8 July 2014, 19:13

US call for Bahrain reforms –well-trodden path to revolution?

US call for Bahrain reforms –well-trodden path to revolution?
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Bahrain has urged the visiting US Assistant Secretary of State out of the countryHow could that happen? And what could be the underlying cause for the scandal? Voice of Russia has discussed the issue with Mansoor Al-Jamri, founder and Editor-in-chief of the Al-Wasat newspaper in Bahrein, and Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of the Cornerstone Global Associates consultancy and Senior Visiting Fellow at King’s College London.

Old US’ allies are getting increasingly weary of the Americans’ heavy-handed approach. Bahrain has been exasperated to a point of ousting the US Assistant Secretary of State visiting the countryAccording to the statement published by the official BNA state news agency, the Foreign ministry "has confirmed that US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour Tom Malinowski, is unwelcome and should immediately leave the country, due to his interference in its internal affairs".

US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Malinowski is in Bahrain—home base of the US Fifth Fleet—and “he remains in Bahrain.” "He is on a visit to reaffirm and strengthen our bilateral ties and to support his royal majesty King Hamad’s reform and reconciliation efforts at an important time, particularly given events elsewhere in the region," she said.

Is it the US trademark arrogance that has eventually exasperated the authorities of the Kingdom? What exactly could be the real cause of the scandal?

Says Mansoor Al-Jamri, founder and Editor-in-chief of the Al-Wasat newspaper, Bahrein:

This is totally unexpected. It seems that something had happened after the arrival of the Assistant Secretary Malinowski to Bahrain. Before he came the authorities here knew exactly what he was going to do and whom he was going to meet. So, something must have happened after the arrival.

We know that he met with the opposition, as an introductory meeting. But he also met with the officials, one of the senior officials. So, at least, during the meeting with, possibly, the official maybe some sort of disagreement has happened. It is not clear now what the discussions were about, other than what we know from the statements that he came to follow up on the decisions and on the promises to end the political crisis. This is all what we know from what has happened up until now.

But what exactly is the political crisis we are talking about now?

We have a lack of confidence between the opposition and the Government since 2011. After the outbreak of the Arab Spring uprisings in the region Bahrain was one of those countries that experienced protests. And those protests were put down by the military intervention from the GCC and by the security crackdown.

Following on from those events and a crackdown, there was a fact-finding mission in November 2011. And that fact-finding mission gave their recommendations for how to go about the crisis, how to rectify the errors and how to move forward. Then, in September 2012 there were more recommendations given by the Human Rights Council in Geneva for the Government of Bahrain, as part of the period of review that every country goes through. And the Government also gave promises of corrective measures.

According to the observers and according to the statements by the US and the EU, and others the recommendations of the fact-finding mission and the recommendations of the Human Rights Council were not fulfilled, they were not implemented. And there were lots of delays and unfulfilled promises.

From what I understood from the statements, possibly, the Assistant Secretary of State came to Bahrain to make sure there are some achievements and some guidelines in the timetable of when this is going to be achieved and how this is going to be achieved. Possibly, something has happened during these discussions that created an atmosphere resulting in anger from the Bahraini authorities and in a step, which has not happened before, which is very important.

Do I get it right that since the onset of the Arab Spring events, there have been certain tensions between the Bahrain authorities and the US?

There were concerns expressed by the Secretary of State and by the Department of State in the US. There were continuous concerns plus continuous reports that there are two problems in Bahrain. One is the human rights problem and another one is the political problem, and that the US has been urging to rectify and solve the human rights issue, and then to start tackling the political issues. On both counts the Department of State always said that there is no movement and there is no positive development.

And I think in the view of what is happening in Iraq and in the region, there was one phone call from Joe Biden – the Vice President of the USA – to the King of Bahrain about two weeks ago. That was a very unusual phone call conversation. And during that phone call conversation, according to the White House, Joe Biden spoke to the King about the necessity of reforms, as well as confirming the strategic alliance between the US and Bahrain. They also spoke about the necessity to move forward.

After that phone call we have the Assistant Secretary of State coming. Everybody understood that the Assistant Secretary of State Malinowski has come after the phone call of Joe Biden.

