Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, King of Bahrain, came to the throne in 1999. Since then, he has expanded the rights of women, modernized his country, and established Bahrain as a financial center in the region. Two years ago, on February 14, 2011, several thousand demonstrators gathered in the Bahraini capital, Manama, to demand more popular political participation and reform. To many Western commentators and journalists, it was a sign that the Arab Spring was spreading to the Gulf countries.CLARIFICATION
This introduction has been changed to reflect the account of unrest in early 2011, as described in the report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. A dialogue between the king and prince and leading opposition party El Wefaq followed a call by protestors for an end to the monarchy and the establishment of a republic. The dialogue did not precede the call. El Wefaq was reluctant to accept initiatives suggested by the king and prince. Some, but not all, protestors called for the establishment of an Islamic republic, according to interviews with protestors and information from Western and Arab intelligence officials. When more protestors began calling for the end of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic, the King and his son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad, invited the leading opposition party El Wefaq to a dialogue and offered significant reforms to end the conflict but the El Wefaq leadership was reluctant to accept.
Security personnel cleared demonstrators from Pearl Square. On March 15, 2011, a day after tanks from the Peninsula Shield Force, a rapid reaction force assembled by the six Gulf monarchies, rolled into Bahrain from Saudi Arabia, the King declared a state of emergency. In June of that year, the King commissioned Egyptian-American human rights expert Cherif Bassiouni to carry out an inquiry into the protests. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) found that 46 people, including police officers and immigrants, died in the demonstrations, five as a result of torture. More than 4,000 people lost their jobs as a result of participating in the demonstrations.
The report criticized the security forces for many instances when “force and firearms were used in an excessive manner that was, on many occasions, unnecessary, disproportionate, and indiscriminate.” The report also stated that both the Government and the opposition shared responsibility for the violence. The report confirmed the Bahraini government’s use of torture and other forms of physical and psychological abuse on detainees as well as other human rights violations but also criticized violence by protestors and their abuses against expatriates. The King promised to implement recommendations for police and judiciary reform. In January, the King called for a restart of national dialogue to help end the deadlock.
Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, at left, with Bahraini Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa and Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, right, wait to welcome Gulf Cooperation Council leaders during their arrival to the GCC summit in Sekhir, Bahrain in December 2012. Photo by Hasan Jamali/The Associated Press
The Al Khalifa royal family has held power in Bahrain for over 200 years. Until the uprisings, the Kingdom had been seen as a model country in the region. Souad Mekhennet, a 2013 Nieman fellow, has been researching the long-term strategies of terrorist organizationssince the Arab spring. In the case of Bahrain, she found increasing influence and involvement from Iraqi-based radical figures and groups trying to use frustration among Bahraini Shia as a recruiting tool. Mekhennet travels regularly to the region and interviewed King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa in Bahrain.
Souad Mekhennet: Your Majesty, what is the current situation in Bahrain?
King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa: Things are moving in the right direction. We just had a very successful Formula One event. Bahrainis have benefited immensely through this economic festival from additional tourism and spectators. Our economic development must continue for the prosperity of Bahrainis, and events such as Formula One add great economic value to the country.
Does this mean there are no consequences if someone disagrees with you or the government?
It is fine to disagree with the government and to want to change the law. There is only one way. It is not violence; it is dialogue. It is not intimidation; it is accommodation. Some small groups want to impose their will on everyone else by using violence. They have the advantage of being able to plan their sabotage anywhere. But the whole world has condemned violence in Bahrain as it is condemned around the world. Terrorism has no religion and has the same ugly face around the world.
So to you these protests are terrorist acts?
Yes, of course. For example, in Bahrain and in Boston, terrorists used pressure cookers to assemble their homemade bombs, which killed innocent people and injured hundreds. I believe these undemocratic saboteurs are losing steam. We all want change for the best of Bahrain. I myself want change, maybe more than anyone.
There are messages on Twitter stating that people are protesting every week. To many in the West, it seems not much has changed in Bahrain.
