MANAMA, Bahrain, March 11, 2011 — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates arrived here today to meet with Bahraini leaders and urge dialogue and a process of reform in response to weeks of protests in this country and across the region.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said the secretary believed it was important to engage with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa about the situation in Bahrain and elsewhere in the region.
Gates has two messages, Morrell said: “A reassurance of our support, as well as encouragement of the national dialogue, which is in its nascent stages now.”
This visit will see the secretary, as the first U.S. Cabinet member to visit the kingdom since protests began, in more of a diplomatic role than on previous visits, the press secretary noted.
“These are … clearly political issues,” Morrell said. “But [Gates is] very much looking forward to the opportunity to convey these messages on behalf of the United States government.”
Morrell said Gates will return to Washington after this visit, completing a week that took the secretary to several locations in Afghanistan, as well as to Stuttgart, Germany, and Brussels, Belgium.
“The secretary wishes to and is planning to call upon other governments in this region in the weeks ahead, and will have similar discussion with their leadership as well,” Morrell said.
A senior defense official traveling with Gates told reporters en route to Bahrain the country is an important strategic partner, both as home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet and as an important regional balance to Iran.
A stream of protests has been under way in Bahrain since mid-February, with more planned for today, the official said. Opposition leaders are Shiia Muslims, as is 70 percent of Bahrain’s population, the official added. Bahrain’s royal family and the remaining population are Sunni Muslims.
Opposition leaders have not yet listed their conditions for a national dialogue, but the United States anticipates progress toward that end soon, the official said.
Gates is in Bahrain not to take sides, the official said, but to urge a methodical and substantive reform process. The secretary will “encourage the national dialogue, which the crown prince is heading up, and also encourage the royal family to come into a genuine process for reform,” the official added.
The U.S. message to friends and allies is, “All of the … deep strategic interests we have with them remain the same as they were six months ago,” the official said. “But one of those interests is … stability.”
Protests in Bahrain have been largely peaceful, but U.S. government leaders are closely monitoring events, the official said.
Gates’ position in Bahrain is consistent with the U.S. approach to unrest in the region, the official said.
“Where we’ve been consistent in all these places – Tunisia, Egypt, now Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere –- is standing up for the universal principles — freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of access to information, [and] a commitment by all sides to nonviolence,” the official said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)