What Today’s Abolition of Bahraini Opposition Group Means for the Kingdom and the United States

By Brian Dooley
Today a Bahraini court dissolved the country’s largest opposition group. The move is a sledgehammer in the face of Bahrain’s already frail politics, smashing any residual hope that the solution to the kingdom’s crisis could be negotiated.

The Bahraini regime has now deliberately left itself with no partner to join in a political dialogue, and closed off the last real remaining way for people to voice their discontent peacefully. It’s a reckless move, and does nothing more than offer encouragement to those who are pushing for violent attacks against the government.

Meaningful avenues for people to air grievances are now essentially closed. Can you organize a political group to raise concerns with the regime? No. Tweet peaceful criticism of the government? No. Make a speech calling for reform? No. Visit the United Nations in Geneva to ask for international help? Go to U.S. universities like Stanford or Columbia to promote free speech and religious tolerance? Tear a picture of the king? Give medical help to injured protestors? No, no, no, no.

Today’s decision wasn’t a surprise but was still a shock—it’s the government’s single most repressive act in five years, and the culmination of a more than a month of intense crackdown designed to choke all remaining voices of dissent. It also represents a major challenge to other governments, which cannot ignore the severity or significance of this move.

For years, Washington has been hesitant to censure Bahrain for its attacks on opposition parties and human rights activists. This indifference has helped bring us to where we are today, with the ruling family judging that the Obama Administration is too weak or disinterested to respond to the the repressive policies of its military ally.

The Obama Administration will be judged in the region and beyond for their response to today’s move. Words are clearly no longer enough.

In a September 2011 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama called on Bahrain’s government and Al Wefaq “to pursue a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change” to the kingdom. Just this month, Vice President Joe Biden voiced “strong concerns regarding recent negative developments in Bahrain,” and “emphasized the importance of reducing ongoing tensions through dialogue and reconciliation with the opposition, and a commitment to reform.” Obviously that hasn’t happened, and the administration should now respond to today’s catastrophic decision swiftly and forcefully.

It’s time for real consequences from the administration, which should now immediately consider a range of options. First, the administration should reimpose the ban on arms transfers to Bahrain’s military that the State Department lifted a year ago. They should also impose wide-ranging visa bans for Bahraini officials credibly linked to human rights violations.

Washington can’t afford this kind of frighteningly erratic action by an ally in such a sensitive region. The United States has too much invested in Bahrain and too much to lose to simply respond with further statements of concern.

Bahrain’s ruling family is fast careening out of control. What happened today shows the Obama Administration can no longer just say it’s worried and hope for the best. Bahrain clearly isn’t listening.


Published on July 17, 2016


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