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U.S. Thinks Road to Bahrain's Heart Is Through Its Appetite for Weaponry

May 26, 2012 ·

This month the United States lifted restrictions on a host of sales to the moderate Crown Prince of Bahrain in hopes of increasing his influence in the government.

Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa.Pizza Hut’s Crown Crust Pizza is a good metaphor for up the US’s Bahrain policy: stuff ’em full of meats and cheeses in the hopes that such largesse predisposes them to better hear us out on human rights. This month the US lifted restrictions on a host of sales to the Bahraini military, going well beyond previous exemptions made since the 2011 freeze on a US$53 million arms deal, reportedly in the hopes of raising the profile of Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa at home following his visit to the US:

“The administration didn’t want the crown prince to go home empty-handed because they wanted to empower him,” said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who was arrested in Bahrain while documenting protests there last month. “They placed a lot of hope in him, but he can’t deliver unless the king lets him and right now the hard-liners in the ruling family seem to have the upper hand.”

The crown prince has been stripped of many of his official duties recently, but is still seen as the ruling family member who is most amenable to working constructively with the opposition and with the United States.

Problem is, several commentators have noted, is that often times after a big meal the last thing you want to do is talk. The Crown Prince is thought to be facing down a hardline clique helmed by the Defense Minister Khalifa bin Ahmad and his brother, Royal Court Minister Khalid bin Ahmad who have conspired to force the prince out of his perch in the Defense Ministry to buttress the Sunni factions that reject dialogue with the opposition.

Since the weapons in this sale are, as usual, clearly aimed across the Gulf at Iran1, the US also risks (or, perhaps, even intends?) to signal the royal family that it hears and takes to heart their dubious Iranian fifth columnist concerns. Which, of course, actually undermines the opposition, specifically, the Al Wefaq party, which Washington says it wants the Bahrain government to — and I’m sorry for the word choice — engage. Much of the protestor “black bloc” actions that regime supporters are criticizing seems to have started appearing more and more as Al Wefaq failed to secure significant concessions from the government. As blogger Mohammad Hasan ruefully opined, “the opposition has lost the initiative.”

And lest we forget, the Ahmad brothers have been blaming both the US and Iran for encouraging the protestors for some time. Our signal to them, Justin Gengler notes, is that the demonstrators are indeed a security issue to be resolved by force, rather than a political issue to be addressed by implementing the reforms promised in the post–2001 constitutional changes. And by not making it clearer that we do not see Iran’s Gulf aspirations and Bahrain’s reformists as being in bed with each other, we are almost certainly making thethe state media’s propagandizing easier -- though if we were clearer, then they’d simply take the extra effort to demonize the US.

I know it’s a gross oversimplification, comparing US foreign policy in the Gulf to a pizza, but then, I’d wager that to many harassed, assaulted, tortured, disappeared and jailed activists (both Shia and Sunni) in Bahrain, our largesse might seem rather “gross” to them. And whatever influence the US has allegedly given the Crown Prince back home, the situation on the streets has not changed much in the past week, judging from reports of “mass arrests” and France 24’s Nazeeha Saeed’s latest rundown of police-protestor clashes in several predominantly Shia villages in the Northern Governorate of Bahrain.

Incidentally, the Crown Crust Pizza is marketed by Pizza Hut exclusively in the Middle East.

Subtle.

1Josh Rogin at FP: “six more harbor patrol boats, communications equipment for Bahrain’s air defense system, ground-based radars, AMRAAM air-to-air missile systems, Seahawk helicopters, Avenger air-defense systems, parts for F–16 fighter engines, refurbishment items for Cobra helicopters, and night-vision equipment. The United States also agreed to work on legislation to allow the transfer of a U.S. frigate …”. With the exception of the night-vision goggles, the U.S. refused to send over anything that could be put to use by the regime’s riot police, though an extra US$10 million in military aid payments for 2013 was promised as part of the deal.