American diplomacy in the Middle East is starting to resemble a giant game of whack-a-mole. On top of everything else, the government of Bahrain has now expelled an American diplomat.
Bahrain told Tom Malinowski, U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, that he was no longer welcome at their game on Monday. Marlinowski had the gall to set up a meeting with leaders of a Shiite political party. Bahrain is one of the Middle East’s rare, majority-Shia nations, so a friendly chat with the leaders of a legal party that has been in dialogue with the government since 2011 seemed natural. The ruling family, however, is Sunni, and they did not take kindly to Malinowski’s efforts to be inclusive of the majority of the population.
The government of Bahrain says there are no hard feelings about Marlinowski though. Apparently it says nothing about how they feel about us.
The American diplomat in question assured them that he did not take it personally. He tweeted on Tuesday: “Seems #Bahrain government decision not about me but about undermining dialogue. Those committed to reconciliation should not be deterred.”
The State Department said it was not impressed though, and pointed out that the diplomat’s schedule had been coordinated far in advance.
Media outlets have been quicker to call it a first-class snub from a country that is—ahem—not first class. After all, what is Bahrain to us really?
This monarch-ruled nation is actually is small island off the coast of Saudi Arabia. It was the property of the Persians until 1783, when the Sunni Khalifa family expelled the Persian rulers but not the nation’s Shiite populace, according to the BBC. Bahrain spent some time as a British protectorate but traded up in 1971 to become a close ally of the United States. The Fifth Fleet naval base is Bahrain.
The people of Bahrain made an attempt to join the Arab Spring in 2011. Thousands turned up to protest and some met their deaths at the military of Saudi Arabia, which happened to stop by at the invitation of Bahrain’s government. The main protests in Manama were quelled, but protests among the Shiites, who say the Sunni oligarchy subjugates them economically and politically, have continued throughout the country since.
Opposition leaders face persecution. In late June, one of Wefaq’s key leaders was finally acquitted by a court in Bahrain, according to the BBC. The timing was good; Khalil Marzooq was released just in time for his meeting at the American embassy.
Marzooq and another Wefaq leader met with Tom Malinowski on Sunday. Shortly thereafter, Malinowski was told that his presence was “unwelcome” in Bahrain and sent home early for bad behavior.
The Wefaq leaders are not off the hook either. Wefaq’s main cleric, Ali Salman, and Marzooq have received charges, although Marzooq can be grateful he has not been returned to jail. The charges are for meeting with foreign contacts without a government official present, reported the AFP, which was a transparent assessment in any case.
Bahrain was clear about the crimes of Wefaq, and it’s safe to say that these actions give a pretty clear indicator of how it feels about America right now. The naval base we have in Bahrain might be important, but this game of whack-a-mole is wearing out American foreign diplomacy.