Trump’s Bahrain moment
Meeting with King Hamad of Bahrain would send a warning to enemies in the Middle East
When Presidentelect Trump looks to the broader Middle East for allies he will find no leader more reliable and trustworthy than King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa. This 66-year old is the reform-minded leader of Bahrain, an enormously important country to the United States situated in the energy rich Persian Gulf.
This island nation of one million has certain unique cultural, economic and geo-political features that deserve the next administration’s immediate attention. Mr. Trump and his foreign policy team should unequivocally and wholeheartedly embrace Bahrain and its monarch.
The first point to keep in mind when thinking of U.S.-Bahrain relations is our shared value of religious freedom. Indeed, a major feature of Bahrain’s national culture is religious tolerance. For example, Bahrain is home to a vibrant Jewish community and in fact King Hamad took a historic step in 2008 when he selected a member of the Bahrain’s Jewish community to become the first female ambassador to Washington from the Muslim world. Unlike most other Muslim countries, Christians, Jews, Bahais and Hindus live side by side in peace and harmony in Bahrain. Even when the Iranian regime tries to undermine Bahrain’s stability by highlighting the Sunni-Shiite divide, King Hamad has risen above this sectarianism by emphasizing the oneness of all faiths. When Mr. Trump looks around the Muslim world for a model of religious freedom Bahrain is one country he can point to.
The second point that makes Bahrain unique is that it shares Washington’s goal of uninterrupted flow of oil and gas from the Persian Gulf to international markets. Today, the free flow of oil and gas across Bahrain’s waterway plays a critical role in Western energy security. Unlike Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who has threatened to close down the Persian Gulf on numerous occasions, Bahrain’s responsible and reliable king has been a consistent champion of keeping these strategic waterways open. Not surprisingly, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. William J. Crowe once referred to Bahrain in the following terms: “Pound for pound, Bahrain has been and continues to be America’s best friend in the region.”
A third point the new administration should consider is that Mr. Trump will meet numerous world leaders over the next four years but none will come close to being a truer partner of Washington than King Hamad. Immediately after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on America, King Hamad pledged his country’s full support and cooperation. In fact, the Bahraini monarch has gone out of his way to accommodate Washington’s military objectives in the region by not only giving full support to the stationing of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain but allowing its expansion. This single act of courage and friendship has enhanced America’s national security interests in the volatile Middle East. In a dangerous world that Mr. Trump is about to inherit, having an ally like King Hamad who is reliable and trustworthy is essential.
The immediate steps that Mr. Trump’s foreign policy team must make as it concerns Bahrain are the following. First, invite King Hamad to the White House for a working visit with President Trump. Beyond getting a sense of the geopolitical challenges facing the broader Middle East and a better understanding of what ails the Middle East from King Hamad, this meeting would send a strong signal to the regime in Tehran that a “new sheriff is in town” and that Washington will from this day forward embrace those countries like Bahrain who share our values and geopolitical goals.
Furthermore, a Trump-Hamad meeting would send a positive message to those anxious about Mr. Trump’s feelings toward Islam in general and the Muslim world that Mr. Trump values America’s alliances with those Muslim countries that put a premium on religious tolerance. In a world where Islamic extremists are dominating the headlines, Mr. Trump can showcase to other Muslim countries that Bahrain is the model and way forward. While it is important for the new administration to accentuate the positive in its relations with Bahrain, it is also important to emphasize to the monarch that the rights of individual journalists and opposition figures should be respected.
The president-elect’s economic team can ask that Bahrain’s sovereign wealth fund partner with American construction companies to invest in infrastructure projects in the United States. This potential U.S-Bahrain infrastructure investment based on a private-public partnership model could become a means for other sovereign wealth funds like those of Norway, Singapore and Abu Dhabi to partner with American companies for the win-win proposition of making a fair return on their investment and building America’s 21st-century roads and bridges.
Finally, Mr. Trump should ask his Defense secretary to make his first port of call Bahrain and the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis has called the Iranian regime “the single most enduring threat to the stability and peace of the Middle East.” His visit to Bahrain would send a very strong and clear message to both our friends and enemies in the region.
In the interest of American national security, it is imperative that immediately after being sworn into office President Trump meet with King Hamad of Bahrain.