Foreign relations of Bahrain
|This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
Bahrain plays a modest, moderating role in regional politics and adheres to the views of the Arab League on Middle East peace and Palestinian rights. Since achieving independence in 1971, Bahrain has maintained friendly relations with most of its neighbours and with the world community. It generally pursues a policy of close consultation with neighbouring states and works to narrow areas of disagreement.
Bahrain is a member of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC), established on May 26, 1981 with five other Persian Gulf states. The country has fully complied with steps taken by the GCC to coordinate economic development and defense and security planning. In December 1994, it concurred with the GCC decision to drop secondary and tertiary boycotts against Israel. In many instances, it has established special bilateral trade agreements.
The country’s foreign minister is Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, a career diplomat. Educated in the United States, as a student Sheikh Khaled was a member of US President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 presidential campaign team. His deputy is Dr Nazar Al Baharna, a politician and business leader, who was appointed in 2006 following the victory of the biggest Shia party Al Wefaq in that year's parliamentary elections. Al Baharna was formerly a leading member of Al Wefaq.
In June 2006, Bahrain was elected head of the United Nations General Assembly, and used the honour to appoint Haya bint Rashid Al Khalifa as the Assembly's president, making her the first Middle East woman and only the third woman in history to take over the post. Sheikha Haya is a leading Bahraini lawyer and women's rights advocate who will take over the post at a time of change for the world body. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said of her, "I met her yesterday and I found her quite impressive. All the member states are determined to work with her and to support her, and I think she's going to bring a new dimension to the work here." The move follows a series of appointments of women to high profile positions in the Kingdom (see Women's political rights in Bahrain for further details).
During the Persian Gulf War in 1990-1, Bahrain was part of the coalition that fought to liberate Kuwait. Bahraini, RAF, and USAF pilots flew air strikes in Iraq from the Sheik Isa Air Base, while coalition navies operated out of Manama, the capital. Bahrain was hit by Scud missiles fired from Iraq. A number of Bahraini students studying in Iraq and Kuwait at the outbreak of hostilities went missing and are presumed the victims of Saddam Hussein's secret police.
After the liberation of Kuwait, Bahrain and the United States strengthened their already good ties by signing a ten-year agreement in October 1991, which granted American forces access to Bahraini facilities and allowed the U.S. to pre-position war material for future crises. In July 1995 the U.S. 5th Fleet was established in the Persian Gulf with its headquarters at NSA Bahrain in Manama. In 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush designated Bahrain as a major non-NATO ally.
Bahrain was an active member of the coalition that fought to remove the Taliban regime from Afghanistan in 2001; the Kingdom provided ships for the naval cordon in the Indian Ocean put in place to intercept fleeing Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.
However, the Kingdom opposed unilateral action against Iraq in 2003, and to the annoyance of Washington in the run up to the war sought to defuse the crisis by offering Saddam Hussein asylum as a way of avoiding war.
Bahrain-Iran relations have been strained since the Iranian Revolution and the 1981 discovery of a planned Iran-sponsored coup in Bahrain. Bahraini suspicions of the Iranian role in local unrest in the mid-1990s remain. However, with the decline of Iraq as a regional powerbroker, Bahrain has begun taking steps to improve relations with Iran and increase regional harmony. These efforts have included encouraging Bahrain-Iran trade.
To mark Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday on 2 October 2007, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs co-sponsored with the Bahrain Centre for Studies and Research and the Indian Embassy a conference on the relevance of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy for the Arab world in the 21st Century. The conference, attended by Arab and Indian academics, UN officials and diplomats discussed the Gandhi’s teaching of non-violence, austerity and spiritualism with particular reference to the Arab world today. Among the keynote speakers was leading liberal academic, Dr Abdulla Al Madani, who emphasised Gandhi’s moral vision: "Had he resorted to kidnapping, suicide-bombings, beheadings, or other barbarian means, his memory would not have remained rooted in the world's conscience. Believing that the credibility of one's action lay in setting a personal example, Gandhi began with himself. He quit his legal practice, gave up wearing Western-style clothing, and embraced a humble lifestyle by making his own clothes and living on a simple vegetarian diet. This, of course, differs from the practice of leaders of some Arab resistance movements, who urge their followers to boycott the West while savouring the Western lifestyle, products, and technology."
