Unrest in Bahrain (NSC)

Educator Overview

Case Overview

Set in August 2014. In the small island country of Bahrain, government and security forces have clashed with protestors seeking democratic reform. The ruling al-Khalifa family has responded to these protests with force and mass arrests. The most recent clashes between government forces and protestors are not the first but certainly the bloodiest. In February 2011, Bahraini activists, inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, gathered in the capital to seek political reform. The fact that Bahrain’s leaders are part of the Sunni minority and the demonstrators represent the Shiite majority gives the uprising a sectarian complexion, in addition to the broader social issues of disenfranchisement and limited economic opportunity. The U.S. government has decided to convene a National Security Council (NSC) meeting to consider whether and how to support political reform in Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, without further destabilizing the country or compromising U.S. interests or values.

Decision Point

Three years after Bahrain’s 2011 uprising, progress toward reform has stalled. In January 2014, the government suspended its “national dialogue” with opposition groups. The government blamed the opposition for the breakdown. Soon after, renewed unrest gripped the country. On February 14—the anniversary of the initial uprising—thousands of protestors calling for King Hamad’s ouster gathered in Bahrain’s capital, Manama. The protestors met stiff resistance from security forces. This resulted in several injuries and dozens of arrests. Outside the capital, a bomb struck a police bus in a Shiite village, killing one police officer. Three more officers were killed by another bomb weeks later. Although mainstream opposition groups denied any connection to the bombings and condemned the acts, the attacks only amplified an already severe crackdown by Bahrain’s security forces, especially in predominantly Shiite areas. Activists, along with international human rights organizations, are pressuring the United States, one of Bahrain’s principal economic and military partners, to respond. 

In this context, the president has called a National Security Council (NSC) meeting to decide how to respond to the unrest. Specifically, the NSC will need to decide whether the United States should continue to support the government of Bahrain, which has proved to be a staunch U.S. ally, or support the protesters’ demands—potentially at the expense of U.S. strategic interests. They may also decide to seek out some middle ground.

Learning Goals

CFR Education simulations use a variety of pedagogical tools to create an effective, meaningful, and memorable learning experience for students that builds their global literacy. Students will develop crucial skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Students will complete authentic assessments that feel relevant: instead of five-paragraph essays and book reports, students will write policy memos and participate in a role-play of a meeting of a foreign policy–making body. There are no right or wrong answers in actual policy deliberations, and there are none here, either; students will walk away from this experience with an appreciation for the complexity of policy questions.

In this simulation, students will learn about the National Security Council, as well as meeting these learning outcomes specific to this simulation:

  • Students will understand the potential consequences of instability in Bahrain for the interests of the United States in the Persian Gulf.
  • Students will consider how the United States should balance its strategic interests in the Middle East while also upholding its values.
  • Students will evaluate the policy options available to the United States for dealing with a crisis in Bahrain.

Concepts and Issues


  • Interests versus values
  • Sectarianism 
  • Political reform
  • Alliances
  • Dispute resolution


  • Free flow of energy resources in the Middle East
  • U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement
  • U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf region
  • U.S. support for democratic governance

Policy Options: Educator's Guide

This section presents context, potential benefits and drawbacks, and other information about the policy options outlined in the case. You can use this information several ways:

  1. To develop questions or topics (beyond those in the role sheets) for students to consider during in-class discussion and in their research
  2. To assist in grading policy and position memos 
  3. To evaluate student performance during the role-play 
  4. To develop prompts to steer the role-play
  5. To assign students specific policy options to defend or arguments to make during the role-play
  6. To make the simulation less challenging by providing this material to your students

The instability in Bahrain has far-reaching implications for both the United States and the Persian Gulf. Throughout the unrest in Bahrain, the United States has continued to advocate for dialogue between the opposition and government loyalists. Ultimately, both U.S. interests and values are at stake.

Bahrain under the Al Khalifa family has long been a U.S. ally. It helps ensure the free flow of energy resources from the Middle East to other parts of the world, deters U.S. adversaries such as Iran, and hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which patrols the surrounding waters, including the Strait of Hormuz. Bahrain and the United States also work together closely on defense and counterterrorism issues. Moreover, the United States enjoys close commercial and economic relations with Bahrain, reinforced by a bilateral free trade agreement.

In recent years, escalating tensions between the United States and Iran have underscored Bahrain’s strategic importance to U.S. interests. In April 2019, Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz after President Trump renewed sanctions that had been waived under the Iran nuclear deal. That summer, Iranian forces and proxies conducted a series of attacks on commercial tankers and oil facilities in the Strait of Hormuz and Saudi Arabia. Escalating tensions prompted the United States to bolster its military presence in the Middle East, including by deploying an aircraft carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf. Throughout 2019 and 2020, tensions have remained high in the Persian Gulf, with Iranian forces harassing U.S. naval ships and boarding oil tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz.

Instability in Bahrain could endanger these strategic and economic interests. For example, increased U.S. pressure on the Bahraini government for democratic reforms could anger the ruling family, which could reduce bilateral cooperation in response. Intensified domestic opposition could weaken or topple the government, resulting in a power vacuum or an uncertain transition during which the United States would lack a reliable partner.

A new crackdown by the authorities could spark an international backlash, forcing the United States to distance itself from the Bahraini government. In such a case, American values need to be considered. Support for democracy and freedom has traditionally been a principal component of U.S. foreign policy; therefore, the United States cannot simply ignore the Shiite population’s demands for a more just and equitable society in Bahrain. However, by the standards of the Persian Gulf, Bahrain is considered to be relatively progressive—for example, with respect to women’s rights. Strong U.S. pressure on the regime could cause instability that would endanger the few freedoms that Bahrainis enjoy.

