Manama, Asharq Al-Awsat- In this interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohammed al Khalifa discusses a range of topics such as diversity in Bahrain, progress in the Gulf, the US-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement, regional issues, and the appointment of Huda Azra Ibrahim Nunu to the post of Bahraini ambassador to the United States. Nunu is the first Jewish ambassador to be appointed by an Arab country and she is one of only 37 Jews left in Bahrain.
Q) ‘Bahrain appoints a Jewish ambassador to the United States,’ was the headline that attracted considerable regional and international attention. Why was a Jewish woman, in particular, selected for this post?
A) Firstly, this is not the first time that a non-Muslim or specifically a Jewish citizen of Bahrain has occupied an important post. Huda Nunu and her brother were members of the Shura Council and her grandfather was also a municipal council member in the 1920s. Her father is head of the Bahrain Cinema Company. They are all Bahrainis and people of Bahrain. People considered this is the first time that Bahrain appointed a Jewish ambassador and their surprise is certainly linked to the Arab-Israeli dispute and the result of historical accumulations. Morocco for instance has a Jewish minister so we considered her [Nunu] in order to prove to the world that Bahrain, and the people of the Gulf in general, are peaceful and are not in a state of enmity with anyone. We are also tolerant and the principle of coexistence is deep-rooted within us. This [appointment] provides the best proof that we do not view people according to their religious or ethnic backgrounds. Competence alone is our criteria. We must also mention that we did not take her on just because she is Jewish but because she proved her competence in several of her former positions and has contributed strongly to bolstering Bahrain.
Q) Does this mean that Bahrain is willing to appoint other ambassadors and officials who are not Muslim?
A) What would be the objection to this? As I said, we deal with the people of Bahrain as Bahraini citizens regardless of their origins and religions. I am telling you: do not rule out the idea of seeing a Bahraini Hindu ambassador. We have Hindu citizens. Do we exclude them if they are competent? The societies of the world mix and merge and in Bahrain we are no different. These are people from Bahrain, from one generation to another. We want to prove, locally and externally, that all Bahrainis are equal.
Q) What have been the effects of local figures who have strongly criticized Nunu’s appointment?
A) Personally I have not heard any criticisms and no institution issued a statement or objection. But some articles were written in the Bahraini newspapers and I believe it is their right to present their opinions and viewpoints. But let me reiterate: do not deprive any Bahraini citizen of his or her full rights to any post.
Q) How would you describe Bahrain’s relations with Washington amid popular international opposition to the US, as manifested by worldwide demonstrations and other public functions? How do you reconcile Bahrain’s strong state relationship with Washington and the opposition to US policy publicly demonstrated by many Bahrainis?
Q) Our relations with the United States, whether on the popular, official, or military levels, go back several decades, if not more than a century. We see demonstrations in London, UK, America’s closest ally, and you even see them in Washington outside the White House. As for the question about Bahraini people emerging to express their views on US policy: this is their principled and undisputed right. But we still believe that our relations with the United States contribute to stability and I do not exaggerate when I say that Bahrain’s relationship with the United States was, and remains, one of the bases of the entire region’s stability. We believe that this relationship should continue in the interest of all and not against anyone. These fleets that come and get fuel from the [US Navy’s] Fifth Fleet have been coming for decades and have not been used against anyone as a result of certain circumstances or stands. We hope that all regional countries will play a part in joint exercises and protecting the region’s security. We consider ourselves partners with the United States. We are critical of them [the Americans] and make clear demands from them and they listen to us and we also listen to them.
Q) But many years have passed since the US-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement was signed and yet its implementation has not yet reached Bahraini expectations. What is your comment in this regard?
A) Frankly, I believe that the US side exerted extraordinary efforts to bolster this agreement, whether through the American government, the Bahrain-American Chamber of Commerce, or the US-Bahrain Business Council [USBCC]. Trade relations between the two countries are developing excellently because of that same agreement.
Q) Does this mean you are completely satisfied with the results of the agreement?
A) Yes, we are completely satisfied.
Q) What is your response to the deputies in parliament and political organizations that criticize you for what they describe as attempts to normalize relations with Israel?
