Cablegate: Bahraini Leaders Describe Ups and Downs of Reform
RR RUEHDE RUEHDIR
DE RUEHMK #0168/01 0761216
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
R 161216Z MAR 08
FM AMEMBASSY MANAMA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 7677
INFO RUEHZM/GULF COOPERATION COUNCIL COLLECTIVE
RHMFISS/HQ USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 MANAMA 000168
STATE FOR NEA
E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/16/2018
TAGS: PGOV KDEM BA
SUBJECT: BAHRAINI LEADERS DESCRIBE UPS AND DOWNS OF REFORM
REF: 07 MANAMA 1112
Classified By: AMBASSADOR ADAM ERELI FOR REASONS 1.4 (B) AND (D).
1. (C) Summary: Senior government officials told visiting NEA DAS Kent Patton that the GOB remains committed to continuing reforms aimed at broadening participation, while frankly discussing past setbacks, like the departure and partial return of NDI. Oppositionists and NGOs (chiefly Shi'a) expressed concern that opponents of democratization were gaining strength among regime insiders. End summary. -------------------- Officials: Reform Continuing --------------------
2. (U) NEA Deputy Assistant Secretary Kent Patton and MEPI Regional Office Director Hans Wechsel visited Bahrain February 26 for meetings with officials, oppositionists, and civil society activists. Patton met separately with the Deputy PM, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister for Social Development, the Deputy Speaker of the lower house of parliament, and the Chairman of the upper house. Wechsel and poloff joined the meetings.
3. (C) Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa asked DAS Patton for his views on Bahrain's reform process. Patton replied that Bahrain was doing well compared to others in the region, but that there were still concerns when comparing Bahrain's progress with the rest of the world. He explained that, when evaluating reform, the USG looked at trends over time and wanted to ensure that the trend in Bahrain remained positive. The U.S. would be concerned if Bahrain appeared to move backward, away from reform. Patton explained that King Hamad would likely face tough questioning over the GOB's handling of NDI during his upcoming visit to the U.S. The FM replied that progress did not come easily, and that even if Bahrain took a step backward, the process was still healthy; it just takes time. According to him, people in the region don't yet understand democracy, and find it difficult to see more than one side of an issue. DAS Patton asked for the Minister's assistance with the Forum for the Future to be held in the UAE this October and encouraged him to attend.
4. (C) Minister of Social Development Dr. Fatima Al-Balooshi, sister of Washington Ambassador Nasser Al-Balooshi, told Patton that the International Committee for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL), a MEPI grantee, had made important contributions to the drafting of proposed legislation on NGOs that would replace the 1989 Law of Associations. She explained that the latest draft, due out within the week, addressed most civil society criticisms. (Note: These criticisms ranged from minor issues such as specific terms to more substantial ones about funding. End Note.) The NGOs' sole remaining criticism lay in the bill's requirement that NGOs must seek approval from the GOB for foreign funding of NGOS . Al-Balooshi explained this was necessary, particularly in this region with its terrorist financing threat and lack of a tax system that would otherwise require transparent financial reporting. According to her, the public debate around the NGO law, in addition to being a first in Bahrain, made some neighboring count ries nervous. The new law was part of the King's plan to transform Bahrain from a welfare state to a cooperative state, but some NGOs remained skeptical about cooperating with the government, viewing the reform project as experimental. Al-Balooshi explained that she came to government service from an NGO, and, when she leaves, she will return to an NGO. Patton explained that notifying the government of sources of funding would adequately address governmental concerns, while seeking prior approval was probably a step too far.
5. (C) Jawad Al-Arrayedh, one of three Deputy Prime Ministers and the most senior Shi'a in the government, praised the work of American expert advisors in the drafting of the original labor code in the seventies, and the role currently played by the (MEPI-funded) American Bar Association's advisor embedded in the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs. Al-Arrayedh lamented that NDI was "kicked out". He asserted that some among Bahrain's leadership are racist "bedu" and for this reason they expelled the NDI local representative, who was a Somali. (Note: NDI's resident representative in Bahrain, Fawzi Gulaid, an American citizen of Somali origin, left in May, 2006 because the GOB declined to renew his residence visa. NDI resumed programming in MANAMA 00000168 002 OF 003 October, 2007, overseen by a new, non-resident coordinator. End note.) Had the NDI representative been a "Westerner," he likely would have been able to continue his work, said the DPM. Al-Arrayedh voiced support for NDI to re-establish a permanent presence and ur ged them to do more training and work with parliamentarians. He recommended working with Ebrahim bin Majid Al-Rumaihi, the chairman of the Bahrain Institute for Political Development (BIPD), as Lulwa Al-Awadi, the chairwoman of the BIPD's Board of Trustees, was "difficult" to work with. Al-Arrayed said he regretted how NDI was "kicked out", and welcomed them back.
