Order Code 95-1013
August 4, 2006
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
After instability during the late 1990s, Bahrain undertook substantial political
reforms, but lingering tensions between ruling Sunni Muslims and the Shiite majority
are re-emerging in advance of October 2006 parliamentary elections. Bahrain’s
stability has long been a key U.S. interest; it has hosted U.S. naval headquarters for the
Gulf for nearly 60 years. In September 2004, the United States and Bahrain signed a
free trade agreement (FTA); legislation implementing it (H.R. 4340) was signed
January 11, 2006 (P.L. 109-169). This report will be updated. See also CRS Report
RS21846, U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement.
The Political Structure, Reform, and Human Rights1
The Al Khalifa family has ruled Bahrain since 1783, when the family’s arrival ended
a century of domination by Persian settlers. Bahrain became independent from Britain
in August 1971 after a 1970 U.N. referendum determined that its inhabitants preferred
independence to Iranian control. Political reform has been instituted by King Hamad bin
Isa Al Khalifa (about 57 years old), who succeeded his father, Shaykh Isa bin Sulman Al
Khalifa, upon his sudden death on March 6, 1999. King Hamad, educated at Sandhurst
Military Academy in Britain, had previously been commander of the Bahraini Defense
Forces (BDF) and handled U.S.-Bahrain defense cooperation. Hamad2 subsequently
named his son, Salman, as Crown Prince. Salman, who is about 35 years old, is U.S.- and
U.K.-educated and, as head of the “Economic Development Board,” is considered a
Much of the information in this section are from the following reports by the State Department:
Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 2005 (March 8, 2006); Supporting Human Rights
and Democracy: The U.S. Record 2005-2006 (April 5, 2006); the Trafficking in Persons Report
for 2006 (June 5, 2006); and International Religious Freedom report - 2005 (November 8, 2005),
as well as a CRS visit to Bahrain during February 20-26, 2005.
Hamad changed his title to King, from Amir, just prior to the February 2002 referendum on the
new national charter.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
proponent of rapid reform. The King’s uncle (the brother of the late ruler), Khalifa bin
Salman Al Khalifa, generally opposes dramatic reform, but he remains Prime Minister.
Since taking office, King Hamad has quieted Shiite unrest through reform, earning
Bush Administration praise as a regional model. The minor political reforms under his
father — the December 1992 establishment of a 30-member appointed Consultative
Council to review and comment on proposed laws and its June 1996 expansion to 40
members — led to serious political Shiite unrest during 1994-1998. During that time, a
coalition of Shiite and Sunni Muslims demonstrated and petitioned for a restoration of an
elected national assembly, provided for under the 1973 constitution but abolished in
August 1975. The unrest started out as broad based but took on a more narrow Shiite
sectarian character, and became increasingly violent. Shiites are over 60% of the
465,000-citizen population, but have suffered official and economic discrimination. The
far more limited reform steps by Shaykh Isa did not satisfy popular demands.
As Hamad’s first step, Bahrain held a referendum (February 14, 2002) on a new
“national action charter (constitution).” Elections were held in October 2002 for a 40seat “Council of Representatives” (COR). However, some mostly Shiite opposition
“political societies” (formal parties are banned), including Al Wifaq, (the largest political
society, led by Shaykh Ali al-Salman), National Action, the Islamic Action Association,
and the Nationalist Assembly boycotted the elections on the grounds that the appointed
upper body (Shura Council) is of the same size and with powers nearly equal to the COR.
The boycott lowered turnout to about 52% and caused Sunni Muslims to win two-thirds
of the seats. Of those Sunnis, 12 are Islamic conservatives. Of the 170 total candidates,
6 were women; none was elected, but two received enough votes to force a runoff. King
Hamad appointed six women to the Shura Council; he also appointed one Jew and one
Christian. There are two female ministers — Social Affairs (Dr. Fatima al-Balushi) and
Health (Dr. Nada Haffadh). Two other women, including the president of the University
of Bahrain, have ministerial rank. In June 2006, a female judge was appointed to the
civil court system. Twenty-one women have applied to run in the 2006 parliamentary and
the municipal elections. (Thirty-one ran in the 2002 contests.)
Together, the COR and the Shura Council constitute an increasingly vibrant National
Assembly, and they are gaining in scope of authority as a check on government power.
