On 7 August 2015, the State Department approved a sale of “F-16 follow-on support and associated equipment, parts and logistics for an estimated cost of $150 million,” to Bahrain, according to an announcement from the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA). This sale follows the introduction of S.2009, the bipartisan Senate resolution seeking to limit certain arms sales to Bahrain until the country implements reform. While the resolution will not impede the F-16 sale to the Bahrain Ministry of Defense, it does call into question whether the Bahraini government has implemented the necessary reforms to deserve such a reward, given its participation in the violent suppression of the peaceful protest movement in 2011.
According to the DSCA’s announcement, the $150 million sale aims to “contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping improve the security of…a key security partner in the region.” The Royal Bahrain Air Force’s (RBAF) F-16 fleet reportedly requires the equipment, as their current F-16 fleet is aging and encountering expensive maintenance issues. The DSCA contends that “the age of the fleet, combined with an increased operational tempo due to recent involvement in Operation Inherent Resolve has led to increased focus on maintenance and sustainment.”
The Senate resolution will not impact this proposed sale, since F-16s and their associated support have not been involved in the government’s crackdown against Bahraini civilians. The resolution restricts the sale of weapons and equipment that are highly unlikely to be used for external defense purposes, including, “tear gas, small arms, light weapons, ammunition for small arms and light weapons, humvees, [and] other items that could reasonably be used for crowd control purposes.” As Bahrain’s involvement in the anti-ISIL coalition has been limited to airstrikes and facilitating international dialogue around countering terrorist financing, the bill will not affect Bahrain’s capacity to participate in joint military activities.
Although it allows the recently announced F-16 support sale to proceed, the resolution calls into question the “reforms” that the Ministry of Defense has implemented since the release of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report in November 2011. By tying the arms sales ban to the full implementation of the BICI recommendations, Senators Wyden and Rubio have signaled that the BDF must address problems with the training and integration of the security forces before it can enjoy unrestricted trade with the United States.
For example, BICI recommendation 1722(e) mandates that “the GoB [Government of Bahrain] establish urgently, and implement vigorously, a programme for the integration into the security forces of personnel from all the communities in Bahrain.” The provision would require the Shia majority to be integrated into the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF) and other security forces, institutions from which it continues to be almost completely excluded. The State Department’s 2013 report on the implementation of the BICI recommendations found that 1722(e) had only been “partially implemented.” While the BDF does not publish figures relating to its sectarian makeup, it is very unlikely that Bahraini Shia make up more than a few percent of the estimated 12,000 members of the BDF. Such discrimination contributes to “wider grievances about a lack of job opportunities for Shia in the government.” US Secretary of Defense Bob Gates acknowledged this urgent need to integrate Shia into the security forces when he warned King Hamad that “time is not on [his] side” in 2011.
The resolution requires Bahrain to address such lackluster progress toward reform. However, the BICI Accountability Act still allows the United States to stand with its major non-NATO ally in the fight against violent extremism and the Islamic State, while also providing a legal mechanism to ensure that US-made arms are not used in the Government of Bahrain’s continuing campaign to crack down on dissent in the Kingdom. These Senators clearly understand the fight against violent extremism does not have to come at the cost of abandoning human rights and reform. And when Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) announced his intention to introduce S.2009’s companion bill in the House, he echoed this understanding by stating, “If the U.S. is truly committed to regional stability, we must push allies like Bahrain to embrace policies that will strengthen free societies, not silence entire segments of their population. This is the only way to combat extremism.”
Ned Brose is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB.