Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Turning Point in Bahrain

by Elliott Abrams
February 12, 2012


February 14 will be the anniversary of the date when demonstrations began in Bahrain last year. More demonstrations will mark the date, and violence is feared.

No events connected to the so-called “Arab Spring” have been as depressing as those in Bahrain. The tiny country (only slightly larger than the city of New York) was long viewed as a peaceful and enlightened place, but by the actual Spring of 2011 Bahrain was mired in sectarian divisions, security force violence, and errors and excesses by the government and the opposition, all worsened by the presence of foreign troops from other Gulf Cooperation Council nations. In the end, dozens were killed and communications between the Sunni government and royal family and the Shia majority had broken down. On February 11, this past Saturday, there were more demonstrations and police used tear gas to break some of them up.

Bahrain’s internal situation is unquestionably complicated by the presence of larger and more powerful neighbors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. While the Bahrain International Commission of Inquiry (BICI) found no direct Iranian intervention, Iran’s broadcasting certainly tries to exacerbate tensions and its history and practice of using terrorism and intervening in the affairs of neighbors (such as Afghanistan and Iraq) gives Sunni Bahrainis nightmares. Some Bahrainis fear that if Iran loses its Syrian ally with the coming downfall of the Assad clique, the ayatollahs may seek increased power in Bahrain—or at least increased turmoil there.

Meanwhile, those Bahraini officials, including in the royal family, favoring reform and compromise have faced great Saudi pressure against change—and things did not get easier when Prince Nayef became Crown Prince. For the Saudis, what we in the West might call compromise would be anathema: moving some political power away from a royal family toward elected officials, which is bad enough, and allowing for greater Shia influence in a country bordering on the Saudis’ Eastern Province with its millions of Shia. Compared to the influence of Iran and Saudi Arabia in Bahrain, the calls from the United States and United Kingdom for sensible accommodations have had little impact.

Is it too late? Part of the tragedy has been that moderates among the Sunnis and Shia have too often been marginalized. There is plenty of blame to be shared, from the refusal of some Shia groups including the largest, al-Wefaq, to take up last year the Crown Prince’s offer of a serious dialogue, to the resort to force on the part of the security forces under the day-to-day command of the prime minister (an opponent of reform—and not coincidentally of strong moves to eliminate corruption). At the top the king has taken some strong and admirable moves, such as appointing the BICI and accepting its recommendations, but has failed to assert himself against the prime minister—his uncle—and bring an end to misuse of force.

The Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, Michael Posner, visited Bahrain last week and his statement there was thoughtfully balanced.  Here is part of it:

it is a great credit to King Hamad that he initiated the BICI process, accepted its recommendations and appointed a national commission to coordinate implementation of those recommendations. It is commendable for any government to invite and participate in an independent examination of its human rights record.

The government of Bahrain has taken many important steps toward the long-term institutional reforms identified in the report, such as removing arrest authority from the national security agency, drafting legislation concerning the investigation and prosecution of torture, and drafting a code of conduct for police based on international best practices. The government also has allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its prisons. It has begun to rebuild religious sites, and engaged a team of qualified experts to advise on policing and legal reforms. These are signs of the government’s commitment to address the underlying cause of last year’s violence.

However, more needs to be done in several key areas. First, there are hundreds of pending criminal cases stemming from the events of February and March, including a substantial number where individuals remain in detention. Second, while the Ministry of the Interior is taking steps to enhance the professionalization of the police, it needs to do more. Escalating violence in the streets points to the need for steps that will begin to integrate the police force, as recommended in the BICI report, so that Bahrain can build a police force that reflects the diversity of the communities it serves….Third, with regard to the issue of dismissed workers, we urge the government, the General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions and the private sector through the Tripartite Commission to continue to clarify and verify dismissals and reinstatements to the same or comparable positions….Finally, we call on the government to continue to prosecute those officials responsible for the violations described in the BICI report.

In the days leading up to February 14, we call on all Bahraini citizens to refrain from violence. We also urge the government to permit peaceful demonstrations and the right of all citizens to express their political views. We condemn the violent street actions that have escalated in recent months and that have included attacks on police with Molotov cocktails, metal projectiles and other instruments of harm. Such violence undermines public safety and further divides society. At the same time, we continue to receive credible reports of excessive force by police, including widespread and sometimes indiscriminate use of tear gas. We urge Bahraini authorities to ensure compliance with international doctrines of necessity and proportionality.

