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Anti-government protesters rally at a funeral of one of their own in Jid Al Haj, west of Manama, February 12, 2014. (Reuters)

Three years after Bahrain joined the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East, human rights defenders are left wondering when the Obama Administration will put action behind its flamboyant 2011 rhetoric about rights, freedom and the rule of law. Those who took to the streets in the small Gulf kingdom on February 14 that year, today are left wondering if President Obama had Bahrain in mind when he proclaimed “[H]istory  is on the move in the Middle East …wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States,” or when he stated, “…we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable and more just.”

To many people in Bahrain, President Obama’s words are undermined by the United States’ decision to send shipments of arms to the regime that represses them, as well as by the administration’s failure to bring any sanctions against senior Bahraini government officials deemed responsible for the torture of dissidents, including several deaths in custody, over the last three years. And while State Department emissaries have been on hand to monitor a series of trials widely considered unfair, they do little more than sit on the court benches witnessing injustice as it happens. Their silence is as deafening as it is telling.

The Bahraini regime’s pursuit of stability through repression obviously isn’t working, daily adding complexity and human suffering to an already volatile situation. On February 4, 2014, the King of Bahrain issued a new law (yes he can do that) clearing the way for jail terms for “any person who offends publically the Monarch of the Kingdom of Bahrain….” The actual length of the jail terms envisioned by the law is actually unclear as the English version of the law’s announcement specifies two years, the Arabic version – seven. Such flagrant stifling of dissent only adds to a general instability on the Gulf island.

” …no senior [Bahraini] government figure has been held accountable for deaths in custody, and key opposition leaders remain in jail.” – Brian Dooley, Human Rights First

The International Monetary Fund has warned that Bahrain’s “economic outlook depends on progress on the political front, and is subject to oil price risk… [and that] Bahrain’s fiscal break-even point has reached critical levels,” leaving the kingdom “vulnerable to a sustained decline in oil prices.”  Future easing of oil sanctions against Iran is likely to drive prices for the commodity down even further, putting additional strain on the kingdom’s economy

An anti-government protester holds a leaflet drawing attention to the case of an imprisoned photographer, in Budaiya, west of Bahrain's capital, Manama, December 13, 2013. The leaflet reads in part: "Silence Kills Democracy."  (Reuters)

A protester holds a leaflet drawing attention to the case of an imprisoned photographer, at an anti-government rally in Budaiya, west of Bahrain's capital, Manama, December 13, 2013. The leaflet reads in part: "Silence Kills Democracy." (Reuters)

Bahrain’s government, meanwhile, insists it is committed to reform, pointing to a revised police code of conduct introduced in March of 2012, and the establishment of an ombudsman’s office. But it is hard to see what impact these reforms are having. Public protests are growing increasingly violent, leaving people dead on both sides. Bahraini authorities say over 2,300 police personnel have been injured and nine killed since the protests began in early 2011. Still today, there are nearly nightly demonstrations that often end in skirmishes between ill-trained police officers armed with tear gas and birdshot, and younger protesters hurling Molotov cocktails.

Still, no senior government figure has been held accountable for deaths in custody, and key opposition leaders remain in jail. Over the last year alone about a dozen people have been jailed for offenses as trivial as criticizing the King on Twitter.

The United States has played its hand poorly on Bahrain over the last three years, unsure of how to use the leverage of its Fifth Fleet stationed there and its overall hefty military relationship with the kingdom. It has failed to help bring about the reform and stability Bahrain desperately needs, and despite what President Obama promised, his administration has hesitated to stand squarely on the side of those reaching for their rights.

Bahraini riot police arrest an anti-government protester during clashes in Sanabis, west of Manama, December 3, 2013. (Reuters)

Bahraini riot police arrest an anti-government protester during clashes in Sanabis, west of Manama, December 3, 2013. (Reuters)

Since 2011, the Obama Administration has invested considerable resources into backing the King’s son, the Crown Prince, hoping he would deliver real reform. Last month, when a dialogue between the government and some in the opposition broke down, the U.S. president stepped in to kick-start the process back into life. But it remains unclear how much this process can produce without the participation of other key opposition leaders still jailed for peaceful dissent. President Obama also told the Bahraini government in 2011 that “…you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail,” but that now seems like more empty rhetoric from a distant past as such calls haven’t been heard lately from any senior U.S. administration officials.

