Bahrain: Unrest, Security, and U.S. Policy


A 2011 uprising by a mostly Shia opposition to the Sunni-minority-led regime of Bahrain’s Al Khalifa ruling family has subsided, but punishments of oppositionists and periodic demonstrations continue. The uprising did not achieve its goal of establishing a constitutional monarchy, but the unrest has compelled the ruling family to undertake some modest reforms. Elections for the lower house of a legislative body, held most recently in 2018, were marred by the banning of opposition political societies and allegations of gerrymandering to prevent opposition victories. The mainstream opposition uses peaceful forms of dissent, but small factions, reportedly backed by Iran, have conducted some attacks on security officials.

The Bahrain government’s repression of its opponents has presented a policy dilemma for the United States because Bahrain is a longtime ally that is pivotal to maintaining Persian Gulf security. The country has hosted a U.S. naval command headquarters for the Gulf region since 1948; the United States and Bahrain have had a formal Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) since 1991; and Bahrain was designated by the United States as a “major non-NATO ally” in 2002. There are over 7,000 U.S. forces, mostly Navy, in Bahrain. Bahrain relies on U.S.-made arms, but, because of the government’s use of force against protesters, the both the Obama and Trump Administrations curtailed U.S. assistance to Bahrain’s internal security organizations. The Trump Administration has prioritized countering Iran and addressing other regional security issues, aligning the Administration closely with Bahrain’s leadership on that issue. In keeping with that approach, the Administration lifted the previous administration’s conditionality on major arms sales to Bahrain’s military and has corroborated Bahrain leadership assertions that Iran is providing material support to violent opposition factions in Bahrain.

Critics of the policy assert that the Administration is downplaying human rights concerns in the interests of countering Iran. Administration officials also note that, in 2014, Bahrain joined the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State and flew strikes against the group’s fighters in Syria that year. Bahrain supports a U.S.-backed concept for an Arab coalition to counter Iran, the “Middle East Strategic Alliance.” Within the Gulf Cooperation Council alliance (GCC: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman), Bahrain generally supports Saudi policies. In March 2015, it joined Saudi Arabia-led military action to try to restore the government of Yemen that was ousted by Iran-backed Houthi rebels. In June 2017, it joined a Saudi and UAE move to isolate Qatar for its purported support for Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islamist movements, accusing Qatar of hosting Bahraini dissidents and of allying with Iran.

Bahrain has fewer financial resources than do most of the other GCC states and has not succeeded in significantly improving the living standards of the Shia majority. The unrest has, in turn, strained Bahrain’s economy by driving away foreign investment. In October 2018, three GCC states assembled an aid package of $10 billion to reduce the strain on Bahrain’s budget. Bahrain’s small oil exports emanate primarily from an oil field in Saudi Arabia that the Saudi government has set aside for Bahrain’s use, although a major new oil and gas discovery off Bahrain’s coast was reported in early 2018. In 2004, the United States and Bahrain signed a free trade agreement (FTA); legislation implementing it was signed January 11, 2006 (P.L. 109-169). Some U.S. labor organizations assert that Bahrain’s arrests of dissenting workers should void the FTA.   Purchase this volume