A) Our standpoint is clear. There is no normalization and we have said many times that there will be no normalization between Bahrain and Israel before there is a full peace agreement that is acceptable to the Palestinians and sponsored by the Arabs in accordance with the Arab Initiative launched by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. But what I fail to understand is why people [the critics] do not differentiate between communication and normalization. Communication has to do with delivering a message or stand to say that I have delivered and God is my witness. Normalization is to open your doors to them and ask them to come in. I did not and will not tell anyone [from Israel] to come in, I will not open an embassy or office for them, and there will be no kind of normalization whatsoever. We will not visit and they will not visit, unless the peace process is fully completed. Is it considered normalization if I carry out my role and make contact as an Arab country as entrusted by the Arab summit?
Q) You were also criticized for contacting Israeli media. What is your response to this?
A) This is also another problem. People do not differentiate between official contact and contact with Israeli media. Isn’t it the Israeli citizen who reads the Israeli newspaper? Wasn’t the Arab Peace Initiative offered to the Israeli citizen? We cannot allow the Israeli media organizations to meet only with officials from Egypt and Jordan while other Arab countries remain absent from this role. I say that Israeli journalists must reach Arab officials so that we can deliver our message to the citizens there [in Israel]. This is not normalization at all. It is a stand and you must defend it and ensure that your message reaches your target.
Q) Did Washington use its distinct relationship with Bahrain to attempt to impose normalization with Tel Aviv?
A) On the contrary; the United States understands our position and priorities. There is no political game on our part. Our policy is clear and direct and there is no beating around the bush. The United States certainly calls for peace but they [the Americans] also know where we stand with regards to relations with Israel.
Q) Has the United States asked you directly to normalize relations with Israel?
A) Never. We have never heard that from them [the Americans].
Q) What is your view on the idea that the Gulf population has high expectations of its governments but little progress has been made to meet their anticipations?
A) I have been the foreign minister for three years and I can tell you that the speed with which achievements are made in the Gulf is not up to the requisite level; it is a slow process. I blame primarily the Gulf countries themselves. The Secretariat General [of the Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC] is exerting great efforts, but the delay is coming from within the Gulf countries. What does the Gulf citizen want? He wants to live in a space that is wider than that of his country. Did we not promise the Gulf citizen this desired integration 28 years ago? Yet we still see borders separating the Gulf countries and we still see that traveling [between the countries] is not done with the necessary degree of ease. I want to be able to travel from Ar Rifa [south of Manama] to Al Khobar [eastern Saudi Arabia] in the same way that I travel from Ar Rifa to Al Muharraq [north of Manama]. That’s what the citizens of Al Khobar, Riyadh, Dubai, and all cities in the Gulf want.
Q) Many Gulf citizens believe that some of the GCC stands are inconsistent with the issues that affect their futures. Why does this discrepancy exist with regards to some issues?
A) I can say this is due to the absence of an agreed clear strategic vision for studying the issues that concern the region, whether they are related to politics or security. The absence of a compulsory unified strategy, and I repeat, unified, results in a lack of coordination on certain stands and issues. There are even matters that concern regional security that we are not agreed upon as required. For example, the GCC countries held a tripartite meeting in Riyadh last year in which the foreign, defense, and security ministers took part to pinpoint the sources of danger. Who would believe that we are yet to realize the aim of the meeting so far, that is, we have not determined the sources of danger that threaten us. Though we might be committed verbally at these meetings, what follows after the meeting is another matter altogether.
Q) What are the reasons behind the similarities and understanding between Saudi foreign policy and its Bahraini counterpart? Some believe that these similarities should encompass all inter-Gulf positions…
A) This is true. The reason is that Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have built relations on a strong foundation. When relations are built on such a basis, you will certainly benefit from a common understanding. The two countries are bound together by a long history. King Abdulaziz, may God rest his soul, established the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and with it he established a unique and close relationship with Bahrain. A strategic relationship, common interests, blood, security, and kinship ties are what bind us together. No words can encompass the unique relationship between two states that are linked by their common interests like the ties between Saudi Arabis and Bahrain.
Q) Some say that Bahrain takes the same standpoints as Saudi Arabia. What is your comment in this regard?
A) What I would say is that when you see that the relationship is harmonious it is not because we decided that our decisions should be in line with Saudi decisions. It became natural with the passage of time. The two countries have a common vision on all issues and their relations are developing towards the same direction.
