When US Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived in Manama on March 12th, 2011, Pearl Roundabout was teeming with protestors. The Roundabout—an open area defined by the towering Pearl Monument, which honored Bahrain’s history as an independent pearling center—had become the Tahrir Square of the Bahraini Arab Spring, and traffic in the surrounding streets was slowed by the massive demonstrations. The Roundabout, originally a symbol of the common history shared by the people of Bahrain, had become the heart of the nation’s grassroots democracy movement. The ruling house of Bahrain, the al-Khalifa family, was growing weary of the protests.
Gates had travelled to the capital of the Kingdom of Bahrain on a complex diplomatic mission. Thousands of pro-democracy protestors had been occupying the Roundabout for weeks, and although security forces had initially violently assaulted them, they had since withdrawn and ceded the Roundabout to the demonstrators. As the civilian whose direct responsibility for US military and security policy was second only to that of the President, Gates had to reassure King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa that his government stood with the Bahraini monarchy. Bahrain was, after all, a close US security partner in the Middle East. On the other hand, as the highest-ranking US official to visit Bahrain since the beginning of its iteration of the Arab Spring, Gates had to represent US principles and push King Hamad toward a resolution of his nation’s domestic turmoil that acknowledged the grievances of the protestors. Over two hours of meetings with King Hamad, Secretary Gates reportedly conveyed this dual message.
The next day, Saudi Arabia contacted the United States to explain that, at the request of the Bahraini monarchy, it would be sending several thousand troops over the causeway connecting it with Bahrain in order to quell the protests. King Hamad declared martial law. Shortly thereafter, a joint Saudi-Emirati force of two thousand soldiers, operating under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), entered Bahrain. The protestors immediately decried the move as an occupation aimed at repressing their movement. Iran echoed their condemnation. US Senator John Kerry, in contrast, cautioned that the Saudi-led force was “not looking for violence in the streets.” “They would like to encourage the king and others to engage in reforms and a dialogue,” Kerry said. Emphasizing that its troop commitment was open-ended, a Saudi official assured reporters that “Bahrain will get whatever assistance it needs.”
Over the next several days, the protestors at Pearl Roundabout were violently scattered with a full array of military equipment: tear gas, beatings, live ammunition, tanks, and helicopters. The Bahraini police and military descended upon the protestors while the GCC forces handled their other security duties. Many demonstrators were killed, and dozens more were injured or arrested. In order to prevent the area from again becoming the seat of anti-governmental protests, the monarchy destroyed the Pearl Monument. Within a week of Secretary Gates’ visit, the peaceful protests at the heart of Bahrain’s democracy movement had been shattered.
Nearly one year later, four thousand GCC troops occupy Bahrain. A “National Dialogue” decreed by the King has made little progress. Opposition figures remain in prison, civilian deaths mount, and reports of torture and abuse continue. Widespread protests have not returned. Amidst the steady progress in Tunisia, the ongoing struggles in Egypt, and the military drama of Libya, Bahrain’s protest movements seems less like the Arab Spring and more like a specter of the Green Movement, which roiled Iran in 2009 but withered under immense pressure from the government and a lack of global support. How did the al-Khalifa monarchy avoid being overthrown? Why did the United States acquiesce to, if not outright support, the joint efforts of the monarchy and the GCC to suppress the protests? Did the United States make the right decision? What does the future hold for Bahrain?
A Kingdom Divided
Bahrain lies at the geographic and demographic nexus of the Middle East. Located in the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Iran, this small archipelago is precariously placed between the rival powers of the region. Though the monarchy and the ruling class are Sunni, more than seventy percent of the population is Shia. The kingdom’s government is dominated by the al-Khalifa family, which has ruled Bahrain since 1783. Though Bahrain has the political scaffolding of a constitutional monarchy—a parliament elected by universal suffrage, a cabinet, and political parties—the royal family retains near-absolute power, since the King appoints the Prime Minister and the legislation of the elected lower house is subject to the veto of the royally-appointed upper house. Notably, Al Wefaq—the nation’s leading Shia opposition party—won a plurality in both parliamentary elections that it contested. At the beginning of the protests in February 2011, it held eighteen of the forty seats in the parliament’s elected lower house, the Council of Representatives.
