By Daniel Wagner and Giorgio Cafiero for Gulf State Analytics
Since the 1970s, Bahrain and the U.S. have maintained a close military partnership. Following 9/11, the Bush Administration elevated Bahrain to “major non-NATO ally” status, making it the first GCC state to join this elite 15-member club. The U.S. Fifth Fleet (headquartered in Bahrain) is responsible for the American naval forces throughout the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Red Sea, and part of the Indian Ocean. It served as an important base of operations during the 1991 Gulf War, the 2001 war in Afghanistan, and the 2003 war in Iraq. As the U.S. military conducts operations against the “Islamic State” (IS) in Iraq and Syria, the Fifth Fleet continues to play a crucial role in America’s strategic posture in the Middle East.
Driving this bilateral relationship is Washington and Manama’s shared belief in the threat posed by Iran and by various militant Islamist groups operating in the region. While common interests and mutual threats are likely to preserve the military alliance, questions regarding Bahrain’s human rights record and the future of U.S.-Iran relations are a source of ongoing tension.
Bahraini Shi’ites constitute 70 percent of the native population, yet many allege that their government discriminates against them in the political and economic spheres. In 2011, Shi’ites led a wave of protests, demanding political rights, an end to job discrimination, and greater representation in the government. Since 2011, Amnesty International has documented the Bahraini government’s killing, detainment, and torture of scores of Shi’ites. While Shi’ite militants have, in turn, attacked and killed Bahraini security forces, the majority have taken a non-violent approach against the Al Khalifa family’s firm hold on power.
Human Rights Criticism
For the most part, Washington’s criticism of Bahrain’s human rights record has been muted, despite certain statements from State Department officials and members of Congress. The U.S. has likewise been loath to criticize Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, demonstrating Washington’s unwillingness to risk straining relations with its strategic partners, and thereby diminishing its ability to assert regional power. This is particularly evident when compared to Washington’s vocal condemnation of authoritarian regimes in Libya, Iran, and Syria. Not lost in the equation is Bahrain’s annual purchase of more than one billion dollars of military equipment from the U.S. Nonetheless, Washington’s criticism of Bahrain’s human rights record, although minimal, is having an impact on bilateral relations.
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