Bahraini police fired tear gas to disperse protesters gathered at Pearl Square in Manama on March 13. The square was the epicenter of anti-government protests.
Bahraini police fired tear gas to disperse protesters gathered at Pearl Square in Manama on March 13. The square was the epicenter of anti-government protests. AFP/Getty Images
When popular uprisings swept through Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, President Obama openly threw his support behind the protesters, trumpeting the dual ideals of democracy and freedom.
But that was not the case when the unrest reached Bahrain. The demonstrators, mostly from the majority Shiite population, were calling for reforms in the tiny island kingdom ruled by Sunnis.
The protests quickly turned nasty — scores of people were killed, hundreds wounded. Neighboring Saudi Arabia sent in about 1,000 troops to help quell the demonstrations.
Since then, Bahrain has faced a reign of terror, says Brian Dooley with Human Rights First, who has just returned from a research trip to the country. He says those involved in the protests are subject to arbitrary arrest and detention, sometimes for months.
"Typically they would be blindfolded that whole time, be beaten, heads knocked against the wall, made to suffer some humiliations," he says. "Then we see torture, in that people have been hung, suspended for a very long time," he says.
During the uprising, the U.S. urged both sides to initiate a dialogue. But after the crackdown and the Saudi intervention, Washington went quiet, says James Russell, an associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. He says Bahrain is a critical ally of the U.S. — the Navy's Fifth Fleet is based there. Russell says security interests have trumped democracy in Bahrain and other Persian Gulf nations for a long time.
"These bases or the access to the facilities these states provide has been instrumental in the United States being able to help preserve regional security and stability in the Gulf, through which between 15 and 16 million barrels a day — and even more — oil passes on any given day," Russell says.
The U.S. must also take Saudi views into account. The Saudis allege Shiite-ruled Iran helped stoke the uprising in Bahrain, and they worry it could spread to eastern Saudi Arabia, where there is a large Shiite population — and most of the country's oil fields.
While public criticism of Bahrain's handling of the uprising was muted, U.S. diplomats were continuing to work behind the scenes, trying to persuade the government to come to a political settlement with the opposition, but to no avail.
Finally, during his broad speech on the Middle East, Obama sent a clear message to Bahrain's government, saying the only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in dialogue. But, Obama said, "you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail."
Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says it's far from clear Obama's warning will have any impact on Bahrain's leaders.
"These are leaders who are fighting to stay alive, and even if the president of the United States denounces them, that's not the first thing they're going to respond to," he says.
But Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center, says the U.S. does have some leverage — the Navy's Fifth Fleet provides Bahrain with some security in a dangerous neighborhood. Shaikh says the U.S. needs to do more, even if it's just public criticism of the Bahraini government. He says a limited or muted response will have long-term implications.
"I think allowing the situation in Bahrain to continue in the way it has carries with it a very real danger of a greater sectarian problem arising throughout the Gulf and also vis-a-vis Iran," Shaikh says.
The Bahraini government has said it will lift the state of emergency on June 1. It's unclear if that decision had anything to do with quiet diplomacy by the U.S.