The Middle East Channel

Diplomacy, threats, and Bahrain’s cabinet

Diplomacy, threats, and Bahrain’s cabinet

Relations between Bahrain and the United States reached a new level of volatility this week as the kingdom’s cabinet approved a parliamentary proposal to, as Information Minister Samira Rajab said, "put an end to the interference of U.S. Ambassador Thomas Krajeski in Bahrain’s internal affairs." The Bahraini cabinet’s endorsement of a proposal to stop Krajeski from "interfering in domestic affairs" and meeting government opponents is a significant move that should do more than raise eyebrows in Washington. 

While U.S. diplomats have been repeatedly attacked by the pro-government media and by the country’s parliament for being too close to the pro-democracy opposition, attacks which included personal threats, this is different. This wasn’t a crackpot newspaper or a loose cannon member of parliament saying this, but rather the cabinet, which includes the prime minister and the crown crince. The crown prince was supposed to be Washington’s friend — the young western-educated heir to the throne, the reformer in the family, the guy of the future — whom the U.S. government had banked on to champion democratic reform in Bahrain.

Some observers speculated that the United States’s relationship with (and confidence in) the crown prince was one reason why the United States conducted an odd and apparently contradictory relationship with the ruling family in Bahrain over the last two years. Despite public criticism from some within the kingdom and the ongoing human rights violations there, the United States continues to arm the dictatorship and publicly describe it as a close ally. Bahrain also continues to host the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

This most recent action by Bahrain’s cabinet could throw that into jeopardy. While attacks against U.S. officials have been ongoing, until now they had been semi-detached from the official government line. For example, in May 2011, in the early months of the Bahrain prodemocracy uprising, the U.S. pulled its human rights officer, Ludovic Hood, from its Bahrain embassy following weeks of ethnic slurs and threats against him by a pro-government website and newspapers. Hood’s photo and address were published, and linked to a wedding photo of him with his "Jewish wife."

In the past, other embassy and State Department officials have also been targeted by the Bahrain parliament and some media as being too close to the opposition, but nothing has reached the level of the cabinet’s official endorsement until this week. When it approved a motion filed by six lawmakers calling for the government to step in to end the ambassador’s "frequent meetings with provocateurs," it crossed a clear and important line. Rajab said Krajeski, who has been the U.S. ambassador to Bahrain since October 2012, would not be expelled from the country. But how much longer can the U.S. government take these attacks without responding?

The political situation in Bahrain remains unstable with constant street protests, some of which have developed a violent edge, resulting in attacks on police using petrol bombs and other missiles. Earlier this month, the Bahrain government refused access to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, just as it did last year. Reports of unfair trials and mistreatment in custody continue to emerge from the country, as do attacks on U.S. diplomats. There has been little meaningful reform since the mass protests for democracy started in February 2011 and no senior government official has yet been held accountable for the subsequent violent crackdown.

In addition to the cabinet’s smackdown of Krajeski, last month’s U.S. State Department 2012 country report criticizing Bahrain’s human rights record further strained the U.S.-Bahrain relationship. It will be further tested by the recent announcement that the U.S. Department of Labor has invoked "formal consultations" with the government of Bahrain under the countries’ Free Trade Agreement in connection with the abuse of workers’ rights and attacks on civil society in Bahrain. There is now much more public discussion in Washington about moving the Fifth Fleet out of an increasingly volatile environment and the U.S. Navy ordered a new 1 a.m. curfew for all of its personnel, civilians, and dependents in the country. It’s clear that the United States’s patience is wearing thin as Bahrain continues to demonstrate that it is clearly not on the path to stability or reform.

In the face of all of these growing concerns and criticisms from the United States, Bahrain’s cabinet decided to support the attack on Krajeski. It’s a mistake that warrants a clear and decisive reaction from the U.S. government. A public response of dignified silence from the State Department risks encouraging Bahraini government loyalists into escalating the attacks. So far the assaults have been verbal but they feed a climate of intimidation, making it harder for U.S. and other diplomats to engage with opposition and civil society figures. 

Secretary Kerry should publicly affirm that Krajeski is doing what all U.S. ambassadors are supposed to do and what Bahrain’s diplomats within the United States are perfectly free to do here. The United States must let Bahrain know there will be consequences for attacks on U.S. diplomats and that Bahrain cannot count on open-ended military support from the United States unless the kingdom stabilizes its country with swift and drastic reforms.

Brian Dooley is Director of Human Rights First’s Human Rights Defender Program. He is the author of a series of reports on Bahrain and has been denied access to the kingdom since March 2012.