U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is meeting in Bahrain with the kingdom's top rulers, who are facing growing demands for more political freedom.
In Saturday's meetings, Gates is expected to urge a more open dialogue with political opposition groups, while offering reassurances of U.S. support for the rulers.
Gates is the first member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet to visit this tiny Persian Gulf nation since street protests began in mid-February.
Bahrain's rulers are facing rising conflict between Sunni Muslims who support the ruling system and majority Shiites demanding the Sunnis give up their monopoly on power.
The country is of great strategic importance to the United States, whose naval 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain as a bulwark against Iran.