As the Arab Spring has swept across parts of the Middle East and North Africa over the past six months, large-scale popular protests have been generally absent in the Gulf.  The one major exception is Bahrain, where demonstrations for political reform have been met simultaneously with a government crackdown on dissent and a pledge for reform through national dialogue.  In response, President Obama stated: “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.  The government must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis.” Mistrust between the government and opposition in Bahrain runs deep, and doubts remain as to whether the U.S. will follow up on its rhetoric to support democratic aspirations throughout the region with action. More broadly, the uprising in Bahrain has deeply affected  regional power dynamics, which have in turn influenced Washington’s approach toward the Gulf.  With the national dialogue set to resume in early July, what are the prospects for change in Bahrain?  What is the impact of the Arab uprisings on the GCC states and U.S. relations with those governments? Moreover, what are options for U.S. policy in this regard?


Joe Stork
Deputy Director of Middle East and North Africa Division,
Human Rights Watch

Hans Hogrefe
Chief Policy Officer and Washington Director,
Physicians for Human Rights

Leslie Campbell
Senior Associate and Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa,
National Democratic Institute

Ambassador Martin Indyk
Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy Program,
Brookings Institution

Stephen McInerney
Executive Director,
Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)

For full notes, continue reading. Or click here for the pdf.


In his introductory remarks, Stephen McInerney highlighted the significance of Bahrain and the Gulf States as a crucial test case of the administration’s pledged support for nonviolent, democratic movements in the Middle East. The Forum for the Future demonstrated the contrasting positions of the United States and Bahrain; while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took a strong stand on the need for reform in the Gulf, the Bahraini Foreign Minister emphasized the need for stability. And peaceful protests in Bahrain were met simultaneously with a brutal crackdown and promises for reform through a national dialogue.

Joe Stork spoke first, providing a historical account of the “deep, deep roots” of the conflict in Bahrain between the ruling family and the population. Stork described Bahrain as a “nasty and brutish place” before King Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, father of current King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa implemented a series of reforms to calm the unrest. In 2007 and 2008, the situation worsened again, with credible allegations of torture emerging and a sharp restriction on civil society organizations. Street violence notably increased in August 2010, and was met “with disproportionate force” from the regime. Yet from mid-February to mid-March of this year, Bahrain experienced a relatively free political atmosphere, with a significant portion of the population participating in peaceful protests.

In regards to recent events, Stork highlighted the human rights abuses, including the torture of prisoners, special military courts that in a “grand Orwellian fashion” have been termed Courts of National Safety, and the indefinite detention of activists denied access to family or lawyers. The dialogue originally proposed was appropriate and made sense, but was never started because of increased protests and the subsequent government crackdown. And Stork is skeptical of the revived national dialogue, which he believes is not genuine, poorly structured, and run by regime leaders.

Hans Hogrefe noted that the situation in Bahrain “is very grim.” Hogrefe elaborated on the targeting of the medical community, including the trial of 47 medical professionals, and recommended that the U.S. speak “more robustly” on the principle of medical neutrality. The recent promise of a transition to civilian courts is a “false compromise,” as military trials, rooted in the emergency law which has been lifted, continue. The U.S. by and large has not paid attention to human rights violations, and while the current attention is welcome, it “took too long.” He considers the National Dialogue to be a tricky but urgent issue; the U.S. cannot dictate the path of dialogue but is also not an innocent bystander. The U.S. should publicly identify a credible roadmap for dialogue and in the future act more proactively to prevent situations similar to Bahrain from unfolding.

Next, Leslie Campbell discussed the political environment in Bahrain. He outlined in detail the format for the National Dialogue, which differs from the dialogue proposed months ago. Only 5 out of the 297 representatives at the dialogue are from the al-Wefaq party, which has almost fifty percent of seats in parliament. The Bahrain general trade union is also being treated as a minor player in the dialogue. Over 500 workers from the union have been fired for missing work during the height of protests, although the country had shut down and the government had initially encouraged participation in the protests. The 297 members of the dialogue also include representatives from political parties recently established by the government. The members will be broken into subcommittees that will have 90 minutes to discuss and prepare recommendations that will not be debated thereafter. The recommendations will be compiled in a book and presented in August to the King, who will then implement reforms through decree.

In essence, while the opposition views dialogue as an opportunity to discuss the fundamental political nature of the state and to implement serious reforms, the ruling party has an alternate view. Campbell concluded that if the dialogue moves forward, it “may not be the dialogue the opposition wants,” but the opposition has to participate nonetheless.