The sharp divide between the ruling minority of Sunnis and the majority Shia population resulted in systematic discrimination against the Shia population, particularly with regard to employment, housing, and education. Although Shia citizens of Bahrain are not, strictly speaking, disenfranchised, the firm grip of the al-Khalifas prevents Shia citizens from having any serious or tangible influence on Bahraini politics. A series of minor, largely ineffectual uprisings throughout the 1990s highlighted the depth of Shia enmity toward the regime. Unwilling to entrust positions in the police or the military to Shia Bahrainis, the monarchy created programs to bring Pakistanis and other foreign Sunnis to Bahrain by offering them citizenship in exchange for service in a branch of the security forces. Nearly half of Bahrain’s population is now comprised of foreign workers, and by early 2011, 7000 of Bahrain’s 25,000-member police force were Pakistanis.
The success of the democratic movements in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011 reawakened the Shia population of Bahrain, reinvigorating its veteran opposition figures and mobilizing the populace. Using the social media tools that have come to define the Arab Spring, Bahrainis organized massive protests in the capital on February 14th and 15th. Thousands of Bahrainis gathered around the Pearl Monument to voice their demands: the release of political prisoners, the empowerment of the elected parliament, and an end to discrimination.
The monarchy responded to the first days of peaceful protests with harsh violence. Initially, police took to the streets and wantonly assaulted protestors with tear gas and rubber bullets, and within days the military began deploying live ammunition and firing from helicopters. Then, with little explanation, the government withdrew its forces. In the weeks leading up to Gates’ visit to Bahrain, protestors escalated their presence in the capital and faced only minor clashes. By early March, over one hundred thousand people in a nation of just over one million were flooding the Pearl Roundabout. Originally, their demands had been modest. Suddenly, many were calling for revolution.
The Council Intervenes
The GCC is a political and economic association of the conservative Arab monarchies that border the Persian (or, as they might prefer to call it, Arabian) Gulf. Dominated by Saudi Arabia, the GCC is also comprised of Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and, of course, Bahrain. The group was founded in 1981 in Riyadh as a response to the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, and aimed to unite its members around their dedication to Islamic rule, monarchy, and reciprocally open markets. Together, these kingdoms, sheikhdoms, and emirates sought to preserve their way of life and style of governance. In 1984, with Saudi funds and military leadership, the group formed the Peninsula Shield Force, a 10,000-man military unit comprised of troops from each member state. This Peninsula Shield Force became the core of the GCC’s mutual defense program. Until its units entered Bahrain on March 14th, the Peninsula Shield Force had never been deployed. Designed for defense from external threats, the Force saw its first deployment against a domestic population.
The protests in Bahrain were the largest of their kind in any GCC constituent. To the GCC, especially Saudi Arabia, this was deeply troubling. Bahrain is the only GCC member that is majority Shia. In light of Iran’s longstanding historical claim to sovereignty over the islands, the Saudis were concerned that Bahrain was particularly susceptible to Iranian influence. With the Islamic Republic invoking its claim to the mantle of Shia revolution, Saudi Arabia concluded that the mere existence of the protests—let alone their possible success—bolstered Iran’s credibility and posed a grave threat to the stability and security of the GCC. Convinced of the imperative to intervene, what remained for Saudi Arabia was to determine how the United States would respond.
United States acceptance of an occupation of Bahrain was by no means a given. President Obama had called for a more democratic Arab world in his 2009 speech in Cairo, and pressure from Tahrir Square ultimately persuaded the United States to cease backing Hosni Mubarak and assist in his departure from power. Moreover, early in the Bahraini protests an array of US leaders—including National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and President Obama himself—signaled that the United States acknowledged and supported the rights of the Bahraini people to protest and voice their discontent. Some even attributed the February withdrawal of Bahraini security forces from Pearl Roundabout to US pressure. Perhaps most troublingly to the Saudis, at the conclusion of his visit to Manama, Secretary Gates publicly rejected suggestions that the protests in Bahrain were instigated or supported by Iran. Having rejected the Saudi rationale for intervention, why would the United States acquiesce to the proposed GCC mission?
