Statement by H.E. Shaikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak Alkhalifa

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H.E. Shaikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak Alkhalifa

International media advisor, Information Affairs Authority for the Kingdom of Bahrain

The following was presented at the Middle East Policy Council’s round table discussion, “Governance, Human Rights and American Interests in Bahrain“, on Thursday, March 31st, 2011. Panelists also included Dr. Kristin Smith Diwan, assistant professor of comparative and regional studies at the School of International Service at American University (see her remarks on repression and reform) and Professor Stephen King, associate professor and comparative field chair at Georgetown University (see his remarks on the possibilities of constitutional monarchy). The discussion was moderated by Dr. Thomas Mattair, executive director at the Middle East Policy Council, and was attended by thirty Washington-based Middle East experts and journalists.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank the MEPC for inviting me to attend this forum looking at the current situation in the Kingdom of Bahrain.

I fully recognise the importance of these events to help clarify situations, understand the complexities of global events and share thoughts and experience.  It is through such events that policy can be forged that is fully reflective of the needs, pressures and demands inherent in state politics and international affairs.

I hope that I will be able to give you a fresh perspective on current events in Bahrain and, perhaps, a more insightful look at where my country is at the present time than you may have seen from the international media in recent weeks.

What is not in doubt is that Bahrain has gone through a challenging period, which we are emerging from gradually.

But, before I turn to recent events, I would like to take you back a bit further, to 1999 when our present King, His Majesty King Hamad, acceded to the throne in Bahrain as Amir.

Bahrain is a very different nation to the one that existed then, and that is a direct consequence of the reforms instituted by His Majesty the King, under no specific internal or external pressure.

These reforms sought to provide greater freedom, rights and opportunity to all Bahrainis. 

Political prisoners and religious leaders were pardoned and released.  The State Security Court, which had permitted the government to detain individuals without trial for up to 3 years, was abolished. The Supreme Judicial Council and Constitutional Court were then strengthened to protect and reinforce the sovereignty and independence of the judiciary.

Bahrain saw the introduction of a new constitutional framework; a more open, participatory and representative political system with an elected Parliament; deep rooted economic reforms aimed at doubling the household income for all Bahrainis within two decades; the introduction of unemployment benefit and the enshrining of a wide range of individual and collective rights, aimed at guaranteeing equality for all citizens and forbidding all forms of discrimination.

This process continued throughout the decade as our society matured.  We had three parliamentary elections, the two most recent having full participation from all representative political groups. 

At the most recent election in October 2010, turnout was at 67.7%, an encouraging endorsement of the reform programme.  In that election, the leading opposition group Al Wefaq gained a further seat in Parliament and both Secretary Clinton and UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, recognised the significance and the probity of the elections we held.

Nevertheless, twelve years on it is a legitimate question to ask whether we had gone fast enough with our reforms?  For many, we had not, but equally, for a significant proportion, we had moved as fast we could. 

Those that view Bahrain solely through the wider prism of regional unrest fail to see accurately why we are now where we are and, ultimately, how we will move forward.

It is beyond doubt that the protest movement was energised by events in Egypt and Tunisia, but comparisons do not extend much further.

The important point I would like to stress is that Bahrain was already moving ahead, it was progressing.  In this context, we should view Bahrain in a very different way to many other countries in the region that have experienced upheaval.

Looking at events in Bahrain since February, it is clear that both sides made some mistakes and now we have seen a sharp, sectarian divide emerge in our society.  During this period, we saw an almost complete breakdown in law and order.

We saw the tragic deaths of protestors, expats from the Indian subcontinent and law enforcement officers.

Such events affected us all deeply.

Some of you may have been surprised at how the situation eventually developed, but by March 13th, as we faced the onset of anarchy, we had no option, but to act to secure Bahrain for the sake of all citizens and residents.

It cannot, and should not, be ignored that for almost a month before His Royal Highness the Crown Prince strived to engage representative political groups in formal dialogue to address core issues of concern.

There are very few societies where people do not have some grievances with Government.  With respect to Bahrain, issues such as housing and unemployment among the young — despite unemployment overall being cut from over 16% to less than 4% from 2006 to 2010 — were certainly ones that we recognised needed to be addressed. 

But to suggest that there was wholesale denial of opportunity to parts of Bahrain society is categorically false, as is the idea that there is pervading problem with poverty, although it is true that Shia families, who are traditionally much larger, were certainly more likely to be exposed to economic pressures.

We recognised that political reform needed to continue, which was always a stated aim of the Government. 

