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U.S. Urged to Leverage Security Cooperation with Bahrain

David Elkins

WASHINGTON, Mar 23 2012 (IPS) - As government crackdowns continue, Bahrain is attracting more international visitors than just those coming in preparation for next month’s Forumla One Grand Prix.

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa recently hosted Dr. Jimmy Gurulé, a law professor at Notre Dame University and former U.S. assistant attorney general, to “assess the country’s pretrial detention policies and procedures”.

Dr. Gurulé’s delegation, which was sponsored by the American Bar Association and the U.S. State Department, included a visit to Jawa prison, a major detention facility in Bahrain.

The Bahraini government is “in the process of implementing the necessary legislation, the necessary authority of judicial inspections of prisons”, Dr. Gurulé told IPS.

“They are sincere and intent to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report and intend to implement them fully…the fact that they brought me out suggests that they’re acting in good faith and wanting to implement the recommendations,” he said.

“The most effective way of preventing instances of torture is to ensure that detainees are afforded rights of consul immediately after detention…but there is a dearth of human rights lawyers in the country,” Gurulé said.

Despite reports of increasingly deadly government tactics to suppress protestors and unofficial detention facilities where security forces beat and torture civilians, the Bahraini government has remained, rhetorically, committed to implementing reforms – a claim Western governments, particularly the U.S., seem unwilling to contest publicly.

“(T)he government is taking some actions, but it doesn’t seem to be acting very effectively,” Bill Marczak, a director at Bahrain Watch, a human rights group, told IPS.

“Yes the government issued a police code of conduct on Jan. 30, and set up an Interior Ministry ombudsman, but there are concerns about the independence of the ombudsman, and police still continue the same abuses with impunity.”

A “major non-NATO ally” of the U.S., the Saudi-backed al-Khalifa monarchy has housed the U.S. Navy’s fifth fleet and U.S. Naval Central Command since 1971 – the base for most of the U.S. naval operations in the Persian Gulf as well as the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Of primary concern for U.S. policy makers are strategic and political rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran – however exaggerated or understated these rivalries may be – as well as regional security issues, according to some experts.

“The vast majority of connection and effort and diplomacy has been between through the White House and the Pentagon…that is significant because it means that the security architecture is how it gets it leverage,” Dr. Toby C. Jones, a professor of modern Middle East History at Rutgers University told IPS.

“But it can be argued that that leverage has not been used effectively,” Jones added.

Saudi Arabia, which has largely avoided the popular demands for political change in the region, has a large interest in preventing religious and ethnic tensions in Bahrain from spilling over into its eastern provinces that serve as major hubs for oil production and transportation – tensions that the Saudi monarchy has attributed to Iranian machinations.

While there has been no evidence of Iranian meddling in Bahraini affairs, Saudi Arabia does have a genuine concern for Iran’s growing political and military influence in the region.

Other observers argue that the U.S. has a much larger policy toolkit to choose from to pressure the Bahraini government.

“There’s a lot of tools that the U.S. might use to apply pressure, such as the free trade agreement, its base in Bahrain, and arms sales. Even calling the government out on its practices would be helpful. For example, the government stopped demolishing mosques shortly after (President Barack) Obama mentioned this practice in a speech,” Marczak said.

“Linking military aid to reform, suspending weapons licenses (as the UK did in February 2011, though most seem to have been resumed), and launching investigations could all be used to pressure Bahrain,” Marczak added.

Most experts have come to the conclusion, however, that strategic and security interests have galvanised U.S. support for the al-Khalifa monarchy.

“When the Arab League gave its approval to the (2011) no-fly zone in Libya, it was vital to get Saudi support for that… But it’s been pretty widely acknowledged that the U.S. needed Saudi help on Libya, so it kind of gave up on Bahrain,” Jones told IPS.

U.S. policymakers seem intent on a quietest approach where private diplomacy and gradual shifts toward political and human rights reform trump any major challenge to the status quo in Bahrain.

“The administration will say ‘listen we are involved in quite diplomacy,’ and the problem with quiet diplomacy is that you don’t actually know what they’re saying and how forcefully they’re saying it. Without the public limelight you can’t add to that pressure very effectively,” Joost Hiltermann, a regional expert at the International Crisis Group, said in a recent conference.

“In the same breath they say ‘Saudi Arabia has a chokehold on Bahrain and that’s going to prevent any accommodation.” And that seems to be the bottom line. And the United States doesn’t seem to want to confront that particular dilemma,” Hiltermann added.

While there is a temporary congressional hold on a proposed 53- million-dollar U.S. weapons deal with Bahrain, an Obama administration official announced last week that a previously undisclosed shipment of “small military items” in January 2012, which was under the one-million-dollar threshold requiring congressional approval, consisted of 19 Navy patrol boats, according to a blog post by Josh Rogin at

Cole Bockenfeld, advocacy director for the Project on Middle East Democracy, said that although the January arms deal fell in line with the Obama administration’s stated purpose of providing weapons for Bahrain’s external defence, more transparency would ally fears of the U.S. supplying equipment to suppress demonstrations.

“At the time, they had not offered any detail of the contents of those sales, which led to an outcry from the ground in Bahrain over concerns that military equipment was supporting a regime using excessive force against internal dissent,” Bockenfeld said earlier this week.

“It is absolutely essential to address these fears up front, and for the administration to communicate clearly and publicly the contents of any security assistance to Bahrain in a transparent manner,” Bockenfeld added.

As human rights and opposition groups continue to press for an end to the repression and work toward some kind of solution, some consider the Bahraini government’s past actions as an accurate indicator of what is to come in the future.

“I think the government has missed, and continues to miss, many important reform opportunities…Each death or injury is also an opportunity for the government to say ‘enough is enough,'” Marczak said.

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