Order Code 95-1013
November 29, 2007
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 tensions between ruling Sunni Muslims and the Shiite majority re-emerged
in November 2006 parliamentary elections, fueled by Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq.
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 was signed
January 11, 2006 ( H.R. 4340, 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, which is Sunni Muslim, 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 60 years old), who succeeded his
father, Shaykh Isa bin Sulman Al Khalifa, upon his death in March 1999. King Hamad,2
educated at Sandhurst Military Academy in Britain, had previously been commander of
the Bahraini Defense Forces (BDF). He subsequently named his son, Salman, as Crown
Prince. Salman, who is about 40, is U.S.- and U.K. -educated and, as head of the
“Economic Development Board,” is considered a proponent of rapid reform and
accommodation with Bahrain’s Shiite majority (about 60% of the 480,000 person
citizenry). The King’s uncle (the brother of the late ruler), Prime Minister Khalifa bin
Much of the information in this section is from State Department reports: Country Reports on
Human Rights Practices - 2006 (March 6, 2007); Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The
U.S. Record 2006 (April 5, 2007); the International Religious Freedom Report for 2007
(September 14, 2007); and the Trafficking in Persons Report for 2007 (June 12, 2007).
Hamad changed his title to King, from Amir, just prior to the February 2002 referendum on the
new national charter.
Salman Al Khalifa, along with hardliners in the royal court and several ministries, seeks
to repress any Shiite power.
King Hamad and the Crown Prince have tried to channel Shiite unrest into peaceful
political competition. The minor political reforms under his father , namely the December
1992 establishment of a 30-member appointed Consultative Council to comment on
proposed laws and its June 1996 expansion to 40 members , failed to satisfy Shiite and
Sunni demands for the restoration of an elected national assembly , provided for under the
1973 constitution but abolished in August 1975. The unrest eventually took on a more
Shiite sectarian character and produced daily anti-government violence during 1994-1998.
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 40-seat
“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 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 helped Sunni Muslims win two-thirds of the seats. Of
the 170 total candidates, 6 were women, but none was elected.
Together, the COR and the Shura Council constitute an increasingly vibrant National
Assembly, and they have been gaining in scope of authority as a check on government
power. The COR can propose (but not actually draft) legislation and question ministers,
although not in public session. It can, by a two-thirds majority, vote no-confidence against
ministers and the Prime Minister and override the King’s veto of approved legislation,
although none of these actions has occurred since the COR was formed. The Shura
Council is formally limited to amending draft legislation and, in concert with the COR,
reviewing the annual budget, but these powers do provide the Shura Council with the
ability to block action by the COR. The Shura Council contains generally more educated
and pro-Western members.
In the run-up to the November 25, 2006, parliamentary and municipal elections,
Sunni-Shiite tensions were aggravated by the Shiite perception that a once-repressed
Shiite majority is now, through elections, in power in Iraq. In the fall of 2006, some Shiite
protests occurred in Bahrain, particularly after allegations — some of which were publicly
corroborated by a government adviser (Salah al-Bandar) in August 2006 in a report to an
outside human rights organization — that the government was adjusting election districts
as part of a plan to ensure that Shiites did not win a majority in parliament. Despite the
allegations, the major Shiite groupings decided to try to empower themselves through
what they still view as a flawed electoral process. Wifaq and the National Democratic
Action Association participated, raising voter turnout to 72%.
The opposition led by Wifaq won 18 seats, virtually all those it contested. Sunni
Islamists (Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood candidates) together won another 8 seats.
Only one woman won (she was unopposed) out of 16 female candidates (down from 31
female candidates in the 2002 elections). As evidence of continued friction, Wifaq
subsequently boycotted the speakership contest, and incumbent COR Speaker Khalifa alDhahrani was re-elected Speaker. A new Shura Council was appointed by the King, with
20 Sunnis, 18 Shiites, one Jew and one Christian (both women). Ten women were
appointed to the body. In a nod to the increased Shiite strength, the government appointed
a Shiite as deputy prime minister and another (who is close to Wifaq) as a Minister of
State for Foreign Affairs. In the cabinet, there are now four Shiites and one female
ministers – a Shiite woman, Health Minister Nada Haffadh, resigned in October 2007
following allegations of corruption in her ministry by COR conservatives who are
believed to oppose women occupying high positions in Bahrain. Two other women,
including the president of the University of Bahrain, have ministerial rank. In June 2006,
a female judge was named to the Higher Civil Court.
