Counter-balancing Saudi Arabia: why the US should not abandon Bahrain’s reformists

Rather than calling upon the United States and other western powers to abandon the Bahraini leadership at this time, we should instead be calling upon them to increase their ever-so vital support of the kingdom’s reformists through a series of different aid and development packages.

Hasan Tariq Al Hasan
19 January 2012

Over the past year, several western academics and commentators on Bahraini affairs have called upon western countries and particularly the United States to relinquish support of the Bahraini ruling establishment. Such academics cite numerous allegations of human rights violations committed by the Bahraini government during its crackdown on the February 14 pre-dominantly Shiite protests following the entry of Saudi-led GCC troops into the kingdom. Such allegations include the excessive use of force by security forces, reckless detainment of hundreds of individuals, the layoff of many others and the destruction of a few dozen Shiite religious structures. Some have even gone as far as to demand that the US consider relocating its naval base from Bahrain, a country that the US has dubbed a ‘major non-NATO ally’. They argue that continuing western and particularly US support for Bahrain constitutes an implicit recognition or legitimization of abuses allegedly committed by the government.

However, such calls appear to be somewhat short-sighted. They neglect the important role that US support has played in pushing forward the King’s reform agenda over the past decade in spite of Saudi conservatism. Since his ascendance to the throne in 1999, Bahrain’s King has undertaken a series of regionally unprecedented reforms that have culminated in the drafting of a constitution, the restoration of a parliament, the legalization of trade unions and a significant increase in the freedom of press. Undoubtedly, the support provided by the US was rather key in pushing the Bahraini leadership to pursue its reform agenda. US support materialized for instance through the activities of the National Democratic Institute that provided ample training and resources to Bahraini political and civil society groups, of which incidentally the opposition has most often been seen as the primary benefactor.

More importantly though, US backing proved to be instrumental in Bahrain’s balancing act against Saudi hegemony as illustrated in the US-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement episode of 2003. Saudi Arabia unleashed its fury against Bahrain’s signing of an FTA with the US, claiming that such an agreement would undermine efforts to create an effective, unified GCC trade bloc. Within the GCC, of which both Saudi and Bahrain are members, tariffs have been abolished on goods circulating between member states considered part of a trade union, a measure in effect since 2003. As such, Saudi, which enjoys no such agreement with the US, expressed concern over the entry of American goods - originally imported duty-free - into its market through Bahrain. These concerns prompted the Saudi government to announce it was considering imposing a 5% tariff on all American products entering through Bahrain. More importantly, the Saudi government sought to punish the Bahraini leadership by halting the sale of sand seen as vital for construction and by cancelling an additional 50,000 barrels per day subsidy from the Abu Sa’afa field to Bahrain. The importance of such a move can hardly be overstated, as Saudi subsidies represent up to 67% of Bahrain’s annual budget. A Wikileaks document even quotes the Emirati Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs as telling the former Director of Persian Gulf Affairs at the US National Security Council Peter Theroux, “that Saudi Arabia is "squeezing" Bahrain, cutting aid (both financial and oil).  "Please do something," he said, "This is bad."”. Nonetheless, the Bahraini leadership proved unflinching in its desire to conclude the FTA with the US whose political backing it could rely on in the face of Saudi objections.

The entry of Saudi troops to the island on March 14 can be seen as having tipped the scales in favour of Saudi’s conservative allies within Bahrain’s royal family, namely the hitherto marginalized Prime Minister, to the detriment of the more reform-minded King and Crown Prince. The Prime Minister, a long-time ally of the country’s merchant oligarchy, has successfully managed to suspend a set of labour market reforms enacted in 2006 by the Crown Prince that seek to discourage merchants from employing foreign, cheap labour by levying a fee on every foreign worker employed, and instead encourage them to hire Bahraini workers. Even then, the King single-handedly summoned an independent commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of abuse against the government. The report openly documented many instances of abuse, and the King has vowed to implement the commission’s recommendations. More recently, the King has announced a set of constitutional amendments that will expand the prerogatives of the elected chamber of Parliament by allowing its members to question and dismiss ministers as well as have a greater say in drafting the state budget. The reform also requires the King to consult with the head of the elected and unelected chambers of Parliament before dissolving the latter, and requires Parliamentary approval of the government’s programme for the cabinet to be considered as having obtained a vote of confidence.  Although some pro-government figures have pointed out that these reforms proposed by the King are greater than those demanded by the Shiite-Islamist Wifaq bloc within parliament in 2008, Wifaq and other opposition groups have reacted negatively to them, stating that they fall short of fulfilling their aspirations.

Shortly before leaving Bahrain, former US Ambassador Monroe in 2007 speaking on the King said, “He is caught between his desire to be a regional leader on reform and those neighbors - especially Saudi Arabia - who worry about the influence his reforms might have elsewhere in the region.” Several episodes over the past decade have demonstrated that US support can go a long way in backing Bahrain’s reformist leadership against Saudi conservatism both on a regional and domestic level. The US should consider further extending its support through the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative by providing greater funding for programmes that help develop a range of political and civil society groups from across the spectrum in Bahrain. The State Department, moreover, ought to throw more of its political weight behind the King and the Crown Prince’s reform agenda, arguably one of the country’s few remaining ways out of its boiling political crisis.

Therefore, rather than calling upon the United States and other western powers to abandon the Bahraini leadership at this time, we should instead be calling upon them to increase their ever-so vital support of the kingdom’s reformists through a series of different aid and development packages quid pro quo reform in an attempt to offset the imbalance both within the country’s ruling elite and vis-à-vis its conservative neighbour in the wake of its quelled uprising.

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