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Cablegate: Part Ii: Parting Thoughts On Bahrain's Political

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 05 MANAMA 000864

SIPDIS

DEPT FOR NEA DAS DIBBLE, NEA/ARP, NEA/PI
CAIRO FOR STEVE BONDY

E.O. 12958: DECL: 06/06/2029
TAGS: PREL PGOV PINR KPAO KMPI BA
SUBJECT: PART II: PARTING THOUGHTS ON BAHRAIN'S POLITICAL
AND ECONOMIC SITUATION

REF: MANAMA 863

Classified By: Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann. Reasons 1.4 (B)(D).

This is part II of my parting reflections on Bahrain.
Reftel, Part I is the summary.

---------
Political
---------

1. (S) Bahraini politics remain a complicated balancing act
in a small polity. By no means is it a full democracy, but
it is going in the right direction with parliament making
real trouble and forcing real changes. If not always wise in
their actions, the deputies can scarcely be discounted as
non-entities. They are slowly developing new habits of
dialogue across sectarian lines.

2. (S) The second chamber, the consultative council, has
proved that it is more than a rubber stamp for the government
as was predicted. It has established its own progressive
agenda. A core of 10-15 members with professional and
governmental experience has provided balance to the
inexperienced and sometimes emotional deputies. The
consultative chamber has also developed common ties with the
deputies, which were not predicted.

3. (S) I believe increasingly that the two-house structure
was wise. It prevents a zero-sum game developing between the
parliament and the government. This will be all the more
necessary should the Shia opposition enter the next election
where they would win a significant number of seats.

4. (S) However, it is not certain that the four-party,
largely Shia rejectionist opposition will choose to enter
those elections. At this point, I think they will boycott.
Despite extensive criticism -- above all from the Shia elite
-- for having missed a significant opportunity through the
last boycott, the rejectionists remain obdurate. While they
frame their stance on legal and constitutional arguments, I
think they are really rejecting democratic participation in a
bid for immediate political power. There is no doubt that
they have chosen to fight on the ground on which they are
least likely to win; the monarchy has everything to lose from
the ultimate concession that the opposition seeks.

5. (S) In rejecting participation, Al-Wifaq and its allies
have forfeited potential political gains they might have
achieved from leading parliament. The rejectionists are left
with a thus far sterile strategy of mobilizing their youthful
and unemployed political base to force confrontation in hopes
that it will rally the broader community support it enjoyed
during the 90s' uprising. Confrontation has fostered a
bargaining game that could develop momentum towards the
informal dialogue democracies need to reach compromise. As
of now, the game is sterile because obtaining justice is more
important to the rejectionists than achieving practical
political goals. The absence of an off-line discussion
continues to bedevil the development of participatory
politics.

6. Meanwhile, Shia have broken with Al-Wifaq and voted.
Shia deputies in parliament will fight for their seats.
Others are likely to break with Al-Wifaq if it again
boycotts. These strains could cause intra-Shia violence in
2006.

--------
The King
--------

7. (S) The king has been too adroit to give the
rejectionists the crackdown that they want. Political reform
and modest economic growth have created incentives to avoid
confrontation. When confrontations occur, the king has
authorized only enough force to maintain essential order.
Violators are frequently pardoned. When I asked him, the
king admitted that he intends to avoid confrontation through
the next election.

8. (S) The price for this is increased lawlessness among
young people. Petty crime and attacks on the south Asian
community have risen. Although not alarming, this is making
the business community uneasy. The appointment as interior
minister of the king's close confidante and former BDF chief
of staff could herald a new effort at law and order. If so,
it will come along with recruitment of new Shia police
recruits. I would hazard a guess that these new recruits
will lead any aggressive law and order campaign in the Shia
villages. The crown prince told me that when the GOB decides
to enforce the law, it wants the community behind the police.

9. (S) Overall, King Hamad remains a skillful, intuitive
political leader with enormous confidence in his own
judgment. His close friends tell me that he has a strong
belief in his own tie to the Bahraini people. The king is
sometimes impetuous, but he is prepared to change course
rapidly if he finds himself in a box. He has gained enough
goodwill from his early reforms that he can ride out a good
deal of criticism, although it is true that the pace of the
early reforms led many to expect much more rapid change in
succeeding years. I think we will not see that pace again.
The king believes that a significant period is going to be
needed for the evolution of political habits in Bahrain.

10. (S) He has a long-term vision of equalizing power between
Sunni and Shia communities while ruling as the arbitrator
between them; ultimate power will remain his. Yet, I believe
Hamad is prepared to devolve more power to the parliament.
He has told me that he would approve a political party law
and has even encouraged some deputies to draft one. He has
not lifted a finger to protect ministers who were under
attack, perhaps even seeing this as a way of undercutting his
uncle the Prime Minister. He has allowed the parliament to
gradually force changes in pensions, social security, and
probably in press and labor laws, although these are still
being debated.

