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Congressional Report: No Evidence on Dialogue in Bahrain, Arms Sales Reached 6 Billion

2020-07-07 - 10:26 p

Bahrain Mirror (Exclusive): A Congressional Research Service said in its latest report about Bahrain that unrest continues, although at far lower intensity than in 2011. The government has apparently rolled back some of the political reforms it had undertaken, and there has been no evidence of any government-opposition dialogue to try to reach accord on additional reform.

The report noted that the Bahraini government continues to arrest opposition leaders. It confirmed that the government also has stepped up citizenship revocations and expulsions, indicating that each February 14 anniversary of the uprising has been marked by demonstrations

Regarding arms deal, the Obama Administration withheld or conditioned some arms sales to Bahrain. However, the Trump Administration has dropped conditions on the approval of new sales to Bahrain's military and imposed new U.S. sanctions on Bahraini militant groups, as part of its stated goal of pressuring Iran. In May 2017, during his visit to the region, President Trump assured King Hamad that U.S.-Bahrain relations would be free of the "strain" that characterized U.S. - Bahrain relations on human rights issues during the Obama Administration.

The report stated that Secretary of State Michael Pompeo was criticized by some U.S. human rights organizations for not publicly raising human rights issues during his January 2019 visit to Bahrain.

The report added that Bahrain Defence Force is still a "major non-NATO" ally. Bahrain benefits from the US military aids. The United States has funded programs to accelerate political reform in Bahrain and empower its political societies since long before the uprising. Over the past 15 years, the United States has funded programs to train Bahraini lawyers, judges, and journalists, as well as to enhance the capabilities of Bahrain's National Assembly. In FY2016-the latest fiscal year in which democracy and civil society programs were funded for Bahrain-the United States provided about $350,000 for democracy and human rights promotion programs in Bahrain. No U.S. funding for democracy promotion in Bahrain was provided for FY2017 or FY2018, the latest full fiscal year included in the USAID "Explorer" database.

Each March since the uprising began, the U.N. Human Rights Council has issued statements condemning the government's human rights abuses. Bahrain has often denied entry to international human rights researchers and activists. The report highlighted that well before the 2011 uprising, Human Rights Watch and other groups asserted that Bahraini authorities were practicing torture, allegations that continue today, including in the State Department human rights report for 2019. The State Department reported that there were numerous reports of torture of protesters during the height of the 2011 uprising.

The report tackled the relations between the US and Bahrain, stressing that "a major hallmark of the defense relationship is U.S. access to Bahrain's naval facilities." The report further added that unrest in Bahrain has raised questions whether the United States should examine alternatives. No legislation has been enacted to mandate Defense Department planning to move NSA-Bahrain, but the Department reportedly has done such contingency planning.

Should there be a decision to relocate the NSA, potential alternatives could include Qatar's New Doha Port, Kuwait's Shuaiba port, and the UAE's Jebel Ali.  All three are close U.S. allies, but none has stated a position on whether it would be willing to host such a facility.

Bahrain has sent its forces to join U.S.-led operations in the region. After that war, Bahrain and the United States institutionalized the defense relationship by signing a Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) on October 28, 1991. It was last renewed in 2017 for another 15 years.

The report highlighted that Bahrain's small budget allows for modest amounts of national funds to be used for purchases of U.S. major combat systems, offset partly by U.S. security assistance credits. The government's response to the political unrest caused the Obama Administration to put on hold U.S. sales to Bahrain of arms that could easily be used against protesters, such as Humvee armored vehicles, until Bahrain had met U.S. conditions for improving its human rights record. However, the Trump Administration dropped conditions or holds on sales of most major combat systems, including F-16 combat aircraft.

According to the State Department's 2020 security cooperation factsheet (cited above), the United States has provided Bahrain with $22.5 million in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) since 2014.

On October 23, 2019, DOD notified Congress (Transmittal 19-61) that the State Department approved $150 million in funding to refurbish another Perry-class frigate (Robert G. Bradley) to facilitate its transfer to Bahrain as grant EDA.

Some U.S. sales to Bahrain have been the subject of debate because of Bahrain's human rights record, its involvement in the Yemen conflict (see below), and its dispute with some of its neighbors (see below). About 85% of Bahrain's defense equipment is of U.S.-origin. As of March 2020, the United States has $5.8 billion in active government-to-government sales cases with Bahrain under the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) system. The sales included F-16s and other U.S.-made Aircraft, Air-to-Air Missiles, Anti-Armor Missiles/Rockets, and Attack Helicopters.

The report noted that Bahrain has sought to diversify its arms supplies somewhat. In 2016, Bahrain took delivery of about 250 Russian-made Kornet anti-tank systems. In 2017, Bahrain military officials stated they were in discussions to possibly purchase the Russian S-400 missile defense system, but no purchase of the system has been announced.

According to the State Department factsheet, since 2014, the U.S. Department of State has provided Bahrain with $2.432 million for International Military Education and Training (IMET). Over 866 members of the Bahrain Armed Forces have received training in the United States, including 30 members in FY2018.

The report confirmed that the United States has continued cooperation with the Ministry of Interior on issues of counter-terrorism. The United States provided Bahrain $400,000 in NADR funds in each of FY2017 and FY2018 to train MOI personnel in investigative techniques, and to help MOI personnel respond to terrorist's use of explosives.

No NADR funds for Bahrain were provided in FY2019, and none was requested for FY2020 or for FY2021.

However, Bahrain's leaders publicly supported the May 2018 Trump Administration withdrawal from the JCPOA in favor of a strategy of "maximum pressure" on Iran. During October 21-22, 2019, Bahrain cosponsored a multilateral meeting on Iran under the U.S.-led "Warsaw Process," named for the meeting of 60 countries in that city in February 2019 that discussed how to counter Iran.

Bahrain and the other GCC states joined the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. The State Department's report on international terrorism for 2016 stated that Bahrain "has not contributed substantively to coalition [anti-ISIS] military efforts since 2014," and no military operations by Bahrain in this effort have been reported since.

Bahrain has also used its small force to intervene in the region, in partnership with Saudi Arabia. In 2015, Saudi Arabia assembled a coalition of Arab states, including Bahrain and all the other GCC countries except Oman, to combat the Iran-backed Houthi movement in an effort to restore the Republic of Yemen Government. About 200 BDF are deployed in Yemen supporting the Saudi-led coalition there, according to the State Department's report on international terrorism for 2018. The head of the Bahrain's Air Force stated in February 2019 that Bahrain's U.S.-made F16s had conducted over 3,500 sorties since the Saudi-led intervention.

Bahrain's engagement with Israel made it a suitable location for the Trump Administration's workshop to promote the economic component of its Israeli-Palestinian peace plan in Bahrain ("Peace to Prosperity Workshop") on June 25-26, 2019.

Bahrain's economy has been affected by the domestic unrest and by a decline in oil prices, and its economic difficulties have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. As of June 19, 2020, Bahrain has reported 20,400 infections and 57 deaths from the disease. That is the lowest death toll among the GCC states. However, Bahrain's economy has suffered from restrictions on public gathering and on travel, measures that began to be lifted during June

To cope with the COVID-19 pandemic-which is expected to cause an economic contraction of about 5% in 2020 -Bahrain's leaders have cut government spending, issued sovereign debt, and delayed new investments in the energy sector. Yet, Bahrain's financial difficulties long predate the COVID-19 pandemic.

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