The 11th regional security summit in Manama, Bahrain, opens today (Friday, Oct. 30) during a time of deepening tension in the region and within the six Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries. The GCC monarchies are increasingly threatened by the possibility of a new political reality emerging from the Iran deal, where their traditional adversaries will no longer be such pariahs to the west.
There is also the sobering new IMF prediction that Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi Arabia are on course to run out of financial reserves within five years. The war in Yemen and the persistent social unrest in Bahrain itself, which has lasted almost five years, also threaten stable economic growth.
The GCC hasn’t done much in recent years to improve its own long-term prospects. A refusal by the ruling families to reform makes crises more likely, as repression combines with financial hardship to fuel grievances. Several Gulf counties have had to lift food subsidies to help make government ends meet.
The U.S. delegation at the three-day conference is expected to include the usual mix of State Department, Pentagon, and Congressional officials including Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The Manama Dialogue’s agenda includes, without apparent irony, a plenary session on "The Challenges of Extremism." The GCC’s role in fueling extremism across the region is coming back to bite them now that ISIS creeps ever closer. Saudi Arabia has long promoted a dangerous sectarianism. Not long ago (in 2011) Bahrain demolished Shia mosques, and today Bahrain’s U.S.-backed military continues to be drawn almost exclusively from the country’s ruling, minority Sunni sect.
There is more urgency than ever for the U.S. delegates to push for reform in Bahrain and the surrounding countries. In a report released this week by the anti-corruption organization Transparency International, Bahrain is listed as one of seven Middle East countries assessed to be a "critical risk" of defense corruption because “there is virtually no accountability or transparency of defence and security establishments.”
Bahrain remains a closed, repressive society: Nick Kristoff of the New York Times was once again denied a visa to the country this week when he applied to cover the dialogue; international NGOs have not been allowed in for years; and last week prominent human rights dissident Zainab al Khawaja was sentenced to a year in jail for ripping a picture of the king – she’s one of many targeted for their peaceful dissent against the monarchy.
For Washington the stakes in Bahrain are extremely high – not least in protecting the Fifth Fleet base there. U.S. officials need to make clear to the Bahraini government that Washington can’t afford the risk that repression brings. Insurrection and chaos are likely outcomes of failing to negotiate with the peaceful opposition.
One of the few leading opposition leaders who is not in jail is Khalil Marzooq of the al Wefaq group, the country’s largest opposition bloc. In Washington this week he told me the U.S. representatives going to the conference “should tell the Bahraini government three things: to release political prisoners, and start by dropping the cases against the opposition leaders; start a real dialogue with opposition groups; and respect freedom of expression, including rallies and speeches.” All seem reasonable enough points, but Bahrain’s record on inclusive government is dire, making unrest all the more likely.
An increasing number of members of Congress are alarmed by Bahrain’s failure to find a solution to its political and human rights problems. Bipartisan bills have been introduced in the Senate (S. Res 2009) and House (HR 3445) to ban the sale of U.S. small arms to Bahrain until the authorities implement the 26 reforms urged by a commission of inquiry four years ago. Several new co-sponsors have signed on in the past week. Patience is finally running out with Bahrain, and its weakening economic and political muscle might mean it finally has to respond with overdue reforms.
Dooley is the director of Human Rights Defenders at Human Rights First based in Washington DC.