US Engagement during IISS Manama Dialogue Failed to Consider Importance of Bahrain Human Rights Concerns to Regional Stability

This past weekend Bahrain hosted the 14th annual International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Manama Dialogue – a regional summit to discuss policy approaches to issues of security and defense. The event was attended by global officials and other high-level individuals, including United States (US) Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who delivered a plenary speech and met with Bahrain’s Defence Affairs Minister Yussef bin Ahmed Al-Jalahma, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Unfortunately, what was glaringly missing from the conversation was the importance of Bahrain’s human rights situation in ensuring stability in the region, and therefore promoting security.

The Arab Gulf and Bahrain remain crucial focal points in US national security, especially with Bahrain housing the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. But, the Bahraini government’s repressive tactics, including harsh restrictions on political and social freedoms ahead of elections this November, have the potential to lead to severe unrest in the kingdom – compromising its national stability and jeopardizing US security interests in the region. None of these concerns were publically raised by US officials, including Secretary Mattis, during their trip to Bahrain for the 2018 Manama Dialogue.

During Secretary Mattis’ plenary speech, he referenced the elections conducted by Iraq and Afghanistan earlier this year saying, “When opposing voices can be heard in a political process adapted to each nation’s culture, one that permits peaceful opposition by giving voice and human rights to all, a nation becomes more secure. When people can speak and be heard calling for peace and for respect for all, the terrorist message of hatred and violence is not embraced.” Based on this sentiment, Mattis should be incredibly worried about the current situation in Bahrain, and should be using his position to raise these concerns to the Bahraini government. Bahrain has silenced all of the opposing voices and peaceful opposition – dissolving all opposition political societies and using broad anti-terror and cybercrime laws to criminalize free expression. The most prominent human rights defender, Nabeel Rajab, is currently serving a total of seven years in prison for comments deemed critical of the government. Additionally, opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman is nearing the end of a four-year prison sentence stemming from speeches he gave as Secretary General of the now dissolved opposition society Al-Wefaq, and although the courts initially rejected new politically motivated charges brought in 2017, the prosecution is currently appealing his acquittal and seeking the death penalty.

Mattis also gave unwarranted praise to Bahrain for its ‘religious tolerance’ while answering questions following his plenary speech, going as far as to say “Bahrain has always had that level of tolerance for people’s expressing of whatever religion was intimate to them.” This comes at a time when Bahrain has actively been targeting the Shia religious majority, specifically during the month of Ashura. The government has detained and arrested Shia clerics, disrupted religious ceremonies, and destroyed religious banners and signs.

Mattis’ trip to Bahrain was a missed opportunity to pressure the kingdom to improve its human rights situation ahead of elections. Human rights, stability, and defense are intrinsically linked and should be viewed as equally important in approaches to strengthen security.