by Jesse Schatz and Giorgio Cafiero
Since Bahrain’s “Arab Spring” uprising erupted almost six years ago, Western governments and commentators have both criticized Manama’s crackdown on Shi’ite dissent and expressed cautious optimism about the prospects for reform. In Washington and London, the debate over Bahrain oscillates between two competing narratives. One sees the marginalization of Bahrain’s Shi’ites as a grave injustice, warranting American and British pressure on the country’s Sunni rulers. The other argument recognizes these inequalities but asserts that other issues such as the U.S. Navy’s 5th fleet, a new Royal British Air Force Base, the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) threat, and Iran’s regional ascendancy rank as higher priorities. Proponents of the latter narrative argue that criticisms of Bahrain’s royal Al Khalifa family are too risky because they threaten to weaken Washington’s strategic alliance with Manama, as well as other Arab Gulf capitals that strongly support the island kingdom’s leadership.
Although largely pleased that Barack Obama’s presidency will end this month, officials in Manama have mixed views about Donald Trump. His “Pay Your Fair Share” and “America First” rhetoric, which calls for traditional U.S. allies such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states to pay Washington more money for security provided by the American military has worried many Bahrainis, as has the real estate magnate’s Islamophobia on the campaign trail. Emile Hokayem, senior fellow for Middle East Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, summarized this fear: “Trump seems prone to say something outrageous and then try to walk it back, still damaging U.S. standing, credibility, and relations with Middle Easterners.”
Despite these fears, a minority of Bahrainis rooted for Trump during last year’s election cycle. Although much of the president-elect’s foreign policy rhetoric has been contradictory, incoherent, and all over the map, the absence of any discussion regarding human rights issues and democracy promotion on the real estate magnate’s part sits well with Manama. Instead of calling for reform in the island kingdom as the Obama administration did, the Trump administration’s avoidance of such topics could strengthen the U.S.-Bahrain relationship. At the same time, Trump’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and his vows to fight IS more aggressively have left some Bahrainis believing that the next U.S. president will better protect GCC interests in the region than his successor.
Egypt is another factor. Trump’s support for President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi bodes well for officials in Manama and other Arab Gulf capitals, which have strongly supported Sisi’s government since its ascendancy in 2013. The Obama administration’s temporary withholding of arms to Egypt on human rights grounds upset officials in Cairo and the GCC who saw Washington as a disloyal ally. From the perspective of Bahrain and other Arab Gulf states, Egypt is a pivotal anchor of regional stability and bulwark against extremism and terrorism. An American president who sees Egypt through similar lens and avoids human rights issues and democracy promotion in his rhetoric may lead to closer U.S.-GCC alignment throughout the Middle East.
Since Trump’s triumph, the Bahraini government has publicly expressed optimism about the future of Manama-Washington relations. Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said, “We’re expecting continuity of this long-term friendship and alliance.” In November, Bahraini officials displayed their willingness to appeal to Trump by hosting the country’s 45th National Day celebration at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, a move that has raised questions—from, for instance, Michael Posner, former assistant secretary of state for human rights—about potential “pay-to-play” conflicts stemming from the president-elect’s business empire.
The president-elect’s cabinet picks provide hints about how his incoming administration will approach Washington’s Arab Gulf alliances. Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, has a long history of business dealings in the Gulf region, which will mesh well with Trump’s “transactional” approach to international relations. Trump’s other cabinet picks have for many years advocated for a U.S. foreign policy that is more hawkish vis-à-vis Iran. Indeed, Trump’s incoming pick for national security advisor and secretary of defense, Generals Michael Flynn and James “Mad Dog” Mattis, are also known for their anti-Iran positions.
Officials in Manama and other Arab Gulf capitals believe that the Obama administration’s diplomatic overtures to Tehran and its support for the Iran nuclear deal have left the GCC vulnerable to Iran’s “aggressive” and “predatory” foreign policy. Despite Flynn’s inflammatory remarks about Islam, in which he has referred to the creed as a “cancer,” the appointment of such military officials may lead to Trump gaining favor in those parts of the Sunni Arab world that consider Iran the main source of instability, sectarian unrest, and extremism in the region. Since the Islamic Republic’s birth in 1979, Bahrain’s Sunni leaders have always alleged that Tehran has been seeking to export its revolution to the island kingdom via Bahraini Shi’ite groups, including the al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, and Hezbollah-Bahrain. Mattis’s remark that Iran is not a nation-state but instead “a revolutionary cause devoted to mayhem” is music to the ears of Bahrain’s leaders.
Trump and Flynn’s anti-Iran stances, however, conflict with their positions on Russia. Moscow, after all, works closely with Tehran. Flynn has appeared on RT and argued that Washington and Moscow should deepen bilateral cooperation in the struggle against radical Islam. The Kremlin could potentially influence the Trump administration to preserve and even build on the nascent U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, which would be a cause for concern for Bahrain and other GCC states.
JASTA and Islamophobia
The recent passage of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), the first piece of legislation to survive Obama’s veto, will create complications for U.S.-Bahrain relations after January 20. Unlike his response to the Iran nuclear deal, which gained him favor among many on the Arabian Peninsula, Trump’s unambiguous support for JASTA raised questions about how Trump will handle U.S.-GCC relations. Officials in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are hoping that Trump’s endorsement of JASTA was simply part of his fiery nationalist rhetoric and that Trump’s focus as president on deal-making will nullify JASTA. Yet given the president-elect’s populist base, reversing support for JASTA may not benefit his political interests.
Although Trump’s anti-Muslim comments received much criticism within the U.S., the GCC has had a more mixed reaction, ranging from dismissive to outraged. A major concern for many Arab Gulf leaders is that Trump’s statements about Islam could be used as a powerful recruiting tool for extremist groups such as IS and al-Qaeda. They can only hope his anti-Muslim bigotry will fade once he takes office.
This month the relationship between Bahrain and the United States, hitherto quite strong, will enter unchartered territory. There has never been an American presidential election with such high stakes for Bahrain. Officials in Manama are thrilled that the U.S. president who softened Washington’s stance against Iran and criticized the Al Khalifa rulers’ crackdown on “Arab Spring” activism is soon leaving the Oval Office. But it’s not yet clear how Bahrain’s alliance with the U.S. will evolve during the Trump presidency.
Jesse Schatz is a contributor to Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. Photo: Headquarters of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.