11. (S) The king will not cause a major rupture in the family
by removing his uncle the Prime Minister. I believe that
Hamad views such a family rift as both politically unwise and
perhaps unmannerly. But he is speedily undercutting his
uncle in significant ways. The tendering board has limited
corruption. The former housing ministry has passed to a
clean minister. The latest move in interior removes one of
the last old guard of the PM and moves the position into
Hamad's orbit. The movement is much too slow for many, but
after watching it for nearly three years, it is clear that
the power will continue to pass steadily, if somewhat
jerkily, to the king and his son Crown Prince Salman. With
power will come more political liberalization and economic
reform.

12. (S) Hamad's weakness is that he has no detail men around
him. In fact he is not interested in detail. His preference
is to, as he says, "find the right man and let him work the
details." The drawback is that the right man must often wait
a long time until the wrong man is removed. I suspect few
tell the king bad news but he knows this; I never found him
closing his ears so long as I told him hard truths politely
and in private.

----------------
The Crown Prince
----------------

13. (S) Crown Prince Salman remains his father's right-hand
man in economic reform. He lost some prestige last year when
his well-known preference for a deeper cabinet reshuffle was
beaten back by his uncle, Prime Minister Khalifa. Salman has
retrenched by focusing on economic areas where he can win.
He seems to be injecting himself more into security and
intelligence matters. If this develops it will strengthen
his base. He remains extremely popular among both Shia and
Sunni Bahrainis. For some time the crown prince will be
careful and will remain limited in the changes he can produce
on his own. He has said he will not be prime minister and
wants this role eventually to pass out of the royal family.
However, that may take some years.

-------------------------------------
Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa bin Isa
-------------------------------------

14. (S) Despite real political losses, Shaikh Khalifa
remains powerful because he and his team have the experience
and knowledge to manage the day-to-day details running the
government. I believe that Shaikh Khalifa is not wholly a
negative influence. While certainly corrupt he has built
much of modern Bahrain. He is dedicated to Bahrain. But he
is a traditional Arab. His preference for old ways and old
ministers will remain a drag on the pace of reform.

-----------------------------------
A Society Growing More Conservative
-----------------------------------
15. (S) During my time on the island, Sunni and Shia alike
have grown more socially conservative. At the first
university graduation I attended perhaps 60 percent of the
women had head coverings; the last was in excess of 95
percent. The reasons for this are many, from backlash
against the dislocation of globalization to resentment of
drunken Saudis in the streets on the weekend. The
constituency of the Islamists is growing, increasing the
political strength of the more radical fringe elements. Some
areas, like opposition to alcohol or risque public singers,
reverberate across the Sunni/Shia divide. In other ways a
growing, but still small, radical Sunni presence intensified
the differences. Thus far, the government has approached the
Islamist current timidly. That strategy won't work forever.
My guess is that the king will follow the same path he has
with the Shia; letting the excesses build up social
irritation on which he can finally move with public support.

16. (S) Beyond a particular security dimension that
concerns us, the Islamists are primarily a challenge to the
future character of Bahrain. The businessmen, intellectuals,
social liberals and others who want a freer society in the
future are beginning to think about how to resist
conservative pressures. They have not yet coalesced. But
they are talking about action where last year they ran from
politics. In this, Bahrain is a small representative of a
social struggle throughout the Arab world.

----------------------------------------
Regional Situation and the U.S. Alliance
----------------------------------------

17. (S) Bahrain is vulnerable to tensions from the outside.
The Khobar shooting was 35 miles from Manama. The king,
prime minister and crown prince are unified in their
determination to preserve the U.S. alliance as the
cornerstone of Bahrain's external security. They know this
increases their vulnerability to criticism from pan Arab
sentiments and ever-growing resentment of our Palestinian
policies. They, and particularly King Hamad, have elected to
take a more public stance in support of key U.S. policies
than is the norm for Arab leaders, betting that this will
strengthen our ties. They deeply believe we should do more
to rebalance our Palestinian policies, but they recognize
Bahrain lacks the leverage to induce us to change.

18. (S) Whether by government management or popular
understanding, we have been fortunate that Bahrain's security
relationship with us has not been a major focus of public
concern. Demonstrations about U.S. policy have focused on
the Embassy and not on the naval base. Since we are not
quite sure why this is we are limited in our ability to
forecast what political events might trigger public strains.
Ultimately the alliance works because the GOB wants it and
the king and royal family will defend the relationship. But
as liberalization continues we have to be more and more
sensitive to the need to measure carefully actions that might
trigger public attacks on the security relationship. Pushing
an ICC exclusion (Article 98) in the face of Abu Ghraib is
symptomatic of ignoring our problem.

