"After experiencing serious unrest during the late 1990s, Bahrain undertook several steps to enhance the inclusion of the Shiite majority in governance. However, the Sunni-led government's efforts to maintain its tight grip on power have stirred new unrest among Bahraini Shiites in advance of October 23, 2010, parliamentary elections. That election, no matter the outcome, would not produce a new executive, but achievement of a Shiite majority in the elected lower house could give the opposition greater authority with which to challenge the ruling Al Khalifa family. In advance of the elections, the government has launched a wave of arrests intended to try to discredit some of the hardline Shiite leadership as fomenters of violence and tools of Iran. The crackdown has perhaps contributed to increasing Shiite popular protests in advance of the elections. [...] Bahrain has few external security options other than relying on some degree of U.S. security guarantee. Bahrain has tried to earn that guarantee by hosting U.S. naval headquarters for the Gulf for over 60 years and by providing facilities and small numbers of personnel for U.S. war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States has designated Bahrain as a 'major non-NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] ally,' and it provides small amounts of security assistance to Bahrain. On other regional issues such as the Arab-Israeli dispute, Bahrain has tended to defer to Saudi Arabia or other powers to take the lead in formulating proposals or representing the position of the Persian Gulf states, collectively. These areas of strong U.S.-Bahrain cooperation have caused some public criticism of successive U.S. Administrations, including by some in Congress, for muting criticism of Bahrain's human rights record in the interests of ensuring Bahrain's cooperation on security issues. In September 2004, the United States and Bahrain signed a free trade agreement (FTA); legislation implementing it was signed January 11, 2006 (P.L. 109-169)."
CRS Report for Congress, 95-1013