In December 2009, the then-US Ambassador to Bahrain, Adam Ereli, cabled to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton his great regard for the rulers of that country. The US-Bahrain relationship as seen through Wikileaks cables is quite cozy, and focused quite a bit on areas of mutual security.
King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Ereli wrote, “is personable and engaging” and “rules as something of a ‘corporate king,’ giving direction and letting his top people manage the government.”
King Hamad was given high marks for ushering in governmental reforms. Ereli sad King Hamad had “overseen the development of strong institutions with the restoration of parliament, the formation of a legal political opposition, and a dynamic press.” King Hamad, Ereli said, “is committed to fighting corruption and prefers doing business with American firms because they are transparent.” Ereli noted that King Hamad had awarded U.S. companies major contracts, including Gulf Air buying 24 Boeing 787 Dreamliners.
Ereli also had high praise for the director of the Bahrain National Security Agency Sheikh Khalifa bin Abdallah Al Khalifa, whom he described as “frank and likeable.” Sheikh Khalifa is trying to “rid BNSA of the last vestiges of British influence” and turn the agency “into a world-class intelligence and security service with global reach…Sheikh Khalifa unabashedly positions his relationship with the U.S. Intelligence Community above all others, insisting that his key lieutenants communicate openly with their U.S. liaison partners and actively seek new avenues for cooperation.
Hamad was in the process of shifting power from his uncle, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who remains the head of the government, to his son, Crown Prince Salman, who “received his high school education at the DOD school in Bahrain and earned a BA from American University in 1985. He is very Western in his approach and is closely identified with the reformist camp within the ruling family – particularly with respect to economic and labor reforms designed to combat corruption and modernize Bahrain’s economic base.”
In a July 2008 cable to General David Petraeus, the Embassy wrote that the general should expect the rulers of Bahrain to be “focused first on defending against potential Iranian missile threats.” He said that regional tensions “may be adding to long-standing domestic tensions as well, contributing to the stridency of sectarian voices in Bahrain. The majority of Bahraini citizens are part of the Shi’a underclass, and their grievances, expressed both in legal political activity and in street skirmishes between youths and police, are at the center of all domestic politics here.”
King Hamad, the cable said, had recently taken a more aggressive role in domestic affairs, departing “from his traditional detached style and intervene(ing) personally in several controversies arising from Bahrain’s Shi’a-Sunni tensions. He has publicly, both personally and through his ministers, summoned communal leaders, newspaper editors and bloggers to warn them against crossing red lines against discussion of issues like royal family disputes and criticism of judges who have sentenced Shi’a rioters to prison terms.”
The country’s national security strategy “rests squarely on the presence here of NAVCENT/Fifth Fleet headquarters and Bahrain’s close security partnership with the U.S. Unlike its Gulf neighbors, Bahrain does not enjoy the kind of oil revenues that might enable it to buy advanced weaponry on its own. U.S. foreign military financing for Bahrain this year was only $3.9 million.” King Hamad told Secretary of Defense Gates that his country was seeking from the US “several complete Patriot batteries to cover the island.”
In August 2008, Ereli wrote about Petraeus’s visit, noting that King Hamad expressed hope that U.S. forces would remain in Iraq until the Iraqi government “was clearly capable of fending off Iranian-backed extremists.”
In September 2008 Ereli described the leading political groupings in Bahrain. The Wifaq party “remains the most popular party among the majority Shi’a underclass and advocates non-violent political activism on behalf of the Shi’a community. Two Islamist parties dominate the Sunni side of the political scene” – Al Asala, “closely associated with Salafist ideology,” and Al Minbar Al Islami, “Bahrain’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Ereli wrote that “Secular liberals and leftists did poorly in the 2006 elections and have demonstrated little recent evidence of street appeal, but continue to maintain high media profiles.” Those parties include the Wa’ad National Democratic Action Society, “a socialist party formed by returning exiles in 2002,” the Al Minbar Progressive Democratic Society, representing Bahrain’s former communists, the Al Meethaq (National Action Charter Society), representing wealthy businessmen from well-known families, the Amal Islamic Action Society, the “non-violent heir to the defunct Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, which launched a failed uprising in 1981 inspired by Iran’s Islamic revolution,” and others.
Ereli also mentioned the unregistered Haq movement, which he said is seen as “inspiring many of the small gangs of Shi’a youth who throw stones and Molotov cocktails at police almost every weekend. Haq has submitted petitions to the U.N., the USG, and the GOB calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation and condemning the GOB’s human rights record.”