POMED Notes: “The Precarious Ally: Bahrain’s Impasse and U.S. Policy in the Gulf”
On Wednesday, February 13, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a panel discussion entitled “The Precarious Ally: Bahrain’s Impasse and U.S. Policy in the Gulf.” The panel featured Frederic Wehrey, Senior Associate in Carnegie’s Middle East Center, Toby Craig Jones, Professor and Director at Rutgers University’s Center for Middle East Studies, Matar Ebrahim Matar, former Member of Parliament in Bahrain, and Jon Alterman, Director of the Middle East Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and was moderated by Karim Sadjadpour, Senior Associate at Carnegie.
For full event notes continue reading or click here for the PDF.
Karim Sadjadpour opened the panel discussion by introducing Frederic Wehrey’s newest paper for the Carnegie Endowment, titled “The Precarious Ally: Bahrain’s Impasse and U.S. Policy” and providing background information on Bahrain. He asked Wehrey to outline the key themes of his paper.
Frederic Wehrey stated that there are three levels in the conflict in Bahrain – societal, political, and regional. He noted a broken social contract and broken civil-military relations as significant contributors to the conflict and argued that the “fundamental issue is a failed promise of reform.” He identified the royal family, Sunni Islamists, and Shia opposition as the three major players in Bahrain. Wehrey warned against the unpredictable political impact of removing the Fifth Fleet from Bahrain, particularly the potential to create a power vacuum that could be filled by Saudi Arabia. He also argued that the conflict in Bahrain is not a proxy war by Iran.
Sadjadpour then shifted the conversation to Matar Ebrahim Matar by asking him to discuss his views on the principle stumbling blocks for dialogue, next steps for the Bahraini government, and the direction the opposition may take in the future. Matar began by stating that there is a fourth player in Bahrain, the moderate Sunnis, that does not receive coverage or representation. He argued that the main obstacle to dialogue is the ruling family’s unwillingness to share wealth and power with the people of Bahrain. Matar claimed that until the ruling family is willing to share power, “all talks about dialogue…will be fake.” He also argued that the regime has displayed immaturity, particularly in the “revenge factor” evident in the government’s responses to the opposition. In discussing the question of the Fifth Fleet as U.S. leverage in the country, Matar stated that there should be an option between maintaining current policy and completely withdrawing the fleet; he argued that the U.S. should view the Fifth Fleet as part of an obligation to Bahrain rather than an obstacle. Matar said that since it will be difficult for the Bahraini people to forget that the U.S. recognized and supported the regime, he would like to see the U.S. less involved in Bahrain in order to preserve the relationship between the two countries. He also commented that the “military in Bahrain is disconnected from the people,” which creates a negative image of both the Bahraini military and militaries around the world among the Bahraini people.
Sadjadpour asked Jon Alterman to characterize the dilemma the United States faces in Bahrain and what tools it has to address it. Alterman stated that the U.S. is in a middle ground between two policy options that are undesirable. He said the Bahraini government has been “clumsy” in its response to the opposition. He said that removing the Fifth Fleet from Bahrain “would be a disaster for Bahrainis and American interests” and “would send all the wrong signals.” He noted the role of the U.S. Navy base in Bahrain as a significant source of employment, particularly for Sunnis. Alterman also said, “One thing I think won’t work is calling in an external referee” to solve Bahrain’s problems.
Wehrey commented that while there is much discussion of the Fifth Fleet, there is a whole range of military ties between the U.S. and Bahrain and that this relationship gives the Bahraini government an obligation to reform. He also noted that the U.S. Department of Defense does not have a relationship with the military forces that were identified by the BICI Report as the most problematic.
Toby Craig Jones stated that “things are stuck” in Bahrain and that this paralysis is caused by “an absolute lack of trust.” He reminded the audience that the Bahrainis are dealing with decades of problematic government rather than simply two years of “bad behavior.” He stated that progress in Bahrain comes down to the regime’s willingness to make difficult choices. Jones also argued that the U.S. relationship with Bahrain should be framed around more than simply security issues, stating that our leverage with the country is only limited if we maintain a narrow view of the relationship.
Sadjadpour then opened the discussion to questions from the audience. The first round of questions focused on the role of Saudi Arabia as an external referee in Bahrain, the outcome of hypothetical elections held today in terms of the potential victory of extremists, and the ability of the private sector, particularly foreign companies, to use financial leverage for reform in Bahrain. Speaking to the question on Saudi Arabia, Wehrey stated that “a lot is going to depend on Saudi Arabia.” Matar stated that “our vision is to have a strong relationship with the Saudis.” He also argued that Bahrain could be a model for change in the region but that there is an exaggeration of the impact of reform in Bahrain on monarchies elsewhere in the Gulf. Alterman claimed that Bahrain’s role as a model would have to begin with the opposition, which must “productively engage” with the regime. He also stated that Saudi Arabia does not have any greater ability to solve the problems in Bahrain than the U.S. does. Jones disagreed with Alterman, stating that the burden for change should be placed on the regime. He also argued that Saudi Arabia feels it has “carte blanche” because the U.S. acts as the guarantor of regional security. With regards to the question of elections and extremism, Jones said there is no way to predict the outcome of elections based on the current environment and that we need to move away from the broadly applied term “extremism” and find new ways of characterizing and talking about politics on the ground. Alterman echoed this sentiment, saying the constant discussion of Sunni-Shia divisions prevented the formation of productive pathways. Wehrey stated that the problem of sectarianism is “overblown,” saying that “democratic activism crosses sectarian lines.” He argued that if extremism exists in the region, it is because the countries have in place certain democratic structures like a parliament without other components of democracy in the form of civil society.
The final round of questions pertained to the cohesion and commitment of troops in Bahrain and the potential to peel them away from their loyalty to the regime and whether Bahrain is a local or regional issue. On the subject of the military in Bahrain, Alterman stated that Bahrain’s mercenary forces tend to support the government and that he does not see an imminent shift in their loyalty. Wehrey said there may be an opportunity for the U.S. to continue its engagement with Bahrain’s military. Regarding Bahrain’s regional impact, Jones said, “Bahrain has always been a regional issue.” Alterman said the absence of influence from external actors could create an opportunity for Bahrain to reach an internal solution, which he argued would be more durable. Matar called for external pressure, which he characterized as an obligation rather than help, on Bahrain’s internal struggle.