Since 2011, much analysis on Bahrain has focused on its crackdown on Arab Spring activism, the US military presence in the kingdom and Manama’s role in the geosectarian cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, there has been significantly less discussion about Bahrain’s long-term foreign policy planning.
Following the lead of other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, which have taken stock of the relative decline of US influence in the Middle East, Bahrain has explored deeper relations with other global powers. Officials in Manama see US support for the Iranian nuclear deal as having left the GCC increasingly vulnerable to the consolidation of Iranian/Shiite influence throughout the region.
At the same time, Washington’s criticism about human rights issues enrages the kingdom’s rulers. Such tensions in Washington-Manama relations illustrate the context in which Bahrain is slowly hedging its bets away from the United States. Consequently, the growth of Bahraini-Russian relations underscores the important role that Moscow could come to play in Manama’s foreign policy decision-making.
King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s visit in February to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s residence in Sochi carried much symbolism and highlighted the extent to which Manama and Moscow see the tumultuous Middle East through similar lenses. The two leaders exchanged gifts, with Putin presenting the Bahraini monarch with a stallion and Hamad presenting the Russian president with a sword made of Damascus steel, which the king called a “sword of victory … for imminent victory, God willing.”
Some read these words as a sign of Bahrain’s support for Russia’s direct military intervention in Syria, which Putin and Hamad addressed. Shortly after the two leaders met, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “Both Russia and Bahrain want to see a stable Syria, a country in which the foundations of the secular state are strengthened, a country that ensures its territorial integrity and within the framework of which the rights of all its citizens, without exception, are guaranteed.”
In April 2014, Bahrain and Russia signed investment deals, even as Washington and Brussels were imposing economic sanctions on Russia over its activities in Ukraine. Bahrain also revised its visa policies in an effort to lure Russian businessmen to the island, and Gulf Air, the kingdom’s national airline, agreed to open a new direct route between Manama and Moscow. This was a snub to Washington.
“With Russia continuing its efforts to destabilize Ukraine, this is not the time for any country to conduct business as usual with Russia,” a US State Department official said. “We have raised these concerns with the Bahraini government.”
Washington’s criticisms of Bahrain’s record of quashing its political opposition — along with the Obama administration’s policies regarding Iran — have left the island’s rulers doubting US commitment to the GCC’s security. In contrast to the United States, which partially suspended its annual $1.3 billion military aid to Egypt amid the 2013 anti-Muslim Brotherhood crackdown, Russia does not link weapons deals to human rights accountability. Similarly, the Kremlin is not in the habit of condemning authoritarian governance in any region of the world. Within this context, Russia has positioned itself as an attractive and reliable partner for Bahrain.
Shortly after Bahrain’s “Arab Spring” uprising erupted in 2011, Moscow sold weapons to Manama for the first time. The announcement that Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-owned arms trade company, would do business with the island kingdom came six months after the United Kingdom and France banned the sale of military equipment to Bahrain in response to the monarchy’s crackdown. Rosoboronexport’s first sale to Bahrain included Kalashnikov AK-103 assault rifles, grenade launchers and ammunition. The Russian arms trading company also established a training and equipment program for the Bahraini Defense Forces that remains in place today.
The timing and nature of Rosoboronexport’s deal underscored Russia’s interest in breaking into the Arabian Peninsula’s arms markets, which Western countries have dominated throughout modern history. In light of Bahrain’s ongoing political crisis — recently exacerbated by Manama’s cancellation of Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim’s Bahraini citizenship for what it called sectarian extremism –— Moscow is likely to find the island to be a lucrative market for small arms for the foreseeable future.
The elephant in the room is Saudi Arabia, as Riyadh and Moscow’s clash over Syria complicates the prospects for deeper Bahraini-Russian relations. Due to political and social unrest, coupled with the island’s economic stagnation, Manama has grown increasingly reliant on Saudi financial and security assistance. According to many observers, Riyadh has Bahrain under its thumb, with some GCC interlocutors viewing the island kingdom as a de facto Saudi archipelago province.
Two days before Hamad’s February meeting with Putin in Sochi, Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, Manama’s ambassador to London, stated that Bahrain would deploy ground troops to Syria “in concert with the Saudis” to fight the Islamic State and the “brutal [Bashar al-] Assad regime.” Although many analysts dismissed such rhetoric as an empty threat against Assad aimed at pleasing Bahrain’s Saudi backers, Fawaz’s words were enough to underscore how the clash of competing powers’ agendas in Syria will affect Bahraini-Russian relations, given Riyadh’s leverage over Manama and the Syrian crisis’ seemingly endless nature.
Looking ahead, Russia and Bahrain’s growing relationship will face a host of obstacles, most importantly the GCC and Moscow’s conflicting agendas in Syria. Nonetheless, Putin’s actions against Assad’s enemies deliver a powerful message about Moscow’s determination to crush Sunni Islamist extremists operating in the Levant and seeking to redraw the map of the Middle East.
Although Russia’s collaboration with Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese Shiite forces on Syria’s battlefields has hurt Moscow’s reputation in parts of the Sunni Arab world, the GCC states have taken stock of Russia’s deepening engagement with the Middle East. Believing that Russia cannot be ignored, the GCC states seek to deepen their partnerships with Moscow as their confidence in Washington declines.
Moreover, the GCC is aware that Russia and Iran’s relationship has its own problems. Bahrain and other Sunni Arab states may seek to use deeper defense and economic ties with Russia to lure Moscow away from Tehran, perhaps positioning the Kremlin as an effective mediator in Gulf Arab-Iranian disputes. In January, there were indications that Russia was seeking that role, after diplomatic sources in Moscow declared their readiness to serve as an intermediary between Riyadh and Tehran in the aftermath of Saudi Arabia’s execution of popular Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
Ultimately, if the Saudis come around to viewing Russia as a suitable mediator in the Middle East, Bahraini-Russian relations have the potential to flourish, given Manama and Moscow’s overlapping interests. However, if the Saudis perceive Russia as an Iranian ally — at a time when rising sectarian temperatures and geopolitical instability continue to exacerbate the Saudi-Iranian rivalry — Bahrain’s ability to turn to Moscow to counterbalance Manama’s traditional Western allies may be rather limited.