Seeking to balance its interests and values, the United States has not fully embraced the Bahraini demonstrators. In particular, it has stopped short of supporting the opposition’s demand for an end to the Al Khalifa family’s rule. The core question is whether the United States should continue to stand behind the Al Khalifa family despite its nondemocratic practices or more firmly back the aspirations of Bahrain’s Shiite majority. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton summed up the U.S. predicament in Bahrain when she declared, “As a country with many complex interests, we’ll always have to walk and chew gum at the same time. That is our challenge in a country like Bahrain, which has been America’s close friend and partner for decades. And yet, President Obama and I have been frank, in public and in private, that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away.”

The United States has numerous options for dealing with a crisis in Bahrain. The question is what combination of them would be most successful in this case. The United States should consider the following options:

  • move the Fifth Fleet to Kuwait or Qatar, or threaten to do so unless the Bahraini government implements certain reforms
  • pressure the Bahraini government with a cessation of all arms and military assistance, or make military assistance conditional upon political progress
  • threaten to suspend the U.S.-Bahrain free trade agreement over Bahrain’s violation of certain parts of the agreement
  • target foreign aid toward organizations deemed favorable to U.S. interests, such as specific opposition groups or reformers within the monarchy
  • publicly criticize the Bahraini government
  • articulate U.S. concern for the situation in Bahrain in an international forum such as the United Nations in order to highlight the issue and call on other countries to put pressure on Bahrain
  • recognize the strategic benefits of the U.S. relationship with the Al Khalifa regime and offer full U.S. support to the ruling family


To weigh the policy options, NSC members will need to consider the effects of Bahrain’s unrest—and any U.S. policy responses—on U.S. interests and values. The situation itself poses both long-term and potentially immediate challenges to the United States. The principal chronic challenge is to values. The United States has for decades maintained a close relationship with Bahrain despite its nondemocratic government. Bahrain is hardly the only such country. The United States also partners closely with other autocratic states in the Middle East, including, prominently, neighboring Saudi Arabia. These relationships subject the United States to accusations of hypocrisy surrounding its global efforts to promote democracy and human rights as core American ideals. Still, successive U.S. administrations have believed that maintaining close ties with autocratic Arab states serves U.S. strategic interests. To various extents, policymakers have sought to advance human rights and reforms in the region. But they have tended to do so within the framework of friendly relations and have not generally punished or threatened Arab governments in an attempt to advance U.S. values.

NSC members could recommend that the United States more forcefully push Bahraini leaders to reform, making it more uncomfortable for the al-Khalifa family to avoid meaningful steps. If successful, this could constitute an appealing middle ground that addresses opposition grievances, thereby increasing the country’s long-term stability, while leaving in place a government broadly favorable to U.S. interests. However, excessive pressure from Washington could anger the monarchy, causing it to reduce bilateral cooperation or retaliate diplomatically, such as when it declared senior U.S. official Tom Malinowski persona non grata in 2014. On the other hand, if the United States excludes democracy and human rights completely from its agenda with Bahrain, leaders in Manama could understand the exclusion as permission to crack down against the opposition and harden their stance against reform. A new crackdown might spark an international backlash, forcing the United States to distance itself from the Bahraini government. In addition, Bahrain is already considered relatively progressive by the standards of the Persian Gulf region, for example in the area of women’s rights. Retrenchment by the monarchy could endanger what rights and freedoms Bahrainis already enjoy. The overall question is what if any U.S. response to growing tension and unrest could increase Bahrain’s stability, thereby serving U.S. interests, while advancing U.S. values.

Acute challenges to U.S. interests could also arise, depending on how the situation in Bahrain evolves. Should a Shia-led uprising succeed in ousting Bahrain’s rulers or transforming the country into a constitutional monarchy in which elected leaders hold sway, Bahrain’s strategic posture could change dramatically. Under such conditions, Bahrain’s new leaders might be aligned with Iran, a country that poses significant challenges to U.S. interests. These leaders, also believing that the United States gave them too little support when they struggled against the monarchy, could turn against Washington. In the most extreme case, such a shift could cause Bahrain to evict the U.S. military and end cooperation on counterterrorism and other issues, depriving the United States of a long-standing partner and a naval foothold in the Persian Gulf. Depending on the speed and scope of such a change, the United States might be left scrambling to protect its military assets in Bahrain and its strategic and economic interests in the Middle East. Even short of this scenario, intensified opposition activity that weakened or toppled the government could produce a power vacuum in which the United States lacks a reliable partner.

On the other hand, withdrawing U.S. support for Bahrain’s government in the heat of an uprising could also have adverse consequences. The monarchy could survive and reconsolidate its position. Should leaders believe the United States had abandoned them, they could reduce or even end their cooperation with Washington. 

These possibilities raise the question of whether and how the United States should try to get on the right side of history when popular movements seek to overthrow nondemocratic U.S. allies. A similar question arose in 2011, when President Barack Obama called for the president of Egypt at the time, Hosni Mubarak, to leave office. Mubarak, a longtime autocratic leader and U.S. ally, was facing mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that erupted as part of a wave of uprisings across the Arab world. (The protests succeeded in chasing Mubarak from office.) Although applauded by advocates of human rights and democratic accountability, Obama’s policy shift sparked concern in remaining Arab autocracies, where rulers worried that their friends in Washington might similarly abandon them should their citizens rise up. If reinforced by U.S. policy toward Bahrain, this sentiment could make Arab governments less willing to cooperate on U.S. objectives. Conversely, visible steps to intensify the U.S. commitment to Bahrain’s current rulers may provide reassurance. This could serve the valuable purpose of increasing Arab cooperation with the United States on a range of vexing issues in the Middle East, such as terrorism, the Islamic State group, and the threats posed by Iran.