Feb 23, 2022 - World

Bahrain scolds new U.S. ambassador for meeting with activists

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa meets with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin last September. Photo: DOD handout via Getty Images

New U.S. Ambassador to Manama Steven Bondy got into a diplomatic spat with the Bahraini government in his second week on the job after he met with a group of civil society and human rights activists.

Why it matters: Bahrain has been highly sensitive to engagement between Western governments and members of the opposition ever since the Arab Spring in 2011, when the Obama administration supported the anti-government protests in the country and pressed for reforms.

  • The protests came mainly from members of the Shiite majority who demanded more civil liberties and a greater say in politics. The kingdom cracked down on the protests and accused Iran of inflaming them.

Driving the news: Bondy gave his credentials to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on Feb. 9. Several hours later, he met in his residence with four political and human rights activists.

  • A Bahraini news website, the Delmon Post, days later reported that the activists had raised the difficulties faced by Bahraini civil society and the issues of government crackdowns and use of the death penalty.
  • Bondy was criticized by several columnists in the Bahraini press, and some of the activists who attended the meeting issued statements of clarification.

Shortly after the story was published, the Bahraini interior minister issued a statement accusing Bondy of interference in internal affairs reminiscent of the 2011 events, “which everyone rejects after it claimed lives and losses."

  • The ambassador was summoned last Wednesday for a meeting with Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani.
  • Al Zayani told him the meeting was “inconsistent with international laws and norms” and stressed that he needs to "take into account the sovereignty of states and non-interference in internal affairs, in addition to Bahrain's laws," according to the Foreign Ministry.
  • A source briefed on the situation told me the meeting cleared the air a bit and ended the incident. When Bondy met Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa last Sunday, the incident went unmentioned in the Bahraini readout.
  • The State Department declined to comment.
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