By Jack Detsch December 12, 2017
Even before Donald Trump took office last year, Bahrain jumped at the opportunity to cultivate the incoming US president by booking its national holiday party at the real estate mogul’s downtown Washington hotel.
In the months since, the tiny Gulf island has repeatedly benefited from Trump’s fondness for US-friendly autocrats even as it risks taking a big hit from the president’s aversion to US foreign aid. While the Barack Obama administration held the ruling Al Khalifa family at arm’s length for its repression of the country’s Shiite majority, Trump has eagerly embraced the region’s Sunni rulers against their Iranian rival.
“First and foremost what [Bahrain’s rulers] want is security cooperation,” said Michael Payne, an advocacy officer for the Washington-based nonprofit Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain. “They’re very happy to try to run back toward this security relationship, try to exploit the new administration’s stated hostility toward Iran for their own benefit and their own reasons.”
The first sign of improving relations came in March, when the White House informed Congress of plans to do away with Obama-era human rights conditions that had delayed the sale of 19 F-16 fighter planes. The Trump administration followed through in September by approving the $3.9 billion jet sale in addition to a $60 million deal for two fast patrol boats and $27 million worth of anti-tank missiles.
In May, Trump further delighted the Gulf monarchies when he made Riyadh his first stop on his first official foreign trip.
Trump used that meeting to reassure America’s Gulf allies that Washington remains on their side despite the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. The president praised America’s “long-standing partnership” with Bahrain and its efforts to “undermine” terrorist “recruitment and radicalism” in his speech to the Arab Islamic summit and took the time to meet with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
“Our countries have a wonderful relationship together that’s been a little strained,” Trump told the press after the meeting. “But it won’t be strained with this administration. We’re going to have a very, very long-term great relationship. We have many of the same things in common.”
Days later, Trump sided squarely with Bahrain and its neighbors after they cut ties with Qatar over the latter’s support for Islamists. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, however, has since taken the lead role in reaching a compromise to end the Gulf crisis.
Washington’s willingness to look past Bahrain’s repressive record is no mystery. The US Fifth Fleet, which comprises two aircraft carriers, 20 ships and as many as 20,000 sailors, is stationed in Manama.
Bahrain has spent millions of dollars on lobbying and public relations efforts in recent years to keep those ties from eroding.
Last year, Manama paid MSLGroup (formerly Qorvis) a total of $880,000 to monitor and shape US media coverage of Bahrain and share press materials with Capitol Hill. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Bahrain’s Economic Development Board separately paid Sorini, Samet & Associates $58,000 in 2016 to protect its textile industry under the 2004 free trade agreement with the United States (those contracts have since been terminated).
More recently, Bahrain has taken the lead in the Gulf's multi-million dollar lobbying campaign against Qatar, offering the murky Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC) $1.2 million in late August to run digital and TV ads. SAPRAC in turn signed a $920,000 contract with Washington-based Craft Media Digital in September.
Even so, Manama has also suffered some setbacks under Trump.
When the State Department released a fiscal year 2018 budget blueprint in keeping with Trump’s vow to put “America First,” Bahrain was the hardest hit Middle East nation after war-ravaged Yemen. The budget calls for cutting US security aid to Manama by a whopping 86%, from $6.6 million down to $800,000.
On top of that, even the recent arms deal remains in limbo. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., has put a hold on Gulf arms sales pending the resolution of the Qatar dispute.
And even the Trump administration has refused to stay silent regarding Bahrain’s continuing crackdown on dissent. In early July, the State Department issued a statement expressing disappointment in the sentencing of human rights activist Nabeel Rajab to two years in prison for allegedly spreading “fake news” about the kingdom.
“We have repeatedly expressed our concern about Nabeel Rajab’s case,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement, “and we continue to strongly urge the Government of Bahrain to abide by its international obligations and commitments to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of expression.”
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