Although its reforms and human rights progress remain uneven, as noted in State
Department reports, Bahrain allows freedom of worship for Christians, Jews, Hindus, and
Baha’is, although the constitution declares Islam the official religion. The government
requires licenses for churches to operate, and in November 2007 it threatened to shutter
seven un-licensed churches serving the Indian expatriate community. About half of the
approximately 235,000 expatriates living in Bahrain are non-Muslim. On labor issues,
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 was dropped in the
2007 Trafficking in Persons report to “Tier 3” (worst level) because it is “not making
significant efforts” to “fully comply with the minimum standards for elimination of
trafficking.” In July 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
According to the State Department, the United States seeks to accelerate political
reform in Bahrain and empower its political societies through several programs, including
the “Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI).” Economic Support Funds (ESF) are
requested for FY2008 to help build an independent judiciary and strengthen the COR.
Other U.S.-funded programs focus on women’s empowerment, journalist training, and
civic education for Ministry of Education officials and teachers. 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. During 2006, the U.S.
embassy added a position to focus on outreach to NGOs and civil society groups.
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. Bahrain resisted October 2006 entreaties
by NDI officials to allow the office to reopen.
Defense and Economic Relations3
Defense issues remain a key feature of U.S.-Bahrain relations. A U.S. Embassy in
Manama, Bahrain’s capital, opened in September 1971. In large part to keep powerful
neighbors in check, Bahrain has long linked its security to the United States, and U.S.
efforts to address threats from Iraq and Iran have benefitted from access to Bahraini
facilities. 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
Information in this section obtained from a variety of press reports, CRS interviews in Bahrain
and Washington, DC, and the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA).
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
now covers over 100 acres . About 2,500 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, but the port is being improved to handle
aircraft carriers. The 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) and interdicting the movement of Al Qaeda members, arms, or weapons of
mass destruction (WMD)-related technology and narcotics trafficking across the Arabian
Sea. 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).
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 that war, 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 prepositioning 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. 4 Bahrain hosted the regional headquarters for U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq
during 1991-1998, and the U.S.-led Multinational Interdiction Force (MIF) that enforced
a U.N. embargo on Iraq during 1991-2003.
Bahrain has provided extensive support to the 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. force levels
there increased to about 4,500 for OIF (mostly additional U.S. Air Force personnel).
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 forces to provide aid to Afghanistan.
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 facilitates U.S. arms sales. Because of its limited oil
income, Bahrain has not contributed funds to Iraq reconstruction, but it is attending the
“Expanded Neighbors of Iraq” regional conference process that began in Baghdad on
March 10, 2007 and has continued with two regional meetings since (May 2007 in Egypt
and November 2007 in Turkey). It does not have a full embassy in Iraq.
U.S. Arms Transfers. Congress and successive Administrations, citing Bahrain’s
limited income, have supported military assistance to Bahrain’s small BDF of about
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.
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. In
1996, the United States gave Bahrain a no-cost five-year lease on 60 M60A3 tanks; title
subsequently passed to Bahrain. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) was suspended for
Bahrain in FY1994 but restarted in appreciation of Bahrain’s support in OEF and OIF.
Recent FMF has been provided to help Bahrain maintain U.S.-origin weapons, to enhance
inter-operability with U.S. forces, to augment Bahrain’s air defenses, and to promote
international standards of human rights practices in the BDF.
U.S. Assistance to Bahrain
(in $ millions)
Note: IMET = International Military Education and Training Funds, used mainly to enhance BDF military
professionalism and promote U.S. values. NADR = Non-Proliferation, Anti-Terrorism (ATA), De-Mining
and Related Programs, used to sustain Bahrain’s counterterrorism capabilities and interdict terrorists.
