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Cablegate: Scenesetter for Manama Dialogue, December 11-13


DE RUEHMK #0680/01 3361318
R 021318Z DEC 09

S E C R E T MANAMA 000680





Classified By: CDA Christopher Henzel for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1. (C) Jeff, you will arrive in Bahrain at a time of introspection for the Bahraini regime as this year’s IISS Manama Dialogue coincides with the tenth anniversary of King Hamad’s accession to the throne, on December 17, 1999. During those ten years, the political and security situation has improved considerably. Our challenge is to help the Bahrainis keep things moving in the right direction, a task made considerably easier by a forward-looking and sympathetic leadership.


2. (C) Following the death of his father, Emir Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa in 1999, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa inherited a country torn by sectarian violence and accustomed to dealing with the Shia majority 5nderclass as a policing problem. He quickly embarked on a program of reform and reconciliation with Bahrain’s Shia: he allowed exiles to return home, abolished the State Security Courts, and restored the parliament suspended since 1975. King Hamad understands that political stability is also tied to economic prosperity, and has undertaken far-reaching economic reforms intended to increase Bahrain’s competitiveness, productivity and living standards. The result is that the Bahrain of today is a far cry from the Bahrain of the 1990s. Political parties operate freely and are preparing for a third parliamentary election cycle in 2010 (ref A). Street protests are significantly fewer and less violent. Perhaps most tellingly, the leader of the mainstream Shia Wifaq party has told us unequivocally that Wifaq will continue to engage in parliamentary politics because he believes there is more to gain in the long run by participating than by boycotting.

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3. (C) A graduate of the Mons Officer Cadet School and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, King Hamad takes a leading role in directing Bahrain’s security policy, and carries the title of Supreme Commander. During his three decades as Crown Prince, he personally built the Bahrain Defense Force from the ground up, relying heavily on U.S. equipment and training. King Hamad believes that the peace and prosperity of the Gulf is a result of U.S. protection and friendship. The U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain and two U.S. Patriot batteries are also stationed here. Bahrain’s leaders are thus strong and outspoken proponents of a close and enduring security relationship between the United States and the region.

4. (C) Bahrain was designated a Major Non-NATO Ally in 2002, and King Hamad believes it is important that Bahrain do its part in support of regional security. In March 2008, Bahrain became the first Arab country to take command of CTF-152, one of the coalition’s naval task forces in the Persian Gulf. They have also deployed as part of the CTF-151 anti-piracy mission in the Arabian Sea. On December 16, King Hamad will personally see off a company of Bahraini Special Security Forces, who will be departing to serve as part of coalition operations in Afghanistan. This activism marks Bahrain as a leader among GCC states and has encouraged others such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia to become more involved.

5. (C) King Hamad views an activist foreign policy as essential for a small state like Bahrain that wants its interests to be considered in the region. He chose the forward-leaning Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa as his foreign minister. In June, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa penned a Washington Post op-ed in which he called on Arab leaders to engage with the Israeli people in support of the Arab Peace Initiative. Shortly thereafter, Bahraini officials traveled to Tel Aviv to bring back several Bahrainis who had been aboard a relief ship that was taken into Israeli custody when it tried to enter Gaza. Even modest steps in the direction of Israel set off criticism from local media and from members of parliament decrying “normalization.” Recently, MPs in the elected (and Islamist-dominated) lower house voted to criminalize any contact with Israel or Israeli citizens (ref B) even though most recognized that the (appointed) upper house will ensure the bill never becomes law.

6. (C) Bahrain was one of the first Gulf states to reopen its embassy in Baghdad, and, while wary of the Maliki government, has reached out to Iraq politically and economically. Bahraini airlines now fly regularly to several Iraqi cities. The King has established a relationship with Sayyid Ammar Al Hakim, chairman of the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq. During Hakim’s recent visit to Bahrain (ref C), King Hamad asked for his support in channeling the energies of Bahraini Shia in a positive direction, and told Hakim that he would do what he could to get the Saudis to engage with Iraq. Bahrain maintains correct relations with Iran, but has no illusions about the threat it poses to the region. Bahrain quietly supports international pressure on Iran, and consulting with the leadership will ensure that we maintain that support.


7. (C) King Hamad understands that Bahrain cannot prosper if he rules by repression. Bahrain’s civil society is active and is engaged with Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) programming. There is more religious freedom in Bahrain than in most neighboring countries; Sunni and Shia mosques stand alongside Christian churches and Hindu temples. The National Charter (e.g., constitution) won approval in a 2000 referendum and restored the parliament that had been suspended in 1975. Two election cycles have seen the integration of the Shia opposition into the political process. While a Shia rejectionist fringe continues to boycott the process, their influence remains limited as the mainstream Wifaq party has shown an ability to work with the government to achieve results for its constituents. Discrimination against Shia persists, however, and the government has sought to deflect criticism by engaging with Wifaq and focusing more public spending on housing and social welfare projects. So long as Wifaq remains convinced of the benefits of political participation, the long-term outlook for Bahrain’s stability is good.