The COR can propose (but not actually draft) legislation , question ministers (not in
public session, however), and override the King’s veto of approved legislation. It can, by
a two-thirds majority, vote no-confidence against ministers and the Prime Minister. The
Shura Council is largely limited to amending draft legislation and, in concert with the
COR, reviewing the annual budget. The Shura Council contains generally more educated
and pro-Western members and is widely viewed as a check against the more Islamist
Despite the reforms, Sunni-Shiite tensions remain and have been partly aggravated
by the Shiite perception that a once-repressed Shiite majority is now, through elections,
the predominant power in Iraq. Some Shiite anti-government protests persist, asserting
that the government is backsliding on reform and that it will adjust the parliamentary
election districts to ensure that Shiites do not win a majority in parliament. However,
there is not nearly the level of violence seen in the 1990s. In a possible sign that some
Shiite groupings want to try to empower themselves through what they still view as a
flawed electoral process, Wifaq and the National Democratic Action Association say they
will participate in the October 2006 elections.3 Islamic Action Association and other
factions are expected to follow suit.
Although its reforms and human rights progress remain uneven, as noted in the
referenced State Department reports, Bahrain allows freedom of worship for Christians,
Jews, Hindus, and Baha’is, although the constitution declares Islam the official religion.
Even before the U.S.-Bahrain free trade agreement, Bahrain was credited with significant
labor reforms, including a 2002 law granting workers, including non-citizens, the right
to form and join unions. There are now 47 trade unions in Bahrain, and workers are
permitted to conduct work stoppages. On human trafficking, Bahrain remains a “Tier 2”
country (Watch List) in the 2006 “Trafficking in Persons ” report because it does not
“fully comply with the minimum standards for elimination of trafficking,”although the
report says it is making efforts to comply. The referenced State Department reports have
criticized Bahrain for its September 2004 closure of the Bahrain Center for Human
Rights, one of the most active human rights organizations. Several other Bahraini human
rights organizations remain open. In June 2006, Bahrain shut down the first private radio
station in Bahrain due to “violations” of its operating agreements. On July 20, 2006, King
Hamad ratified a law passed by the National Assembly to restrict the right of public
association and to provide for jail terms for organizers of unauthorized protests.
According to the State Department, the United States seeks to accelerate political
reform in Bahrain through the “Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) ,” including
efforts to strengthen the institutional capacity of Bahrain’s political societies. Other U.S.funded programs included training for senior judges, women’s rights, journalist training,
and civic education and teacher training in Bahraini schools. Some MEPI funds have
been used to fund AFL-CIO projects with Bahraini labor organizations, and to help
Bahrain implement its commitments under the U.S.-Bahrain FTA. Suggesting a still
difficult climate for U.S. programs, in May 2006 Bahrain revoked the visa for the resident
program director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), an implementor of some
U.S. democracy programs.
Defense and Economic Relations4
Although U.S. relations with Bahrain are broadening on economic and political
reform issues, defense issues remain a major feature of the relationship. A U.S. Embassy
in Manama, Bahrain’s capital, opened in September 1971. A resident ambassador was
sent in 1974. In large part to keep powerful neighbors in check, Bahrain has long linked
its security to the United States. February 1998 marked the 50th anniversary of a U.S.
naval command presence in Bahrain; MIDEASTFOR (U.S. Middle East Force), its
successor, NAVCENT (naval component of U.S. Central Command), and the Fifth Fleet
(reconstituted in June 1995) have been headquartered there. The Fifth Fleet headquarters
is a command facility that , after a pending expansion, will cover over 100 acres. About
3,000 U.S. personnel, mostly Navy (but from several different commands) work there;
fewer than half live on the compound. Some smaller U.S. ships (minesweepers) are
docked there, and the port facility is being improved to handle aircraft carriers. The
Elections for five municipal councils are to be held just before the parliamentary elections. No
exact dates have been set for either elections.
Some of the information in this section obtained during CRS visit to Bahrain, February 2005.
headquarters currently coordinates the operations of over 30 U.S. warships performing
support missions for U.S. operations in Iraq war (securing Iraqi oil platforms); preventing
the seaborne movement of Al Qaeda; and interception of arms or weapons of mass
destruction (WMD)-related technology , across the Arabian Sea. Most of these U.S.
operations are in partnership with ships from nations contributing to the Iraq war (Britain,
Italy, Australia, Canada, and Singapore) and the U.S.-led stabilization operations in
Afghanistan (including ships from Germany, France, and Pakistan). According to U.S.
commanders in Bahrain, the maritime mission is increasingly expanding into maritime
narcotics interdiction as well. During the 1990s, the U.S.-led Multinational Interdiction
Force (MIF), which enforced a U.N. embargo on Iraq, was run out of the headquarters.
