U.S. Plans to Sell Bahrain More Arms

Farrah Zughni

The Department of State last month announced plans to deliver military equipment and services to Bahrain despite ongoing allegations of human rights abuses by the Persian Gulf state’s government.

The department, which cited “national security interests,” has not made public an exhaustive list of items in the deal or its overall cost. The deal has drawn criticism from some members of Congress.

The State Department’s May 11 announcement, which took place during Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa’s U.S. visit, sparked the latest round of disputes in recent months between the Obama administration and legislators over U.S. policy on arms sales to Bahrain.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a May 11 statement that the administration was “mindful of the fact that there are a number of serious unresolved human rights issues” in Bahrain.

A Nov. 23 report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) verified many reports of human rights abuses committed by the Bahraini government since a wave of popular uprisings began in the spring of last year and laid out steps for reform.

Nuland said the items being released to Bahrain were intended to help maintain the country’s “external defense capabilities” and would not be used for “crowd control.”

However, a congressional staffer who has been following the Bahrain case called that claim “questionable.” In a May 14 e-mail to Arms Control Today, he said it seemed that “some of the items being transferred could be used internally within Bahrain” although “it’s not 100% clear that any of the items could be used for crowd control.” Thus, he said, “there’s some uncertainty about this.”

During a May 11 conference call with reporters, senior administration officials said Congress had been informed of the decision and would continue to be closely consulted on the matter. One of the officials stressed that the sale “is not a new arms package” but part of a $53 million deal proposed last year that was put on hold until Bahrain implemented the BICI’s proposed reforms. (See ACT, March 2012.)

The sale’s value cannot be revealed because it was still subject to negotiation, the official said. According to the officials, probably only one item in the deal, a U.S. Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate, reaches congressional notification thresholds.

In a May 15 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a State Department spokeswoman said a complete list of the deal’s components would not be made public for “security reasons.” However, administration officials did say the package sent to Congress would include harbor security boats, support for an upgrade of Bahrain’s existing turbofan engines which are used in F-16 fighter jets, and draft legislation to allow for a future decision on whether to transfer the frigate.

According to the Nuland statement and the senior officials’ comments during the conference call, items predominantly or typically used for internal security, such as tear gas, tear gas launchers, and stun grenades, would not be in the package. They also said the department would maintain holds on High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicles, known as Humvees, and guided anti-armor and anti-bunker missiles that were in the original $53 million arms sale.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), one of the leading congressional critics of arms sales to Bahrain, said he was “disappointed” by the administration’s decision. “Until there is more substantial and lasting progress on human rights, I will continue to oppose arms sales to Bahrain and work in Congress on legislative options to address this issue,” McGovern said in a May 11 statement.

During the conference call, officials said all articles sold by the United States were subject to end-use monitoring to ensure they are used as stipulated in the sale agreement. “We intend for these items to be monitored the way we would monitor any items that are sold by the U.S. government,” one official said.