Manama, Asharq Al-Awsat- Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa talks to Asharq Al-Awsat on domestic and regional issues, including economic reform, Bahraini Sunni-Shiite relations, relations with neighboring GCC states and the escalation over Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
The Following is the full test of the interview:
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What is your strategy for the development of Bahrain in the coming period, especially after Your Highness having received a major international award in this regard from the UN?
(Al Khalifa) We are moving in accordance with a strategy that has clear features aimed at making Bahrain lead in all fields as part of a long race, and mobilizing all potentials for constructive achievements to ensure attainment of what we all wish for Bahrain in the way of progress, security and stability. It is our visualization that renovation, creativity and initiative are basic factors in driving our advance. All countries of the world seek to attract investments and improve the standard of their services, but what distinguishes them from each other lies in the ability to propose creative initiatives and novel work programs, and to convert the challenges into opportunities. This is our vision for dealing with the present and the future. We always aspire for improvements and we do not stop at any specific limit. We shall not realize such accomplishments unless we take the utmost care to keep the public interest at the forefront, so that we build Bahrain on the best foundations as an edifice representing our comprehensive renaissance and maximal development. We are on the threshold of a new stage requiring more effort and sacrifice to translate our vision, as outlined in the government’s work program, into palpable reality ensuring benefits for the homeland and the citizen. This requires all of us to shoulder our common responsibility with full awareness and perseverance. As to the international prizes that Bahrain reaps in this field or that, the last of which was the prize of honor for distinguished achievements in the field of urban development and housing, from our point of view that amounts to an indicator that our careful and comprehensive development is drawing appreciation and esteem from specialized international agencies of the UN and other prominent international organizations. It confirms the success of our policy in providing the requirements for progress economically and socially, and that we are moving on the right track. This should give us more incentive to constantly bolster our potentials, renew our abilities and raise our standard in all fields.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The average Bahrain citizen wishes to raise his standard of living, and it is only natural that this be among the government’s priorities. Are you promising the Bahrainis major strides in this respect, in line with the economic boom that the region in general is currently experiencing?
(Al Khalifa) We have pledged ourselves to exert more effort and to make initiatives and present new ideas that translate into programs and projects on the ground of reality, without resorting to the style of jumps or uncalculated risks, and that this be accompanied by continuous evaluation of the performance and the contribution at all production sites. The field visits that we undertake from time to time to the various regions of Bahrain and to the ministries and government organizations are aimed at taking a close look at the levels of performance, so that the developmental services provided by the state cover everyone. Our criteria for evaluation are based on the standard of the performance and the extent of achievement. The prosperity of the citizen and extending the best standard of services remain our top preoccupation.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Some are of the belief that the complicated political situation in Bahrain is partly to blame for the delay in some economic reforms. What your thoughts on this, Your Highness?
(Al Khalifa) Economic reform means for us that we do not fall behind international progress in any field. With this in mind, we are in a constant state of work and follow-up in accordance with a firm and well-studied policy. The achievements that were scored and are being scored every day provide a huge impetus for our positive and fruitful work which seeks to further the public interest and which is becoming wider in scope and achieving more fertility in the light of the comprehensive renaissance that is led by His Majesty King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa, the monarch of the country for whom we would sacrifice ourselves. But it is regrettable that there are those who are trying to impede our economic progress and our efforts to attract investments and diversify resources of income. They undertake irresponsible acts that do not express the essence of our principles or our genuine religious values for cohesion, shunning sedition, and safeguarding the homeland. Yet our recognition of the dimensions of the responsibility toward our country and people prompts us to pursue the development efforts until they bear their full fruit and bring their prosperity to all.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) A number of individuals boycotted the elections then changed their minds and entered parliament, are you not worried by some of the tugging that takes place in the chamber of deputies at times?
(Al Khalifa) No, never. Because we view the parliamentary work as being a program of collective action in which all segments of the people and society’s various establishments join. In this sense, it is no anarchic practice or random process but represents a commitment to procedures, rules, and values. We have great confidence that the members of the legislative authority are shouldering their national responsibility in a spirit of awareness and loyalty, and in all efficiency and ability, performing the mission that they pledged to their electorate. At the same time we understand the zeal of some deputies and their rush to express their opinions, out of a desire to produce results. We consider this a healthy phenomenon because each one is free to put forward wishes, pleas, and arguments to arrive at a common and shared understanding that ultimately serves our parliamentary life and development process. We welcome every patriotic effort to seek the interest of the citizens through the legitimate organizations and channels. The legislative authority is now undertaking its role in the fullest sense and its efforts are commendable. We appreciate its constructive efforts and concern for the nation’s prosperity and advancement.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Bahrain has for many decades been a country that embraces the Sunnis and the Shiites. There are those who say that there is a seed for sectarian sedition between the Sunnis and Shiites in Bahrain. How do you reply to that?
(Al Khalifa) Whoever makes such a claim does not know the Bahrain society and has not lived in it or mixed with its people. Across history, the Bahrainis have lived in a society that overflows with kindness and compassion and nurtures bonds among all its members, irrespective of their denominations. There has never been sedition of this type because the Bahrain people enjoy a high degree of awareness and enlightenment, and they will continue to be like this, God willing. This refutes the saying that there are differences between the Sunnis and the Shiites. Perhaps what is happening in other countries created such an impression, but that is not based on any facts or realities. I say it loud and clear to anyone who wants to sloganeer over such matters that the people of Bahrain firmly believe in their national unity. It is the strongest weapon with which we can refute all those despicable sayings. We shall not allow any attempts that try to undermine our social fabric or our national unity, for that is our solid fortress and we can never compromise on it.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) There are those who see that the government is using excessive force in dealing with the security incidents that sometimes take place in Bahrain. On the other hand, there are others who believe that you are often too lenient about incidents that harm the reputation of Bahrain and its attraction for foreign investments. What is the correct security equation that Your Highness sees for dealing with such security incidents which are in violation of the law?