I do not get my information from Twitter only and neither should you. My own information from law enforcement sources confirms that the number of rioters is decreasing. These new media tools are interesting and are changing the landscape of media, but you always have to keep in mind that, depending on who the person is, their messages are one-sided or even not true.
World Free Press Day was on May 3, and you mentioned in one of your speeches that there would be reforms in the media sector.
I believe that the media plays an important role in the development of a country. To me, a free and ethical media is very crucial, and we therefore are going to establish a council in Bahrain with members from all stakeholders of society, like NGOs, members of parliament, women’s organizations and religious groups. This council will set the policy for the media. This media governance structure was created in consultation with the French government based on world best practices.
Bahrain has been criticized for not giving visas to media organizations.
The issuing of the visas is in the hands of our Ministry of Government Communication. Any country in this world has certain requirements for issuing visas. We welcome any journalists who want to learn about the truth and do her or his job based on the international ethical standards. In other words, come, see and talk to all the sides, not only one.
Is there freedom of expression in Bahrain? Some local journalists and activists are said to be in jail for expressing their opinions.
No one in Bahrain is prosecuted for their opinions. That is everyone’s right. But people who are filmed while inciting others to take up arms, to affront the police, and to demonstrate in sensitive areas without a permit should not say that they are pursued for their opinions. This cannot be tolerated in any country. They are breaking the law.
For some weeks now, there has been a dialogue among various groups in Bahrain. What is the aim of this dialogue?
This dialogue is a continuation of the first one we had several months ago. All the representatives of all parties of Bahraini society are engaging in a discussion and agreeing to the agenda of reforms. I am waiting with a lot of patience to hear their ideas, because national dialogue is the only right way for Bahrain and for anyone who says he or she has the interest of all Bahrainis in mind.
The aim is to have a real constitutional monarchy in Bahrain?
Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy. In my first speech in Parliament, I said it is not me alone taking decisions. This is the people and I together. Democratic constitutional institutions are already in practice, such as the Parliament, local elected municipalities, the Constitutional Court and the National Audit Office.
How do you see your role as a monarch then?
First of all, let me clarify something. This is not an absolute monarchy here like in some ancient times in France or Britain. Here the King has to be for all the people, similar to any democratic country [in which] a president is representing all the people of his nation.
Some groups in Bahrain feel deprived of their rights. Some political parties say Shia citizens [around 60 percent of Bahrainis] have fewer rights.
You do not have special rights because you have particular religious beliefs. Here in Bahrain, the only thing we know is that we are a majority of Muslims with all other faiths freely practiced and respected.
So everybody is the same in Bahrain, no matter their religious background?
All of us have the rights of citizens, and citizens have the right to complain and to demand change. But none of us has the right to deny the rights of others. We stand on equal distance from all people as long as they demonstrate their love to Bahrain in practice.
There have been complaints by some protesters that there are too many members of the royal al Khalifa family in key positions.
We don’t have aristocracy in Bahrain; we are all commoners. To demonstrate this further, since 2001 and by the constitution I have no rights but to accept the laws which have been sanctioned by the Parliament; nor do I have the right to dissolve the Parliament unless it is in consultation with the President of the elected chamber of the Parliament and the President of the Constitutional Court. Actually, any member of the al Khalifa family has to prove every day that they are hard working, because they are from the royal family. You cannot be a good leader if you do not serve.
Some organizations in the West claim that even after the independent commission of Sharif Bassiouni no real change has taken place.
That is not true. There had been reforms in various sectors, like police and the juridical system. This is an ongoing process. Also, during the first dialogue that took place after the report was issued, 20 constitutional articles were amended based on the consensus of the different parties so that the new Cabinet is required to win the vote of confidence of the elected Council based on their program. These reforms ensure that the formation of the Cabinet and the plan reflect the will of the people. We are the first country in the Gulf that allowed this major shift of power to the people.
Does this provide the Parliament with more power?
