The Obama administration will restore security aid to Bahrain, the key American military ally in the Middle East that has conducted airstrikes against Islamic State militants and houses a major U.S. naval base across the Persian Gulf from Iran. The renewal comes even though the State Department says human rights remain inadequate in the kingdom following the regime’s 2011 crackdown on Arab Spring demonstrators which led to the U.S. ban.
Though Washington and Manama have maintained strong military-to-military ties throughout three years of reduced aid, the full restoration shows how the U.S. puts a premium on defense relations. Bahrain has hosted since 1946 the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet headquarters, a military command that oversees American ships in the Middle East. About 7,000 Americans are based there, including the forward headquarters of U.S. Marines in the region.
But the U.S. will not yet resume aid to the regime’s interior ministry.
“[W]e believe it is important to recognize that the government of Bahrain has made some meaningful progress on human rights reforms and reconciliation,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement Monday.
Kirby pointed to Bahrain’s “recent release of a number of prisoners charged with crimes related to their political association and expression.”
Political opposition to Bahrain’s royal family led to clashes between protesters and security forces in 2011, centered on Manama’s Pearl Roundabout. Protesters and police officers were killed during these demonstrations and the regime continues to imprison pro-democracy opposition leaders.
The Obama administration cut about $15 million in foreign military financing for Bahrain in 2012, providing $10 million. The U.S. gave Bahrain $12.6 million in 2013, but assistance went back to $10 million in 2014 and $7.5 million in 2015.
“Apparently to address the government’s use of force against protesters, the Administration has held up some sales to Bahrain of arms, particularly those that could be used for internal security purposes, and has somewhat reduced Bahrain’s Foreign Military Financing (FMF) assistance,” Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service, wrote in a May report. “Yet, the U.S.-Bahrain defense relationship apparently remains intact, as exemplified by Bahrain’s participation in U.S.-led air strikes against the Islamic State organization in Syria.”
The Pentagon bases F-16s and F/A-18 fighters and P-3 surveillance planes at Isa Air Base in the southeast region of the island nation.