February 14th, 2012
05:00 AM ET

Abrams: Turning point in Bahrain

Editor's NoteElliott Abrams is former senior director for the Near East and deputy national security adviser handling Middle East affairs in the George W. Bush administration. He is now a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he writes the blog Pressure Points.

By Elliott AbramsCFR.org

Today, February 14,  is the anniversary of the date when demonstrations began in Bahrain last year.  No events connected to the so-called “Arab Spring” have been as depressing as those in Bahrain.

The tiny country (only slightly larger than the City of New York) was long viewed as a peaceful and enlightened place, but by the actual Spring of 2011 Bahrain was mired in sectarian divisions, security force violence, and errors and excesses by the government and the opposition, all worsened by the presence of foreign troops from other Gulf Cooperation Council nations. In the end, dozens were killed and communications between the Sunni government and royal family and the Shia majority had broken down.  On February 11, this past Saturday, there were more demonstrations and police used tear gas to break some of them up.

Bahrain’s internal situation is unquestionably complicated by the presence of larger and more powerful neighbors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.  While the Bahrain International Commission of Inquiry (BICI) found no direct Iranian intervention, Iran’s broadcasting certainly tries to exacerbate tensions and its history and practice of using terrorism and intervening in the affairs of neighbors (such as Afghanistan and Iraq) gives Sunni Bahrainis nightmares.  Some Bahrainis fear that if Iran loses its Syrian ally with the coming downfall of the Assad clique, the ayatollahs may seek increased power in Bahrain—or at least increased turmoil there.Meanwhile, those Bahraini officials, including in the royal family, favoring reform and compromise have faced great Saudi pressure against change—and things did not get easier when Prince Nayef became Crown Prince.  For the Saudis, what we in the West might call compromise would be anathema: moving some political power away from a royal family toward elected officials, which is bad enough, and allowing for greater Shia influence in a country bordering on the Saudis’ Eastern Province with its millions of Shia.  Compared to the influence of Iran and Saudi Arabia in Bahrain, the calls from the United States and United Kingdom for sensible accommodations have had little impact.Is it too late?  Part of the tragedy has been that moderates among the Sunnis and Shia have too often been marginalized.  There is plenty of blame to be shared, from the refusal of some Shia groups including the largest, al-Wefaq, to take up last year the Crown Prince’s offer of a serious dialogue, to the resort to force on the part of the security forces under the day-to-day command of the Prime Minister (an opponent of reform—and not coincidentally of strong moves to eliminate corruption).  At the top the King has taken some strong and admirable moves, such as appointing the BICI and accepting its recommendations, but has failed to assert himself against the prime minister—his uncle—and bring an end to misuse of force.

The Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, Michael Posner, visited Bahrain last week and his statement there was thoughtfully balanced.  Here is part of it:

it is a great credit to King Hamad that he initiated the BICI process, accepted its recommendations and appointed a national commission to coordinate implementation of those recommendations. It is commendable for any government to invite and participate in an independent examination of its human rights record.

The government of Bahrain has taken many important steps toward the long-term institutional reforms identified in the report, such as removing arrest authority from the national security agency, drafting legislation concerning the investigation and prosecution of torture, and drafting a code of conduct for police based on international best practices. The government also has allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its prisons. It has begun to rebuild religious sites, and engaged a team of qualified experts to advise on policing and legal reforms. These are signs of the government’s commitment to address the underlying cause of last year’s violence.

However, more needs to be done in several key areas. First, there are hundreds of pending criminal cases stemming from the events of February and March, including a substantial number where individuals remain in detention. Second, while the Ministry of the Interior is taking steps to enhance the professionalization of the police, it needs to do more. Escalating violence in the streets points to the need for steps that will begin to integrate the police force, as recommended in the BICI report, so that Bahrain can build a police force that reflects the diversity of the communities it serves….Third, with regard to the issue of dismissed workers, we urge the government, the General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions and the private sector through the Tripartite Commission to continue to clarify and verify dismissals and reinstatements to the same or comparable positions….Finally, we call on the government to continue to prosecute those officials responsible for the violations described in the BICI report.

In the days leading up to February 14, we call on all Bahraini citizens to refrain from violence. We also urge the government to permit peaceful demonstrations and the right of all citizens to express their political views. We condemn the violent street actions that have escalated in recent months and that have included attacks on police with Molotov cocktails, metal projectiles and other instruments of harm. Such violence undermines public safety and further divides society. At the same time, we continue to receive credible reports of excessive force by police, including widespread and sometimes indiscriminate use of tear gas. We urge Bahraini authorities to ensure compliance with international doctrines of necessity and proportionality.

Posner gets at the fundamental issues: the need for both the government and al-Wefaq to avoid violence, and for the government to keep moving forward, faster, on implementation of the BICI recommendations.

No doubt compromises always seem easier when seen from 7,000 miles away in Washington. But it should be obvious that more limits on royal absolutism must be adopted, the elected parliament must have larger say, and a sense of partnership must be created—or perhaps more accurately re-created—between the royal family and the Shia professional and commercial classes and political leadership.  As we have seen in Kuwait, Jordan, and Morocco, a situation wherein the prime minister is not only a member of the royal family but is completely independent of and not answerable to the parliament cannot last.

