Countries at the Crossroads 2006 - Bahrain

  • Author: Fred H. Lawson
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    3 August 2006

(Scores are based on a scale of 0 to 7, with 0 representing weakest and 7 representing strongest performance.)

Introduction

Bahrain is the least wealthy of the oil-producing Arab Gulf states, and boasts an exceptionally well-educated and politically sophisticated citizenry. A brief period of constitutional and parliamentary government was brought to an abrupt end by order of the ruler (amir) in August 1975. Persistent popular agitation to reinstate the electoral order exploded into widespread violence from 1994 to 1999. During the course of the uprising, tensions heightened between the dominant Sunni population and the subordinate Shia. Long-standing agreement among liberal reformers in the two communities began to erode, opening the door to more radical movements in both camps.

After proclaiming Bahrain a monarchy in February 2002, Sheikh Hamad bin 'Isa Al Khalifah has presided over a steady contraction of the package of political reforms that was introduced during 2000-01. Liberal and radical activists who applauded the restoration of the National Assembly (al-Majlis al-Watani) were greatly disappointed by the regime's decision to accord the appointed upper house, the Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura), the same legislative powers as the popularly elected lower house, the Chamber of Representatives (Majlis al-Nuwwab). Furthermore, the amended constitution of 2002 takes away the right of elected representatives to introduce bills for parliamentary debate and instead requires that all draft laws be referred to committee and introduced to the assembly by the Council of Ministers. In October 2002, King Hamad promulgated a revised Press and Publications Law, which imposes severe penalties for publishing any report that criticizes the monarchy, jeopardizes national unity, advocates changes to the country's political system, or denigrates Islam. That same month, the monarch issued Decree Number 56, which grants blanket immunity from criminal and civil prosecution to any official suspected of inflicting torture or otherwise violating human rights in the past.

Accountability and Public Voice – 2.52

According to the amended constitution, the 40 members of the Chamber of Representatives are to be selected by popular vote every four years. The first parliamentary election under the terms of the revised constitution took place in October 2002, in an atmosphere that proved to be largely free of outright fraud and intimidation. Nevertheless, the Council of Ministers enacted a new citizenship law three months before the balloting that permitted citizens of the other five member-states of the Gulf Co-operation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman) to obtain concurrent Bahraini nationality, with full voting rights, thereby diluting the influence of natural-born citizens. The cabinet also issued a political rights statute that blocked popular societies and civic organizations from "participating in any electoral campaign on behalf of any candidates" and prohibited "campaigning in religious places, universities and schools, public squares, roads and government buildings."1 After critics of the regime won a majority of the seats contested in municipal council elections in May 2002, electoral districts were reconfigured to improve the chances of pro-regime candidates and give greater weight to the country's Sunni population. More important, thousands of Syrians, Yemenis, and Baluchis who held positions in the armed forces, police, and intelligence services were granted the right to vote. Reformers immediately condemned this administrative move, which they labeled "political naturalization," that is, citizenship conferred for largely illegitimate "political" motives.

In response to such machinations, and to protest the general terms of the amended constitution, four major popular societies boycotted the parliamentary election. These were the Islamic National Accord Society (al-Wifaq), the National Democratic Action Society (al-Amal al-Watani al-Dimuqrati or al-Wa'ad), the National Bloc (al-Tajammu' al-Qawmi), and the Islamic Action Society (al-Amal al-Islami). Just over 53 percent of eligible voters participated in the first round of balloting for the Chamber of Representatives, while no more than 45 percent turned out for the second round. Twenty-eight Sunnis and 12 Shias ended up being elected to the Chamber of Representatives. A majority of the Sunni members belonged to the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimin), most of whom hailed from the association's more moderate mainstream, while a small number came from the more radical (or salafi) wing.