Like Saudi Arabia, the United States had a special military relationship with Bahrain. In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, the United States sought to cement its position in the Persian Gulf region. To that end, it signed a defense agreement with Bahrain in 1992 and, after constructing a naval base at Juffair (just outside of Manama), designated Bahrain as the base of the Fifth Fleet—the main US naval presence in the Persian Gulf. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US-Bahraini relationship transitioned into a full-fledged alliance, and Bahrain became a major recipient of US security and counterterrorism aid, taking in US$20.8 million in 2010, as well as even larger shipments of weapons. As the US relationship with the absolutist al-Khalifa family grew warmer, the United States contented itself with the hope that the moderate Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, would serve as a potential source of gradual, long-term reform. Friendship with the al-Khalifa monarchy seemed like a means to the realization of US regional security interests and the long-term advancement of US principles.
A new Bahraini government dominated by Shia groups seemed to offer none of this reliability. Al Wefaq (the leading Shia political party) had close ties to the Shia clerical establishment in Bahrain, suggesting that it might be vulnerable to the influence of Iranian clergy. Even if the protestors had no direct ties to Iran, it seemed unlikely that a Shia government would be as staunchly anti-Iranian (and pro-American) as the al-Khalifas. And if the protestors achieved real political power and reduced the al-Khalifas to the status of constitutional monarchs—or deposed them outright—there would be no guarantee that the United States could continue to base the Fifth Fleet at Juffair or continue to rely on Bahrain for counterterrorism cooperation. Compounding these reservations, the United States had previously praised Bahrain as a regional model for peaceful democratic progress. Turning on the most liberal monarchy in the GCC might discourage future democratization in the region by suggesting to monarchs that liberalization would not yield real benefits. The success of the protests in Bahrain threatened to jeopardize decades of US policy in the region. Even before the Saudis proposed to send troops across the causeway, Bahrainis sensed that the United States was not supporting their movement the way it had supported its predecessors in Tunisia and Egypt. In the words of Sheikh Isa Qassim, the senior cleric of the Bahraini Shia community, countries like the United States “offer only cool, verbal support [to protestors] when it comes to regimes friendly to them.”
Confronted with a growing Shia protest movement voicing calls for increasingly dramatic change, the Saudis contacted the United States to explain the GCC plan. The details of the discussion are unknown. What can be inferred is that the United States acquiesced to the proposed occupation. The Peninsula Shield Force crossed the causeway into Bahrain, and the monarchy unleashed its own troops against its people. Secretary Clinton urged the monarchs of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to begin negotiating a resolution of the conflict with the protestors, but other than dispatching an Assistant Secretary of State to facilitate talks, nothing further was done. When the dust settled at the end of the first week of the crackdown, reporters found tear gas canisters whose labels stated that they had been made in the United States. Aviation experts concluded that the helicopters had the same origin. The peak of Bahrain’s protest movement was over.
Martial Law and “National Dialogue”
Since the occupation began, the monarchy has juxtaposed pro-reform rhetoric with repression. Bahrain was subjected to martial law from March through June, during which time the worst of the monarchy’s abuses took place. Sporadic protests were dispersed with beatings, tear gas, and live fire. Security forces patrolled Manama and other major cities. Thousands lost their jobs for opposing the monarchy. Protestors of all sexes and ages were killed in the streets. Concurrently, however, the monarchy spoke of reforms and planned talks with the opposition under the aegis of a “National Dialogue,” which began in July. The “Dialogue” proved empty. Despite being the nation’s largest opposition party, Al Wefaq was allocated only five out of three hundred seats. Many opposition groups simply left, sensing that their voices were not being heard. Of the Dialogue’s recommendations, some cement the power of the monarchy (by increasing the power of the royally-appointed Prime Minister, who is himself a Khalifa), others have gone unfulfilled (such as a commitment to rehire those who lost state jobs for political reasons, or to release political prisoners), and only one—the creation of a commission to investigate human rights abuses—has come to fruition. The end of martial law has gone unaccompanied by an end to human rights abuses, clashes with security forces, and dubious judicial proceedings. In what is surely among the most egregious and disturbing human rights violations of this period, Bahrain’s National Safety Court has prosecuted, abused, and imprisoned dozens of doctors for treating injured protestors and opposition figures. Many have been sentenced to life in prison. Only recently has the sharp international outcry against these trials led the Bahraini government to announce that it would hold new trials for the doctors. Their futures—as well as those of hundreds of other political prisoners—are far from certain.
