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How should Biden engage Bahrain?

Emile NakhlehSeveral small groups of demonstrators hit the streets of Bahraini towns Feb. 14 in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the “Bahraini Arab Spring” that erupted in February 2011. The protests were organized by the February 14 Youth Coalition, which spearheaded the mass protests that rocked Bahrain in support of democracy and human rights a decade ago. Although the Arab uprisings resulted in the removal of the autocratic rulers of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, they were crushed by the security forces in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Syria and elsewhere.

The Bahraini regime overpowered the February 14 movement and arrested, tortured and killed so many protesters without much, if any, condemnation from major friendly Western powers, including the United States. Former Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman ordered the arrest of Shiite clerics, academics, peaceful activists, political party leaders and parliamentarians. He dissolved al-Wefaq, the country’s major Shia organization, confiscated its assets and arrested its leaders.

Last November, Bahrainis had hoped that with the death of Khalifa and the appointment of Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa as the new prime minister, the country would witness a period of political reform and could set the stage for sectarian reconciliation. So far, Salman has shown no tangible indications he would move in that direction.

Yet, some Bahrainis are hopeful that as Salman solidifies his power position, and with encouragement from the Biden administration, he could move toward Sunni-Shiite reconciliation.

Washington could use Salman’s appointment as an opportunity to encourage him and his father, King Hamad, to allow the banned al-Wefaq and other civil society institutions to reopen. Salman could allow political clubs to resume their legal, peaceful, political and cultural activities. Opening up the country would ultimately pave the way toward creating a more highly educated, technologically advanced and economically vibrant country.

Bahrain’s rulers, like those in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, sold the Trump administration on the false claim military aid and arms sales promoted regional stability and these weapons and other technologies were designed to thwart regional state and non-state threats. Sadly, many of the weapons supplied by the United States, Britain, France and other Western countries have been used in Arab-instigated regional conflicts and against their own people.

Arab dictatorships in recent years spent hundreds of millions of dollars in Washington on think tanks, defense industries, prestigious public relations and law firms, retired diplomats and senior military officers, self-proclaimed Gulf scholars, and academic institutions. Simply, this lavish spending was aimed at persuading U.S. leaders that autocrats were reliable partners in the fight against terrorism and Iran.

They argued that autocracy is a sure bet for the future of the Arab world whereas democracy is fickle and chaotic. For the most part, American leaders in the past decade have swallowed this flawed claim.

American tolerance of tyranny in Bahrain and other Middle Eastern countries in recent years seems to have run its course under the Biden administration. Human rights and freedom of expression, including a free press, are expected to figure highly in the Biden administration’s resetting of relations with Bahrain and other Gulf monarchies.

President Biden’s emphasis on human rights is a strong signal to Salman that his administration plans to question Arab rulers’ fake argument equating autocracy with stability.

It is time for the United States under the Biden administration to call out Salman and other Arab autocrats on their human rights record and convince them diplomatic engagement is more effective in solving pressing regional tensions.

If Bahrain’s ruling family aspires to unleash the innovativeness and creativity of its people, it must unshackle them and allow them the freedom to explore, invent, create and even make mistakes. Free citizens can respond to the challenges of our times effectively and creatively; a shackled people simply cannot.

The Biden administration could also urge the Bahraini prime minister to release the thousands of dissidents. Otherwise, the Bahraini youth will remain a constant challenge to the ruling establishment.

If Salman and his father King Hamad are interested in resetting relations with the new American president, they should heed the president’s recent statements on democracy, diplomacy and human rights as the only way for Salman to chart a new course and for Al Khalifa to stay in power in partnership with their people.

Emile Nakhleh is research professor and director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at UNM and a former senior intelligence service officer at the CIA. A longer version was published on ResponsibleStatecraft.org.

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