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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Danger Ahead in Bahrain

by Elliott Abrams
September 19, 2014


It has been a while since I wrote about Bahrain, because I’ve always been hopeful that this or that piece of bad news was transitory and that reason would prevail. I’m losing hope.

The basic situation has been clear for several years: the majority of the population, which is Shia, feels deprived of political rights by the royal family, which is Sunni. There have been several efforts to come up with a compromise, especially after the “Arab Spring” began in 2o11. But as The Economist wrote last December, “Human-rights organisations warn that the situation is deteriorating. Two years after an even-handed report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry—a laudable effort by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa—few of its recommendations have been implemented.” That article was entitled “Trouble Ahead: the government is poisoning the well.” Sure enough, the so-called “national dialogue” launched in February 2013 got nowhere and was suspended in January 2014.

Then in July of this year, the new Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights, Tom  Malinowski, was actually declared persona non grata by the government of Bahrain during a visit there. This was an almost unheard-of step by a friendly government toward a senior U.S. official. The State Department protested, but not very vociferously; at the time I was told that a return visit by Malinowski was being negotiated so there was no point in shouting. But there has been no return visit.

Today, talks have continued between the royal family and Shia opposition groups–if that is the right term. Mostly they seek a more democratic Bahrain, with more of a role for parliament in governing the country. One model is Kuwait, where there is a real parliament that is able to interpellate ministers and has on occasion caused them to resign or be forced from office. It isn’t exactly Westminster, but it is meaningful and that’s what Bahrainis want: some limits on royal power, some serious role for the elected parliament, some moves toward a constitutional monarchy. Instead they are being offered unserious compromises that appear motivated by the desire to appear flexible rather than any desire actually to be flexible. Soon, perhaps even within days, the King will announces new elections to be held in November. He will probably find the major Shia groups refusing to participate, so the elections will achieve nothing in binding up Bahrain’s political divisions.

Meanwhile the economy suffers from the political tension and the occasional violence. Here is what Gulf News wrote recently:

Bahrain must face an increasingly serious debt overhang. Outstanding debt stood at $11.2 billion at the end of 2012, or 40 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). The figure grew to $13.2 billion in 2013, compromising 44 per cent of GDP. Still, debt levels are projected to reach $15.7 billion by end-2014 representing just under half of the GDP….Looking back, public debt comprised a mere 10 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2008. Clearly, the pace of the rising public debt is an alarming one and with no end in sight of this burden….Moody’s maintains a negative outlook for Bahrain’s economy, the only case among the GCC member states.

Extraordinary: debt levels going from 10% of GDP in 2008 to 50% by the end of this year. This reflects the impact of the political turmoil on investment decisions, travel, and business activity more generally. To turn this around, the King will need to do far more than he has to address the majority of his people.

What might be done? For one thing, the United States and the United Kingdom are the Western countries with the greatest influence in Bahrain. Our governments should coordinate Bahrain policy better, to avoid the occasional gaps between us that have allowed the Bahraini government to wriggle around pressure for more democracy. For another, the King needs to hear from the very top of the U.S. government, the President and Vice President, that this period before the elections offers a valuable chance to reach a compromise– and he should take it. If he goes ahead without an agreement, and many Shia stay away from the polls, he will have achieved nothing except to deepen his country’s divisions. If there is a boycott, it will likely be followed by government attacks on the Shia community for staying away, being unpatriotic, and being radicalized–when in fact they will be protesting several years of meaningless “dialogue.”  This outcome can be avoided if the King will assert himself as the leader of all Bahrainis and stop the most recalcitrant members of his family from preventing change and blocking real compromise.

Down that path lies disgruntlement, disaffection, and in the end violence. Today, the Shia political opposition looks to London and Washington for help. If there is no effective help, and if  they remain effectively disenfranchised, the day will come when some among them begin to look instead to Tehran. That will be a disaster for Bahrain and for the United States– a kind of “reverse Iraq,” for in Iraq it was the Shia-led government of prime minister Maliki that refused compromise and alienated the Sunni population.

