Foreign Relations

Persian Gulf States Table of Contents

Since independence in 1971, one of the most important objectives of Bahrain's foreign policy has been to contain perceived threats to the country's security. As the smallest state in the region, Bahrain feels vulnerable to political influences emanating from more powerful neighbors, in particular Iran and Iraq, and it regards close ties to Saudi Arabia and other Arab monarchial regimes as a means of countering these potentially harmful influences. During the 1970s, for example, the Baath socialist media in Baghdad frequently denounced Manama as an enemy of Arab nationalism and a puppet of Washington's imperialism because it allowed United States naval vessels to use a naval base in Bahrain. The government also believes that Baghdad has provided financial and other support to Bahraini opposition groups calling for the overthrow of the Al Khalifa dynasty. Although Iraq moderated its policies toward Bahrain in the late 1970s, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 confronted the government with new ideological challenges. Some Shia clergy in Tehran denounced the institution of monarchy as un-Islamic, and some Shia political dissidents in Bahrain embraced this message enthusiastically. During the 1980s, government officials suspected Iranian complicity in four separate plots that it maintained were aimed at the overthrow of the regime.

The outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 aroused security concerns that Bahrain shared with the other five Arab monarchies in the gulf: Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. During the 1970s, Bahrain lobbied these countries to cooperate in defense matters, but, other than bilateral agreements, little came from these efforts. By early 1981, when the fighting between Iran and Iraq appeared to have settled into a long-term conflict, attitudes changed, and all five Arabian Peninsula oil-producing states joined Bahrain in the GCC. Ostensibly, the GCC agreement emphasized economic cooperation, but the level of cooperation in security matters increased annually. For Bahrain this meant financial assistance for expanding its defense forces and facilities and the opportunity to participate in joint training maneuvers. When fellow GCC member Kuwait was invaded by Iraq in 1990, Bahrain joined the collective military effort against Iraq by sending a small contingent of troops to the front lines in Saudi Arabia. It also permitted United States military forces to use its naval and air facilities.

Since 1981 Bahrain's most important foreign relations have been with its GCC allies, although problems with individual members of the GCC have developed. The most serious problems have been with Qatar. Bahrain and Qatar have unresolved territorial disputes stemming from the nineteenth century when the Al Thani of Qatar foreswore allegiance to the Al Khalifa and established a separate amirate. In the twentieth century, the two states have contested sovereignty over Hawar and the adjacent islands, the closest of which is fewer than two kilometers from Qatar's west coast. In 1939, when both countries were still dependencies of Britain, London ruled that the islands belonged to Bahrain. Qatar never accepted this decision and periodically has raised the issue. Incidents connected with this dispute occurred in 1978, in 1982, and in 1986, but each time they were defused by the mediation of other GCC states. The most serious crisis, from April to June 1986, involved Qatari forces raiding the Fasht ad Dibal coral reef island north of Al Muharraq and seizing twentynine foreign workers who were building a coast guard station for the government of Bahrain. The repercussions from this incursion have continued into the 1990s. These incidents tended to strain overall relations with Qatar.

Outside the Persian Gulf region, Bahrain has cordial relations with other countries. The two non-Arab countries with which it maintains the closest relations are Britain and the United States. After the Persian Gulf War, Bahrain held negotiations with Washington that culminated in 1992 in the signing of a defense cooperation agreement. The terms of this agreement permit the United States to pre-position military supplies and equipment in Bahrain and to use its military facilities.

Bahrain is a member of several international organizations, including the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Health Organization. It also belongs to several regional organizations, the most important of which is the League of Arab States, as well as to OPEC and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

More about the Government and Politics of Bahrain.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress