Manama, Asharq Al-Awsat- Major-General Sheikh Daij Bin Salman Al Khalifa is the Bahrain Defence Force (BDF) Chief of Staff. In the first quarter of 2011, Bahrain experienced popular demonstrations and violent clashes over several weeks, eventually prompting the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to send a combined military force to help protect strategic locations, whilst the BDF addressed the civil unrest. Last month the BDF dispersed all protestors from Manama’s Pearl Square, and ended sit-in demonstrations in other locations, whilst imposing a curfew on some areas of the capital in an attempt to restore calm.
In the first press interview conducted by a Bahraini military official since the outbreak of protests in the country, Major-General Al Khalifa spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat to provide his views on the current security situation in Bahrain, the measures taken by the government, and the role of the neighboring Gulf States, as well Joint Peninsula Shield Force. Al Khalifa also provided an insight into the potential causes of the recent unrest, and what solutions he deemed necessary for the future. The following is the text from the interview.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] First of all, how did Bahrain handle the recent security incidents, protests, and subsequent developments, which shook the country and its people?
[Al Khalifa] The Bahraini political leadership handled the security incidents that began on 14 February with extreme wisdom, flexibility, and efficiency as well as with a high degree of calm and rationality. King Hamad Bin-Isa Al Khalifa, King of Bahrain and the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, authorized Prince Salman Bin-Hamad, the Crown Prince and Deputy Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, to launch a historic initiative to conduct a comprehensive national dialogue with the participation of all the sectors of society, without any pre-conditions. This initiative was in parallel with a goodwill initiative by the state, which withdrew all security forces from gathering points, allowed demonstrations and peaceful sit-ins, released a number of convicted detainees, and carried out some ministerial changes.
However, this responsible initiative was not heeded by the opposition forces, who reached such a stage of excessiveness and extremism that they demanded the “overthrow of the regime”. The opposition forces made factional and sectarian demands without taking into consideration the opinion of the majority of the Bahraini people, and without respecting the national principles and the preservation of the special political characteristics of all the countries of the Arabian Gulf. In fact, one terrorist movement went so far as to announce its dubious scheme to proclaim a so-called “sectarian” Islamic Republic in Bahrain.
All this was followed by moves on the ground as part of a calculated and pre-meditated scheme intended to spread terrorism and fear among the populace, and take over important state installations, such as the Al-Salmaniyah Medical Complex, the biggest hospital in the Kingdom of Bahrain. The opposition also tried to paralyze the economy of the country through strikes in the public and private sectors, and large companies. They disrupted education and traffic in the most important streets in the capital and other towns. All this required the intervention of the security forces to re-impose the law, restore the reputation of the state, and protect government institutions and establishments from the acts of irresponsible violence and sabotage.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What were the factors, or plans you implemented, which helped in regaining control over the situation with the least possible casualties, in comparison with the events that took place in other countries?
[Al Khalifa] Several factors contributed to gaining control on the situation in Bahrain. These factors include the wisdom of the leadership and its commitment to preserve the infrastructure of the state and bolster stability and security in society. Another factor is the correct understanding of the nature of this violent and destructive movement, whose factional and exclusionary character is confirmed to us with each passing day. It is a movement that is supported from abroad and it does not express the opinion of the majority of the loyal and honorable people of Bahrain. This true understanding and awareness led about 350,000 Bahraini citizens – that represent the majority of the Bahraini people and their various religious and sectarian sectors – to take to the street several times to confirm their desire for security and stability and respect for the legitimacy of the ruling regime, based on the principles of the constitution and the national charter. This had a profound impact in exposing the nature of the protests and demonstrations to the Bahraini people first, and then to the international community and the Arab and international media outlets.
Most political analysts, media representatives, and experts around the world concluded that what happened in Bahrain was totally different from the events that took place in other Arab countries. Bahrain is a model of democracy that is unique in the region. It enjoys a genuine political scene with effective constitutional institutions, legislative institutions represented in a bi-cameral parliament – the Council of Representatives and the Shura Council; a supreme constitutional court, a financial oversight department, and so on. Moreover, the people of Bahrain enjoy a high degree of public and private freedoms, as does the media within the framework of complete respect for human rights. Furthermore, like other people in Gulf States, the people of Bahrain enjoy living standards that are higher than many countries of the world, including some European countries. All this refutes the frail excuses and frivolous pretexts that some tried to peddle in order to justify the acts of violence and sabotage, and jeopardize the principles of the state, its unity, and the cohesion and co-existence among its citizens.
Another important factor that bolstered Bahrain’s efforts in its handling of the events is the clear and strong support from the brothers in the other Gulf countries, which manifested in many diverse forms, such as the activation of the joint agreements pertaining to the Joint Peninsula Shield Force, as well as the huge moral and media support with which the brothers in the Gulf countries embraced the leadership and people of Bahrain. This [Gulf unity] is not a strange matter. Everyone shares the bonds of blood and the ties of kinship, identity, and common destiny. Perhaps this was the most important positive to emerge from the events that took place in Bahrain. We hope that this unionist approach would continue in its various forms among the Gulf brothers in many effective domains.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you evaluate the measures you have taken to uphold the state of national safety (emergency) so far?
[Al Khalifa] It is well known that the king issued Decree No. 18 declaring a state of national safety throughout the country based on Article 36, Paragraph B of the constitution, as of the 16th March for three months. The monarch authorized the commander of the Bahrain Defense Force to take the necessary measures and precautions to safeguard the safety of the homeland and the populace, to protect civic peace and the sovereignty of the law, and to take other measures that were undertaken by the Bahrain Defense Force and the public security forces and the National Guard. The declaration of the state of national safety was a wise royal step to restore security and stability throughout the country, to guarantee the safety of the citizens and the residents, to protect vital installations, and to put an end to the security lawlessness. By the way, the state of national safety is much more lenient than martial law. It is a limited and disciplined state for a short period to restore security stability only. It has no effect on political life. The parliament continues to carry out its normal functions and so do other institutions that are related to democratic life in the country. Public freedoms are sacrosanct and so is the freedom of the media without any obstacles or restrictions imposed on their operations. This reflects the eager determination of the political leadership to strike a balance between the protection of human rights and other basic rights, without harming civic peace and security. The cooperation of the citizens with the Bahrain Defense Force, the public security forces, and the National Guard led to the gradual resumption of normal life and economic and social activities. Most importantly, the sense of security and safety returned to the citizens once again.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion on the response of the Bahraini masses, and their compliance with the instructions intended to safeguard security? Do you think that the curfew period will last long?
[Al Khalifa] The response was exceptional and encouraging. The repulsion of the acts of violence and sabotage and the imposition of the law by the Bahrain Defense Force, the public security men, and the National Guard was a basic and persistent demand made by the ordinary Bahraini citizen, as well as by parliament members, human rights activists, and the educated and mature academic and political elite. It is the character and nature of the Bahraini people to be tolerant, amicable, and peaceful. Throughout history, Bahrain has been known to be the epitome of peaceful coexistence and dialogue among the various religions, sects, cultures, and civilizations. With God’s grace, and the maturity and awareness of the Bahraini people, there is clear commitment to and cooperation with the security forces in safeguarding order in all the parts of Bahrain, after the acts of sabotage and violence lessened to a large extent, if not ceased completely. Security and safety are the most important gifts for which every human being on earth aspires, by entrenching the spirit of national affiliation among the Bahraini people and repelling the destructive calls that instigate violence and terrorism. The attempts at destruction and lawlessness should be rejected, so that security and stability prevail, and so that normal social relations return amongst citizens, within the framework of national accord, national unity, and the determination to safeguard the national accomplishments and reformist gains.
As for the curfew, it was a logical step, albeit of a limited and precautionary nature. The curfew was imposed on a very small area in the capital Manama, extending from the Al-Sayf Bridge to the traffic signal before the Sheikh Bin-Salman Bridge. It was this area that witnessed wide acts of sabotage and disruption of traffic. It also includes most of the state ministries and important economic and commercial institutions. The decision to impose a curfew did not apply to the rest of Bahrain. In fact, the curfew hours were reduced several times. As of the 27th March, the curfew was imposed only for five hours daily from 2300 hours to 0400 hours the next morning because the security conditions improved in that area. Gatherings, marches, and sit-ins are prohibited throughout Bahrain until the situation returns to normal.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The curfew was extended to the territorial waters. Does this reflect a concern about intervention, infiltration or smuggling of arms from external forces?
[Al Khalifa] Naturally; the extension of the curfew to the territorial waters at this time is a normal precautionary measure to protect the naval borders of Bahrain from any illegal attempts at intervention, infiltration, arms smuggling, or violation of national sovereignty. This is particularly true since conditions in the region surrounding Bahrain require vigilance and alertness on all levels, according to the principle of “prevention is better than cure”. The General Command of the Bahrain Defense Force has issued an order barring seafarers and amateur fishermen as of 19 March from accessing the territorial waters from the 1700 hours to 0600 hours the next morning and until further notice. This decision was taken on a limited number of coastal areas in order to safeguard the territorial waters and insure the safety of fishermen to avoid any legal accountability. Naturally, such measures are constantly reviewed and assessed in order to take the appropriate decisions in accordance with events and developments. They aim at preserving national sovereignty and the country’s strategic interests.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] King Hamad Bin-Isa Al Khalifa, the King of Bahrain, has announced that the state has aborted a foreign plot against it. What are the details of this plot?
[Al Khalifa] Yes, indeed; King Hamad Bin-Isa Al Khalifa announced that a foreign plot dating back more than 30 years was thwarted. Moreover, during the parliament session on the 29th March, the Bahraini interior minister affirmed that the recent events correspond to a series of plots relating to foreign interference and external connections that began in the 1980s, in the deplorable coup attempt aimed at seizing power in 1981. Based on the confessions, this plot was supported by Iran. This continued with the case of the so-called “Bahraini Hezbollah” and the Iranian plot in the 1990s. This was again repeated when training operations of a military nature were uncovered in the Al-Hujayrah region in Syria in 2008. More recently, there have been examples of the terrorist organizations, and networks of commanders and leaders of sabotage units, aimed at disrupting security and stability in Bahrain in 2010. This plot did not target only Bahrain; it also targeted all the members of the GCC. I should also point out that all the security and military organs in Bahrain are on high alert and ready to defeat anyone that contemplates tampering with the security and stability of the country, or terrorizing peaceful citizens.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the position of the Bahraini government regarding foreign intervention in its affairs?
[Al Khalifa] Bahrain submitted an official protest to the United Nations, the Arab League, and the Islamic Conference Organization, regarding Iranian intervention in Bahrain’s domestic affairs, in the wake of the recent statements by the Iranian President and several Iranian officials. These statements violate the principles of respect for neighbors, and non-intervention in domestic affairs of others. They violate national sovereignty, the principles of international law, and the charter of the United Nations. The Bahraini government has also condemned the hostile statements made by Hasan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and his insolent interference in the domestic affairs of the Kingdom of Bahrain to serve foreign objectives and calculated schemes.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are your views on the uproar being raised by some abroad, regarding the Joint Peninsula Shield Force?
[Al Khalifa] The Joint Peninsula Shield Force is a joint Gulf military force that came to Bahrain at the invitation of the Bahraini government and within a legal and legitimate framework. This force plays a strategic role that activates the mission of joint defense in order to be prepared for any aggression or outside intervention by states or factions in the region, seeking to impose their control and influence over the region. Although this scenario is highly unlikely, the national security of the country cannot afford any venture or risk-taking. One should be alert to any possibility. These forces do not have any role in the political equation that governs the country. In general, the Peninsula Shield Force came to Bahrain proceeding from the unity of purpose, common destiny, and belief that the stability and security of the GCC member states is an indivisible whole. It expresses the spirit of collective cohesion in accordance with the articles of the GCC bylaws when it was first established in May 1981. All the loyal citizens in Bahrain highly appreciate and are proud of the Peninsula Shield Force that has arrived to help Bahrain following the gracious response of King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and the leaders of the GCC member states. This is a true reflection of the cohesion and fraternal bonds among the governments and peoples of the GCC. The arrival of this force highly pleased all sects and components of the Bahraini people. It reassured them about rejecting any external threats, especially since the Bahraini security organs are preoccupied with restoring security and stability, protecting public and private properties, and protecting the lives of citizens and residents throughout the country. International and regional organizations and all the countries of the world have recognized the legitimacy of the presence of this joint Gulf military force in Bahrain, in accordance with the principles and rules of international law within the framework of respect for collective agreements and treaties. This is particularly true since there are many precedents for intervention of NATO forces to preserve security, stability, and public order in several regions of the world, including countries that are not members of NATO.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can the success of the Joint Peninsula Shield Force, in dealing effectively with the events in Bahrain, be considered a development for the united military organization of the Gulf?
