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How Biden should engage Bahrain

There’s an opportunity for Washington to reset relations and help steer the Gulf Kingdom toward a more inclusive society.

Several small groups of demonstrators hit the streets of Bahraini towns Sunday February 14 in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the “Bahraini Arab Spring” that erupted in February 2011. The protests were organized by the February 14 Youth Coalition, which spearheaded the mass protests that rocked Bahrain in support of democracy and human rights a decade ago. Although the Arab uprisings, known at the time as the Arab Spring, resulted in the removal of the autocratic rulers of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, they were crushed by the security forces in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, and elsewhere.

The Bahraini regime, under the tight grip of the late Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman and with Saudi military support, brazenly demolished the iconic Pearl Square in the heart of Manama, overpowered the February 14 movement and arrested, tortured, and killed so many protesters without much, if any, condemnation from major friendly Western powers, including the United States. Since independence in 1971, Bahrain’s Shiite majority has been ruled by Al Khalifa family, which represents the Sunni minority. The late Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman, brother of the former ruler and uncle of the present King, ran a tightly controlled, ruthless security apparatus against the Shia majority and over the years rejected all of their demands for human rights, democracy, and the freedoms of speech and assembly. 

Khalifa ordered the arrest of Shiite clerics, academics, peaceful activists, political party leaders,  and parliamentarians. He dissolved al-Wefaq, the country’s major Shia organization, confiscated its assets, and arrested its leaders. Many of its leaders, former parliamentarians, and nationally known peaceful activists are currently in exile or in jail. 

Relations between Bahrain and the Trump administration were mostly transactional, personalized, and quid pro quo, with minimal regard for human rights and democracy. Human rights organizations and activists were hounded, and calls for reform and democracy were stifled under the guise of fighting terrorism.

Last November, Bahrainis had hoped that with the death of Khalifa and the appointment of Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa as the new prime minister, the country would witness a period of political reform and could set the stage for sectarian reconciliation. So far, Salman has shown no tangible indications that he would move in that direction. Yet, some Bahrainis are hopeful that as Salman solidifies his power position among the various and more traditional factions within the ruling family, and with encouragement from the Biden administration, he could move toward Sunni-Shiite reconciliation.

Such reconciliation is not unprecedented in Bahrain. In the 1971-75 and 2000-2003 periods, Bahraini rulers invited Bahrainis, including the Shiite majority, to participate in the political process through fair and free elections. Free press, like al-Wasat newspaper, were allowed to publish, and social and political clubs were permitted to function. Salman could resurrect that process.

Washington could use Salman’s appointment as an opportunity to encourage him and his father King Hamad to allow the banned al-Wefaq and other civil society institutions to reopen. As prime minister, Salman could allow political clubs to resume their legal, peaceful, political and cultural activities. Opening up the country and allowing its people to resume their social and political interactions freely would ultimately pave the way toward creating a more highly educated and free public and a technologically advanced and economically vibrant country, much like Singapore.  

Bahrain’s rulers, like those in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, sold the Trump administration on the false claim that military aid and arms sales promoted regional stability and that these weapons and other technologies were designed to thwart regional state and non-state threats. Sadly, many of the weapons supplied by the United States, Britain, France, and other Western countries have been used in Arab-instigated regional conflicts — for example in Yemen and Libya — and against their own people. Heavily armed “anti-riot” security forces in Bahrain and other autocracies were used to quell peaceful protests calling for political reform, free elections, human and women’s rights, and democracy.

Arab dictatorships in recent years spent hundreds of millions of dollars in Washington on think tanks, defense industries, prestigious public relations and law firms, retired diplomats and senior military officers, self-proclaimed Gulf scholars, and academic institutions. Simply, this lavish spending was aimed at persuading U.S. leaders that autocrats were reliable partners in the fight against terrorism and Iran and dependable supporters of American interests. They argued that autocracy is a sure bet for the future of the Arab world whereas democracy is fickle and chaotic.

This propaganda campaign since 2011 also pushed the notion that the Arab Spring was dead, that political Islam under the imprimatur of the Muslim Brotherhood was dangerous, and that calls for political reform and human rights are destabilizing domestically and regionally and could threaten U.S. interests. For the most part, American leaders in the past decade have swallowed this flawed claim.

How should Al Khalifa reset relations with the Biden administration?

American tolerance of tyranny in Bahrain and other Middle Eastern countries in recent years seems to have run its course under the Biden administration. Human rights and freedom of expression, including a free press, are expected to figure highly in the Biden administration’s resetting of relations with Bahrain and other Gulf monarchies.

President Biden’s emphasis on human rights, democracy, and peoples’ right to voice their opinion freely and without coercion is a strong signal to Al Khalifa that his administration plans to question Arab rulers’ fake argument equating autocracy with stability.

President Biden recently told European leaders in his virtual speech to the Munich Security Conference that democracies “can still deliver for the people.” It is time for the United States under the Biden administration to call out Al Khalifa and other Arab autocrats on their human rights record and to convince them that diplomatic engagement is more effective in solving pressing global and regional challenges — including the refugee crisis, climate change, global warming, international trade, cyber threats to critical infrastructures, pandemics, and on-going wars — than the force of arms.

If Bahrain’s ruling family aspires to unleash the innovativeness and creativity of its people, it must unshackle them and allow them the freedom to explore, invent, create, and even make mistakes. Free citizens can respond to the challenges of our times effectively and creatively; a shackled people simply cannot. A stable democratic polity in Bahrain offers an effective platform for advances in technology, science, and medicine than an oppressive state grounded in repression.

The Biden administration could also urge the Bahraini prime minister to release the thousands of dissidents. Otherwise, the Bahraini youth will remain a constant challenge to the ruling establishment. Although Al Khalifa won the confrontations with Bahraini dissidents during the Arab Spring, the pro-reform ideas that drove the Arab youth — Sunni and Shiite, men and women, urban and rural — into the streets a decade ago are still pulsing.

Although Salman represents the post-independence generation, many of the old order still retain powerful positions within the government and the family majlis (assembly). The pre-independence and anti-Shiite faction within the Al Khalifa family is aging and becoming more disconnected from the Bahraini youth whose ideas still resonate despite the continued incarceration of so many of them.

If Prime Minister Salman and his father King Hamad are interested in resetting relations with the new American president, they should support his diplomatic push with some of their neighbors including Iran and the Palestinians and his desire to end the war in Yemen. Heading the President’s recent statements on democracy, diplomacy, and human rights is the only way for Salman to chart a new course and for Al Khalifa could stay in power in partnership with their people.

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