US support for the monarchy has only increased in the months since March 2011. The State Department continues to argue that the monarchy presents a credible path toward reform and, in a reversal of Secretary Gates’ initial position, contends that Iran is exploiting the situation in Bahrain. Although the United States claims that it continues to push the Bahraini government to acknowledge human rights and democratic values, US comments on the situation avoid leveling particular charges and couple criticism with reaffirmations of support. By November 2011, the US government was pressuring Congress to authorize a US$53 million arms shipment to Bahrain, even as a report by the Government Accountability Office concluded that the State and Defense Departments failed to adequately monitor Gulf nations’ use of US-provided weapons.
Principles and Interests
The protests in Bahrain put US foreign policy to a stern test. Caught between security interests and democratic principles, US policymakers attempted to defend both by accepting the suppression of the protests in order to open a manageable dialogue between moderates on both sides. Their aim, it seems, was to facilitate gradual, stable reform of Bahrain’s existing institutions in order to address the protestors’ demands while preserving the standing of their loyal allies, the al-Khalifa family. Supporting the protests—let alone encouraging the resignation of some or all of the governing al-Khalifas—posed too great a risk to US interests, epitomized by the Fifth Fleet.
This approach has almost categorically failed to uphold US democratic principles. The US-encouraged “National Dialogue” took months to begin and quickly deadlocked without results. According to the November 2011 official report on the governmental response to the protests—commissioned by the monarchy through the “National Dialogue” but led by independent human rights scholar Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni—human rights abuses by the government have been rampant and systematic. The monarchy has used the appearance of reform to mask and justify a brutal crackdown that featured unjustified arrests, show trials, torture, destruction of religious sites, purges from jobs and universities, and killings. The monarchy of Bahrain trampled upon democratic principles and human rights norms. Later, US calls for restraint went largely unheeded.
Complicity in these abuses is likely to undermine US security interests in Bahrain in the long term. Although the al-Khalifas remain in power, the Fifth Fleet continues to dock at Juffair, and Iran has not acquired more influence in the nation, the fundamental tension at the core of Bahraini society—that a discriminatory Sunni monarchy rules a disempowered Shia majority—has only been exacerbated. The fear that drove US policy around the Bahrain protests—that the success of the Shia protestors might yield a Bahrain less amenable to US interests—became far more legitimate once the United States committed itself to defending the monarchy. Whereas the United States could conceivably have stood with the protestors’ demands for a constitutional, non-discriminatory monarchy and won their friendship—and perhaps thereby preserved the US security relationship with Bahrain in the long-term—future protestors are far more likely to oppose US involvement in their country. Ironically, US policy towards Bahrain in 2011 may have increased the likelihood that protestors seeking a more democratic Bahrain will direct their hopes toward Iran.
The perceived tension between US interests and US principles in Bahrain was illusory. A principled US response to the protests—one which acknowledged the protestors’ demands as legitimate, rejected the GCC occupation, and actually leveraged US influence on the al-Khalifa family to prevent a violent crackdown and push for democratic reforms—would have better served US interests than the seemingly narrow-minded calculation of US interests that was adopted instead.
The United States must restore democratic principles and human rights norms to its relationship with Bahrain. To do so, it must ensure that the monarchy acts on the report of the Bassiouni Commission by establishing a human rights watchdog, prosecuting those responsible for human rights abuses, and ending show trials and the captivity of political prisoners. The United States must also push for an empowerment of the parliament and a reduction in the king’s authority over appointments and decrees. Future aid must be conditional upon reforms that end the systematic discrimination against Bahrain’s Shias and recognize their rights to speech and assembly. No policy that does anything less can begin to address the wrongs suffered by the protestors over the last year or restore a credible, constructive role for the United States in regional democratization.
Today, Pearl Roundabout is a very different place than it was when the protests began. Traffic has come back, but Pearl Monument is gone. The protests are an era in Bahrain’s history that its leaders would like to forget. Today, the government of Bahrain wants to look to the future. The roundabout that once honored the glories of Bahrain’s pearling past has been renamed in honor of the group that seems likely to define its future. For now, it is called Gulf Cooperation Council Roundabout—whether everyone likes it or not.
Staff Writer Michael Mitchell