Despite limited funds, Bahrain has purchased some U.S. systems. 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, and the United States has sold Bahrain
about 70 Stingers since 1990. (This authorization has been repeated in subsequent
legislation.) To allay congressional concerns about possible U.S. promotion of missile
proliferation in the region, an August 2000 sale of 30 Army Tactical Missile Systems
(ATACMs, a system of short-range ballistic missiles fired from a multiple rocket
launcher) included an agreement for joint U.S.-Bahraini control of the weapon. Among
recent 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; and a sale, worth up to $252 million, of nine UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters and
associated equipment and services; and a sale, notified August 3, 2007, of six Bell search
and recovery helicopters and associated equipment and services, valued at about $160
million. Under the State Department’s “Gulf Security Dialogue,” begun in 2006 to
counter Iran, a total of about $20 billion worth of U.S. weapons might be sold to the Gulf
monarchy states, although only a small portion is reportedly slated for Bahrain.
Economic Relations. Bahrain has the lowest oil and gas reserves of the Gulf
monarchy states, 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), and it is attempting to diversify its economy by emphasizing banking and services.
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; the major U.S. import
from it is aluminum. To encourage further reform and signal U.S. appreciation, the United
States and Bahrain signed an FTA on September 14, 2005. Implementing legislation was
signed January 11, 2006 ( H.R. 4340, P.L. 109-169).
Other Regional Relations and Anti-Terrorism Cooperation
Bahrain ’s concerns about Iran stem mostly from Iran’s perceived willingness and
ability to support Shiite oppositionists against Bahrain’s Sunni-dominated government
of Bahrain. The concern has been heightened by the Shiite dominance of post-Saddam
Iraq and related sectarian violence there. In December 1981, and then again in June 1996,
Bahrain publicly accused Iran of trying to organizing a coup by pro-Iranian Bahraini
Shiites (the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, IFLB). The government has
consistently blamed Iran for the internal unrest that took place in the late 1990s and
subsequently. Some Bahraini leaders suspect that Iran eventually wants to overturn the
results of the 1970 U.N. referendum, discussed above; those concerns were aggravated
by a July 2007 Iranian newspaper article reasserting the Iranian claim. However, that
article, along with the Bahraini Crown Prince’s November 3, 2007 comment that Iran is
developing a nuclear weapon (Iran claims it is building only nuclear power capabilities)
did not mar the visit of Iranian President Ahmadinejad to Bahrain on November 17, 2007 .
The visit produced an agreement for Bahrain to buy Iranian natural gas.
Arab-Israeli Issues. On the Arab-Israeli dispute, Bahrain participated in the 19901996 multilateral Arab-Israeli talks, and it hosted a session on the environment (October
1994). However, Bahrain did not follow Oman and Qatar in exchanging trade offices with
Israel. In September 1994, all the Gulf states ceased enforcing secondary and tertiary
boycotts of Israel, which black listed companies doing business with Israel, while
retaining the ban on direct trade (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, but successive administrations have
waived the ban for all the GCC states on national interest grounds. In conjunction with
the U.S.-Bahrain FTA, Bahrain has dropped the primary boycott and closed boycottrelated offices in Bahrain. However, Islamist hardliners in the COR have called on the
government to reopen the boycott office, to refrain from attending the November 27, 2007
summit on Middle East peace in Annapolis, and to explain why Bahrain’s foreign minister
met with the Israeli Foreign Minister during U.N. meetings in New York in September.
Anti-Terrorism Cooperation. The State Department’s report on international
terrorism for 2006 (released April 2007) credits Bahrain with enacting legislation to
combat terrorism and its financing, including laws criminalizing terrorism and the
undeclared transfer of money in support of terrorism. It continues to host the Middle East
and North Africa Financial Action Task Force (MENA/FATF) secretariat. However, the
report notes that Bahrain has not overcome legal constraints that have derailed
prosecutions and incarcerations of suspected terrorists , even some who have admitted to
traveling to Afghanistan to fight U.S.-led forces there.