Why Bahrain Prefers Trump over Obama
Since the start of the unrest in Bahrain in 2011, officials in Washington and London have had mainly two attitudes toward the island sheikdom. On one hand, they believe Bahrain’s Western backers must urge the ruling Al Khalifa family to enact reforms in response to concerns such as the marginalization of Shi’ites and violation of human rights. On the other hand, they believe that the United States’ and the United Kingdom’s geopolitical and security interests, particularly when it comes to fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and countering Iran’s ascendancy, are more important than promoting human rights.
Former US President Barack Obama’s administration struck somewhat of a balance. At times, officials in his administration criticized the Al Khalifas and called on the Bahraini monarchy to make concessions to elements of the country’s Shi’ite opposition. It was more than just rhetoric. The Obama administration stalled a multibillion-dollar weapons sale to Bahrain citing human rights concerns.
To the relief of Bahrain’s leadership and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, US President Donald Trump’s administration has shown a willingness to drop such concerns. In late March, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the administration would lift the restrictions, which the Obama administration imposed, and proceed with a sale of nineteen fighter jets to Bahrain. In an interview with the Khaleej Times, Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said, “We see…a much clearer understanding from the [Trump] White House of the threats we are facing here in the region and especially the ones that are coming from [Iran].”
The Trump administration’s decision to proceed with the fighter jet sale came around the time of an amendment to Bahrain’s constitutional that allowed military trials for civilians accused of “threatening the security of the state.”
Meanwhile, a recent US intelligence report corroborated Manama’s accusations that Iran is arming Shi’ite militants who have carried out deadly attacks in Bahrain since 2011. The Washington Post reported, “Six years after the start of a peaceful Shi’ite protest movement against the country’s Sunni-led government, US and European analysts now see an increasingly grave threat emerging on the margins of the uprising: heavily armed militant cells supplied and funded…by Iran.” To the delight of Bahraini and Saudi officials, the Trump administration is pointing to such findings as justification for stepping up US support for the Al Khalifas.
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