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Cablegate: Crown Prince Raising Profile with Ramadan Visits

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C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 MANAMA 000542

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/09/2019
TAGS: PGOV SCUL BA
SUBJECT: CROWN PRINCE RAISING PROFILE WITH RAMADAN VISITS

Classified By: Ambassador Adam Ereli for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).
1.(SBU) Summary: Bahrain's Crown Prince is raising his profile during Ramadan, to favorable reviews from opposition politicians. End summary.

2. (U) During Ramadan, many leading Bahrainis host an evening "majlis", or sitting, where men, without the need of an invitation, call to pay their respects and share news. They are held between 8 and 11 in the evening; visitors usually stay for a short time and go to multiple majalis each night. Since the re-opening of parliament in 2000, party leaders and MPs regularly host majalis as well. A Higher Profile for the Crown Prince -------------------------------------

3.(C) The talk of the Ramadan majlis circuit this year has been the visibility of the Crown Prince, Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa. In previous years he has visited a few majalis, but it was his great-uncle, the Prime Minister, who would pay the vast majority of calls on prominent regime allies. This Ramadan, the PM remains out of the country on vacation, and it is the CP who is averaging two to three majlis calls per night. He has visited all parties with seats in parliament - both Sunni and Shia - as well as leading merchant families, religious scholars, senior royals and government ministers, and the visits have received prominent media play. Tea and Policy --------------

4.(C) We had the opportunity to observe the Crown Prince in action at one such majlis. Ambassador visited August 30 the majlis of Shaikh Ali Salman, leader of Wifaq, the Shia opposition party that holds 17 of the 40 seats in Bahrain's elected house of parliament. Ambassador and emboffs were among two dozen guests, mostly party leaders, in attendance when the Crown Prince and a few of his senior advisers (all Sunnis) arrived unannounced.

5.(C) After the customary rounds of tea and pleasantries, Wifaq MPs and other officials began peppering the Crown Prince with respectful but pointed policy questions. Challenged on the need for more subsidized housing for the Shia underclass, Sheikh Salman gave a sympathetic but detailed reply that verged on the wonkish: government had greatly increased the number of units available, but to sustainably meet demand over the long term it would seek creative financing, in partnership with the private sector, so that more units could be built more quickly and at a cost that was affordable to the consumer. The CP outlined plans for a private-public sector partnership that would allow for private developers to build public housing under contract from the government, yet recoup the costs through new credit programs offered through the Bahrain Housing Bank.

6.(U) Another Wifaq MP, who has campaigned for reforms that would permit Wifaq to launch its own TV station, urged deregulation that would permit competition with the dreadful government-owned Bahrain TV (the only station on the island). Artfully deflecting the discussion away from government control to one of quality and responsibility, Sheikh Salman said the he was all for competition, but there would need to be new public or private investment as well as time to develop new regulatory mechanisms and the capacity to administer them (i.e., the government doesn't want media to exacerbate sectarian tensions).

7.(U) Sheikh Salman and his small entourage left after 30 minutes of cordial but substantive give-and-take on these and similar questions. Wifaq's leaders and MPs were visibly pleased that Bahrain's deputy ruler and future King had paid them the honor of visiting their leader's majlis and answering their questions in a manner that, by local standards, was shockingly forthright. Comment -------

8.(C) Post ascribes the Crown Prince's raised Ramadan profile to several factors. First, he is taking on critics who quietly derided him as aloof and out of touch. These include business leaders, whose comfortable, tried-and-true ways of doing business have been disrupted by many of the Crown Prince's economic reforms. It also includes Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood hardliners, who saw the Crown Prince's Washington Post op-ed calling on the Arabs to reach out to Israel as premature endorsement of normalization. MANAMA 00000542 002 OF 002

9. (C) Second, Sheikh Salman is on the stump. He recently confided to the Ambassador that the economic and social reforms he has been tasked with leading (education, labor, public sector) are now in place and beginning to show results. Watching him in action, the Crown Prince conveys the aura of a confident leader who now wants to help his constituents appreciate what the government is trying to accomplish on their behalf.

10. (C) Finally, in response to the steady chorus of Shia charges of discrimination and mistreatment, both the King and the Crown Prince routinely tell us that their vision is of a Bahrain in which people of all faiths and backgrounds can live together in mutual respect, tolerance and freedom. They emphatically affirm that there is no official policy of discrimination and assert that all Bahrainis, irrespective of sectarian affiliation, have equal rights and access to public resources. The Crown Prince's very visible outreach to the sectarian leaders and their followers can be seen as an attempt to drive home that message at a grassroots level. ERELI

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