[Al Khalifa] The Peninsula Shield Force has been developing since it was established by the decision carried out at the GCC summit held in Manama in September 1982. This force participated efficiently in liberating our brothers Kuwait. In December 2005, it was agreed to upgrade this force to the Joint Peninsula Shield Force at the suggestion of King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. No doubt, the success of its mission in Bahrain amounts to a qualitative addition to, and activation of, the GCC joint defense agreement signed in December 2000. This agreement established a council for joint defense, and a supreme military committee also stemmed from this council. It also implemented many joint projects within the framework of the united military Gulf organization, such as the “Cooperation Belt” project to manually connect the operations centers of the air and air defense forces of the GCC member states; the “Secure Communications” project to link the armed forces of the GCC member states in a secure communications network for military purposes, radar coverage, and early warning; and the project to “standardize concepts and bases”. This is in addition to military cooperation in the fields of military intelligence, medical services, environment security, and electronic warfare. The council also follows up on decisions made by recent Gulf summits that approved the GCC defensive strategy, upgraded the capabilities of the Peninsula Shield Joint Force, other joint military projects, and cooperation in combating arms smuggling.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In light of the current situation in the region, do you not think it is time to upgrade the equipment and arms of the Joint Peninsula Shield Force, so it truly becomes an “impregnable shield” for the countries in the region?
[Al Khalifa] The Joint Peninsula Shield Force has been developing since 2007. It is now equipped with the most sophisticated weaponry and military material, and consists of distinguished human resources that enjoy the highest levels of preparation and professionalism. It includes specialized, rapid response, and support forces from all the Arab GCC countries, based on the highest degrees of military coordination and cooperation and constant training, enabling them to carry out their missions in emergency situations with the required efficiency and speed. Based on statements by Staff Major General Mutlaq Bin-Salim al-Azima, the commander of the Joint Peninsula Shield Force (in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat), the GCC forces are proud to have the second best combined force in the world after NATO. It operates F-15, Tornado, Mirage, and Typhoon planes, alongside the most modern tanks and naval forces, in accordance with the constant commitment of the GCC member states to modernize the Joint Peninsula Shield Force, so it will remain, as King Hamad Bin-Isa Al Khalifa has asserted, “the impregnable shield for all our brotherly countries; a force for good, security, and peace; and a model for comprehensive cooperation among the countries and peoples of the GCC”. At this point, I wish to point out that the events that took place in Bahrain have raised the ceiling of ambitions and aspirations of the peoples and parliaments in the Arabian Gulf, to establish a unified Gulf army to deter any attempts to tamper with the security and stability of the members of the GCC.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the future vision and role that the Joint Peninsula Shield Force will play in the events?
[Al Khalifa] The Joint Peninsula Shield Force will remain in Bahrain as long as there is a constant external threat against the security and stability of the Arabian GCC member states. There is also a determination to intensify joint training. In the foreseeable future, these forces will remain in Bahrain based on a sovereign decision made by the Kingdom of Bahrain, based on the principle of collective security, the preservation of the security and stability of the Arabian Gulf, and commitment to the joint Gulf security and defensive agreements.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some are saying that the presence of the Joint Peninsula Shield Force is merely symbolic, particularly since it was the Bahraini security apparatus that broke up the sit-ins and ended the chaos on the Bahraini street.
[Al Khalifa] It is true that the Joint Peninsula Shield Force present in Bahrain consists of symbolic units that represent all six members of the GCC, and only 10 percent of it is a genuine force. However, the presence of this force is very effective. It is not interfering at all in Bahrain’s domestic affairs but is undertaking great efforts for which it should be thanked in achieving military deterrence against any external threat. At the same time, this force confirms the message of unity of purpose and destiny of all the Arabian Gulf countries.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Finally, in your opinion, what are the solutions to help Bahrain emerge from its current crisis?
[Al Khalifa] At present, the first priority is to restore security, stability, and peaceful co-existence among all the components of the Bahraini society; to uphold the sovereignty of law and commitment to the state of national safety in accordance with the constitution; to give precedence to the supreme interests of the homeland over any external, sectarian or ideological agendas in order to pave the way for a healthy environment suitable for continuing the march of reform, modernization, building, health and education services, and development projects without any obstacles or threats. Any political activism in Bahrain in the future should be committed to the essential principles that should never be veered from. These represent the factors for the continued existence of the state as a united, independent, and stable entity, rallying around the legitimate leadership represented by King Hamad Bin-Isa Al Khalifa as the symbol of reform and stability in accordance with the Bahraini constitution and the national action charter, which was approved by 98.4 percent of the people in February 2001. All the political and societal forces should shoulder their responsibilities in raising the voice of reason and conscience within a state of law and constitutional institutions, and in accordance with the available legal and legitimate parameters in order to proceed with parliamentary developments in both chambers – the House of Representatives and the Shura Council – while keeping them distant from any sectarian bickering or political brinkmanship.