What exactly are the US’ interests that could be affected in Bahrain, if the security situation deteriorates?

Obviously, you have the Fifth Fleet here. And other than the image and reputation, they are worried that this will reflect on their presence and their strategic alliances. And they would like to see something where they could make a difference, rather than leave everything to develop in a direction that later on they could be blamed for.

Ghanem Nuseibeh , founder of the Cornerstone Global Associates consultancy and Senior Visiting Fellow at King’s College London:

Obviously, it is an indication that the Bahraini Government was very uncomfortable with something that has happened during the visit of the US Assistant Secretary of State. Whether the schedule of the visit was coordinated previously is one thing, the other thing is what has actually been discussed during those meetings. And it does appear that the Bahraini authorities were not comfortable on what has been discussed during the visit itself.

And what was it?

It is impossible to say exactly what was discussed, except that the meeting itself with the opposition was seen as meddling into the internal affairs of Bahrain and, as a result, was seen by the authorities as having a potentially negative impact on the security situation of the country.

There is an opposition group in Bahrain, a Shiite opposition group, that is trying to destabilize the country, as it is seen by the Government. They obviously have certain things that the Government has been negotiating with them over many years. But things have reached to a point where they had to resort to violence and, therefore, the authorities were no longer able to entertain discussion with what is internally seen as a group that resorts to violence. That’s how the Bahraini Government sees it.

It has moved from being a political issue… and there were quite deep discussions between the Government and that group. But when it has turned into violence, particularly after the start of the Arab Spring, it has turned from being a political situation to a more serious security one.

And therefore, the Government sees this group as a destabilizing force. And therefore, interacting with this group undermined the ability of the Bahraini Government to deal with the issue that they deem is an internal one. Therefore, they did not want to entertain any outside intervention.

Do you think the scandal might be somehow connected with the latest developments in Iraq and the changed US’ stance on Iran?

The relationships between Bahrain and the US are very stable, very long-term. Obviously, the US now are going closer and closer with the Iranians and, therefore, it would seem that getting closer to the Shiites of the region is something that the US is prepared to compromise on in the bigger scheme of improving its relationship with the Iranians.

Many in the Gulf see this as coming at the expense of the US relationships with the Arab countries. Therefore, there is an element of closer US-Iranian relationships in that. And that is why there is a deep level of concern about the US trying to get closer and closer to the Shia population and the impact that would have on the stability of the local societies in countries with significant Shia population, like Bahrain.

What kind of implications could the scandal have for bilateral ties?

The relationship is very-very long-term, it is very deep, it is mutually beneficial for both. The Fifth Fleet is in Bahrain. The Americans need Bahrain as much as the Bahrainis need the Americans. I think it is obviously a tense situation that has happened in the past few hours, but I do not think it will have the longer-term impact on the relationships between Bahrain and the US.

the US has been pressing the Bahraini authorities on the need of reform since the onset of the Arab Spring. Do you think that going on with the reform in the present circumstances is a good idea?

There have been obviously long-term attempts of reforming and some of the reforms are being implemented continuously. And in the long-term, I think the Government understands that there will have to be some sort of economic and political reforms in the country. But it has to be two-sided, rather than one-sided. There are requests made by the opposition that simply go far beyond the reform that is being asked for. And that is also what concerns the Government.

As far as the reform is concerned, I think the Government has been prepared to listen to the requests of reform. But with the increasingly intensifying political climate, that is increasingly more difficult, because there are groups within Bahrain whose requests go beyond what is deemed as a political and economic reform. It is beyond that, it is something that is much bigger than that sort of reform that the Government is prepared to entertain.

Do you think that despite the difficult environment the government of Bahrain would be pressed into going for reform? And what could be the implications if it resists?

Here the issue is that you’ve got to look at this in the context of the regional situation, particularly with Iran, the significant Shia population in Bahrain, with Saudi Arabia, and the GCC in general, looking closely and having a very deep interest in ensuring that Bahrain remains stable. Therefore, the potential there is that it has to be addressed in a regional context to make the rest of the GCC comfortable with what is going on.

As far as the intervention of the Iranian element in what is going on in Bahrain, that is obviously something that concerns many out there and how this should be addressed. Whether that is doable or not, I don’t think so.

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