Three weeks ago, a home-made bomb exploded in Bahrain, killing three security officers, including a policeman from the United Arab Emirates serving with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces operating in Bahrain. The event, which occurred less than a month before U.S. President Barack Obama sits down with his counterparts in Saudi Arabia to discuss bilateral relations and regional concerns, serves as a reminder that while international attention may have shifted to the civil war in Syria and nuclear talks with Iran, the deteriorating situation in Bahrain continues unabated.
During Obama’s meetings in Riyadh this week, it is imperative the president speaks candidly with the Saudi government about Bahrain’s deteriorating situation and how the two allies can pressure the small island nation to enact the meaningful reforms necessary to resolve the political stalemate and bring an end to instability.
For the United States, Saudi Arabia is a natural ally to engage with on issues concerning Bahrain. As Sunni monarchies with significant Shia populations, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have shared close bilateral relations for centuries based not only on mutual foreign policy and national security interests but also demographic and regional concerns. In many ways, the Saudi government views Bahrain as an extension of itself and is deeply engaged in the country’s domestic politics. The threats posed by the Arab Spring to regional authoritarian governments and economic stability have only served to strengthen these ties.
For Saudis watching from the other side of the causeway, the February 2011 uprising in Bahrain presented a potential threat to Saudi Arabia’s domestic stability and oil production. Terrified of the possible negative impact, it took only a month for Saudi-led GCC forces to enter Bahrain to assist the country’s security forces in their violent campaign to suppress the peaceful uprising. While the Bahraini government later claimed it had invited the Saudi-led forces to the country, members of the international community questioned the legality of the interference at the time. Although GCC forces were ultimately found to have had no direct involvement in human rights violations in Bahrain, the security they provided to infrastructure and strategic installations afforded Bahraini’s own security forces the freedom to participate in violent attacks against protesters during the brutal crackdown.
It is clear from the recent spate of bombings and warnings from the U.S. Embassy in Manama that the situation in Bahrain has deteriorated considerably since the uprising began in February 2011. And while the majority of protesters remain peaceful, the steady increase in violence against security forces and riot police has done little to alleviate Saudi concerns over potential negative effects on the Kingdom’s own stability.
It would be naïve to ignore the potential global ramifications of a Bahrain-style uprising in Saudi Arabia. The uprising in Bahrain has wreaked havoc on the country’s economy; while this has had a minimal effect on an international scale, a similar disruption in Saudi Arabia would place considerable strain on a global economy that is struggling to emerge from recession. To ensure such an event does not take place, it is in the best interest of both Saudi Arabia and the United States to work with Bahrain to quickly resolve the political standoff.
Unfortunately, the current Saudi model of engagement in Bahrain has hindered the reform process and exacerbated domestic tensions. A mere week after protests erupted in 2011, Bahrain’s ruler, King Hamad, traveled to Saudi Arabia to speak with his counterparts about the unrest. In the three years since the uprising began, the Bahraini government has implemented various Saudi-supported policies to enforce stability; everything from government incentive payments to violence and intimidation to lackluster attempts at negotiation. Unfortunately, this reactionary approach has failed to bring even short-term stability to Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia’s current approach to achieving stability in Bahrain rejects any support or respect for human rights, and instead forces the population to accept stability at gunpoint. Herein lies the problem: the 2011 government crackdown against peaceful protests in Bahrain not only led to polarization within the international community, but also created a growing divide within both the government and the opposition, as well as an opportunity for hardliners and extremists to derail negotiations and co-opt the conversation. The further from the moderate middle both sides have gone, the more difficult it has become to remedy the situation.
The on-going presence of Saudi and GCC forces in Bahrain is a reactionary policy that does not take long-term stability into account. A point of contention for the Bahraini opposition and international human rights organizations alike, the continued presence of GCC forces is viewed as a foreign occupation and violation of Bahraini sovereignty. By contrast, the removal of GCC troops would demonstrate that the Saudi government not only respects Bahrain’s autonomy, but is also willing to create the space necessary for the Bahraini government to continue building on the dialogue process with the opposition that Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa rekindled earlier this year.
At the same time, given the Saudi government’s short-sighted approach to Bahrain thus far, President Obama must impress upon his Saudi counterparts that it will be nearly impossible to achieve long-term regional stability without political and security reform in Bahrain. To this end, the Obama administration must work with the Saudi government to empower key moderates within the Bahraini government and opposition to actively engage in a dialogue process that will lead to real and lasting reforms on the ground.
Removing GCC forces from Bahrain is a critical first step toward this more collaborative process, which the Obama administration must impress upon the Saudis. With Bahrain back in the hands of Bahrainis, the small island Kingdom would be better able to negotiate for peace and stability long-sought by both the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Although Bahrain’s stability ultimately works in the favor of all three countries, the Saudis will most likely resist a change in tack toward a more negotiated peace. In the event that Riyadh hinders a long-term solution and the Bahraini government fails to engage in dialogue and reform in good faith, President Obama must make it clear the United States is willing to put pressure not only on the Bahrainis but also on the Saudis themselves. This pressure should include withholding military sales of items that could be used to repress protests, as well as items of high-value, like F-15 tactical fighter jet. The administration should also work toward creating a contingency plan for relocating the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and Central Command, which are currently based in Bahrain.
Considering the close bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, there is no denying that a resolution to the conflict in Bahrain will require assistance from its neighbor. To that end, it is imperative for President Obama to encourage the Saudis to impress upon the Bahraini government that compromise and reform, not repression, are the only way to resolve the political stalemate and ensure stability on the ground.
*Husain Abdulla, originally from Bahrain, is the founder and Director of Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain. As Director, Husain leads the organization’s efforts to ensure that US policies support the democracy and human rights movement in Bahrain. Husain also works closely with members of the Bahraini-American community to ensure that their voices are heard by US government officials and the broader American public.