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Of the Arab countries in which political unrest has erupted over the past ten months, tiny Bahrain is among the most important to U.S. strategic interests, at least in the short to medium term. With a population of about 1.2 million and a land area smaller than El Paso, Texas, the island state in the Persian Gulf is dwarfed by its closest neighbor, Saudi Arabia, and by major Arab states much better known to Americans, such as Egypt and Iraq. Yet its strategic importance is disproportionate to its size. It is a front-line state in the regional contest for influence between Saudi

Arabia and Iran; and as headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, it is a vital center of U.S. military operations in the Gulf. Since 2002, Bahrain has held the exalted status of “non-NATO ally,” an official designation by Washington that puts it in the same category as Japan, Australia and Israel. And it is one of four Arab countries with which the United States has signed a Free Trade Agreement.

Policy Recommendations 

  1. The Obama administration should send a high-level official to Bahrain in the coming weeks, and during the visit, he or she should make a public statement addressing Bahrain’s human rights violations. Frequent visits in the spring, including by Assistant Secretary Posner in June, were important in demonstrating to the Bahraini government that despite their attempts to present a return to normalcy through the lifting of the emergency law and other conciliatory gestures, the United States continued to watch the human rights situation closely and would raise these issues publicly.
  2. The White House and Department of State should continue to raise concerns with both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in private discussions. The U.S. should press the Bahraini regime to seek meaningful political reform and urge the king to shepherd the prime minister into retirement—a gesture that would signal to the population that progress is possible.
  3. While the United States may be reluctant to single out Bahrain for its human rights violations in public statements given the strategic relationship, the administration should not deliberately avoid mentioning Bahrain when talking broadly about regional developments, particularly in international forums.
  4. The Defense Department should explore and develop alternative locations for Fifth Fleet headquarters, and let the Bahraini government know, discreetly, that this activity is taking place. Bahrain does not want the U.S. Navy to depart, and activity such as this could nudge the regime in a positive direction.
  5. The State Department and Congress should provide sufficient support to the Department of Labor to be able to conduct a thorough and credible investigation into the dismissal of workers and the crackdown on trade unions in Bahrain.
  6. Members of Congress should privately press Bahraini officials either directly or indirectly through the State Department to release prisoners and improve prison conditions. Several members of Congress have already had some success by following up on individual cases through private diplomacy, and this approach should be continued.
  7. Members of Congress should support the Medical Neutrality Protection Act of 2011 that was introduced by Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA) at the end of July. The bill would require the Secretary of State to maintain and regularly update a list of countries that violate medical neutrality.