Bahrain participated in the allied coalition that ousted Iraq from Kuwait in 1991,
hosting 17,500 troops and 250 combat aircraft at Shaykh Isa Air Base. Bahraini pilots
flew strikes over Iraq during the war, and Iraq fired nine Scud missiles at Bahrain during
the conflict, of which three hit facilities there. After the 1991 Persian Gulf war against
Iraq, the United States and Bahrain signed a 10-year defense pact (October 28, 1991),
renewed in October 2001. The agreement reportedly provides U.S. access to Bahraini
bases during a crisis, the pre-positioning of strategic materiel (mostly U.S. Air Force
munitions), consultations with Bahrain if its security is threatened, and expanded
exercises and U.S. training of Bahraini forces. 5 Bahrain hosted the regional headquarters
for U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq during 1991-1998.
Bahrain provided extensive support to the recent U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan
(Operation Enduring Freedom, OEF) and Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom, OIF), despite
domestic opposition in Bahrain particularly to the war in Iraq. During major combat of
OEF, Bahrain hosted about 4,000 U.S. military personnel — a major increase from the
1,300 U.S. military personnel hosted during the 1990s to contain Iraq. U.S. forces
increased slightly, to about 4,500 for OIF ; mostly additional U.S. Air Force personnel
deployed to Shaykh Isa Air Base. Bahrain allowed the United States to fly combat
missions from the base in both OEF and OIF, and it was the only Gulf state to deploy its
own fores to provide humanitarian aid in Aghanistan. During OEF and OIF, Bahrain
publicly deployed its U.S.-supplied frigate warship (the Subha) to help protect U.S. ships,
and it sent ground and air assets to Kuwait in support of OIF. In recognition of the close
defense relationship, in March 2002, President Bush (Presidential Determination 2002-10)
designated Bahrain a “major non-NATO ally (MNNA),” a designation that will facilitate
future U.S. arms sales.
U.S. Arms Transfers. Congress and successive Administrations, citing Bahrain’s
limited oil income, have supported military assistance to Bahrain’s small BDF — about
11,000 personnel. It is eligible to receive grant “excess defense articles” (EDA). The
United States transferred the FFG-7 “Perry class” frigate Subha as EDA in July 1997 .
Bahrain reportedly wants another EDA frigate. In 1996, the United States gave Bahrain
a no-cost five-year lease on 60 M60A3 tanks; title subsequently was given to Bahrain.
Foreign Military Financing (FMF) was suspended for Bahrain in FY1994 , but , in
appreciation of Bahrain’s support in OEF and OIF, has restarted.
Details of the U.S.-Bahrain defense agreement are classified. Some provisions are discussed
in Sami Hajjar, U.S. Military Presence in the Gulf: Challenges and Prospects (U.S. Army War
College: Strategic Studies Institute), March 2002, p.27.
U.S. Assistance to Bahrain
(in millions $)
Note: IMET = International Military Education and Training Funds, used to promote military
professionalism, interoperability with U.S. forces, and to train Bahrain to maintain U.S.-provided
NADR = Non-Proliferation, Anti-Terrorism (ATA), De-Mining and Related Programs, used to sustain
Bahrain’s counter-terrorism training capabilities.
Despite limited funds, Bahrain has purchased some U.S. systems.6 Before the 1991
Gulf war, Bahrain bought M60A3 main battle tanks and older model F-5 fighter aircraft.
In 1998, Bahrain purchased 10 U.S.-made F-16Cs from new production. With spare
engines and armaments, the sale was worth about $390 million. In late 1999, the Clinton
Administration, with congressional concurrence, sold Bahrain 26 Advanced MediumRange Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) to arm the F-16s. Some Members were
concerned about the sale of AMRAAM’s to Gulf countries on the grounds that the sale
might promote an arms race in the Gulf. Section 581 of the FY1990 foreign operations
appropriation act (P.L. 101-167) made Bahrain the only Gulf state eligible to receive the
STINGER shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile . (This authorization has been repeated in
subsequent legislation.) The United States has sold Bahrain about 70 Stingers since
1990. Among new sales notified to Congress by the Defense Security Cooperation
Agency (DSCA) are: a sale, worth up to $42 million, of 180 “Javelin” anti-armor missiles
and 60 launch units (July 21, 2006); and a sale, worth up to $252 million, of nine UH60M Blackhawk helicopters and associated equipment and services.