Finally, Ambassador Martin Indyk discussed U.S. policy towards the Gulf States. He noted that unrest in Bahrain is “highly problematic” for U.S. policy because it could cause “major sectarian strife” in the Gulf and quickly escalate a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. There is also the likelihood of strife causing Saudi Shiites to revolt, which could dramatically increase the price of oil. Since there is “a lot at stake” in Bahrain, the U.S. approach is “critically important.”

Indyk noted that in the balance between values and strategic interests, past administrations have always favored interests such as oil. This led to the support of authoritarian regimes in the Gulf, which were given “a pass when it came to political reform.” Indyk cited Saudi Arabia as an example, where the U.S. made a clear decision to avoid values and emphasize stability. The Egyptian revolution was a “huge deal” for the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia. From the perspective of the Gulf States, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fell after the U.S. spoke out against him. His departure was seen as a “startling and deeply worrying development” because the Gulf depends heavily on the United States. The fear of popular protests causing President Barack Obama to call for the departure of Gulf leaders created a rift between the U.S. and the Gulf, which has culminated in Bahrain. Indyk noted that President Obama clearly stated American principles and support for political reform in his May 19th speech. And yet, since then the U.S. has not pushed Bahrain in a serious way. At the same time, it is a mistake not to support the Crown Prince, who Indyk believes is committed to reform. The U.S. must convey that it has no interest in pursuing the downfall of the Gulf monarchies, and instead desires reforms leading to constitutional monarchies. Indyk cited Morocco as an example of a monarchy where “meaningful dialogue” has occurred.

Indyk concluded his remarks by providing recommendations for U.S. policy towards Saudi Arabia. The U.S. must work to re-establish trust with the Saudi King, and reassure him that the U.S. does not seek his downfall. The U.S. should then focus on collaboration based on the common interests of containing Iran and stabilizing oil prices. Finally, the U.S. must convince the Saudis that reform towards a constitutional monarchy is necessary, and that it is in Saudi Arabia’s best interest to ease pressure on Bahrain and stop preventing reform elsewhere in the region. During the question and answer section, Indyk elaborated on avenues for the U.S. by noting the possibility of collaborating with other Gulf countries to bolster pressure for reform.

Stork reiterated the necessity that the U.S. “do the right thing on Bahrain.” To increase pressure, the administration should make more explicit its diplomatic efforts, which have probably been substantive in private. The U.S. should focus on specific issues such as torture and unfair trials rather than universal values. And the administration must be willing to “be a little undiplomatic if necessary.” Stork also noted that even with its timorous response, the U.S. has still been vilified daily in the Bahraini state media. The regime, with the support of the media, has created a poisonous, sectarian atmosphere in Bahrain that the U.S. must be willing to confront in a public way. Finally, in regards to the National Dialogue, the U.S. has been too optimistic, should identify what the dialogue must accomplish, and should quickly condemn it as a “sham” if it fails.

Stork also emphasized that Washington think tanks and civil society organizations can impact events in the Gulf by hosting more conferences and dialogues focused on the region, and involving activists from the region. Campbell reiterated the importance of continued dialogue in Washington and in the region, noting the potential for influencing how the U.S. views these issues. And he also recommended the expansion of U.S. programs engaging with the youth in the Gulf.

Indyk noted that NGOs, media, and Congress (through hearings), can impact the situation in Bahrain by shedding light on recent events and capitalizing on the deep sensitivity in Bahrain to U.S. perceptions. And quiet diplomacy should not be underestimated, although it must be sustained through consistent pressure for reform and direct engagement with Bahraini authorities on a regular basis.

Stork also noted that while leaders in the Gulf do not want constitutional monarchies, which necessitate accountability, it is the only way for these leaders to survive. Indyk agreed, emphasizing that while Gulf monarchies have legitimacy, they will only have a future if they embrace reforms. And it is in U.S. interests to push the Gulf States to embrace constitutional reforms. Campbell argued that the changes in Morocco fall short of genuine reform towards a constitutional monarchy, but in the context of the Arab Spring protesters will likely continue to pressure the King for more serious reforms.

The panel ended with Indyk, who noted that the United States’ implicit support for authoritarianism in the Middle East ended with the popular protests in the region. Protesters, specifically the youth, have already had a “profound impact” on U.S. foreign policy in the region.