by Jim Lobe
Monday’s expulsion order by Bahrain against a visiting senior US official has set back tentative hopes for internal reforms that could reconcile the kingdom’s Sunni-led government with its majority Shia community and drawn a sharp protest from Washington.
The surprise declaration that Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski was persona non grata (PNG) was greeted with calls by rights groups here and in Bahrain for a strong reaction on Washington’s part.
For its part, the State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about the expulsion order and denounced the action as “not consistent with the strong partnership between the United States and Bahrain.”
Moreover, the fact that the expulsion order came just two weeks after the widely welcomed acquittal on terrorism charges of a top leader, Khalil al-Marzouq, of the Shia-led al-Wefaq opposition party has created consternation among officials and other observers regarding the kingdom’s intentions.
“This is really an alarm that the US should’ve been hearing for some time now — that it needs to reassess its relationship with the Bahrain government,” said Brian Dooley, a Gulf expert at Human Rights First (HRF).
“It’s an unreliable government with an increasingly erratic ruling family that, on the one hand, is quite happy with US military support, but, on the other, also vilifies US diplomats,” he told IPS in a telephone interview.
Malinowski, an outspoken critic of Bahrain as the Washington director of Human Rights Watch until his nomination as assistant secretary last year, was accused of having “intervened flagrantly in Bahrain’s internal affairs and held meetings with a particular party to the detriment of other interlocutors, thus discriminating between one people, contravening diplomatic norms, and flouting normal interstate relations.”
The charge was apparently related to his attendance without the presence of a Foreign Ministry official at a Sunday night Ramadan gathering hosted by al-Wefaq, according to Simon Henderson, a Gulf expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
While the declaration said Malinowski should leave the country “immediately”, State Department spokesperson Jan Psaki told reporters Monday afternoon that he “remains on the ground” in Bahrain and that US officials were in “close touch” with their counterparts in Manama.
Some seven hours later, she issued a stronger written statement noting that Malinowski’s visit to the kingdom “had been coordinated far in advance and warmly welcomed and encouraged by the government of Bahrain, which is well-aware that U.S. government officials routinely meet with all officially-recognized political societies.”
As noted by Henderson, “Being PNG’ed is rare and typically seems to occur when an intelligence officer operating under diplomatic cover is discovered by the host government. For it to happen between allies — and to be publicly revealed — is quite unusual.”
Rarer still is the PNG’ing of a senior official who is not stationed in the host country, according to administration sources who noted that Malinowski’s immediate predecessor as assistant secretary, former HRF director Michael Posner, had visited Bahrain half a dozen times without incident despite publicized meetings with opposition and civil-society leaders.
Home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Bahrain occupies a strategic position in the Gulf that the Pentagon. Tied to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province by a causeway, it faces Iran across the Gulf.
Like the other Gulf monarchies, Bahrain’s royal family, the al-Khalifas, are Sunni. But, unlike other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), they rule over a majority Shia population which has long pressed for democratic reform.
During the so-called “Arab Spring” of early 2011, popular pressure for reform featured major demonstrations by opposition and civil-society groups, both Shia and Sunni.
These protests, however, were met with a crackdown by the regime — reinforced by troops and police from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — in which several dozen people were killed, several thousand more arrested, hundreds tortured by security forces and in many cases forced to sign confessions, among other abuses, according to an exhaustive report released in November, 2011, by an independent international commission headed by an Egyptian-American jurist, Cherif Bassiouni.
While King Hamad pledged to implement reforms recommended by the commission, virtually no progress has been made to date, according to independent human-rights groups who have noted that, if anything, sectarian tensions have only become worse, often flaring into violence and street battles between Shia youths and security forces.
While Washington, including President Barack Obama himself, has admonished Manama about its human-rights record, called for full implementation of the Bassiouni recommendations, and encouraged reconciliation, it has taken no concrete actions against the government beyond suspending delivery of those parts of a 53-million-dollar arms deal that could be used against peaceful demonstrators.
Preoccupied by more pressing crises elsewhere in the region, notably Syria, Egypt, Libya, and now Iraq, the administration has appeared to give Bahrain a lower priority, although the charges against Marzouq came a day after Vice President Joseph Biden spoke by phone with King Hamad and assured him of “America’s enduring and overlapping interests in Bahrain’s security, stability, and reform.”
Malinowski’s visit was a follow-up to Posner’s periodic visits to demonstrate Washington’s continuing concerns.
“The Bahraini government’s decision to expel Mr. Malinowski for meeting with Al-Wefaq mainstream Shia opposition party belies the government’s recent public relations claims that it was encouraging the opposition to participate in the upcoming elections,” according to Emile Nakhleh, an expert on Bahrain and a former senior regional analyst at the CIA who was himself threatened with expulsion by the Bahraini government when he was a Fulbright Scholar there in 1972.
“Declaring Mr. Malinowski persona non grata should be viewed as part and parcel of Al Khalifa’s incendiary policy of continued massive human rights violations against the Shia majority and the stoking of sectarianism.”
Henderson also warned that Malinowski’s expulsion could derail plans to hold elections in Bahrain this fall, as well as other confidence-building measures “intended to encourage al-Wefaq’s participation.”
“If so, that could please some factions in Bahrain, including the minority Sunnis who regard their Shiite countrymen with suspicion.” The expulsion, he said, “represents a hugely convenient nadir in bilateral relations, which both countries will need to rebuild quickly before the negative consequences spread.”
This article was first published by IPS News and was reprinted here with permission.
Photo: US Secretary of State John Kerry greets Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski before his swearing-in ceremony at the Department of State in Washington, DC, on May 13, 2014. Credit: State Department