America has found itself in a tough position in responding to the protests that have swept the Arab world. Working to protect its interests while upholding democratic ideals is no easy task, and nowhere is this challenge more evident than in Bahrain, where a Sunni-led government has cracked down brutally on the mainly Shi’a opposition. Further complicating matters is the fact that Bahrain is a key U.S ally, and hosts the U.S. 5th Naval Fleet and a strategically critical naval base in the Persian Gulf.
Despite its importance as a strategic ally, the U.S. must toughen its stance on the Bahraini government, by pressuring it to protect citizens' rights and take steps toward legitimizing the discredited "National Dialogue."
Bahrain is ruled by the Al Khalifa family, which has held power since independence from Britain in 1971. The royal family is Sunni Muslim and has been in constant discord with the Shi’a majority since independence. Shiites comprise around 70% of the population and 80% of Bahrain's labor force. The monarchy has marginalized the population, claiming that they are loyal to Iran and barring them from holding certain government posts and serving in the security forces. In the past, Bahrain has even tried to offset the Shi’a majority by extending passports and work permits to tens of thousands of Sunnis from other Arab states.
Bahrain's current political unrest is thus the product of decades of friction — including previous outbursts of violence and rioting — between the monarchy and Shi'a majority. Protesters have called for elections, political reform, labor reform, and an end to discrimination against the Shi'a. The government's response to the protests at the Pearl Roundabout, which began on February 14, was appallingly brutal. Protesters were arrested, some disappeared, and there were reports of torture and live ammunition fired at protesters. According to Human Rights Watch, 33 people have been killed in relation to the protests, and scores more have been injured. Sources on the ground also reported that authorities have attacked and arrested doctors and nurses who were assisting injured protesters, and security forces restricted access to hospitals. On June 22, in a legally dubious show trial, 21 activists were given unfair prison sentences (8 were sentenced to life in prison and the other 13 received two to 15 years).
In response to the protests, and amidst international pressure, the monarchy announced a new "National Dialogue" for key stakeholders to come together and discuss the future of the country. Thia dialogue was held in July, but leaders of Al Wefaq, the main Shi’a opposition to the Sunni government walked out of the talks soon thereafter with sharp criticism of pro-government bias. Only 35 of the 300-member dialogue were members of parties critical of, or opposed to, the government, and the talks were chaired by Khalifa Al-Dhahrani, a conservative figure close to the prime minister. Jameel Kadhim, a member of the Al-Wefaq Party, said, "The discussions are overwhelmed by pro-government supporters who obstruct any criticism of the status quo."
Throughout this process, President Barack Obama has remained far too quiet. In May, he made a statement that a genuine dialogue in Bahrain could not take place with key opposition figures still in jail, yet many still are. And while there have been murmurs that the Navy is considering relocating the 5th Fleet, Obama administration and U.S. military officials have dismissed these rumors as false.
The U.S. Navy should seriously consider relocating the 5th Fleet, at least temporarily, until Bahrain takes meaningful steps toward incorporating all stakeholders in its future in a discussion of a tangible shift toward reform. The Obama administration must show that our friendship with Bahrain is one based on the ideals of self-determination, democracy, and human rights. If we fail to make this clear, Bahrain will not be the only country that loses legitimacy on the world stage.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons