Cables illuminate U.S. relations with Bahrain, potential for unrest

Cables illuminate U.S. relations with Bahrain, potential for unrest

The United States and Bahrain are close allies. In fact, according to an April 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable, one of several released by WikiLeaks this week, the two countries have "about as good a bilateral relationship as anywhere." The cables recount a number of interesting details, particularly in light of ongoing unrest there this week, about the government’s leadership, U.S. interests in Bahrain and the region, and about the backstory of sectarian tensions between a ruling Sunni government and a large underclass Shiite majority.

U.S. interests in Bahrain, according to the cables, center around two issue: Iran and Iraq. And the two are related. The April 2008 cables notes that Bahrain’s "number-one security concern is Iran. They support [the U.S.] tough stand toward Tehran." The cables claim that Bahrain worked with the U.S. government to monitor financial transactions from Iran. And perhaps even more importantly, Manama expressed interest in creating a broader alliance of countries in the Gulf and the region to resist Iran, the cables claim. And here’s where Iraq comes in, according to a 2008 cable: "Our point that reintegrating Iraq into the Arab fold is critical to limiting Iranian influence has had real resonance with the Bahraini leadership."

Personally, too, U.S. diplomats convey a strong connection to Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. A December 2009 cable describes him as "personable and engaging. He rules as something of a ‘corporate king,’ giving direction and letting his top people manage the government." Part of the personal affinity derives from the fact that King Hamad spent time in the United States, according to another August 2008 cable, in which the king describes his time at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College as "the most personally and professionally rewarding of his life."

Despite this strong bilateral relationship, however, U.S. cables indicate a acute awareness of the volatility of Bahrain’s internal politics. In April 2008, Americans described the political atmosphere as simmering, offering an ominous warning

Small but violent bands of Shi’a underclass youth, frustrated with persistent discrimination and what they perceive as too gradual a pace of reform, clash with police nearly every week. The Sunni minority, which rules the country and controls all security forces, has generally acted with restraint, but it takes only one mistake to provoke a potentially disastrous escalation.

Interestingly, the U.S. diplomats also noted a change in tactics by the government  in dealing with unrest during the summer of 2008, according to a July 2008 cable.

Over the past two months the King has departed from his traditional detached style and intervened personally in several controversies arising from Bahrain’s Shi’a-Sunni tensions. He has publicly, both personally and through his ministers, summoned communal leaders, newspaper editors and bloggers to warn them against crossing red lines against discussion of issues like royal family disputes and criticism of judges who have sentenced Shi’a rioters to prison terms.

The U.S. diplomats writing in the released cables didn’t ever think that this would come to a head, largely because of a confidence in the government’s ability to handle the situation. Most recently, in the 2009 cable, diplomats write that " King Hamad understands that Bahrain cannot prosper if he rules by repression." Those words might ring particularly true today — if not as intended.