On April 19, the Middle East Program hosted Bahrain's Minister of Finance for a meeting, "A Conversation with Shaikh Ahmed bin Mohamed Al-Khalifa." Michael Van Dusen, Executive Vice President of the Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Al-Khalifa started his talk by reviewing the political and economic developments in Bahrain over the last decade. He noted that since Shaikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa took the throne in 1999, he has pursued a reformist agenda, including a referendum on the constitution, the establishment of a bicameral parliament, and the separation of executive, judicial, and legislative powers. Al-Khalifa cited 67.7% voter turnout in the last election as an indication of popular participation in and enthusiasm for Bahraini politics. Al-Khalifa also mentioned that the bicameral parliament allows representation and participation of minorities, women, and professional groups, thus creating a necessary balance.
Al-Khalifa stressed that democratization is a journey which requires time to reach consensus on progress and development. As part of this process, Al-Khalifa mentioned Bahraini laws in place that permit strikes, labor unions, and free expression through political societies. In noting examples of progress, the minister mentioned the presence of twelve female members of the upper house of parliament to acknowledge the role of women. Furthermore, he noted that ministers are held accountable and that transparency is ensured through audit boards, which issue reports to parliament and to the public.
In reviewing economic improvements, Al-Khalifa noted that Bahrain invests heavily into its society. He talked about the Economic Development Board, which oversees the budgetary cycle and put forth the Vision 2030 plan, a blueprint for Bahrain's long-term economic development. He highlighted that Bahrain's unemployment rate is only 3.6 percent. Al-Khalifa stated that 80 percent of the Bahraini budget comes from oil revenues, allowing the government to provide universal healthcare and education.
In reference to recent unrest and protests in Bahrain, Al-Khalifa recalled that on February 19 the crown prince ordered the immediate withdrawal of the military from Manama's Pearl Square – which has been at the center of recent anti-government protests – and called for peaceful dialogue with the opposition. When questioned repeatedly by media and other attendees in the audience about recent reports of human rights abuses in Bahrain as a result of the protests, Al-Khalifa continued to stress that Bahrain was not in violation of any human rights obligations, which it upholds through its constitution and to which it adheres as a party to international law agreements. The minister claimed that any imprisoned activists were detained only if they were in violation of the law and not merely for their political views.
Several members of the audience disagreed with his assertion that the protests consist of a small group of dissidents who are attempting to "hijack and disrupt" the political system instead of utilizing constitutionally available channels by which Bahrainis are welcome to disagree and call for reform. The minister stated that accurate media coverage would show that a majority of Bahrainis actually demonstrated in support of the government.
By Sara Girgis, Middle East Program
- Minister of Finance, Kingdom of Bahrain