To begin ensuring real progress in Bahrain, the United States should make clear it is done monitoring abuses from the sidelines, and that it will not continue to arm a military rooted in sectarianism. It should further make clear that real political dialogue, if that is what Bahrain’s government desires, must involve the peaceful opposition in jail. It’s time for a new day, a new era, in U.S.-Bahrain relations.

This post was authored exclusively for MEV by Human Rights First.

The views expressed in this Insight are the author’s own and are not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you’d like to share your opinion on this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. If you are a Middle East expert or analyst associated with an established academic institution, think tank or non-governmental organization, we invite you to contribute your perspectives on events and issues about or relevant to the region. Please email us through our Contact page with a short proposal for an Insight post or send us a link to an existing post already published on your institutional blog.

Brian Dooley

Brian Dooley is Director of Human Rights First’s Human Rights Defender Program.


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  3. Tommie Godwin

    April 29, 2014

    Hitler Putin owns Noodle Obama.Putin has two cotton fields,one is called Syria and the other is the Ukraine.Obama is very busy picking Putin's cotton.Obama threatens Putin with wet noodles[words]and Putin knows those wet noodles don't hurt.My president Obama has his cotton sack full of wet noodles and fair warning to the king of Bahrain,Obama got noodles.

  4. Anonymous

    April 3, 2014

    If Bahrain didn't house the US 5th Fleet, the US would have condemned the king a few years ago. But as long as the USA camps in Manama Bahrain, the King can and will do as he pleases.

  5. John Brown

    March 22, 2014

    Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia,and Yemen all have conflict due to the historic divide between the Shia and Sunni's. There will only be peace between the Shia and Sunni when the two are separated.

  6. Alfredo Ibarra Barajas

    March 4, 2014

    It's moral obligation on behalf of the US to help to cement fledgling democracies. At last we see Mr, Obama engaging again to Mr. Netanyahu trying to set up the Palestinian state question. Working to make this a better planet should never be seen as unworthy. And just see what is happening in Ucrania now. Alas, the problems never end. That is shameless land grabbing on part of the Russians.

  7. Judy Scopelleti

    March 2, 2014

    Everyone wants his help, is that fair? They use up the US dollars and keep on fighting. I don't get it… :(

  8. Judy Scopelleti

    March 2, 2014

    Why on earth is Obama or the USA responsible for EVERY conflict on this God-forsaken planet? What happened to taking care of ourselves/yourselves? The western world is morally and financially bankrupt!

  9. Mark J. Carter

    February 24, 2014

    When the "Moral Authority" of the US is allowed to be diminished for political and military expedience, the whole world loses.

  10. True-seeker

    February 18, 2014

    There was no uprsing at all. You are masticating what is dictated to you by Shittie. How much you are paid in dollars?That is it.

    • fitemoo

      March 11, 2014

      You loser. Your name is the biggest lie. There is an uprising in Bahrain by the people even though they are mostly Shia. All they were demanding was an end to discrimination and a chance to a better life.
      Various international NGO’s have confirmed this including Amnesty International. Even CNN did a documentary on this subject.
      Oh! I forgot. They all got paid in dollars. But the question is WHO paid them?

    • Freeway1

      May 4, 2014

      Bahrain is ruled by a totalitarian dictator who should be overthrown.

  11. Alfredo Ibarra Barajas

    February 17, 2014

    I also perceive to Mr. Obama as lacking stronger will, Of his high rethoric I don't doubt, but when it comes the time to support those who are in need of his help, his response has been weak at best, most of the times nil. It has been dissapointing but I guess we had too high expectations on him. Maybe he is afraid to enter into a conflict that would be too dear, and with his country in such a mes he prefers to solve what is more urgent. And it is not only him, just see how they are faring in Europe, so they are leaving other countries to their own devices. Kerry can only pay lip service and go back and forth but not relly solving anything..


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