The Trump administration will not continue forever, and a successor administration, particularly a Democratic one, might return to pressuring Manama on its human rights record—though the critical basing of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain is likely to limit such pressure. While such newfound pressure might not be any more effective than it was under President Barack Obama, it would certainly make things less comfortable for Bahrain.
The continued stability of Bahrain’s Arab neighbors seems likely but is not guaranteed. Various sources of regional instability remain, including the war in Yemen, the difficulties with Qatar, harrying from Iran and the fluctuating worries that the United States may stumble into a war with Iran.
Above all, there is reason to question whether even successful efforts to expand social and political opportunity and submerge sectarian identity in a larger Bahraini nationalism will be sufficient in the long run. The historical record of removing sectarian or other identities anywhere is not encouraging. From Eastern Europe to Central Asia, long dormant tensions reawaken when given the chance: Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime stands as a glaring example for many observers. Bahrain’s situation is milder than that, but it does serve to illustrate the challenge Manama faces in trying to substitute economic and social development for political change. At the same time, the results of rapid political change in Libya, Egypt and Yemen scarcely hold out the promise of an easy solution through political change either.
For now, Bahrain has the political space to try to absorb some of the wounds of the past through an expanding economy if it is also able to generate a new—and up to now, lacking—sense that economic benefits will be shared fairly. The Shia population may have a limited opportunity to channel demands through social and economic issues, and perhaps they will make use of those possibilities. The newly elected National Assembly could evolve in ways that create a sense of some real participation in decisionmaking.
How each of these threads—social services, education, job expansion and whether parliament becomes a serious vehicle for discussing economic change—develop will influence Bahrain’s future stability. At the same time, the continuation of heavy-handed control will keep some resentment alive. Eventually, Bahrain will need to test the progress its plans have made by lightening repression. Finding that time and avoiding another explosion of unrest will require wisdom from all sides—not just the government’s.
Ronald E. Neumann is the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. He has served as U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain, Algeria and Afghanistan.