Bahrain's diplomatic charm offensive has run aground due to the government's brutal crackdown on its own citizens. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who is seen as one of the leading reformers within the ruling family, was due to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on June 7. But the crown prince's tête-à-tête was derailed by news reports on June 6 that the trial of 47 doctors and nurses who treated injured protesters would begin in a special security court in the capital of Manama.
The court's next hearing ended up being delayed for a week, but, unsurprisingly, June 7's meeting with the president was reduced to a "drop-by" during the crown prince's sit-down with Obama's national security advisor, Thomas Donilon; and that afternoon's conversation with Clinton did not include a joint press conference afterward.
Once again, the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom has stumbled in its bid to depict itself as a plucky U.S. ally on the front line of a brewing conflict with Iran.
It had looked like such a great piece of diplomatic choreography. On June 1, the country's Sunni monarchy lifted the state of emergency imposed in mid-March after Saudi forces intervened to counter widespread protests by Bahrain's Shiite majority. That same day, Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa announced further rounds of talks, which are intended to heal the country's sectarian rift, would be held in July. And last week, Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid Al Khalifa arrived in Washington to prepare the ground for the crown prince's visit.
Bahrain also celebrated the announcement that the country's Formula One race, canceled in March, had been rescheduled for October. An internal human rights report by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, which made the decision to reinstate the race, painted a rosy picture of the political situation in the kingdom, saying that "Life in Bahrain is completely normal again" and that security is "guaranteed."
But Bahrain's diplomatic charm offensive was unraveling even before the announcement of the Manama court hearing. On June 1, U.S. chargé d'affaires Stephanie Williams was roasted for more than an hour on Bahraini state television, often not able to get a word in edgewise. The interviewer accused the United States of "not deal[ing] in a fair way with all the sects" of Bahrain and hoped that the international community "leave[s] the Bahraini people to solve their problems by themselves."
The hostile interview was accompanied by an anti-U.S. media offensive. On June 4, a local newspaper accused Williams of colluding with the moderate Shiite opposition group Al-Wefaq. And on June 6, a government-run paper published an editorial that argued, "American black fingers are aiming to weaken the Gulf."
These attacks seem to be part of a trend. Last week, it emerged that a junior U.S. diplomat who had dealt with human rights issues, Ludovic Hood, had returned to Washington after threats against him and his wife, who had been identified as Jewish on a local blog. Per the requirements of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, Bahrain was obligated to give Hood his own personal security detail after Clinton complained about the harassment to Bahrain's foreign minister in May.