Bahrain has dodged a bullet as Congress takes aim at the Gulf country's close ally Saudi Arabia.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., had hoped to block a pending arms sale to the tiny kingdom as a reprimand of the Saudi-led Arab coalition’s war against Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels. But the vote overwhelmingly failed 77-21, with even some of Saudi Arabia’s harshest critics on Capitol Hill coming to Bahrain’s defense.
Ahead of the vote, Paul said, “This is a proxy vote on the war in Yemen.”
“The Bahrainis are a part of a nine-country coalition fighting this war that have had casualties,” he said. “They have dropped bombs, been on the ground in Yemen.”
Paul’s resolution would have blocked a pending $300 million arms sale to supply Manama with 120 guided multiple launch rocket systems and 110 tactical missiles. That was a tough sell for most senators, many of whom were concerned about the consequences of punishing a key ally that hosts the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, a key deterrent against Iran.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., teamed up with the committee’s top Democrat, Bob Menendez, D-N.J., to convince senators not to block the sale. Despite their increasing criticism of Saudi Arabia over the Yemen war and the Saudi murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the two senators argued that arms sales to Bahrain were unrelated to the anti-Houthi campaign.
“I’m currently opposing an important arms sale to Saudi Arabia due to the fact that the Saudis are using these weapons in a specific context inappropriately,” Menendez said ahead of the vote. “This weapons sale is not part of a comprehensive strategy to end the civil war in Yemen.”
However, Menendez added, “I have much in common with Sen. Paul on the question of Yemen. I have moved in his direction. The Saudis have had their opportunity. I am promoting legislation with several colleagues on a bipartisan basis that will do exactly that.”
Corker also argued that while “a price needs to be paid” over the Yemen war, punishing a US ally would not achieve that objective.
He also noted that the Donald Trump administration sanctioned 17 Saudi officials today for their alleged role in the Khashoggi murder, adding that “hopefully different steps will be made” — an apparent reference to punishing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the suspected murder mastermind.
But the response has not satisfied Paul, who refused to join the rest of his counterparts on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month when they called for a federal probe over Khashoggi’s murder. At the time, Paul argued that the Trump administration and his colleagues would use it as a reason to avoid arms sale bans.
And while Trump has prioritized foreign arms sales, it remains unclear exactly why Bahrain needs the rocket and missile systems. In announcing the State Department's backing for the sale in late September, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency said, “Bahrain will use the enhanced capabilities to strengthen its homeland defense and deter regional threats.”
“We’re perplexed by why they need these,” Husain Abdulla, the executive director for Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, an activist group supporting the arms sale ban, told Al-Monitor. “Sure they’re part of the [Yemen] coalition, but their presence is minimal, especially compared to the Saudis and the Emiratis. We speculate that it’s a way to keep the US engaged with the region.”
Abdulla’s organization had asked Paul’s office to spotlight Bahrain because of its human rights record.
“There are a number of domestic issues that we would have liked to see Sen. Paul highlight, understanding that Yemen is a bigger draw to a certain degree,” said Abdulla.
Bahrain’s Shiite majority has long decried discrimination at the hands of the kingdom’s Sunni leadership. Although Bahrain is set to hold elections next week, it has banned the main opposition groups Al-Wefaq and the National Democratic Action Society from participating. Bahrain also sentenced Al-Wefaq’s leader, Shiite cleric Sheikh Ali Salman, to life in prison earlier this month.
Even Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., one of the harshest critics of the Yemen war, voted against ending the weapons sale for Bahrain.
“This was not a proxy vote for the war in Yemen,” Murphy told Al-Monitor. “Bahrain has an increasingly horrendous human rights record but they are not an active participant in the Yemen coalition and they house substantial numbers of US personnel.”
Murphy intends to introduce a resolution later this month forcing a vote to end US support for the Saudi coalition in Yemen with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who voted in favor of the Paul resolution. Their previous attempt to do so earlier this year failed 55-44, but they expect to gain more traction following Khashoggi’s murder.
However, House Republicans managed to keep the Democrats from holding a vote on the same resolution in the lower chamber on Wednesday.
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