Washington's dysfunctional relationship with Bahrain's ruling family

Bahrain, says The Hill blog piece posted by Rob Sobhani on Friday, May 23, is a "reliable friend of America," and a "loyal ally." But the reality is that Bahrain can be considered a reliable friend only in the same way that Lance Armstrong could be considered good for professional cycling - impressive for a while but ultimately utterly embarrassing.

Bahrain, an official "major non-NATO ally" of the United States, startled Washington in early 2011 when it rounded up thousands of people following widespread calls for democratic reform. Dozens of medics who had treated injured protestors were tortured into signing false confessions about crimes they hadn't committed.  Several people were tortured to death. Much of the peaceful opposition remains in jail in Bahrain, and dissent is routinely crushed by a government where the king's uncle has been the unelected prime minister of the country for over 40 years. Despite promises to reform, the ruling family still regularly cracks down on criticism - penalties for criticizing the king on Twitter have been increased to seven years in jail.

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Earlier this month, as the Obama administration tried to encourage a diplomatic freeze on the Kremlin and introduced new sanctions as punishment for the annexation of Crimea, the Bahraini king’s son and heir made his first visit to Moscow to strike a series of military and economic deals with the Russian government.

While in Moscow, Bahrain’s crown prince - who serves as deputy prime minister - met with President Putin, securing a new contract with Russian arms suppliers Rosoboronexport and negotiating a deal with Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund. The delegation also announced the opening of direct flights from Manama to Moscow, the easing of visa restrictions for Russians doing business in Bahrain, and signed a memo of co-operation between the cities of Manama and St Petersburg. Awkward.

In May 2013 the Bahrain cabinet approved a parliamentary proposal to "put an end to the interference of U.S. Ambassador Thomas Krajeski in Bahrain's internal affairs."  Right now, it's hard to see the Bahrain ruling family as anything but an increasingly erratic and unpredictable group unlikely to provide the United States with the stability it needs to protects its many interests in the Gulf, including its Fifth Fleet base.  Another of the king's sons - prince Nasser - could face prosecution for torture if he travels to the UK, after legal proceedings began there aimed at overruling a decision that granted him diplomatic immunity.

Peaceful protests in Bahrain have increasingly given way to violent attacks on the security forces with small and large petrol bombs; casualties are mounting as police kill civilians and protestors kill police. All this unrest has spooked investors and Bahrain's economy remains shaky. Bahrain is the only country in the region with persistent fiscal deficits.

There seems little prospect for an end to Bahrain's constant upheaval, and legitimate political talks involving a wide range of opposition figures have yet to start. Meanwhile the country's jails are dangerously overcrowded, no senior official has been held responsible for the deaths in 2011, credible reports of torture still emanate from the Criminal Investigations Directorate, and growing sectarianism is polarizing the country even further. Iran watches Bahrain's refusal to adapt or reform with some satisfaction - the longer the ruling family ignores the calls for democratic reform, the more likely widespread violence will break out, destabilizing Bahrain and beyond. Most of Bahrain's leading human rights activists are either in jail, in exile or face trumped-up charges. 

Sobhani suggests that the king of Bahrain be invited to meet members of the U.S. Congress. I agree that a meeting would be a great idea. Perhaps he could then explain to Congress why his government refuses to reform and insists on committing human rights abuses which only serve to increase regional volatility and make things more dangerous for his good friends the Americans. 

Dooley is director of the Human Rights Defenders program at Human Rights First.