-----------
The Economy
-----------

19. (S) Economic problems massively underpin political
instability. The economy has advanced with both budget
surpluses and growing jobs, but unemployment, concentrated
particularly in the Shia ranks and a growing youth bulge
remain. With few natural resources, stagnant oil production,
and an expanding population, Bahrain is paying the price for
having structured an economy based on low wage, south Asian
labor rather than high productivity, better paid Bahrainis.
Economic reforms, which we support strongly, are, at best,
only a portion of what is needed to break out of this
misdirected model. Powerful members of the business
community and royal family have vested interest in the
current system. Raising the productivity level of young
Bahrainis to make economically feasible paying a living wage
is also a long-term project. Until Bahrain makes headway
with these intractable issues, unemployment will fuel the
discontent of the opposition.

20. (S) There is a growing divide between the very wealthy
and the very poor. This feeds the sense of frustration and
grievance. Until the economy improves there is the risk that
the frustrations will move either back into demonstrations in
the street or into political challenges through the
parliament that may not be containable by the methods used so
far.

21. (S) King Hamad knows this and it is driving a number of
economic decisions. The crown prince's court is engaged in
an intensive effort with labor and business to identify a way
forward. Paradoxically, the troubles in Saudi Arabia may
lead to some increase in regional service business or the
dependence of those engaged in such business moving from the
eastern province to Bahrain. By the same token, a terrorist
incident in Bahrain or rapid departure of the foreign
community could seriously imperil this state's security.

---------------------------------
What It All Means for U.S. Policy
---------------------------------
22. (S) Basically, we are on the right track. We continue
to publicize legitimate grievances by means of actions
ranging from the human rights report to periodic quiet
conversations that I've had with the most senior leadership
to keep them moving forward with reform. We are continually
telling the opposition that we will not save them from their
own stupidities and urging them to get in the game. This
will all come into fresh focus in the next election. Until
then, NDI, as the chosen vehicle of U.S. support for
democracy, has done a magnificent job in keeping doors open
across the political spectrum and working to develop improved
habits and practices of democracy. We must continue to fund
those efforts lavishly.

23. (S) We continue to see that many of the habits of
democratic practice are not established. Compromise is not
an immediate virtue. The Arab propensity to look for justice
may even be in opposition to the "half a loaf" notion of
democratic compromise. Civic society is weak. There is no
habit of going to the courts to settle political issues. We
are working on all of these fronts with our quiet MEPI-funded
programs for strengthening judicial reform, civic education,
and civic society. In doing so we have to be careful not to
become our own worst enemy. The American imprimatur is not
welcome in vast portions of the Arab world, including
Bahrain. Our desire to take credit and to put a U.S. label
on programs will often be antithetical to their success. But
success in building stability and democratic habits are our
real objectives. We have to keep that in focus when are
tempted to take short-term public credit.

24. (S) Bahrain is far from perfect, but it is one of the
best examples in the Arab world of economic reform. If other
societies are going to be encouraged to pay the politically
painful prices of similar reforms, they need to see success
for reform in Bahrain. By signing the FTA and validating
Bahrain's direction, we have made it in our interest as well
as Bahrain's to seek investment and job growth. Recognizing
that we cannot order the private sector to invest, we must
nevertheless do everything in our power in the next year to
encourage effective, focused business dialogues on both
sides. Absent the need to support another war, I believe
this will be the leading bilateral policy challenge of the
immediate future.

25. (S) Every program suffers to some extent from being
executed in a hostile, public climate. I believe we have
done as much or more than any mission our size in fighting
the media battle from placements to interviews by senior
embassy staff, to the use of speakers. I am sure this
tradition will continue, but until the media climate changes,
every other program, outside perhaps the security and
military fields, will operate with a drag. Fundamentally
this is a difference over policy not packaging. To the
extent that packaging can help, it is speakers, personal
contacts and two-way visits that preserve the fragments of
dialogue and mutual understanding that exist. My own belief
from three years in this media climate is that every dollar
of face-to-face contact is worth one hundred spent in the
electronic media that is either ignored or almost
instantaneously rejected.

26. (S) Despite the difference and the hostile media
climate we have come a long way in an already excellent
relationship with Bahrain. We have excellent people, both
American and local staff. They are dedicated, working often
long hours and sometimes at risk. We have stretched them
terribly with the demands of two wars and support for Iraq.
These are issues far larger than this small post, but it will
be important that this post, like many others, continue to
receive the expanding support that it has gotten over the
last three years. Our interests are growing and we must not
return to the contracting resource policies of the past.
NEUMANN

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