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Cablegate: Reform in Bahrain: Leading Shia Editor Highlights

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

291148Z Jun 05

S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 03 MANAMA 000922


E.O. 12958: DECL: 06/29/2015


Classified By: Ambassador William T. Monroe. Reason: 1.4 (B)(D)


1. (S) Independent newspaper editor Mansour Al-Jamry, in a
June 28 discussion with the Ambassador, gave a wide-ranging
review of the complexities and challenges facing King Hamad
as he pursues reform in Bahrain. On the one hand, the King
faces challenges from his two uncles: Prime Minister Khalifa
and Shaikh Mohammed. The King has been quietly trying to
erode the economic power of the Prime Minister, moving PM
cronies out of Cabinet positions and granting enhanced powers
to the Economic Development Board (overseen by Crown Prince
Salman). The PM, however, has allies sprinkled throughout the
bureaucracies, and it would be wrong, Al-Jamry cautioned, to
count him out just yet. The other uncle, Shaikh Mohammed,
who is in a coma, has long lived outside the law and his
financial interests are being protected and advanced by his
children. One son, Shaikh Hamad, was at the center of a
recent controversy over a wall built in a Shia village that
cut off access to the sea. Al-Jamry led the charge against
the uncle, which resulted in a rare retreat by a powerful
Royal Family member.

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2. (C) Another set of challenges highlighted by Al-Jamry
comes from the oppostion Al-Wifaq and a more extreme group of
Shia led by activist Abdul-Hadi Al-Khawaja. Al-Jamry spoke
positively of the way the King has dealt with recent
demonstrations on constitutional reform organized by
Al-Wifaq, and was sympathetic to "the box" the King finds
himself in dealing with Al-Khawaja's more provocative
challenges. He said that Al-Khawaja considers himself
"untouchable" because of support from the U.S. and the West,
but is an opportunist who has no interest in democratic
reform. Al-Khawaja, he added, also poses a dilemma for
opposition Shia, including Al-Wifaq and leading clerics like
Shaikh Issa Qassim. End summary.


3. (C) The Ambassador met June 28 with Mansour Al-Jamry,
founder and editor-in-chief of the independent
Arabic-language newspaper "Al-Wasat," for a discussion of
Bahrain's reform efforts and the various challenges facing
King Hamad as he attempts to move Bahrain's reform process
forward. Al-Jamry, who comes from one of the most prominent
Shia families in Bahrain, lived in exile in London for many
years before returning to Bahrain after the King introduced
his constitutional reforms in 2001. Under Al-Jamry's
leadership, Al-Wasat has provided lively coverage of
controversial issues, such as the recent confrontation with a
senior Royal Family over a wall built in the Shia village of
Malkiya, and has offered innovative features, such as regular
reporting of Friday sermons by Bahrain's leading clerics and
text-message instant polls. He is well respected and liked,
especially among Shia and well-educated Sunni. The King and
Crown Prince have been known to seek his counsel on sensitive


4. (S) Al-Jamry said that, in examining the reform process in
Bahrain, one had to look at two different dynamics: the
struggle for the upper hand within the Royal Family, and the
maneuvering between the Royal Family and opposition Shia.
The struggle within the Royal Family traces its roots to
three brothers: the King's father, the late former Amir
Shaikh Issa, and his two uncles, Shaikh Khalifa (currently
the Prime Minister) and Shaikh Mohammed (currently in a coma
on life support, with his sons looking after the family's
interests). At independence in 1971, the three brothers in
effect divided and controlled much of the land in Bahrain.
This has been an important source of their wealth and power.
As Prime Minister, Shaikh Khalifa also controlled Bahrain's
major state-owned enterprises, such as BAPCO (oil) and Alba
(aluminum). With ally Minister of Oil Shaikh Isa Bin Ali
running the state-owned enterprises, the Prime Minister had
off-the-books access to income from the state-owned
enterprises (aided in recent years when PM crony Abdullah
Seif was Minister of Finance). As for Shaikh Mohammed, after
a complete falling out with his two brothers he essentially
considered himself outside the laws of Bahrain, seizing land
that he wanted, not putting license plates on his cars, and
intimidating anyone who blocked his ambitions. He was out
of government, but amassing a fortune which he has passed on
to his heirs.
5. (S) The King, according to Al-Jamry, has been quietly
seeking to erode the economic power of the Prime Minister.
This was seen in last January's Cabinet reshuffle, when the
King succeeded in moving several Prime Minister cronies,
including Finance Minister Abdullah Seif, out of their
Cabinet positions. Significantly, however, he was unable to
dislodge Minister of Oil Shaikh Ali (confounding widespread
rumors at the time that Shaikh Ali was on the way out). On
the other hand, Al-Jamry stated, the King did succeed in
blocking an attempt by the PM to gain control of a major plot
of land being developed for government ministerial buildings.
The PM wanted the property in his name; the King put his
foot down (for the first time) and insisted that it be
registered in the name of the government. Meanwhile, the
National Assembly has suddenly become more aggressive in
demanding an accounting of profits from such state-owned
companies as BAPCO and Alba (Ref A).

6. (S) A potentially even more significant development,
Al-Jamry stated, was the Royal Decree issued in May
empowering the Economic Development Board (EDB) to enact
economic-related regulations and to select the board chairmen
of state-run companies. Previously, the EDB could only make
recommendations, and the Prime Minister controlled the
appointments of chairmen to the state-run companies. If the
EDB truly takes on these new powers, Al-Jamry stated, it
would mark an important shift in powers and resources away
from the Prime Minister.