(Al Khalifa) Incidents that area violation of the law are dealt with by the law. We are a state of law and institutions, and all of us know that there is no state and no stability if the law does not prevail, and that economic development and progress cannot be achieved without security and stability. Security dealing in such cases is pursued with the maximum degrees of self-restraint and commitment. In truth we do not know how we can ask the policemen, of whose national role we are proud, not to defend themselves against attacks by outlaws which take unjustified aggressive forms. In this connection we want to reiterate our complete commitment to protecting our security and our achievements against any excesses. Bahrain will remain, with the will of God Almighty, the country of safety and security and the homeland of co-existence and harmony.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) With respect to relations among the Gulf states, the citizens of the Gulf Cooperation Council feel that the GCC has not risen to the level of their aspirations, after more than a quarter of a century since its establishment. In your opinion, when would the citizens of the Gulf be satisfied with the GCC performance? Also what about the issue of the unified Gulf currency, which seems to be heading toward more postponement?
(Al Khalifa) The peoples of the GCC are completely convinced of the importance of the GCC’s role, and there is appreciation for the achievements that were scored throughout its march. As to the aspirations and ambitions, that is a legitimate and positive matter because it prods us to adopt more decisions that lead to achieving this objective, springing from the importance of common brotherly bonds that bind us and unity of objective and joint destiny. The Council is the safety valve that constitutes our strategic option for confronting the challenges that lurk in our region. As for the other part of the question, we welcome the introduction of the unified Gulf currency whenever the conditions and controls are in place, as scheduled by 2010, while taking into consideration the observations made by some Council states, since in the end we seek a collective agreement in our joint march that leads to the desired benefits and serves the common interests of our states.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) You are known for your deep concern for Arab regional issues. What is your evaluation of the current Arab state of affairs in general in the light of what is happening in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine?
(Al Khalifa) The Arab world is experiencing a politically unstable situation at more than one level and this can have grave repercussions that are open to all possibilities, and at a time when the Arab national security is confronting serious challenges. In our belief, what is happening in our Arab region is basically due to attempts to exploit differences–whether among religions, denominations or political groups–so as to secure individual gains at the expense of the unity of the homelands. We hope that the Arab states which suffer from tense domestic conditions will be able to regain their cohesion and apply the logic of reason and the national interest. All of us have the responsibility to extend our hand to help in that, and it is a matter that we shall not hesitate about nor waste time in undertaking.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Regarding Iranian-Bahraini relations, is there a fear of Iranian intervention in Bahraini domestic affairs?
(Al Khalifa) Iran is a neighboring country and an important Islamic state, and there are several fields for cooperation and rapprochement between us, as confirmed by the exchange of official visits between the two countries at the highest levels. We are committed to a balanced policy in our foreign relations and are open to all parties. Our hand is extended to all, on condition that no one interferes in our internal affairs. We are hopeful of surmounting any causes of tension and building on a base of good neighborliness and interests to achieve joint aspirations.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) With respect to the Iranian nuclear issue, and the escalation taking place between the US and Iran–the Gulf region is fertile stage for it–what is the solution that you see for easing this tension in the Gulf region between the US and Iran?
(Al Khalifa) The solution lies in constructive dialogue through calm diplomatic channels, leading to a solution that spares the Gulf region the woes of a new war and responds to the aspirations of its peoples for security and prosperity. There definitely is no country in the region that wants Iran to be attacked, and the region will not be capable of tolerating any new war. We in Bahrain have been calling for long years for the necessity of ridding the entire Middle East region including the Gulf of weapons of mass destruction. What we fear could happen is that the regime of nuclear non-proliferation in the region collapses, and that nuclear balances should become in the future the basis for the balance among the countries of the region.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) The journalists in Bahrain are always asking for your help, Your Highness, because you are known to always side with them. The law in Bahrain still sends journalists to prison. Is there an amendment to this law to prevent the imprisonment of the journalists?
(Al Khalifa) A free and committed press is a real support for the three authorities and the criterion of the progress of societies. Any national process must be accompanied by freedom of the press. In Bahrain, not one journalist has been jailed, and not one newspaper has been shut down. We highly appreciate the national role that the press plays in the various stages of our progress and we always urge state institutions and bodies to cooperate with the journalists and to encourage objective and targeted criticism. But in return, this freedom must be part of the systems and laws, as a responsibility and a trust that must not be used to get at others without proof or evidence. Freedom is not absolute for those who want to undermine the beliefs of people or the sanctity of their private lives, or to dictate specific policies on the rest of society.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Lastly, regarding the UN urban development Award, what does the award mean to you?
(Al Khalifa) It represents a new and vibrant international recognition of the success of the process of comprehensive development in the Kingdom of Bahrain, and the correctness of our course in dealing with the challenges and requirements of there naissance of the homeland. It also means that we accept nothing but the best levels of economic and social development for raising the standard of living for the citizens. What personally gives me pleasure is that the eyes of the world are directed toward Bahrain, following its pioneering development experiment and monitoring the achievements that have become a characteristic in society’s life in all fields. This award is a certificate of international appreciation for every national effort carried out by each individual in his position. It is certain that we shall not suffice with the achievements scored but will double the efforts and the work to achieve our ambitions in seeing a prosperous homeland that faces the future with all confidence and resolve.