THE BLOG

From Manama With Love

Just when the Obama administration is straining to isolate the Kremlin with a new round of sanctions as punishment for the annexation of Ukraine, a major U.S. ally trotted off to Moscow last week to strike a series of military and economic deals with the Russian government.

The crown prince of Bahrain, a longtime Washington favorite identified as the man most likely to bring reform to the troubled Gulf kingdom, led a Bahrain government delegation to Moscow, meeting President Putin and various business leaders and clinching a deal with Bahrain's sovereign wealth fund. The delegation also secured a new contract with Russian arms suppliers Rosoboronexport, opened direct flights from Manama to Moscow, announced the easing of visa restrictions for Russians doing business in Bahrain, and signed a memo of co-operation between the cities of Manama and St Petersburg.

Why the prince -- Bahrain's First Deputy Prime Minister -- would choose last week to make his first visit to Russia is unclear, but what is clear is that it was a real poke on the eye for Washington -- "this is not the time for any country to be doing business as usual with Russia," muttered a State Department official.

In fact, Bahrain's pivot to Russia has been coming for some time. In mid-2011, when the United Kingdom and France stopped selling small arms to Bahrain in protest to the government's violent crackdown against widespread protest, the Bahrainis looked to Russia and secured a deal there instead. In December 2013, the crown prince remarked that "The U.S. cannot sit from afar making condescending judgments. It needs friends and partners to achieve its goals," that "some states in the region have already started to look at developing more multilateral relations rather than just relying on Washington. America seems to suffer from schizophrenia when it deals with the Arab world," whereas "The Russians have proved they are reliable friends."

The crown prince is letting Washington down again, but Washington doesn't seem to be doing very much about it. For several years now the State Department has pinned its hopes on his leading a reform effort to end the constant unrest in Bahrain, and so far he has failed to deliver. Since his promotion to First Deputy Prime Minister a year ago he has been part of a cabinet that has passed draconian measures to limit the freedom of expression, including increasing the penalties for criticizing his father the king on Twitter, and provisions to criminalize anyone who disrupts public morale. In May last year the cabinet approved a parliamentary proposal to "put an end to the interference of U.S. Ambassador Thomas Krajeski in Bahrain's internal affairs."

But still the United States perseveres with its crown prince strategy, praising the king for promoting his son to First Deputy Prime Minister in an August 2013 report as a signal of "...his interest in a long-term reform program..." And despite the widespread abuse of human rights, the diplomatic snubs, the political attacks on the U.S. ambassador, Washington is rewarding the Bahrain government by doubling down on its military investments in the country. A $580 million expansion of the U.S Fifth Fleet base in Bahrain is under way, designed to extend U.S. "operational tenure in the gulf well into the middle of the century," says Vice Adm. John Miller, who further reassured the Bahrain government that "We would not plan for this infrastructure if we did not plan on staying here..."

It appears as though the U.S. is planning to stick with the erratic Bahraini regime no matter how its "major Non-NATO ally" behaves -- no matter how bad its human rights record, no matter how much American diplomats are vilified, and no matter how close it gets to U.S. adversaries like Russia. But maybe it's time for the U.S. to look for other political partners in Bahrain if it wants more reliable friends there -- backing the ruling family and its young prince looks like an increasingly risky prospect.

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