Why did the Bahraini Crown Prince snub the USA?

MANAMA — The Bahraini crown prince effusively praised Britain in his speech to an international conference here Friday evening -- but barely mentioned the United States, to the surprise of his international audience.

"I would personally like to thank many in the West who were very kind to me and what I have tried to achieve by promoting dialogue between all of the disparate groups here in the kingdom of Bahrain. Your support to me has been invaluable over the difficult past 18 months," said Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa at the opening dinner of the 2012 IISS Manama Security Dialogue, referring to the internal sectarian conflict that has roiled the kingdom.

"However, I would in particular like to thank the diplomats, the leadership and the government of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of the UK," he said. "You have stood head and shoulders above others. You have engaged all stakeholders. You have kept the door open to all sides in what was a very difficult and sometimes unclear situation. Your engagement and your help in police reform and judicial reform, and your direct engagement with the leadership of the Kingdom of Bahrain and with members of the opposition, has saved lives, and for that I will be personally eternally grateful. Thank you."

The crown prince then went on to thank the governments of Singapore, Korea, and Japan. "You deserve our thanks and our respect. Thank you very much," he said. He also thanked the members of the BICI commission that investigated the violence in Bahrain and he thanked his own Interior Ministry for its handling of the conflict.

His only mention of the United States came as a thinly veiled criticism of America's failure to make progress in the Middle East peace process.

"For the United States in particular, it is managing its relationship with the state of Israel and the stalled peace process, which is important to us all," Salman said.

Most attendees at the speech praised the crown prince for giving a speech that called for dialogue and reconciliation with the Bahraini opposition. But delegates from several countries noted over post-dinner drinks that his failure to say anything positive about the United States, which keeps the Navy's Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and supplies the island kingdom with more arms than any other country, could not have been an accident or an oversight.

Was the crown prince's snub a reaction to the fact that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointedly decided not to attend this year's Manama Dialogue? After all, she was the featured speaker at the very same opening dinner the last time the conference was convened in 2010. Also, Clinton will be traveling to Tunisia and the UAE in the coming days, but won't stop in Bahrain.

More likely, according to conference delegates, the crown prince's speech was a reflection of the Bahraini royal family's frustration with U.S. policy, which has sometimes included sharp criticisms of Manama's treatment of its own citizens during the recent crisis and its failure to fully implement the BICI report's recommendations.

"There continue to be delays in fully implementing the report's recommendations, particularly regarding accountability for official abuse, limits on freedom of expression and assembly, meaningful security sector reform, and a political environment that has become increasingly inhospitable to reconciliation," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said only two weeks ago. "We are also concerned about rising violence in Bahrain.   In the last month, police, protesters, and bystanders have been killed.  We continue to urge all Bahrainis to pursue their political objectives peacefully and the Government of Bahrain to exercise restraint in responding to peaceful protests."

The Cable asked Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in open session how they felt about the snub -- both declined to answer. But Bahrain's Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said in a subsequent session that the United States was not excluded in the Crown Prince's speech because "all friends in the West were thanked."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said during a press conference on the sidelines of the conference Saturday that the British government was committed to continuing its engagement with Bahrain. 

"Our embassy is very actively engaged here, as we are as ministers, in keeping in touch with the government but also with opposition groups in Bahrain. We give what's clearly appreciated as good and clear advice about the need for dialogue, from the opposition as well as from the government," he said, adding that more progress needs to be made by the government in implementing reforms.

"We're a country that has a close and friendly relationship with the whole of Bahrain, with the country of Bahrain, and I hope that's appreciated all around and I think the speech of the Crown prince was a very good sign of that," said Hague.

Some U.S. experts saw the crown prince's remarks as the product of a U.S. government policy that has sought, perhaps unsuccessfully, to both satisfy Bahrain's critics in Washington while also keeping the royal family happy by continuing arms sales during the crisis. In trying to satisfy both constituencies, the Obama administration may have alienated both.

"In some sense, the crown prince was right," said U.S. non-government delegate Shai Franklin, senior fellow at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy. "Since the last time we had this summit two years ago, Bahrain has been going through a difficult period. Bahrain has been assailed on Capitol Hill and elsewhere and perhaps rightly. But what has the U.S. government done to help Bahrain get through it? We've left it to other countries, we've left it to international organizations and NGOs. Maybe that's worked, but we can't take credit for that."

Overall, most U.S. officials and experts here in Bahrain say that the U.S.-Bahrain relationship is still close and strong, and the crown prince still enjoys an overwhelmingly positive reputation in Washington.

One government delegate pointed out that Bahraini royal family has long personal ties to England. The king and the crown prince were educated there, several members of the royal family vacation or own property there, and the political ties between the two countries go back generations.

"The Bahrain-UK relationship is a long one," the delegate said. "And it is a love affair."

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