The United States should not today be pressuring the Shia community, led by the al-Wefaq organizaton, to participate in the elections come what may. The ground rules and the terms of compromise count. Al-Wefaq participated in parliament from 2006 to 2010 under pressure to play the political game, produce change, and reap the benefits. But there were no benefits; the experiment failed. Bahrain is today less free than it was a decade ago. Instead, the United States should be pressing both sides for a genuine and meaningful compromise, and should be urging the King to act now to save his country from strife that surely lies ahead unless he uses his influence and his power to guide change. Many problems on the world scene appear intractable or unsolvable, almost hopeless. Bahrain is not in that situation, not yet anyway. Wise leadership from the King, and wise and forceful American diplomacy, can help Bahrain avoid the dangers that otherwise lie ahead.



Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Marty Hisington

    Mr. Abrams got it right this time. Looks like most everyone has taken off the blinders that Bahraini PR managed to put on so many for so long.
    American interests in Bahrain are crucial and propping up dictators has been out of fashion for a long time.

  • Posted by G

    An interesting piece, but you’re still struggling to understand and accept reality, which is that there is no reason why the Al Khalifas should change. Put yourself in their shoes: you own the country and its oil revenues, you have a fleet of Boeings and Airbuses (staffed by stunningly attractive young Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and Poles) at your disposal, you have palaces, mansions and yachts scattered across Europe and the Middle East, you have umpteen ministries and directorates all staffed by obsequious flunkies, and you travel on foreign state visits with your own personal Moroccan “belly dancer”. Why on earth would you give all of this up just so that the Shia, a mostly unkempt, uneducated bunch of goat herders, can have democratic rights? This is the Middle East, not the US.

  • Posted by Tyler P. Harwell

    There is one thing missing from this policy brief: what events in Bahrain mean to the United States. I do not recall where all our naval assets are in the Persian Gulf. I was waiting for you to take that up.

    If I a not mistaken, our naval base is there. If so, maybe we should move it. The Persian Gulf is getting to be an increasing dangerous place for US naval operations. But where ?

    More broadly, a good reason to be concerned with these developments is that they raise a problem of a perennial nature for the United States, one that arises when we try to work our will on an authoritarian regime to which we are beholden. The tables get turned on us.

    Regardless of the particulars, expelling a high-ranking US diplomat on a mission of any legitimate nature is an unfriendly act. Likewise, barring entry. In this instance, the meaning is clear: we do not want what you are selling, and the concerns of your master are of no importance to us. It is a deliberate insult to the President of the United States.

    It is important that there be a response to this, and that this response show flexibility, balance, and a disposition towards action. The risks of being hostage to events in Bahrain appear as you describe them, to be rising.

    R/s TPH

  • Posted by Jassem Othman

    To save the country from strife, it is better to be a future dialogue and a consensual dialogue between all various political components in Bahrain. On the other hand, the United States should not pressure the governments of Bahrain or Saudi Arabia to release some activists, unless those with secular trends. Most of the so-called pro-democracy activists in Arab Gulf States, either follow the Velayat el Faqih in Tehran or pro-Caliphate State. Both ultimately are supporting the Islamic groups that are interested in standing up to the West.
    In fact the governments of Arab Gulf states have close relations with the United States and Great Britain, it is very necessary to maintain these relations, and would be better if they establish more moderate and closer links to Israel as well. all this in order to confront the Iranian influence across the Persian Gulf, and the Islamic extremist groups in that part of the world.

  • Posted by Shakil

    By intervening in Bahrain you are only going to create another, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan. If yiou like creating problems for locals go ahead and implement you so called REFORMS.

  • Posted by Aidan

    Why not just let a Shia dictatorship take over in Bahrain? Have the Royal family beheaded like U.S.A ‘ s pals Saudi Arabia love to do, get US 5 th fleet told to leave and Bahrain can be a Iranian Puppet. Sounds good to me!

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