His Royal Highness the Crown Prince promised to look at all issues within the dialogue. Nothing was off the table for discussion. There were no red lines. He proposed seven principles for the dialogue: a parliament with full authority; a government that represents the will of the people; fairer voting districts; naturalisation; combating corruption; state property and addressing sectarian tension.

But, even then opposition groups would not agree to dialogue.

The original pre-conditions for dialogue, set at the start, had been met: the removal of the military from the streets; the ordering of police away from the Pearl Roundabout; permission for peaceful protests without prior approval, and the release of prisoners.

Following this, all we saw were increasing calls, not for reform, but for the fall of the regime and a spread of protests.  The movement did not become more inclusive and moderate, but became overrun by extremist elements and a destructive agenda.

Protests spread, becoming increasingly violent and sectarian in nature, into schools, hospitals and communities.  All the while the offer of substantive dialogue towards forming a consensus leading to a legally binding referendum remained unanswered.

Ultimately, when protestors took over the entire business district in Bahrain, as chaos began to spread nationwide with attacks on the university and communities establishing roadblocks, police had no option, but to intervene.

The anarchy we were seeing left our police forces overstretched.  We called in GCC support to help maintain Bahrain’s security and stability.  There was no other option.

The actions taken to restore law and order were necessary to safeguard our economy and to allow people to continue their lives.  The protests had stopped being peaceful.

And it became clear that the protest movement was being influenced by parties abroad.

What is in little doubt to seasoned observers of the region is the strategic interest that Bahrain holds to some within the Iranian establishment and theocracy, due to the fact that we have a large Shia population, linked to the large Shia population in regional countries. 

I would point you to the statements that emanated from Tehran, particularly from certain clerics, as an indication of intent and support from Iran.

We have seen even more overt activity from Hezbollah in Lebanon, not only through the fiery rhetoric of Hassan Nasrallah, but also through on-the-ground evidence of active support to the extreme elements within the Bahrain protest movement.

It should be made clear that the protest movement itself was not necessarily entirely an invention of foreign forces, but it has become increasingly apparent that at its extreme, it was and is fostered by parties abroad.  

For example, at Salmaniya Medical Complex, which had become a command and control centre for the extremist protestors, swathes of Hezbollah literature was discovered by authorities.  

While throughout the period, we saw the Iranian-backed satellite channel, Al Alam, and Hezbollah-funded station, Al Manar, conduct intensive, sectarian-based, inflammatory coverage of the protests.

As I have indicated, we will shortly make available more information regarding the involvement of foreign actors in the unrest in Bahrain, which has already severely strained our relations with Lebanon, in particular.

One thing we do wish to avoid, and this was a prime motivator for bringing in the GCC Peninsula Shield, was to prevent escalation of a situation that may have conceivably led to Bahrain becoming the centre of a proxy battle between other states in the region.  It is this scenario that we wish to avoid at all costs.  By exerting the unity that exists between the GCC nations, I strongly believe that this risk can be managed effectively.

Going back to my earlier point, regarding how Bahrain should not be viewed solely through a regional prism, we both welcome and appreciate the Obama administration’s clear understanding of the different challenges and circumstances that Bahrain faces to other countries in the region.  We are not another Egypt and we are certainly not another Libya.

I am aware that not all may see it that way, but without understanding where we have come from, what pressures and demands we face, it is impossible to see how and where improvements can be made.

It should not be forgotten that we have been a force of moderation within the region, in terms of religious freedom, for Christians and Jews, Sikhs and Hindus, as well as Sunni and Shia. 

It should not be forgotten that we are also at a stage in a cycle of development, and progress takes time in all societies. 

It should not be forgotten that we, like all GCC states, are tribal monarchies, quite unlike Egypt or Tunisia, Syria or Libya.  That is not to say that our situation is so different that it is an impediment to progress, but without understanding this you cannot comprehend how that progress should occur.

Returning to the present situation in Bahrain, only a political solution will finally resolve the issues that do exist. 

A political solution is within everyone’s interest, so that significant further reform can be achieved and with it a stable political settlement for Bahrain.

We are concerned by the reaction of both Sunni and Shia communities to recent events and we have seen an increase in sectarian tensions at levels never seen before in Bahrain, therefore we will have to embark on a long and considered healing process involving many programmes and initiatives, at the grassroots and at the Government level.

But, this can only be done in a stable and secure environment where all of Bahrain’s communities feel safe. 

It is a difficult period for us, but we will reflect on how we ended up here, remind ourselves of our strengths, learn lessons where we need to, and address the problems we do have, including ensuring that we do not have any foreign interference in our communities.

Thank you very much for offering me the opportunity to address you today.  I hope that I have helped provide you with a deeper understanding of where we are and where we are going. 

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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