I have previously criticized the American role as weak, and wish we had more influence with the King.  It is my view that during the Bush years we did, but the Obama Administration response is that no matter how good our relationship with him we would not have been able to overcome the negative pressure coming from the Saudis. Of course that raises the issue of why we have so little influence with the Saudi king: because this is viewed as an “existential issue” in Riyadh and part of the Saudi rivalry with Iran, or because this administration has simply not built the personal relations that would be so critical in defusing a crisis such as that in Bahrain? Neither argument can be proved, but the result has been that the King of Bahrain has taken some brave and very useful steps—but not enough of them.  Meanwhile, it is essential that the United States, the British, and Western human rights NGOs press al-Wefaq strongly and publicly to refrain from and to prevent violence this coming week, and to seek a negotiated settlement.

It may all be impossible: too much violence in the last year, too little trust, too little leadership. And that is why I began by saying developments in Bahrain in the past year have been depressing. If one outlines the realistic demands of Bahrainis—for more movement toward constitutional monarchy, for fuller implementation of the BICI recommendations, for justice, for an end to violence—a compromise path forward does not appear impossible.  Bahrainis are suffering from plenty of interference from their neighbors designed to prevent such accommodations, and perhaps there is a place for a positive foreign role—the kind that people like Kofi Annan and Marti Ahtisaari have played elsewhere—if the next few weeks bring nothing but confrontations.  Anyone who wishes Bahrainis well must hope that with a year of turmoil behind them Shia and Sunni Bahrainis, from opposition political activists to the King himself, will try again and try harder than they have in the recent past. Bahrain’s travails need not end in tragedy, but the opportunities to find a better outcome are few and the passage of time is narrowing the chances.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Elliott Abrams.

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Topics: Bahrain

soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Sayed

    February 14, is the anniversary of the date when Revolution began in Bahrain last year.

    1- Clashes EveryWhere.

    2-The U.S. is more influential in Bahrain than the United Nations. If they are serious about something, they could do it. They have lots of means to pressure the Bahraini government but so far they are soft.

    3-This is the hypocrisy, this is the double standard. You can't ask Russia to stop selling arms to Syria at the same time you are selling arms to Bahrain while they are killing their own people.

    We Need more cover to our forgetten Revolution.


    February 14, 2012 at 11:15 am | Reply
    • George Patton

      Very well said, Sayed. I totally agree. Leave to that idiot Elliot Abrams to brag on the tyrannical king of Bahrain. Tragically enough, most Americans are dumb enough to fall for his right-wing mumbo-jumbo!!!

      February 14, 2012 at 11:26 am | Reply
  2. Sayed

    US on the wrong side of history in Bahrain.

    This is the image of the United States in our country: that this superpower supports dictators and doesn't want democracy in our region, because they [are] told that democracy would not serve their interests. They were misled by governments in our region that democracy will bring extremists to power who will fight against U.S. interests. Democracy is not against anybody's interests. Democracy is about living together, sharing together, tolerance, working together, and that's what we are fighting for.


    February 14, 2012 at 11:18 am | Reply
  3. Bahrainiiii

    our Government actually gave permission for a peaceful demonstration. However, Al-Wefaq seems to have done everything in its power to turn this into a confrontation, by trying to march on Lulu roundabout and protestors attacking the police with steel bars and molotovs. And we all know that these same police are going to be attacked by international NGOs in the coming days for “unacceptable force against peaceful protestors”. Is anyone in the West going to stand up for us Bahrainis and our right to live in peace and security? What is remarkable is the degree of restraint the security forces have shown when faced with attacks by handmade explosives and weapons.

    February 14, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Reply
  4. ForecastingACE

    If you are interested in these types of articles, you should forecast political events at http://www.forecastingace.com

    February 14, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    The world might not see another cycle of violence like last year. but it's an urgent reminder to the government and to the opposition to prevent further polarisation in the country.

    February 15, 2012 at 4:27 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      The government hasn't got much time and has to address the grievances of the Shia population. The opposition has to put a lid on the simmering resentment and find common ground for negotiations.

      February 15, 2012 at 4:31 am | Reply
  6. Seldon plan

    Has there every been a previous case in history, of a Nobel prize winner selling arms to a government so it can repress its own citizens. Another first for the US

    February 15, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Reply
  7. Tahir

    USA will never do anything against its own puppets in Bahrain it will allow rulers to kill their own people happily. The democracy supports is only for those people whose rulers do not submit their will to USA.The day these middle east rulers will not obey USA they will be removed in the name of democracy.

    February 16, 2012 at 8:56 am | Reply
  8. Marry

    I have been to Bahrain and I love Bahrain! I love its charming people, its balance between the old and the new, the life and its rich heritage.
    Sadly, Bahrain is in a very complicated situation partly because of its geographical location. To stay in balance inside and out it needs very clever and shred leadership with a lot of good sense. I do not think it is easy to keep a cool head in that “neighborhood”! The royal family has proven great skill and used their influence to move Bahrain ahead – all Bahrainis have benefited from their wise leadership.
    Still, the royal family is more than willing to work together with their people to participate in every aspect concerning the country – also moving for more direct participation. But it needs to be done with brains not with a sledgehammer! The opposition leaders have not really shown themselves to be very wise and clever working to promote their cause. Hopefully a base for progress can be established. As a new slogan says, “Bahrain, a country on a journey.” I wish for Bahrain that the journey leads all to progress and peace!

    February 16, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Reply

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