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Cablegate: Potus Visit: Big Welcome, Small Protests

VZCZCXRO4474
PP RUEHDE RUEHDIR
DE RUEHMK #0022/01 0170454
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 170454Z JAN 08
FM AMEMBASSY MANAMA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 7532
INFO RUEHZM/GULF COOPERATION COUNCIL COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RHBVAKS/COMUSNAVCENT PRIORITY
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC PRIORITY

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 MANAMA 000022

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/16/2018
TAGS: PREL PGOV OVIP BA
SUBJECT: POTUS VISIT: BIG WELCOME, SMALL PROTESTS

REF: A. MANAMA 0002
B. MANAMA 0014

Classified By: Ambassador Adam Ereli for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1.(C) Summary: King Hamad put on an impressive show in welcoming the President to Bahrain January 12-13. A lavish welcome ceremony that included 300 traditional dancers with swords accompanied solid deliverables in the signing of an anti-trafficking law (ref B) and a USD 6 billion deal for Boeing aircraft (septel). Most Bahrainis seemed to take pride in what was the first visit of a sitting U.S. President. At the same time, several hundred gathered in peaceful protests against U.S. policies in the region and to press domestic political demands. The mainstream Shi'a opposition party expressed satisfaction with the President's praise of democratic reform, as well as the hope that his visit would help reinforce their position as a democratic opposition. End summary.

2.(C) President Bush arrived in Bahrain on January 12 to a warm welcome from King Hamad and conciliatory words from most media outlets. While remaining critical of U.S. policy on Israel, Iraq, and Iran, most journalists recognized the historic nature of the visit, the first by a sitting U.S. President, and expressed hope that it signaled U.S. commitment to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One prominent editor, describing the President raising a sword to join in with the 300 sword dancers during the King's welcome ceremony, wrote that it was a "sword of friendship." Many Bahrainis took note of his participation in the traditional ceremony and several embassy contacts praised the President for showing what one termed, "his appreciation for our culture." At the same time, a few Shi'a contacts grumbled that the dance was a tradition of Bahrain's ascendant Sunni minority.

3.(C) The visit also coincided with positive action on trafficking in persons, as the King enacted new anti-trafficking legislation three days before the President's arrival (ref B), and a USD 6 billion deal for the purchase of Boeing 787 Dreamliners (septel).

4.(SBU) "Shabeeba," a youth organization staged a demonstration on the eve of the President's visit. "Shabeeba" is associated with the unregistered Shi'a Haq movement, which urges Shi'a to boycott parliamentary elections. The protest drew 150-200 people who chanted anti-Bush slogans and carried banners denouncing U.S. support for Israel. Similarly, several small political societies (none of which are represented in the Parliament) organized a protest outside the Embassy on January 12 calling on the U.S. to end its "aggression" against the region and the GOB to reject any U.S. plan for war against Iran. The 300-400 protesters also demanded that GOB expel U.S. naval forces from Bahrain. (Note: Bahrain is home to NAVCENT headquarters for the U.S. Fifth Fleet and Naval Support Activity Bahrain. End note.) Both protests were peaceful and the authorities did not interfere with either.

5.(SBU) The Embassy received open letters addressed to the President from a number of activists and human rights campaigners, including Freedom House, Front Line, and The Observatory. Freedom House urged the U.S. to press the GOB to "release" the "jailed" youth activist, Mohammed Al-Maskati. In fact, Al-Maskati was never taken into custody and remains free awaiting a hearing later this month on misdemenor charges of operating an unregistered NGO. Fron Line and The Observatory called for the releaseof 11 "human rights defenders" they claim were arrested "due to their peaceful activities promoting human rights, including economic and social rights." These 11 individuals are among 15 people who were arrested following violent street protests between December 17 and 20 and who have been charged with offenses including rioting, arson, theft of policeman's weapon, and attempted murder of a policeman.

6.(SBU) Al-Haq delivered a petition to poloff on January 10 calling on the U.S. to pressure the GOB on democracy and human rights issues. Al-Haq media director Abduljalil Singace contacted the Embassy on January 8 requesting a meeting with the President to deliver the petition. Poloff explained to him on January 9 that it would not be possible to meet the President and that the Embassy would gladly receive the petition. Poloff arranged to meet Singace at the Embassy on a holiday and, taking into account Singace's use of a wheelchair and crutches, met him outside so he would not have to negotiate his way through security and up the steps. The January 14 Washington Post quoted Singace saying the Embassy accepted his petition "grudgingly" after "days of negotiations." MANAMA 00000022 002 OF 002

7.(C) Singace and other activists criticized the President's remarks praising democratic reform efforts in Bahrain. By contrast, the mainstream Shi'a opposition party, Al-Wifaq, was pleased by the President's comments. Al-Wifaq leader Ali Salman told the Ambassador on December 29 that he believed that public praise for democratic gains in Bahrain since 2000 would encourage his supporters to stay the course despite frustration over the parliament's spotty performance (ref A). He hoped that public message would be coupled with a private message to the King to make some concessions to parliament and the opposition. Salman's aide-de-camp, Saeed Al-Majed, told Poloff that Salman was pleased with the President's public remarks and expressed hope that the visit would encourage the King to continue with reforms.

8.(C) Comment: President Bush's visit will be remembered for a long time here in Bahrain. Despite cynicism in some quarters over the purpose of the visit and disagreement with U.S. policy on many points, most Bahrainis seemed glad that the President had put their small island on the world's map for at least one news cycle. We believe the visit directly affected the timing of the anti-trafficking law and the announcement of the Boeing deal as the GOB sought concrete deliverables. Even the protests themselves reflect positive developments on the political scene. The fact that opposition groups were permitted to stage protests, and did so peacefully, illustrates the progress that has occurred since the King embarked on his reform program in 2000. Nevertheless, the Shi'a mainstream, as embodied by Al-Wifaq and Ali Salman, find their base growing ever more susceptible to Al-Haq's calls for a return to the street protests of the 1990s. ********************************************* ******** Visit Embassy Manama's Classified Website: XXXXXXXXXXXX********************************************* ******** ERELI

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