The government is an executive branch, and it doesn’t matter if your family name is al Khalifa or not, you will have to answer to the Parliament, meaning the people. It is similar to the U.S.
What is the long-term strategy for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)?
To us in the GCC, the E.U. [European Union] could be a good role model. And we are actually looking forward to the “G.U.”, the Gulf Union. The Gulf Union is steadily moving forward. Consultations between the GCC countries are in advanced stages. The Gulf Union is an immediate need for our region and is fundamental to the fulfillment of our people’s aspirations.
Do you intend to work more closely with Europe?
Since the E.U. is the example, they should help us to learn fast how to achieve what is needed to have a successful future. They can and should criticize us when we make mistakes, but they should also help us become better. So anyone who wants to help us in that regard is welcome.
In what areas could Europe help Bahrain?
We admit that we need help in reforming the policing, health sector and juridical. So, because we are all allies and we all want to reform and become better, there should be more help offered. I had a member of the European Parliament visiting recently and he himself said it took Europe 600 years before they became democratic.
How is the relationship between the Gulf region and Europe at the moment?
People from the Gulf region invest a lot of money in Europe and vice versa. For example, Bahrain has invested $11.1 billion in the banking sector in the U.K. We see Europe clearly as an ally.
And what about the U.S.? Do you see it as an ally?
We have great respect for the U.S. because [it is] our biggest ally, and it is still doing more good to the development of the region than harm. We welcomed the U.S. Fifth Fleet presence in Bahrain at a time when all the other countries in the region were against it. And our F-16 pilots were side-by-side with the U.S. Air Force during the liberation of Kuwait.
Comments, especially from the State Department, haven’t been that positive in regard to Bahrain.
The relationship is so strong that any attempt to destroy that will fail. It is normal between friends and brothers to have different opinions from time to time, but then both parties should find a way to find constructive solutions.
Bahrain has been criticized for violations against human rights.
We brought an international independent commission, which wrote a report, and we said we are accepting recommended changes and reforms have to happen. But this is an ongoing process. And I hope that our proposal of an Arab Court of Human Rights, which was approved in principle by the Arab League last year, will be established soon. Any opinion that will help us to improve our practice is welcomed, as we always welcome improving as a nation. The U.S. needs also reforms in that regard.
In what regard does the U.S. need reform?
For example, in how they engage with Muslims and other minorities in their society. If you look at the human rights reports about the situation in the U.S., it shows that they are also having ongoing reforms. Bahrain is like the U.S. and other countries; this is in an ongoing process. Bahrain is an open society. Apart from mosques, we have churches, temples and synagogues in our Kingdom. The rights of religious minorities and women are very important.
How important is the role of Bahraini women?
Women participate in the Cabinet, the Parliament, business, politics, commerce and NGOs. They are competing so well that they are even doing better than their male colleagues in some sectors. Bahrain is proud to have no women illiteracy, and more than 50 percent of members in the civil services are women. I am very proud that our women participated already in 1950 in municipal elections. There is no doubt that women are playing a very fundamental part in the development of Bahrain.
How do you see the situation in the region?
The Middle East needs peace, and we hope that there will be a two state solution soon. This will for sure change the situation a lot.
Does that mean Bahrain would then recognize the State of Israel?
We will stick to the Arab initiative. But as soon as the two state solutions are established, I am sure the rules of the game will change.
What do you think about the outcome of the Arab Spring?
People had many and different hopes of what the Arab Spring would bring for them and are now very disappointed. I think many ordinary people are heart-broken to find their lives worsened as a result of the destruction of institutions. It is easy to destroy, but it is difficult to build.
Where do you see your country five years from now, and what role will the al Khalifa family then be playing?
Well, this is all in the hands of God but we have confirmed our path to reform, as progressive members of or regional community, the GCC. I hope that all Bahrainis, including my family, will be committed to work for the prosperity of all the people living in Bahrain. My vision is an open society, respectful of the rights of all people living here, no matter whether they are Bahrainis or not. I will never stop moving forward toward that vision.