8. (S) The 2004 withdrawal of U.S. Navy dependents represented the nadir in our counterterrorism relationship. Since then, the government has enacted a tough, new CT law and has used it to obtain several convictions against Al Qaeda financiers and facilitators. Much of that success is connected to the King’s installation of new, more capable leadership at both the Ministry of Interior (MOI) and the Bahrain National Security Agency (BNSA) in 2006 and 2008, respectively. BNSA routinely shares high-quality intel and seeks out joint operations opportunities. MOI has proven itself highly capable of maintaining internal security. The U.S. is contributing to the CT mission through the provision of a coastal radar system via Section 1206 funding that will give Bahrain (and the U.S. Navy) a 360 degree field of vision around the island.


9. (C) Unlike its neighbors, Bahrain is not blessed with abundant oil and gas, and so has diversified its economy, establishing itself as the world’s leading center for Islamic banking and finance. This sector generates just over one quarter of domestic GDP. Bahrain also boasts a strong regional tourism sector that accounts for a significant portion of GDP. The country produces approximately 35,000 barrels/day of oil, which is all refined locally, and 1.2 billion standard cubic feet/day of gas, which is all consumed domestically. In order to maintain economic growth, Bahrain must find additional sources of energy. The government has sought cheap gas from both Saudi Arabia and Qatar to no avail, and is currently engaged in slow-rolling talks with Iran. Contacts have asserted that discussions with Iran are aimed at getting the Saudis and Qataris off the dime.

10. (C) Bahrain has also expressed long-term interest in nuclear power, and in March, 2008 signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. on civilian nuclear cooperation. It has joined the IAEA and has deposited its Safeguards Agreement with that organization. The Government of Bahrain has formed an inter-ministerial committee to study the use of nuclear energy for power generation, and although the GOB recognizes that they do not have the resources to develop or operate a nuclear reactor on their own, they need the power and are interested in moving forward, ideally with an American commercial partner.

11. (U) In August 2006, the U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement entered into force -- the culmination of a multiyear effort to open and reform Bahrain’s economy. (In 2009, the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal ranked Bahrain as the freest economy in the Middle East, and the 16th freest in the world). Since the FTA went into effect, total bilateral trade has increased more than 25%. Bahrain recently rolled out its “Economic Vision 2030” plan, a statement of the GOB’s aspirations for Bahrain’s economy, government and society. The plan establishes broad goals of economic diversification and the construction of a strong middle-class as the basis for Bahrain’s future.


12. (C) King Hamad is personable and engaging. He rules as something of a “corporate king,” giving direction and letting his top people manage the government. He has overseen the development of strong institutions with the restoration of parliament, the formation of a legal political opposition, and a dynamic press. He is gradually shifting power from his uncle, Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who remains the head of the government, to his son, the Crown Prince. Crown Prince Salman received his high school education at the DOD school in Bahrain and earned a BA from American University in 1985. He is very Western in his approach and is closely identified with the reformist camp within the ruling family - particularly with respect to economic and labor reforms designed to combat corruption and modernize Bahrain’s economic base. King Hamad is committed to fighting corruption and prefers doing business with American firms because they are transparent. U.S. companies have won major contracts in the past two years, including: Gulf Air’s purchase of 24 Boeing 787 Dreamliners, a USD 5 billion joint-venture with Occidental Petroleum to revitalize the Awali field, and well over USD 300 million in Foreign Military Sales.


13. (C) Internally, the acquittal of ten Shia men in October on charges of killing a Pakistani policeman in April 2008 has served to lower sectarian tensions. Local media reported that the presiding judge explained that the defendants’ claims that they confessed under duress had influenced his verdict. Despite this, the GOB’s overall record on human rights remains positive on the whole. Allegations of private and government discrimination against Shia persist, but the democratic reforms of the past ten years have radically changed the political space. The mainstream Shia opposition, Wifaq, remains committed to the political process and the parliamentary experiment has been largely successful (ref A). Shia rejectionist groups Haq and Wafa’ inspire the youths who occasionally clash with police, but have not seriously threatened Wifaq’s hold on the Shia street.

14. (C) Bahrain remains on the Tier Two Watchlist for human trafficking, but has enacted an anti-trafficking law and achieved one conviction. The government is also pursuing labor market reforms aimed at eliminating the sponsorship system. On August 1, it introduced labor mobility - allowing foreign workers to change jobs without obtaining prior permission from the current employer. G/TIP Ambassador CdeBaca’s told GOB officials during his November 12 visit that they needed to focus on prosecution and victim identification. The Justice Minister noted during their meeting that Bahrain had prosecuted 280 trafficking-related crimes over the past year.

15. (C) Deputy Special Envoy for Middle East Peace Hale will have just met with the Foreign Minister on December 5 to brief him on recent developments. HENZEL

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