The Bahraini capital, Manama, will host on Friday the two-day meetings of the second Future Forum, in which 36 countries, including 22 from the Greater Middle East and North Africa, will take part along with the major industrialized nations, six European states, and 15 regional organizations. The forum will focus on enhancing partnership between governments and civil society institutions.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq al-Awsat on the eve of the forum, Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid Bin-Ahmad Al Khalifa said that holding the second Future Forum in Bahrain will strengthen the latter”s standing as a pioneer regional state in all political, economic, social, and other spheres of reform. This reform includes support for democratic dialogue, women empowerment, fighting corruption, increasing transparency, and strengthening human rights and the rule of law.
He pointed out in this regard that Bahrain, led by King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa, had started the march of comprehensive reform, which has given the country a good reputation and created an appropriate atmosphere for holding such forums.
The Bahraini minister denied that Israel had requested to participate in the forum, directly or indirectly. He added that his country had been selected as a venue for the meeting not as a reward for its reform agenda but thanks to the availability of the standards and resources that enable the forum to be successful and implement its recommendations. He added that he finds nothing wrong for the Arab countries to benefit from positive ideas and projects, even if they came from western nations. He underlined the independence of the countries participating in the forum and stressed that these countries have no obligation to partner with the major states in any project that aims to introduce economic, political, or social change. It is up to t he member states to choose or not to choose to join the partnership to benefit from the experience of the major states in the field of economic, political, and social reform.
(Q) Although the forum is primarily intended for the 22 Arab states, it is noticeable that the Arab League does not play any role in the organization and coordination of the forum activities. Isn”t this an attempt to keep the Arab League out of the picture, at least for the time being?
(A) The Arab League is not at all absent. Arab League Secretary General Amr Mousa will attend the forum as a representative of the Arab League. The question of organization is always handled by two states: The host nation and the country that currently chairs the G-8. In the first forum in Rabat, Morocco and the United States organized the activities. Here, Bahrain and Britain, which is the current chair of the G-8, are in charge of the organization. The absence of an Arab League role in the organization does not mean it is not participating. The Arab League Secretary General will be present. There is no attempt to keep the Arab League out of this forum.
(Q) How was the agenda of the forum drafted?
(A) The first forum in Rabat presented many ideas and themes. Together with Britain, we chose four themes: Human rights, democracy, women empowerment, and transparency and fighting corruption. We didn”t come up with any topic that had not existed originally. Among the themes is the need to get the civil society institutions involved. We want the civil society institutions to participate in the decision-making process. In the next meeting it is possible to put forward some topics that were discussed at the Rabat forum but were not chosen in this forum. We highly value the importance of the participation of the civil society institutions side by side with the governments. It is important to emphasize that focusing on these four themes is better than discussing too many topics without getting any significant benefit out of the discussion.
(Q) Was Bahrain chosen as a host as a reward for its reform program?
(A) There no such thing as rewards in this particular issue, particularly since King Hamad Bin-Isa”s reform agenda started before 11 September 2001. All there is to it is that Bahrain is viewed as a suitable venue for presenting these ideas. Bahrain offered to host the forum and this offer was welcomed by everybody because of the capabilities available in Bahrain.
(Q) Some people are concerned that the forum is nothing but a US enterprise to reach deep into the Arab world. How do you respond to this saying?
(A) The US relationship with the region is historic. Our relationship with the United States is the best example of a historic link that goes back decades. The United States is a friend and an ally. We always talk to each other to reach better relations and to exchange ideas. The Future Forum is a genuine idea for the benefit of the entire region. We want to thank the United States for focusing on this endeavor. Incidentally, many of the forum”s ideas came from regional and other countries, not from the United States.
(Q) Despite the repeated assurances about the idea of the forum there is concern by civil society institutions in the Arab world that the major states want to impose their own concepts on regional countries?
(A) The ideas raised at the forum represent the ideas adopted by the regional states in conjunction with the friendly states. I hope there are no prejudgments in this regard. Let me ask you something: What is wrong with benefiting from a useful idea from our friends and allies? If these ideas serve our interests, history is full of examples about the exchange of ideas among nations and countries. History gives credit to the Arabs for exporting their ideas to the entire world, which benefited from them and developed them for the better. Today, we take ideas from others. This is a human nature, which always seeks the best.
(Q) The Arab people are disappointed by the repeated Arab and international meetings and conferences that do not come up with recommendations that relate to Arab reality. Is there anything in this forum that will make it different and not an identical copy of previous conferences?
(A) Let us talk frankly. The Arab people got used to not having access to what goes on behind closed doors and not participating in the discussion. Therefore, the meetings held at conference rooms were isolated from the pulse of the Arab street. What is happening now is the opposite. The concept has changed by allowing broad participation by the civil society institutions. What goes on in conferences rooms now is witnessed by representatives of the people. The mechanism has changed for the better. I personally view this mechanism as a new yardstick for the outcome of the conference. We now have a totally new concept under which we operate and it is unfair to measure this concept using an old yardstick.
(Q) Did Bahrain reject an Israeli request, made through a third country, to take part in the forum?
(A) No Israeli request, whether directly or through a third party, has been made to join us in the forum. Israel”s participation in the second Future Forum was not imposed on us in any way. We insisted on the participation of all the countries that attended the Rabat forum.
(Q) Why didn”t Iran take part?
(A) They declined to join the forum. Nobody prevented them from participating.
(Q) What are the initiatives that will be discussed at the forum?
(A) Many participating countries will make a financial commitment to implement a number of programs and offer appropriate mechanisms for the implementation of the recommendations adopted by the forum. Specifically, the forum will address the issue of true partnership between governments and civil society institutions. During the forum an announcement will be made regarding the funds donated by the participants to implement these initiatives.
(Q) What will Bahrain benefit from this forum?
(A) Not just Bahrain, but the entire region. We will learn how to establish partnership between the government and the civil society institutions. The best proof of this marriage is that a parallel forum was held by Bahraini civil society institutions, to which institutions from outside Bahrain were invited. They presented ideas that they believed were important and we never interfered in the agenda or the discussion. We received their recommendations to present them to the meeting of the foreign ministers. This is the best proof that the entire region will benefit from hosting the Future Forum. The biggest benefit for the region is the acceptance of this partnership that we seek to achieve between governments and the civil society. This is a modern concept without any sensitivity. If we benefit from this method it will be a step forward, particularly if there is a strong and effective civil society and a government that is considered the most open-minded since independence.
(Q) But the recommendations of the conference are not binding to governments, so what will be the benefit if governments are not obliged to implement these recommendations?
(A) The forum will issue a Bahrain declaration. We expect those who approve of this declaration not to deviate from the principles that they agreed to in the declaration. We must break away from the molds of the past, in which we unfortunately embraced the sense of compulsory actions and their impact on the implementation of decisions without any consideration to the sense of morality that must be available when dealing with such recommendations, even if they are not binding. Let us approach this issue with a new concept and a new mentality. Those who disagree may say so openly.
(Q) It looks like you are very optimistic that this time the recommendations will be different from what we normally see in such conferences.
(A) Yes. I am optimistic because we are moving on the right track and the world countries are joining us. We all will see the benefit from this forum. As I said before, suffice it that we are now beginning to make our decision in conjunction with the civil society.