White House to Host Bahrain Royal to Push Reform

The Obama administration views Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa as the senior Bahraini government official most in favor of liberalizing Manama's political system, and hope the visit will lend support to his efforts to ease his government's harsh response to the uprising. "We think the crown prince is a serious interlocutor, and we see value in engaging with him directly," said a senior administration official.
Of the half-dozen uprisings that have swept the Middle East and North Africa this year, Bahrain's has proved to be one of the hardest for U.S. diplomats to navigate. The Khalifa family has been a close U.S. ally and Bahrain is home of the Pentagon's 5th Fleet, which polices the oil-rich Persian Gulf.
The island-state has emerged as a key proxy battle between Washington and its allies and Iran, which has urged on Bahrain's uprising through broadcasts and official comments.
U.S. officials have been alarmed by the scale of the Bahraini government's repression of its opponents, who hail mostly from the country's 70% Shiite-Muslim majority.
The Khalifas are a Sunni family and get financial support from Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is leading a 1,500 man regional force in Bahrain aimed at helping the government maintain order-a move Washington opposed.
The White House, in a sign of the delicacy of its Bahrain diplomacy, confirmed only this week that National Security Adviser Tom Donilon would meet Prince Salman. U.S. officials also indicated a sit-down with President Barack Obama was expected. The exact date for the meeting has yet to be finalized, said senior U.S. officials.
Bahraini political activists are criticizing Prince Salman's impending trip, arguing the Obama administration risks appearing to endorse the ruling Khalifa family's crackdown on its political opponents, hundreds of whom have been detained.
"I don't think it sends a good message to our people if President Obama meets with the prince," said Nabeel Rajab, an activist and president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, in Bahrain. He said he sees no signs the Bahrain government is serious about negotiating with protesters.
This week, Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa lifted a two-month state of emergency and called for a national dialogue to begin July 1. The lifting of the rule prompted protests to resume, though on a smaller scale than before the law was implemented. Many of Bahrain's top opposition figures remain in jail, raising questions in Washington over with whom exactly the government will be negotiating.
Relations between Washington and Manama have been tense since the uprising began in March. Mr. Obama, in a speech last month, pressed Bahrain to release political prisoners, and criticized the government's destruction of Shiite mosques.
Bahraini Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman, the king's uncle, is seen as controlling the security forces and championing a hard-line response to the unrest, including the deployment of foreign troops. On Friday, Bahraini police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at hundreds of protesters seeking to march toward Manama's Pearl Roundabout, the center of opposition rallies in recent months.
On Friday, the Khalifa family received a boost when Formula One reinstated a Grand Prix race in Bahrain that was cancelled in March due to the unrest. Human-rights groups had argued it would give legitimacy to the government's actions.