Washington’s shaky bet on Bahrain

Washington’s reaction to repression by its military ally Bahrain is getting predictable.  The kingdom is part of the coalition fighting ISIS, but it’s shaken by government-backed sectarianism and polarization at home. In response to government abuses, the Obama administration offers a mix of private censure—but gives loud applause for baby steps of reform.

Too often administration officials say that despite the presence of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Washington doesn’t have much leverage over the Bahrain government.

{mosads}Some members of Congress have consistently pressured the State Department and called for reforms from the Bahrain regime. These voices are holding up what’s left of America’s reputation among democracy activists in the Gulf.

Last month Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry asking him to publicly call for the release of jailed opposition leader Ali Salman, while Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and others have repeatedly urged the administration to take a tougher stand. Last August McGovern and I planned a trip to Bahrain to fact-find on the human rights situation there—but the Bahrain government blocked our visit.

Today at a Hill briefing with McGovern, Human Rights First is releasing a list of ideas that the administration can use immediately to push for reform in Bahrain and help establish some stability in this key military ally.

Washington can’t afford a volatile Bahrain—it has sunk too many assets into the kingdom to tolerate its current unpredictability. But international financial analysts warn of an economic downturn because of the slump in oil prices and its failure to find a political solution to the ongoing unrest. It will be four years this Saturday since Bahrain produced the largest (per capita) of the region’s 2011 demonstrations for democracy. And the protests continue. 

After a violent government crackdown, parliamentary elections, and some cosmetic reform, the fundamentals haven’t changed. A ruling family backed by a Sunni minority controls the government. The king’s uncle remains the country’s unelected prime minister. The security forces include virtually no one from the country’s majority Shia population, and grievances about corruption and other government abuses that triggered the 2011 protests continue to rock the country.

The Ministry of the Interior says three more policemen were injured in an attack in the capital Manama last weekend. Political prisoners pack the country’s overcrowded jails. Prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab should receive an appeal verdict today. He was sentenced to prison for six months for criticizing the security forces in a tweet.

Things are going downhill quickly in Bahrain and no amount of State Department handwringing will help. What’s needed are measures to show the Bahrain people that the U.S. government understands and supports their efforts for reform and is interested in more than a military relationship with the dictatorship that oppresses them.

There are several things the Obama administration could do right away to encourage stability and make Bahrain less of a gamble for Washington. For starters, it could publicly state whether the trials its embassy officials observe meet international standards. Spoiler: they don’t. This would show the Bahrain government and people that the U.S. government is unhappy with the country’s judicial independence and competence, and that from now on U.S. government officials will not just witness unfair proceedings without commenting on their obvious injustice. Bahrain needs a political solution that that includes opposition leaders, not silences them in prisons.

Washington could also use its powers under Presidential Proclamation 7750 to deny visas to government officials believed to be involved in corruption, showing Bahrainis that it is taking steps against kleptocratic officials who steal from public funds. It could push for on broader representation within its security forces by refusing to train exclusively Sunni groups of officers and withholding equipment and arms until presented with real evidence of change in recruitment and promotion practices.

There are plenty more things the U.S. government should be doing if it wants to help stabilize Bahrain, including a strong push for the release of political prisoners—something President Obama hasn’t called for since 2011.

Heavy security will likely prevent the sort of mass uprising on Saturday that erupted four years ago, but don’t be fooled by the flimsy calm. Bahrain remains a shaky bet for the United States—but there’s plenty Washington can do about it.

Dooley @dooley_dooley is a director at Human Rights First.

Tags John Kerry Marco Rubio

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