One of the more controversial sales to a Gulf state resulted from an August 2000
Bahraini request to purchase 30 Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMs), a system of
short-range ballistic missiles fired from a multiple rocket launcher. To allay
congressional concerns, the Defense Department told Congress the version sold to
Bahrain would not violate the rules of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).7
The Administration proposed, and Bahrain accepted, a system of joint U.S.-Bahraini
control of the weapon under which Bahraini military personnel do not have access to the
codes needed to launch the missile. The system has been delivered to Bahrain.
Economic Relations. Bahrain is attempting to diversify its economy by
emphasizing banking and services. Among the GCC states, Bahrain has the lowest oil
Information in this section was provided to CRS in an unclassified fact sheet prepared by the
Defense Security Cooperation Agency. March 2004.
The MTCR commits member states not to transfer to non-member states missiles with a range
of more than 300 km, and a payload of more than 500 kilograms. Turkey, Greece, and South
Korea are the only countries to have bought ATACMs from the United States.
and gas reserves, estimated respectively at 210 million barrels of oil and 5.3 trillion cubic
feet of gas, and the energy sector accounts for 16.5% of Bahrain’s gross domestic product
(GDP) . At current rates of production (30,000 barrels per day), Bahrain’s onshore oil
reserves will be exhausted in 15 years. As of April 1996, the Saudi government has
given Bahrain all revenues from the 150,000 barrels per day produced from Saudi
Arabia’s offshore Abu Safa field. The United States buys virtually no oil from Bahrain .
To encourage further reform and signal U.S. appreciation, the United States and Bahrain
signed an FTA on September 14, 2005. Legislation to implement the FTA (H.R. 4340)
was passed in December 2005 and signed January 11, 2006 (P.L. 109-169). See also
CRS Report RS21846, U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement, by Martin Weiss.
Regional Relations and Anti-Terrorism Cooperation
Iran most concerns Bahrain, particularly for Iran’s ability to influence radical Shiite
oppositionists. The Shia community in Bahrain is of both Arab and Persian origin, and
some follow Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Bahrain has consistently blamed
Iran for the internal unrest that took place in the 1990s. On June 3, 1996, Bahrain
publicly claimed to have uncovered an Iranian plot to destabilize Bahrain, acting through
a local militant Shia group called Hizbollah Bahrain-Military Wing (related to Lebanese
Hezbollah, a client of Iran). Bahrain made a similar charge in December 1981, when it
accused Iran of organizing a coup by Bahraini Shiites (the Islamic Front for the Liberation
of Bahrain, IFLB). Bahrain’s relations with Qatar have improved dramatically since a
1986 territorial clash and legal dispute, which Bahrain won at the International Court of
Justice. The two have announced plans to build a causeway linking each to the other.
Arab-Israeli Issues. Bahrain has mostly followed a Gulf consensus on the ArabIsraeli peace process. During 1990-1996, Bahrain participated in the multilateral ArabIsraeli talks that addressed regional issues, and it hosted a multilateral working group
conference on the environment (October 1994). However, Bahrain did not follow the lead
of Oman and Qatar by exchanging trade offices with Israel. In September 1994, the Gulf
states, including Bahrain, ceased enforcing secondary and tertiary boycotts of Israel,
which black listed companies doing business with Israel, while retaining the ban on direct
dealings (the primary boycott). The Foreign Relations Authorization Act for
FY1994/1995 (P.L. 103-236, Section 564(1)) banned U.S. arms transfers to countries that
maintain the Arab boycott of Israel. Successive administrations have waived the ban for
Bahrain and other GCC countries on national interest grounds. In conjunction with the
U.S.-Bahrain FTA, Bahrain has dropped the primary boycott and closed boycott-related
offices in Bahrain, according to officials of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR).
Anti-Terrorism Cooperation.8 The State Department says Bahrain provides
“important support” to U.S. counterterrorism efforts. It has frozen about $18 million in
terrorist-linked funds and, in November 2004, hosted the inaugural meeting of the Middle
East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force (MENA/FATF). In June 2004,
Bahrain arrested six alleged Al Qaeda militants, but then released them for lack of
evidence. They were re-arrested, but only after the U.S. military became alarmed and
ordered military family dependents to return to the United States.
Information in this section is taken from the State Department report, Country Reports on
Terrorism 2005, released April 2006.