Bahrain and US-Iran relations
Before the US published the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran's nuclear programme at the end of November 2007, there was growing uneasiness in Bahrain at the possible consequences of a US-Iran military confrontation. The threat of US military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities equally concerned Bahrain’s government and Shia-dominated opposition, with both expressing fears that it could undermine the delicate political accommodation the two sides have sought under King Hamad.
Tensions between Bahrain and Iran had already been raised in the summer of 2007, when Hossein Shariatmadari, an Advisor to Iran’s supreme leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and editor of the Iranian newspaper, Kayan, called for Bahrain to be incorporated into Iran as its 14th province – a stance that echoed Saddam Hussein’s designs on Kuwait in the late 1980s. Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, described the claim as “very disturbing” because it “touched on the legitimacy of our country”. Shariatmadari’s call led to protests on Bahrain’s streets, and was followed by intensive Bahrain-Iran diplomatic shuttling, with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, flying to Manama to play down the remarks and make clear that they were solely Shariatmadari’s personal opinion.
The relationship between various Bahraini communities and Iran is not as straight forward as it might at first seem; while Shia Bahrainis share a degree of religious affinity with Iran, they tend to be acutely conscious of their Arab identity and hence particularly sensitive to suggestions of dual loyalty (as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s found in 2006 when he claim that Shia Arabs in the Persian Gulf were an “Iranian fifth column”; his views created a storm of criticism in Bahrain, with the deputy speaker of parliament calling on him to apologise). Bahrain’s Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa has gone out of his way to make clear that whatever religious or political persuasion, Bahrainis have the same fundamental loyalty to the state, saying "We are Bahrainis first, opposition or not." A point reiterated by a foreign diplomat in Bahrain in November 2007 who told the Independent newspaper that Shia Bahrainis are "loyal, patriotic, and looking after their own interests" and warned visiting journalists that it was completely misguided to see them as "willing agents and puppets of a malevolent Shia regime in Iran".
Religion itself has as much capacity to divide as to unite: Bahraini and Iranian Shia predominantly follow different and sometimes competitive theological strands in a division that goes back to the Safavids. German Persian Gulf analyst Maximilian Terhalle explained:
|“||The doctrine of Bahrain’s Shia emerged from the struggle between the moderate (usuliyya) and the conservative (akhbariyya) strands in Shii belief, which ended in the late eighteenth century with the victory of the former. However, the defeated conservative school took to Bahrain, where its adherents settled. Since then, Bahraini Shia have pursued a doctrine distinctly different from that of Iran. This is often underestimated, as [Bahrain’s most senior Shia cleric] Sheikh Qassim is the representative of the Iranian marja Khamenei in Bahrain. In any event, it is a strong factor undermining Iran’s influence. Only a meaninglessly small minority follows the radical elements centered at the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.||”|
Among Sunni Bahrainis the situation is often equally complicated: many of the most influential Sunni business and political families have their origins in Iran, having emigrated to the more liberal economic and social atmosphere of Bahrain over the last hundred and fifty years; and in fact many still speak Persian in their homes. This community, known as Huwalas, while not at all sympathetic to the theocratic government in Tehran, tend to have extensive business interests on both sides of the Persian Gulf and have looked forward to the prospect of growing Iran-Bahrain trade. A point reflected upon with some irony by Shia Bahraini writer, Tawfik Al-Rayyash, who in reference to the government/civil society’s reaction to Sharaitmadari's remarks said: "I ask myself why this outcry was led by people who, when they enter their homes or meet their families, change their language from Arabic to Persian."
The former head of the Salafist party Asalah in Bahrain, MP Sheikh Adel Mouwda, expressed the Sunni Islamist perspective on Iran, telling the New York Times, "If Iran acted like an Islamic power, just Islam without Shiism, then Arabs would accept it as a regional Islamic power. But if it came to us with the Shia agenda as a Shiite power, then it will not succeed and it will be powerful, but despised and hated."
