arabia with the uprising there. The entire region is affected by what happens here.” No one from the legal opposition groups believes that, absent real and robust reform, the “final showdown” lies more than two years into the future. Some underground activists claim that it is more likely a matter of months.
Why is the United States sitting on its hands? A common view in Washington is that the Saudi rulers will not allow for any change in Bahrain, and U.S. deference toward Al Khalifah is based in large measure on a fear of angering Saudi Arabia. On the face of it, this seems to make sense: Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies deployed its Peninsula Shield Force to help the Bahraini regime quell the pro-democracy movement in mid-March 2011 (its first deployment ever since it was stood up in 1984). The Saudis were instrumental in removing Bahrain’s reform-minded crown prince, Salman bin Hamad bin ‘Issa Al Khalifah, from his duties in March 2011, and bringing the king’s stalwart anti-reformist uncle, Prime Minister Khalifah bin Salman Al Khalifah back into active politics after several years of relative inactivity. More subtly, since the military intervention, an increasing number of Saudi-sponsored Wahhabi missionaries have turned up in Bahrain, injecting that particular Riyadh-approved brand of religious bigotry into an already volatile Sunni-Shi’a dynamic.
The Saudis have spoken, the case is closed. But they have spoken against regime change, not reform. The Saudis have made clear that no gulf monarchy will be allowed to fall due to popular pro-democracy sentiments, but that does not mean that they do not understand the need for reform in Bahrain. The very public repression of a Shi’a majority uprising in Bahrain, with Saudi complicity, has directly fueled a somewhat less publicized Shi’a uprising also in Saudi Arabia. It is inviting unwelcome global attention to the true cost of maintaining the peninsula’s monarchical status quo. It is handing archenemy Tehran an open invitation to point fingers and condemn – with accuracy, if also hypocrisy – the abuses that underpin these monarchies. It is quite simply in the Saudi interest that the Bahraini problem is resolved – which can only be accomplished by implementation of political and human rights reform.
The legal opposition parties demand precisely that: reform of the existing regime, not its downfall. According to al-Wefaq’s leadership, which is not naturally inclined to put any stock in the good offices of the Saudi regime, Riyadh is prepared to countenance such reform, and could be a constructive party to charting the road ahead. That would require U.S. involvement. There is a real possibility that U.S. policy makers are toeing a non-existent Saudi red line when instead they could be working with the Saudis to put pressure on Al Khalifah.
The fact that Iran is Bahrain’s other next-door neighbor seems to complicate matters, but simply calls for some discernment. For the past three decades, the Bahraini government and the public relations firms it employs have repeatedly suggested that oppositionists are doing the bidding of Iran, that there is evidence connecting leading dissidents to the regime in Tehran, and that the Lebanese Hezbollah has infiltrated the island. Yet in all that time, they have failed to supply a single shred of evidence to support these claims. The singular exception is an “Iranian-inspired coup” in 1982 by the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, but it is worth mentioning that the Islamic Front (reconstituted since 2001 as the Islamic Action Society–Amal) were followers of Ayatollah Muhammed al-Husayni al-Shirazi, who not only refused government positions in the Islamic Republic, but openly rejected Khomeinist doctrine and was eventually placed under house arrest in Qom, while his followers in Iran have experienced systematic repression. The reality is that Khomeinism has never enjoyed politically significant support in Bahrain, while clerics who have opposed Khomeini’s political theories – such as the late Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Husayn Fadhlallah in Lebanon and Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – have enjoyed widespread popularity. Moreover, no known opposition party – neither the legally chartered, nor those that have been outlawed – supports Iranian territorial claims to Bahrain or the Iranian system of theocratic government.
As for the Lebanese Hezbollah, they are not only absent from the island, but have made clear that they would consider an attempted revolution in Bahrain as foolhardy and futile. Hassan Mushaima, who broke with al-Wefaq in 2005 in order found al-Haq Movement, which promotes a regime change agenda, met with Hezbollah leaders in Lebanon in February 2012, hoping for an endorsement. Mushaima was told – as Hezbollah leaders have told other Bahraini leaders – that they do not support regime change activism in Bahrain. “They told Mushaima that the geopolitics of Bahrain is very different from Lebanon, and that being located between Iran and Saudi Arabia makes calls for a republic virtual suicide,” I was told by a friend of Mushaima. “They reiterated their support for the mainstream opposition’s demands for democratization of the current system.” So much for the Iranian and Hezbollah threat. Still, the Al Khalifah rulers know that almost nothing causes such severe and immediate fits of judgment clouding paranoia in Washington as the Iranian specter – and they have used this insight deftly.
The Al Khalifa rulers have been brazen in abusing their ties to the United States in ways that directly undermine their utility as an ally and their value as a friend. In the process, they are making the United States an object of increasing popular resentment in a country where none of the political parties, including the Islamist groups, have been “anti-American” – quite the contrary. This makes the Bahraini government unfit as a strategic partner – and Washington needs to make this clear. A mere whisper from the White House that it might consider relocating NSA Bahrain to some other Persian Gulf port due to the detrimental effects of Al Khalifah’s domestic policies would send shivers down their spine. This is not playing politics with U.S. strategic assets: it is simply not sound policy to maintain an alignment that is used by the other party to destabilize the very foundation of the alignment. Without NSA Bahrain, the associated infrastructure, investment, expat presence, and most importantly the U.S. guarantee of regime stability would go away. Bahrain would find itself entirely dependent on its suffocating neighbor Saudi Arabia. Nor would the Saudis wish to weaken the Al Khalifah monarchy given that the preservation of the Arabian Peninsula as an “Arab Spring Free Zone” remains a primary objective in Riyadh.
What can be done? The United States needs to put pressure on the Bahraini government to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report, which included an extensive list of political and human rights abuses, as well as recommendations for action. King Hamad solicited the report, attended the presentation of its findings, and then accepted those findings. Pressure to implement the BICI recommendations is nothing more than ensuring that the Bahraini government actually embark on a path of reform that it has already committed itself to, and is in no way subversive. It does not violate Saudi interests by threatening regime continuity in Bahrain. Importantly, it would mean sorely needed progress for the legally chartered opposition’s work for peaceful reform, giving them an opportunity to stave off the underground activists’ increasingly vocal demands for revolution. In fact, it may be the only remaining way of ensuring the legitimacy of the legal opposition, the continuity of the Al Khalifah monarchy, and the preservation of U.S. strategic interests in the Persian Gulf – but the window of opportunity is closing rapidly.
“Anders Strindberg teaches at the Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS), Naval Postgraduate School, and is the author, with Mats Warn, of Islamism: Religion, Radicalization, Resistance. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of CHDS or any other institution with which he is affiliated.”