Posner gets at the fundamental issues: the need for both the government and al-Wefaq to avoid violence, and for the government to keep moving forward, faster, on implementation of the BICI recommendations.

No doubt compromises always seem easier when seen from 7,000 miles away in Washington. But it should be obvious that more limits on royal absolutism must be adopted, the elected parliament must have larger say, and a sense of partnership must be created—or perhaps more accurately re-created—between the royal family and the Shia professional and commercial classes and political leadership. As we have seen in Kuwait, Jordan, and Morocco, a situation wherein the prime minister is not only a member of the royal family but is completely independent of and not answerable to the parliament cannot last.

I have previously criticized the American role as weak, and wish we had more influence with the king. It is my view that during the Bush years we did, but the Obama Administration response is that no matter how good our relationship with him we would not have been able to overcome the negative pressure coming from the Saudis. Of course that raises the issue of why we have so little influence with the Saudi king: because this is viewed as an “existential issue” in Riyadh and part of the Saudi rivalry with Iran, or because this administration has simply not built the personal relations that would be so critical in defusing a crisis such as that in Bahrain? Neither argument can be proved, but the result has been that the king of Bahrain has taken some brave and very useful steps—but not enough of them. Meanwhile, it is essential that the United States, the British, and Western human rights NGOs press al-Wefaq strongly and publicly to refrain from and to prevent violence this coming week, and to seek a negotiated settlement.

It may all be impossible: too much violence in the last year, too little trust, too little leadership. And that is why I began by saying developments in Bahrain in the past year have been depressing. If one outlines the realistic demands of Bahrainis—for more movement toward constitutional monarchy, for fuller implementation of the BICI recommendations, for justice, for an end to violence—a compromise path forward does not appear impossible. Bahrainis are suffering from plenty of interference from their neighbors designed to prevent such accommodations, and perhaps there is a place for a positive foreign role—the kind that people like Kofi Annan and Marti Ahtisaari have played elsewhere—if the next few weeks bring nothing but confrontations. Anyone who wishes Bahrainis well must hope that with a year of turmoil behind them Shia and Sunni Bahrainis, from opposition political activists to the king himself, will try again and try harder than they have in the recent past. Bahrain’s travails need not end in tragedy, but the opportunities to find a better outcome are few and the passage of time is narrowing the chances.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Manda

    The comment “a sense of partnership must be recreated” shows you have not studied the history of the Al Khalifas in Bahrain. There has never been partnership, there is no desire to be inclusive and there has always been discrimination against Shia and any Sunni who want political reform.

    The continuing human rights abuses and attacking of people in their homes confirms this.

  • Posted by Roger

    The idea that the Bush administration had more influence in Bahrain cannot be tested given there was no Arab Revolt during the Bush presidency. I would say that the Obama administration is little changed in its approach to foreign policy, except he does talk a good game but I have yet to detect any meaningful difference. It does indicate that regardless what the president wants, the machine of government is difficult to influence.
    It does seem clear to me that the House of Saud is calling the shots in Bahrain, and are intent of fighting a rearguard action against anything that could threaten their position. Thus, as you note, the Saudis are against democratic reform in Bahrain, and are most definitely against giving the hated Shi’a anything that looks like power. They have a vested interest in keeping Bahrain on side, and have the political as well as financial clout to bully the Emir. It may also be useful to point out that the actual power and freedom of action enjoyed by the Emri appears to be limited by others, including the PM.
    The Saudis are playing an interesting game, opposing democratic change at home, but championing the idea in Syria! The reality is that the House of Saud has never liked the Assads, who as Alawites are worse than Shi’a.
    I agree with you that time for a peaceful solution is running out, but as long as the gov’t maintains a take no prisoners approach the more likely we are to see another Syria, but this time Shi’a vs Sunni.

  • Posted by Peter

    TheObama administration did not show any strong objections to the Saudis when they decided to interfer by military invasion of the little island of Bahrain. The result was that the Saudis felt great, having achieved a massive victory against unarmed civillains of Bahraini Shia, without having to compromise their international reputation and loose international support of the West who is heavily dependent on saudi Oil.
    Iranian rhetoric was the only thing offered by Ayatollahs of Tehran to the massacared people of Bahrain. Other nations in the region did not even bother to listen to the Bahrainis : let them have it , they are only shia.
    Prolonged agony will continue but it seems certain that potential instability of the region will start from Bahrain, as these battered people will not take it for long without firing back. Peacefull demonstrations may have been the theme of last year, will it continue peacefully for ever? Is the world ready for 500 dollar for a barrel of oil?

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