Nevertheless as Bahrain Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said "If a war starts anything can happen. Iran is led by a Muslim Shia theocracy. It is difficult to see it under attack and Shias in Bahrain keeping quiet. A conflict between Iran and the world in this region will be catastrophic.” A point echoed by opposition Al Wefaq MP Dr Jasim Ali, "War could cause more than physical destruction. An attack on Iran will be seen in Bahrain as an attack on the Shia establishment. The sectarian divide will grow. If there is a war then everything else will stop. It'll be security first - and nothing else." 
The growing tension prompted MPs in December 2007 to pass a non-binding resolution banning the use of the country’s territory for any attack on Iran.
The publication of the NIE on Iran's nuclear programme increased skepticism in the Persian Gulf as to the aims of US policy in the region. One sign of this was the clash between Bahraini government minister Majeed Al Alawi and US Defence Secretary Robert Gates at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue security summit in December 2007. Al Alawi challenged Gates over the US attitude to Israel's nuclear arsenal, asking whether he thought "the Zionist (Israeli) nuclear weapon is a threat to the region" Gates replied that he did not and proposed instead that Iran was the threat not Israel, a response that was met with "laughter and derision" by the audience of Persian Gulf officials according to the Washington Post.
India is a close ally of Bahrain, the Kingdom along with its GCC partners are (according to Indian officials) among the most prominent backers of India’s bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and Bahraini officials have urged India to play a greater role in international affairs. For instance, over concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme Bahrain’s Crown Prince appealed to India to play an active role in resolving the crisis
Ties between India and Bahrain go back generations, with many of Bahrain’s most prominent figures having close connections: poet and constitutionalist Ebrahim Al-Arrayedh grew up in Bombay, while 17th century Bahraini theologians Sheikh Salih Al-Karzakani and Sheikh Ja`far bin Kamal al-Din were influential figures in the Kingdom of Golkonda and the development of Shia thought in the sub-continent.
Bahraini politicians have sought to enhance these long standing ties, with Parliamentary Speaker Khalifa Al Dhahrani in 2007 leading a delegation of parliamentarians and business leaders to meet Indian President Pratibha Patil, opposition leader L K Advani, and take part in training and media interviews. Politically, it is easier for Bahrain’s politicians to seek training and advice from India than it is from the United States or other western alternative.
In December 2007, the Bahrain India Society was launched in Manama to promote ties between the two countries. Headed by the former Minister of Labour Abdulnabi Al Shoala, the Society seeks to take advantage of the development in civil society to actively work to strengthen ties between the two countries, not only business links, but according to the body’s opening statement in politics, social affairs, science and culture. India’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs E Ahmed and his Bahraini counterpart Dr Nazar Al Baharna attended the launch.
Bahrain's first ever royal visit to Kazakhstan was on April 2014, where the King met with the Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev. The country have signed major deals between the two countries to bolster trade and investments. Bahrain have expressed its support for the Astana Expo 2017 and have encouraged local businessmen and government sectors to take part in the prestigious event. The Kazakh Government has created the Bahraini-Kazakh Business Council, unveiling plans to sign an agreement on encouraging and protecting investment, avoiding taxation and fiscal evasion.
Bahrain and Pakistan enjoy cordial and deep ties. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, during a visit to Pakistan, called Pakistan his second home and stated that Bahrain regards Pakistan extremely highly. Joint initiatives between Pakistani and Bahraini governments have started to further their bilateral trades, which reached to $250 million in 2007. Pakistani businessmen are eyeing on Bahrain's property market while Bahrain is seeing Pakistan as a good agricultural potential investment country.
Relations between Bahrain and Turkey were officially established on December 4, 1973. The relation between these two countries are considered positive, with trade at 78.1 million U.S dollars in 2006. Almost double then the amount then it was 2003. In 2007, trade was at 186 million U.S dollars.
Bahrain has an embassy in London and the United Kingdom is only one of four European countries to have an embassy in Manama. Bahrain gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1971 and has since maintained diplomatic and trade relations.
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- This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the CIA World Factbook.
- This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the United States Department of State (Background Notes).