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Obama administration seeks to bolster Bahraini crown prince with arms sales

Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa came to Washington this week to attend his son's college graduation, but he left with hands full of gifts from the U.S. State Department, which announced new arms sales to Bahrain today.

The crown prince's son just graduated from American University, where the Bahraini ruling family recently shelled out millions for a new building at AU's School of International Service. But while he was in town, the crown prince met with a slew of senior U.S. officials and congressional leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain, as well as several other Washington VIPs.

On Friday afternoon, the State Department announced it was moving forward on a host of sales to the Bahraini Defense Forces, the Bahraini National Guard, and the Bahraini Coast Guard. The State Department said the decision to move forward with the sales was made solely in the interest of U.S. national security, but outside experts see the move as meant to strengthen the crown prince in his struggle inside the ruling family.

"We've made this decision, I want to emphasize, on national security grounds," a senior administration official told reporters on a Friday conference call. "We've made this decision mindful of the fact that there remain a number of serious, unresolved human rights issues in Bahrain, which we expect the government of Bahrain to address."

The official noted that the United States is maintaining its hold on the sale of several items the Bahrainis want, including Humvees, TOW missiles, tear gas, stun grenades, small arms and ammunition.

"The items that we are moving forward with are those that are not typically used for crowd control and that we would not anticipate would be used against protesters in any scenario," the official said.

The official declined to specify items on the list, but multiple sources familiar with the details told The Cable they include six more harbor patrol boats, communications equipment for Bahrain's air defense system, ground-based radars, AMRAAM air-to-air missile systems, Seahawk helicopters, Avenger air-defense systems, parts for F-16 fighter engines, refurbishment items for Cobra helicopters, and night-vision equipment.

The United States also agreed to work on legislation to allow the transfer of a U.S. frigate, will allow the Bahrainis to look at (but not yet purchase) armored personnel carriers, and will ask Congress for $10 million in foreign military financing for Bahrain in fiscal 2013.

Opponents of arms sales to Bahrain were quick to criticize the package, arguing that the administration is sending the wrong message to the regime at a time when the violence between government forces and protesters is actually increasing, as are allegations of prisoner abuse by Bahraini security forces.

"This is exactly the wrong time to be selling arms to the government of Bahrain. Things are getting worse, not better," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said in a statement to The Cable. "The country is becoming even more polarized and both sides are becoming more entrenched. Reform is the ultimate goal and we should be using every tool and every bit of leverage we have to achieve that goal. The State department's decision is essentially giving away the store without the government of Bahrain bringing anything to the table."

On the conference call, administration officials could not name one concession or deliverable the crown prince gave or promised in exchange for the goodies he is bringing home with him.

But outside analysts believe the administration's strategy is more nuanced, and that the real goal of the arms sales is to bolster the crown prince's standing inside the ruling family in his pitched battle with hard-liners over the way ahead.

"The administration didn't want the crown prince to go home empty-handed because they wanted to empower him," said Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who was arrested in Bahrain while documenting protests there last month. "They placed a lot of hope in him, but he can't deliver unless the king lets him and right now the hard-liners in the ruling family seem to have the upper hand."

The crown prince has been stripped of many of his official duties recently, but is still seen as the ruling family member who is most amenable to working constructively with the opposition and with the United States. It's unclear whether sending him home with arms sales will have any effect on internal Bahraini ruling family politics, however.

"That's the gamble the administration is taking, that it helps him show he can deliver something," Malinowski said. "But there's no guarantee the government will do what we all hope it does. They might just as easily conclude ‘We don't have to empower the crown prince at home; we just have to send him to America.'"

While the crown prince has been in Washington, hard-liners like the prime minister and the minister of the royal court have wielded their control over state media to bash the United States and accuse the U.S. government of fomenting the unrest in Bahrain.

"[The] trend in Bahrain is the redoubling of the anti-American media onslaught witnessed in most aggressive form last summer. This is usually a very clear sign that the State Department is pressuring for a deal to be done, and that some in the royal family are fighting back via their allies in society," wrote Justin Gengler, an academic and blogger focused on Bahrain.

He detailed a list of conspiratorial, anti-American allegations in the Bahraini state-controlled media over the last two weeks and noticed that the state media is focusing again on the case of Ludo Hood, the former political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain who was sent home "after being the focus of threats by pro-government citizens."

A high-level delegation from the opposition al-Wefaq party was in Washington this week as well, but they did leave empty handed.

"Many in the administration want to empower the crown prince as the reformer in the royal family against the hard-liners, and didn't want to send him home empty handed after his visit," said Cole Bockenfeld, director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy. "But no matter how you look at it here in Washington, on the street in Bahrain this will be perceived as the U.S. supporting a regime that is still doing horrible things."

KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

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