Gates Visits Bahrain to Urge Reform Dialogue

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)

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