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The U.S. military relationship with Bahrain began in 1949, with the stationing of three naval warships in the country. Since then, Bahrain has allowed an increased U.S. military presence and facilitated U.S. access to the Middle East in times of crisis, such as the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and Operation Desert Storm. In 1995, Bahrain became the headquarters for the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
The U.S. is the dominant arms supplier to Bahrain; according to the U.S. State Department, over 95% of Bahrain's arms imports from 1995-97 came from the United States.
The main issues of concern about the U.S. arms supply relationship with Bahrain have been the absence of democracy in Bahrain (until recently), the ruling Sunni's mistreatment of the Shi'a population, and the use of Bahrain as a test case to introduce new weapons technology into the region.
Significant advances in human rights reforms since February of 2001 (see below) stand in marked contrast to the situation in Bahrain over the last decade. After the transition from British rule in 1971, Bahrain was briefly a constitutional government, until Emir Sheik Isa ibn Salman al Khalifa dissolved the parliament in 1975. He ruled by decree until his death in March 1999. His son, Crown Prince Sheikh Hamad Bin `Issa Al Khalifa succeeded him as emir. Since the early 1990s, Bahrain has experienced violent unrest from a pro-democracy movement seeking the return of the Parliament, freedom of speech, release of political prisoners and improved economic opportunity. Additionally, a huge disparity in living standards exists between the ruling Sunnis and the minority Shi'a population.
The 2000 State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices describes Bahrain as a "hereditary emirate with few democratic institutions and no political parties," and warns that Bahraini "security forces committed serious human rights abuses." Although national law prohibits torture, the U.S. State Department stated there are "credible reports" that incarcerated prisoners have been "beaten, both on the soles of their feet and about the face and head, burned with cigarettes, deprived of sleep for long periods of time, and in some cases subjected to electrical shocks." Public demonstrations are rarely permitted, and individuals suspected of opposing the government have been detained for long periods without a trial.
Yet the United States has apparently not used its influence emphatically to advocate reform in Bahrain, undermining the efforts of allies that have pressed for changes. According to HRW's 2000 report, the U.S. government, “by failing to raise specific abuses with the government, undermined the demarches the British government made about those cases in 1998.” The United States has also delivered or authorized delivery during FY1996-99 of $693,000 worth of small arms, weapons which could easily have found their way into the hands of abusive security forces. Transfers to Bahrain include cartridges, ammunition raw materials and manufacturing equipment, pistols and revolvers, subcaliber weapons, non-military rifles, and shotguns.
More recently, the citizens of Bahrain have witnessed a remarkable turn of events. Following a referendum in February 2001, the Emir abolished the repressive State Security Law and the State Security Court. These actions were followed by a granting of pardons, a general release of all political prisoners, religious leaders, and other detainees, a declaration of general amnesty and pledges to end detentions. Furthermore, Bahraini exiles were welcomed back to the country. These events are chronicled in Amnesty International's article "Bahrain: Amnesty International hails recent positive human rights developments" (February 2001). The dramatic improvements in Bahrain's human rights record since February 2001 may have further smoothed the way for future sales of U.S. weapons to Bahrain and in August 2001, the government of Bahrain announced that it is seeking to improve its military links with Washington ("Bahrain Plans to Upgrade Defense Ties with U.S.," Middle East Newsline, August 30, 2001). On March 14, 2002 the Bush administration announced that it had designated Bahrain as a major non-NATO ally, a move which could allow increased military aid to the country.
However, even prior to this abrupt about-face, the U.S. military supported this regime. Bahrain became eligible to receive gifts of used U.S. military equipment ("excess defense articles") in 1993. Since then, Bahrain has received 17 Cobra attack helicopters, M60 tanks, twenty-seven AMRAAMS, 100 Intercept Aerial Guided Missiles, and six warfare pods (see the table of arms sales notifications). Furthermore, the 5th Fleet continues to be based in Bahrain. The base is viewed as a valuable asset in the dual containment strategy against Iran and Iraq. According to Charles Freeman, a former Assistance Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, Bahrain's hosting of the 5th Fleet "would argue for special consideration" when it comes to arms sales to Bahrain ("Deal Opens Gulf Region to AMRAAM," Defense News, April 13-19, 1998).
In recent years, Bahrain seems to have been used as a test case for selling cutting edge military technology to the region. When the United States approved Lockheed Martin's proposed sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain in 1997, there was one caveat: the jets couldn't come equipped with AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles (AMRAAM). First used in the Gulf War, these next-generation missiles have beyond-visual- range capability (they can be used to attack targets that the pilot can't see) and are the most effective weapon for air-to-air combat in the U.S. arsenal. For a few years, the United States had refrained from selling AMRAAM to Middle East, supposedly because it did not want these sophisticated weapons to proliferate and thereby accelerate regional arms races. But France's 1998 announcement it would sell beyond-visual-range missiles to Qatar led to a flood of American AMRAAM sales to the region, initially to the United Arab Emirates and then to Bahrain. In March 1999, the DOD approved a $110 million sale of 26 AIM-120B AMRAAMs to Bahrain. This small, economically struggling country, according the Pentagon's press release, "will have no difficulty absorbing these missiles into its armed forces," and these missiles which just the year before were closely guarded supposedly "will not affect the basic military balance in the region." Once this initial barrier was broken, AMRAAM sales quickly followed to Egypt, Israel, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
The next step in Bahrain's odd role as high-tech weapons pioneer came after the emirate demanded the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) to load onto its Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) (purchased from the U.S. in 1996). Prior to this request, ATACMS had not been sold to the Middle East. ATACMS, used against Iraqi troops in the Persian Gulf War, is a 'deep strike' surface-to-surface semi-guided ballistic missile designed to harm "personnel and soft targets." Causing effects similar to those produced by landmines, ATACMS bomblets spew shrapnel over a large area, posing an indiscriminate hazard to civilians. The U.S. used to oppose ATACMS sales as a violation of the Missile Technology Control Regime because of their potential long range. Robert Pelletreau, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, warned that "If you open [sales of ATACMS] to Bahrain, you open to the whole region" ("Sale of ATACMS To Bahrain Poses Quandary for U.S.," Defense News, April 26, 1999). Nevertheless, the Pentagon notified Congress of its decision to sell ATACMS to Bahrain in October 1999; no doubt other sales of these weapons to the region will follow.
Factbook entry for Bahrain.
State Department Human Rights Report on Bahrain for 2002.
State Department Human Rights Report on Bahrain for 2001.
State Department Human Rights Report on Bahrain for 2000.
State Department Human Rights Report on Bahrain for 1999.
State Department Human Rights Report on Bahrain for 1998.
State Department Human Rights Report on Bahrain for 1997.
Amnesty International's Report on Bahrain for 2000.
Amnesty International Archived Reports on Bahrain.
Human Rights Watch's Report on Bahrain.
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