6. (C) In a meeting with MFA Undersecretary Sheikh Abdulaziz and Bilateral Relations Director Dr. Dhafer Alumran, DAS Patton heard that Bahrain would assist the UAE with Forum for the Future, and DAS Patton agreed to suggest that the government of the U.A.E. request assistance from Bahrain. Sheikh Abdulaziz brought up the riots of December, 2007. He explained that about 250 people had applied for permission to commemorate Shi'a reportedly killed by the government in the 1990s, and to do so on December 17, Bahrain's national day. The GOB refused the application, and asked them to pick a different day. When the demonstrators gathered December 17 without licenses, security forces dispersed the crowds with tear gas but no rubber bullets. Subsequently, those detained in connection with the December 2007 riots alleged that they had been tortured while in police custody. Abdulaziz said that the GOB and a civil society organization are now in the process of identifying independent doctors to visit the detainees .
7. (C) First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Deputies Ghanem Al-Buanain vented to DAS Patton about the Al-Wifaq bloc after a parliamentary session earlier that day. The Deputy Chairman complained that after the General Secretariat denied an Al-Wifaq request to debate a motion to summon a Sunni minister for questioning, the session degenerated into a shouting match. Al-Buanain took Al-Wifaq to task for failing to build relationships with other parliamentarians. In order for Al-Wifaq to be more effective, he said, it must learn to compromise. (Note: Al-Buanain is head of the Al-Asalah bloc, which is closely related to the Salafists. End note.)
8. (C) Chairman of the Shura Council Ali bin Saleh Al-Saleh told DAS Patton that because the King appoints members to the Shura Council, it wanted to work slowly and be sure that it does the right thing. The Council of Deputies was more reactive, the Shura more deliberative. Al-Saleh complained that, although NDI treated the Shura Council and the Council of Deputies the same when its project started, over time NDI started "ignoring and mistreating" the Shura Council. Nonetheless, the Shura Council remained ready to cooperate with NDI. ---------- Opposition ----------
9. (SBU) DCM hosted an opposition roundtable which gave DAS Patton an opportunity to meet with a range of figures, including an MP from Al-Wifaq, representatives of several political societies that had failed to win seats in parliament, and Dr. Mansour Al-Jamri, the editor-in-chief of the leading opposition newspaper, Al-Wasat. Al-Jamri claimed key regime insiders who opposed political reform were encouraging Salafi fundamentalists to enter parliament and the government as a counterweight to Shi'a reformers such as himself. According to Al-Jamri, anti-reform elements and their Salafi allies had already managed to sideline several once-influential advisors to the King, including Deputy PM Jawad Al-Arrayedh and Minister of Commerce and Industry Hassan Fakhro. He added that the leader of the "Salafi incursion" was the newly appointed Chairman of the Civil Service bureau, Ahmed Al-Zayed. The other oppositionists joined al-Jamri in complaining about economic and societal discrimination against the Shi'a. Pa tton challenged roundtable participants to outline their plans to improve the situation, but heard only a rehashing of grievances. ------------- Civil Society -------------
10. (SBU) Ambassador hosted a roundtable discussion for civil society activists. During the discussion, NGO MANAMA 00000168 003 OF 003 representatives expressed their desire for cooperation and coordination, but also told DAS Patton that despite past efforts to promote networking, none had occurred. The NGOs told Patton that they generally needed financial and technical support from the USG. Abdullah Al-Derazi of the Bahrain Human Rights Society told Patton that Bahrain needed an improved NGO law, and that he believed it would be beneficial if there were some level of public funding for NGOs to provide a salary or stipend to staff. (Note: Currently, NGOs must raise their own funds to hire full-time staff. Few can afford to do this, and leaders must squeeze in their NGO duties around their regular jobs. End note.) Marietta Dias of the Migrant Workers Protection Society emphasized the need for qualified translators at ministries to facilitate better treatment for migrant laborers.
11. DAS Patton has cleared this cable. ********************************************* ******** Visit Embassy Manama's Classified Website: XXXXXXXXXXXX********************************************* ******** ERELI