“White House to Host Bahrain Royal to Push Reform” (and save the Pentagon’s 5th fleet home port)

[Here, the Wall Street Journal gives us more on the maneuvering of the US to maintain its relations with the GCC, and its hold on Bahrain–not to mention its headquarters for the US 5th fleet.  While “democracy” and “humanitarianism” may not be on the US’ agenda in Bahrain (or in Saudi Arabia, for that matter), US imperialist lips are now dripping with the call for “reform” as a public-relations move to “stay in the game.” — Frontlines ed.]

Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa: the face of liberal reform in Bahrain? Or window-dressing for a brutal regime beyond reform?

Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2011

WASHINGTON—The White House will host Bahrain’s crown prince next week, according to senior U.S. officials, in a bid to push for political liberalization in the tiny Persian Gulf sheikdom.

The Obama administration views Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa as the senior Bahraini government official most in favor of liberalizing Manama’s political system, and hope the visit will lend support to his efforts to ease his government’s harsh response to the uprising. “We think the crown prince is a serious interlocutor, and we see value in engaging with him directly,” said a senior administration official.

Of the half-dozen uprisings that have swept the Middle East and North Africa this year, Bahrain’s has proved to be one of the hardest for U.S. diplomats to navigate. The Khalifa family has been a close U.S. ally in combating terrorism and Iran’s nuclear program. And Bahrain is home of the Pentagon’s 5th Fleet, which polices the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

The island-state has emerged as a key proxy battle between Washington and its allies and Iran, which has urged on Bahrain’s uprising through broadcasts and official comments.

U.S. officials have been alarmed by the scale of the Bahraini government’s repression of its opponents, who hail mostly from the country’s 70% Shiite-Muslim majority.

The Khalifas are a Sunni family and get financial support from Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is leading a 1,500 man regional force in Bahrain aimed at helping the government maintain order—a move Washington opposed.

The White House, in a sign of the delicacy of its Bahrain diplomacy, confirmed only this week that National Security Adviser Tom Donilon would meet Prince Salman. U.S. officials also indicated a sit-down with President Barack Obama was expected. The exact date for the meeting has yet to be finalized, said senior U.S. officials.

Bahraini political activists are criticizing Prince Salman’s impending trip, arguing the Obama administration risks appearing to endorse the ruling Khalifa family’s crackdown on its political opponents, hundreds of whom have been detained.

“I don’t think it sends a good message to our people if President Obama meets with the prince,” said Nabeel Rajab, an activist and president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, in Bahrain. He said he sees no signs the Bahrain government is serious about negotiating with protesters.

This week, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa lifted a two-month state of emergency and called for a national dialogue to begin July 1. The lifting of the rule prompted protests to resume, though on a smaller scale than before the law was implemented. Many of Bahrain’s top opposition figures remain in jail, raising questions in Washington over with whom exactly the government will be negotiating.

Bahrain’s largest Shiite political party, Al Wefaq, has accepted the government’s offer, but some of its members also are in detention.

“The Bahrainis are making an effort to launch a national dialogue,” the U.S. official said. “The king proposed this in his speech this week, and the largest political society—Al Wefaq—has welcomed it. We think this is a positive sign.”

Relations between Washington and Manama have been tense since the uprising began in March. Mr. Obama, in a speech last month, pressed Bahrain to release political prisoners, and criticized the government’s destruction of Shiite mosques.

Pro-government websites in Bahrain targeted an American diplomat, Ludovic Hood, for allegedly supporting opposition groups. The U.S. increased security for Mr. Hood and returned him to Washington late last month. The State Department described the transfer as a normal rotation. “It’s unacceptable that any elements there would target an individual diplomat for carrying out his duties,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said of Mr. Hood this week.

Bahraini Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman, the king’s uncle, is seen as controlling the security forces and championing a hard-line response to the unrest, including the deployment of foreign troops. On Friday, Bahraini police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at hundreds of protesters seeking to march toward Manama’s Pearl Roundabout, the center of opposition rallies in recent months.

Many Obama administration officials acknowledge Crown Prince Salman appears to have been sidelined in the ruling family as protests intensified in March and April.

“The hard-liners are definitely calling the shots now,” said a U.S. official working on the Middle East.

On Friday, the Khalifa family received a boost when Formula One reinstated a Grand Prix race in Bahrain that was cancelled in March due to the unrest. Human-rights groups had argued it would give legitimacy to the government’s actions.

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