Pushing for Reform in Bahrain

Washington's Leverage Over the Khalifa Regime

Ever since the Arab Spring began, Washington has been faced with the question of how to ease autocrats from power. After former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced from office in February, President Barack Obama said that the United States had been on the "right side" of history, suggesting that that is where Washington would position itself in the Arab world's transition to democracy. What exactly this should mean in practice remains an unsettled question -- especially in states presided over by dictators whose stable rule and pro-U.S. orientation were long-standing cornerstones of U.S. strategy in the Middle East.

This dilemma is particularly salient in the case of Bahrain, a small island kingdom in the Gulf and a longtime U.S. strategic ally. For months now, Bahrain has been engulfed in protests against the repressive rule of the Khalifa family; the most recent demonstrations in late August claimed the life of a 14-year-old boy, the latest casualty in the regime's drive to restore order.

In Egypt, Mubarak fell from power with the rhetorical urging of Washington, but not before the United States faced criticism from across the region -- from many Egyptians, who believed that Washington dithered and weighed in too late, and from Saudi Arabia, which saw the Obama administration's endorsement of Mubarak's ouster as a deep betrayal of Saudi Arabia's friendship and alliance with the United States. In March, fearful of a repeat scenario in its own neighborhood, Riyadh sent troops to Bahrain to prop up the ruling Khalifa family under the guise of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Like the Mubarak regime was, the Khalifas are U.S. allies who have come under sustained pressure from an embittered populace.

Bahrain's nominal ruler, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, reportedly extended the formal invitation to the GCC, of which Bahrain is a founding member, to invade. The real power in Bahrain, however, is the king's uncle, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the longest-sitting unelected prime minister in the world, who over the course of his 40 years in power has seen his country gain independence from the United Kingdom in 1971, transition from his brother Isa to his nephew Hamad as monarch in 1999, and turn from an emirate into a monarchy in 2002.

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