7. (S) But Al-Jamry cautioned that it would be wrong to count
out the Prime Minister just yet. Although he left the
country for an extended trip/vacation to New Zealand and the
Far East this spring, apparently unhappy about attempts to
limit his powers, he returned energized, active, and engaged.
Al-Jamry said that the PM has allies sprinkled throughout
the bureaucracy -- experienced technocrats who know how to
get things done. In contrast, he said, the Crown Prince --
who is the driving force behind economic reform in Bahrain
and is Chairman of the Board of the EDB -- has not had the
time to develop a strong cadre of supporters. He has
surrounded himself with a group of capable, well-educated
advisors (long-time friend, school mate, and aide Shaikh
Mohammed bin Issa was recently appointed CEO of the EDB), but
they are limited in numbers. A further complication for the
Crown Prince is that, in taking on the controversial issue of
labor reform in order to alleviate growing unemployment
concerns, he risks alienating Bahrain's leading private
sector families, who fear the reforms will raise costs and
erode their competitiveness.

--------------------------------------------- ------
--------------------------------------------- ------

8. (S) The King also found himself recently confronting the
family of his other uncle, Shaikh Mohammed, when Shaikh
Mohammed's son Hamad decided, without a legal permit, to
build a wall by his residence near the Shia village of
Malkiya, cutting off the village from the local beach (Ref
C). Al-Jamry said that villagers from Malkiya approached him
and asked what they should do. While there were plenty of
other examples of Royal Family members acting above the law,
particularly among members of Shaikh Mohammed's family,
Al-Jamry decided to make a public issue of the case. His
paper published daily articles (with pictures) about the
wall, and -- along with the Member of Parliament from Malkiya
-- made it a national cause and the site of demonstrations.
The Minister of Municipalities got involved, as did the Royal
Court, and eventually Shaikh Hamad was forced to take down
the wall.

9. (S) While Al-Jamry viewed this as a good news story in
which a Royal Family member was held accountable to the law,
he lamented that in fact Shaikh Hamad backed down not in the
face of the law but because of the personal intervention of
the Royal Court. Al-Jamry maintained that Municipalities
Minister Ali bin Saleh was too intimidated by Shaikh Hamad to
deliver the court order himself, and that Shaikh Hamad only
began to dismantle the wall after visited by his brother
Shaikh Khalid Bin Mohammed, who is serving as Advisor for
Security Affairs in the Royal Court.


10. (C) Meanwhile, the King has been dealing with separate
challenges from the Shia opposition. One challenge comes
from the leading Shia opposition society Al-Wifaq, which is
pressing for constitutional reforms through peaceful
demonstrations and considering whether to participate in the
2006 parliamentary elections. Al-Jamry said that the
government has handled this challenge well in terms of
allowing a series of demonstrations to take place without


11. (C) More difficult for the King has been the challenge
presented by a group of radical Shia led by activist Abdul
Hadi Al-Khawaja. Al-Jamry was highly critical of Al-Khawaja,
terming him an opportunist who was more interested in
personal notoriety than genuine reform. He cited an Arab
expression about people who exploit a good cause (in this
case, unemployment among Shia) to create mischief, and said
that this expression describes Al-Khawaja perfectly. He said
that Al-Khawaja has absolutely no interest in democratic
reform, and that if Al-Khawaja ever took over people would
look back on the days of the Al-Khalifa as paradise.

12. (C) Al-Jamry said that Al-Khawaja's goal is to provoke
the government into aggressive responses, believing that he
is "untouchable" because he has the backing of the United
States, Europeans, and Western human rights groups. He said
that the King is in a box and doesn't know what to do. He
said the Royal Court called him for advice when confronted
with Al-Khawaja's most recent demonstration in from of the
Royal Court (Ref B). In fact, Al-Jamry said, Al-Khawaja is
creating a dilemma for others as well. Mainstream Al-Wifaq
leadership feel he is complicating their maneuverings with
the government over constitutional reform and election
participation, and is also drawing away disaffected young
Shia attracted by Al-Khawaja's more aggressive stance.
Leading Shia clerics like Shaikh Issa Qassim don't like
Al-Khawaja because he comes from the radical Kerbala-based
Shirazi sect of Shias, while Issa Qassim -- 95 percent of
Bahrainis -- look either to Qom or Najaf. Even
representatives of the more radical wing of Al-Wifaq, such as
spokesman Abdul Jalil Singace and Vice President Hassan
Mushaima, who have supported Al-Khawaja, are conflicted: they
do not like Shirazis and disagree with Al-Khawaja on the
question of election participation (Al-Khawaja apparently is
weighing running for parliament).


13. (C) Al-Jamry represents much of what is good about
Bahrain since King Hamad launched his reform effort. Having
spent years in London in exile, he returned and set up a
newspaper that is contributing to the more open discourse
that one finds in Bahrain these days. He believes
passionately in reform, and is willing to take risks (as when
he took on the Malkiya wall issue). But he recognizes the
complexities of moving the reform process forward in Bahrain
-- both because of the dynamics within the Royal Family and
within the opposition Shia community. He acknowledged to the
Ambassador that at times he gets frustrated and is tempted to
return to the comfortable life he had in London. If he did,
it would be a real loss for Bahrain.

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