The Kingdom of Bahrain is executing a tried-and-true Washington PR blitz as it seeks to convince the US that it doesn’t need to start looking for a new home for its Fifth Fleet.
Since the start of anti-government protests in February 2011 that have left dozens dead and thousands imprisoned, Bahrain has hired no fewer three lobbying and public relations firms. Its spending on foreign agents has skyrocketed, from $0 in 2009 to $1.15 million last year.
The strategy appears to be working, experts and critics agree.
“It's abundantly clear to us that they've just spent all these resources and all this money trying to convince the United States and Congress and the administration that really they've followed up on all the reforms that they promised and admitted their mistakes," said Todd Ruffner, advocacy associate with the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). "I don't get the sense that Congress or the administration is really in any sort of mood to shake things up."
The Congressional Research Service shares a similar view. In a June 11 report for lawmakers and their staffs, the CRS points out that unlike with the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Libya or Syria, the Obama Administration has not supported the ouster of the Sunni royal family that has ruled the Shiite majority country since 1783.
“The Administration has not at any time called for the Al Khalifa regime to step down," the CRS writes in a June 11 report, "asserting that Bahrain's use of force against demonstrators has been limited and that the Bahrain government has - prior to and since the uprisings began - undertaken reform."
The PR push focuses largely on highlighting the Nov. 23 report [http://www.bici.org.bh/BICIreportEN.pdf] from the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry established by King Hamad, which denounced the government’s use of torture and recommended political and economic reforms. Bahrain says the report shows its goodwill, but critics say the reforms don’t go far enough.
The Obama administration has cut back on its military assistance since the uprisings, cutting its $25 million request for FY2012 by more than half as the events unfolded. For FY2015 the request stands at $7.5 million and some items – notably gas canisters that embarrassed the US when they were photographed at the site of protests – remain off limits.
“Sales of items that are sort of predominantly or typically used by police and other security forces for internal security, things used for crowd control, we’re not moving forward with at this time,” the administration told reporters in 2012 as it announced the resumption of some military sales to the Bahrain’s defense forces, National Guard and Coast Guard. “That would include things like tear gas, tear gas launchers, stun grenades – those sorts of things.”
Bahrain hired the Anglo-American law firm DLA Piper in April to convince the US to restart security cooperation suspended after the crackdown. The firm’s registration says the firm will lobby Congress and the administration “in connection with obtaining support for anti-terrorism efforts to be undertaken by and in the Kingdom of Bahrain.”
Lobbyists for Bahrain are also engaged in defending the country’s Free Trade Agreement with the US, which dates back to 2004. The AFL-CIO union has asked the Obama administration to suspend the agreement following reports that workers were fired in retaliation for protesting, and the Obama administration last year formally requested consultations with Bahrain on the issue.
Another recent hiccup in the relationship occurred in July when Bahrain expelled [http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/07/bahrain-us-diplomat-expelled-malinowski.html] the State Department's top human-rights envoy, Tom Malinowski, for meeting with opposition activists outside the presence of Foreign Ministry officials. The State Department issued a sharp statement calling itself “deeply concerned” with actions that are “not consistent with the strong partnership” between the two countries, but has taken no punitive action since.
Bahrain has also raised eyebrows in Washington with its decision last year to replace longtime ambassador Houda Nonoo – a Jewish woman who had headed a human-rights NGO – with Lt. Col. Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Rashid al-Khalifa, a former fighter pilot and a relative of King Hamad.
The strategic relationship with the US remains strong, however, with Congress and the administration disinclined to undermine a dependable and relatively stable ally on counter-terrorism and containing Iran.
In May, the House Armed Services Committee in May nixed a Democratic amendment to the annual National Defense Authorization bill that would have required the Pentagon to come up with contingency plans for moving the Fifth Fleet if Bahrain descends into chaos. Instead, the Defense Department is moving ahead with a planned $580 million military construction program that will almost double the size of the U.S. naval base in Manama.
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