Q) You paint a rosy picture as if there are no disagreements or problems between you and Saudi Arabia…
A) For our relations to reach this distinguished status of which we speak does not mean that there are no differences of opinion. It would be unreasonable to say that there are no problems but this does not affect the strong relationship between the two countries. As I said, these are normal issues that do not weaken the relationship.
Q) It has been over a month since the Doha Agreement was reached and the Lebanese parties are yet to agree on the formation of government. Since Bahrain is one of the effective tools of the Doha Agreement and part of the seven-member committee, do you fear that tension will return to Lebanon?
A) This is really a question for the Lebanese. We met and formed the seven-member committee after the meeting of Arab Foreign Ministers in Cairo, at the invitation of Saudi Arabia and Egypt to save Lebanon. We went with the Lebanese parties to Doha and Qatar exerted massive efforts to ensure the success of the agreement. The president was successfully elected after the agreement was announced and then it was the government’s turn to be formed, for which quotas were agreed upon. So why has its formation been delayed thus far? At this moment in time, I believe that the Lebanese are personally responsible for this tension and the failure to form the government. They are the ones who must act quickly so that matters do not worsen. The Lebanese leaders should back the government in every way and not undermine it. There are some who want to weaken the government and some who want to invalidate the Doha Agreement and there are even those who want to cancel the Taif Accords and others who want to impose a new reality on the ground in Lebanon. There are those who want a state within the state. This is all impermissible. We support President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora who was asked to form the government. We urge all the Lebanese factions to put personal and factional interests aside and to take Lebanon’s interest alone into consideration and [think about] how to take Lebanon forward.
Q) Do you support renewed Arab efforts in Lebanon?
A) This is in the hands of the Lebanese government and we will certainly be ready and willing if it requests Arab intervention to save or implement the Doha Agreement. But since Prime Minister Siniora’s efforts are continuing, and we are constantly in touch with him, we will wait to see what Lebanon wants. We are always at Lebanon’s service.
Q) The United States revealed an incentives package for Iran if it stopped its nuclear program. Were the Gulf countries briefed on these rewards before they were presented to Iran particularly as some of them concern the region?
A) No, we were not informed of these incentives, Bahrain at least. We were not informed of them at all.
Q) Within that document, Iran is given a regional role. What is your stand on this specific reward, if it can be called that?
A) Let me explain something important on this issue. There is the Iranian nuclear program; that is one thing. Our relations with Iran are something else. The problem for us is not the nuclear program. Iran is a sovereign and free country. If it takes positive steps then that would be in its own interest and if takes negative steps then we are its neighbor and we can advise it since we are the closest country to it. The danger does not lie in the nuclear program but in these gaps and wide distances between Iran and its neighbors. I am talking about the balances of power between either sides of the Gulf.
Q) What about the anticipated role of Iran in the region?
A) This is something good, let Iran play a regional role but this should be within the framework of regional understanding. We believe there should be political understanding between countries in the region whether between the GCC states or between Iran, Turkey, Egypt, India, and Jordan if we could establish a paradigm for regional cooperation, without which there will be no stability. I believe the danger lies in the absence of this regional understanding. Any regional role that comes from abroad will be fruitless if there is no understanding from within the regional countries themselves. We say to the world that the region determines the regional roles and these roles do not come recommended from abroad. Failing to define [these roles] will only lead to greater problems.
Q) You have requested this for some time now but do you not fear that if Iran is given a regional role this may disrupt regional balances during the upcoming stage?
A) I can say that the balance of power has been upset for some time and this is nothing new. Any country in the world that talks about a regional role or balance must take the entire region and all countries into consideration. But to give one country a regional role at the expense of other countries is not helpful at all and will only cause more problems and lead to further instability. There aren’t any countries that are not seeking stability in any region, including the United States but the regional countries should be consulted as this is the only solution…not necessarily the ideal solution. There is no other way… [There should be] a regional role with a regional understanding and a regional solution with a regional understanding too. Anything else will not lead to stability.
Q) A source, a Gulf official, was hesitant in his statements to Asharq Al-Awsat about giving Iran a regional role and said that Iran is occupying islands belonging to the United Arab Emirates and demanding ownership of Bahrain from time to time. Therefore what would happen if its relations with the US improve and it is given a regional role?
