Middle East


Tucked deep into President Obama's Middle East speech was a warning to the government of Bahrain. The Persian Gulf state faced its own uprising and the government there has come down hard on the protesters. But unlike other revolutions in the region, the Obama administration hasn't been as publicly supportive of the protesters in Bahrain or as critical of its government.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports that could be changing.

JACKIE NORTHAM: When the 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 wasn't 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 a thousand 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 Bahrain. He says those involved in the protests are subject to arbitrary arrest and detention, sometimes for months.

Mr. BRIAN DOOLEY (Director, Human Rights First): Typically, they would be blindfolded that whole time, be beaten, heads knocked against the wall, made to suffer some humiliations. Then we see torture.

NORTHAM: 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 Post Graduate 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.

Professor JAMES RUSSELL (National Security Affairs, Naval Post Graduate School): And these bases or the access to the facilities that these states provided, have been instrumental in the United States being able to help preserve regional security and stability in the Gulf, through which, you know, between 15 and 16 million barrels a day, and even more, oil passes on any given day.

NORTHAM: 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's a large Shiite population and most of the country's oilfields.

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, President Obama sent a clear message to Bahrain's government.

President BARACK OBAMA: The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue. And you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.

NORTHAM: Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says it's far from clear President Obama's warning will have any impact on Bahrain's leaders.

Dr. STEVEN COOK (Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations): 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 that they're going to respond to.

NORTHAM: But Salman Sheik, the director of the Brookings' Doha Center, says the U.S. needs to do more, even if it's just public criticism of the Bahrain government. He says a limited or muted response will have long-term implications.

Mr. SALMAN SHAIK (Director, Doha Center, Brookings Institution): I think allowing the situation in Bahrain to continue in the way that it has, and for this uneasy calm to remain, carries with it very real dangers of a greater sectarian problem arising throughout the Gulf and also vis-a-vis Iran.

NORTHAM: The Bahraini government has said it will lift the state of emergency on June 1st. It's not clear if that decision had anything to do with quiet diplomacy by the U.S.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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