A) Since these problems remain, any regional role that is discussed whilst these problems exist between Iran and other countries in the region and emerge from time to time would lack logic and regional understanding. Moreover, no regional role for Iran or anyone else would succeed at all.
Q) With regards to Iraq, you announced that Bahrain would open an embassy in Baghdad soon and that a Bahraini ambassador would be appointed. This appointment is yet to be made. Do you think that this delay is normal?
A) Yes, it is normal. We have selected a location for the embassy within the Green Zone and have made all the arrangements for opening the embassy. We are still in the process of selecting the ambassador. An announcement will be made quite soon. The security situation in Iraq is not easy.
Q) What do you mean the security situation in Iraq is not easy?
A) Frankly, the current security situation in Iraq makes it difficult for me to persuade the candidate to go to Iraq. We have experience with the former Charge d’Affaires who escaped death after an assassination attempt on his life. It is difficult to ask the next ambassador to go to Iraq whilst there is such an unstable security situation, particularly as we are responsible for any harm that may come to any of our staff in Iraq, may God forbid.
Q) You often speak about a historic relationship between Bahrain and Iraq. How do you assess current Bahraini-Iraqi relations?
A) The relationship is historic in the full sense of the word. It is historic with regards to the state, the communities, the religious centers in Najaf, and the Iraqi people. We believe that Iraqi relations are historic not only with Bahrain but also with all the Gulf nations. We believe that part of the Iraqi people’s make up is of Gulf origin. But we should play a role in supporting Iraq and maintaining contact with the entire Iraqi spectrum.
Q) By that, do you mean that there is only contact with the Iraqi state and not with other parties in the country?
A) Certainly. On one occasion, an Iraqi diplomat met me in New York and he asked me to communicate with Iraq’s Sunnis. I clearly rejected this and told him literally that we make contact with the entire Iraqi spectrum and our contacts are with the Iraqi people and their government. But as for asking the Sunnis to join the political process, I cannot do this. It is not my place [to do so]. We support the Iraqi government as part of the Iraqi people and government.
Us Arabs cannot abandon Iraq at this stage and merely stand by and watch. I am not saying that the Arabs are standing against Iraq; that is not the case. There is not a single Arab country that is against Iraq. But some want to establish contact and others just want to be spectators. It is difficult and unacceptable to sit by and watch what is happening in Iraq. It is not a matter of the Shia or Sunni standpoints. Iraq’s Sunnis and Shia are our brothers and we are bound to them by kinship ties and blood, regardless of whether they are Sunnis or Shia.
Q) There have been tension and insolence within Arab meetings that were held recently. Does the Arab situation require such disputes between brothers?
A) This is nothing new. I heard that the tension was greater than it is at present but it is the result of heated issues. The hotter these issues become the more tension there is at these meetings. But we are seeking to maintain some mutual respect, except in some cases when there is some kind of inflexibility, like at the last meeting of Arab Foreign Ministers in Cairo when the meeting became tense and some impertinent remarks were made by some people and incidents that we did not like took place.
Q) What is the truth behind the case of the eight Bahrainis held in Saudi Arabia charged with spying?
A) [The Saudi Interior Minister] Prince Naif Bin Abdulaziz has denied this. The source of the accusation was a website that stated that they were spies. We are in direct contact with our brothers in Saudi Arabia and they have frankly stated that these [individuals] entered a restricted area. All that we request from our Saudi brothers is for these Bahraini citizens to understand their conditions. We are not calling for the law not to apply to them. All that we request is that the transgressor is tried or if nothing is found against him then he should be released. However keeping these individuals detained for a long time causes deep sorrow to their families and also places a lot of pressure on us as a government towards the citizens. All we want is for the law to apply to them.
Q) Prince Naif Bin-Abdulaziz highlighted the depth of Saudi-Bahraini relations by saying that it would not be odd if a Saudi was arrested in Bahrain just as it is not odd for a Bahraini to be arrested in Saudi Arabia…
A) When a Bahraini conspires against Saudi Arabia then we stand with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against this conspirator and the same goes for Saudi Arabia if it found a Saudi conspiring against Bahrain. We know, and trust, the Saudi position in such cases. Saudi Arabia is always with us and we have no doubt about that. If it proven that a Bahraini is conspiring against Saudi, then we and Saudi Arabia stand together as one. One who conspires against Saudi Arabia is conspiring against Bahrain.