Political parties are prohibited by law, although the Chamber of Representatives periodically raises the question of whether formal parties should be permitted to emerge. The king is on record as saying that the establishment of organized political parties is an issue for the legislature to decide. A proposal to allow the formation of political parties was rejected by the parliamentary legislative and legal affairs committee in May 2004.2 Two months later, the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry took an important step toward breaking the impasse by setting up a political action committee to lobby the National Assembly on matters of concern to local businesspeople.3

Nothing of consequence was discussed in the National Assembly during the first year after the elections. But as 2003 came to a close, it became apparent that the country's two primary social welfare and retirement agencies were rapidly approaching insolvency. A special commission selected from the Chamber of Representatives by the chamber's speaker drew up a report charging three cabinet ministers with "mismanaging the funds" held by these agencies and engaging in "a number of failed investments" that had drained their coffers.4 When the government showed little interest in the report, five members of the commission called for a public "parliamentary interrogation" of the three ministers. This step was strongly resisted by the Speaker, on the grounds that too much parliamentary activism might prompt the king to suspend the National Assembly, as his father had done 30 years earlier. Although two of the ministers eventually submitted to questioning by the commission, both retained their posts as a result of various legal technicalities.5

In the wake of this episode, reformist members of parliament have become increasingly outspoken in voicing demands for change. Representatives in August 2004 called for the resignation of the minister of electricity following a power failure that plunged the country into a 12-hour blackout.6 Seven months later, the Chamber of Representatives amended its rules to permit any future questioning of cabinet ministers to take place in full session rather than in closed committee. A group of 15 influential representatives, including the first deputy speaker, introduced a sweeping proposal in June 2005 to increase the size of the elected lower house from 40 to 45 members, to give the Chamber of Representatives the authority to question the prime minister, and to require that cabinet ministers receive parliamentary approval before taking office.7 These initiatives had not been overturned by the Council of Ministers by the end of the year.

Beyond the confines of the National Assembly, the range of public debate remains tightly constrained. In February 2004, the four organizations that had boycotted the 2002 parliamentary elections announced plans to hold a two-day conference to discuss what they called the constitutional crisis confronting the country. Government officials riposted that no such crisis existed and that the activities of the four associations demonstrated the overall health of Bahrain's political system. As the conference opened, one senior official remarked that the gathering was "illegal because the organizers failed to get the required license from the Ministry of Labor and Social affairs."8 Foreign participants were stopped at the airport and prevented from entering the country. The minister of the royal court, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifah, remarked that "it is necessary that all public discussions on domestic matters stipulated by the constitution be confined to Bahrainis, and no one else should be involved."

In September 2004, the prestigious 'Urubah Club hosted a public forum on the problem of persistent poverty in Bahrain. During the course of the program, one of the featured speakers, the vice president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), insisted that the government should be held accountable for its failure to alleviate poverty and unemployment and that the cabinet should accept its collective responsibility by resigning. These remarks sparked a firestorm of condemnation. The speaker, 'Abd al-Hadi al-Khawajah, was arrested on charges of insulting high-ranking officials and "inciting hatred of the regime, spreading rumors that may disturb the public stability and harming the public interest"; the 'Urubah Club was closed down for 45 days; and the king, after taking the unusual step of personally chairing a meeting of the Council of Ministers, issued a proclamation denouncing those who "incite sedition and create divisions in the community, especially in the political forums that abuse the political openness and freedom of expression."9 Shortly thereafter the BCHR was shut down by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, on the grounds that its actions had contravened the provisions of the 1989 Associations Law that prohibited civic associations from engaging in political affairs Al-Khawajah was sentenced to one year in prison, but in late November 2004 the king granted him clemency.

In October 2004, the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs sent notices to 80 civic associations and nongovernmental organizations warning them to set up permanent headquarters and abide by the terms of the 1989 Associations Law or else face immediate closure.10 A month later, the cabinet introduced a draft law requiring any public meeting or popular demonstration to obtain prior approval from the provincial governor. It also prohibits motor vehicles from being used in rallies, unless permission is granted in advance by the minister of the interior.11 The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs shut down the opposition Islamic Action Society for 45 days in July 2005 after speakers at an event it had sponsored at the Bahrain Society of Engineers made remarks that were openly critical of the government and the ruling family. An even more stringent set of regulations governing the activities of licensed political societies was adopted in the wake of this event.

Nevertheless, popular societies and civic organizations continue to proliferate. By the spring of 2005, the number of officially recognized associations was approaching 400. Of these, 24 have been licensed as political societies and are thereby allowed to sponsor public workshops, conferences, and debates on policy-related issues with the permission of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.

A revised Associations Law was adopted in July 2005. It imposes tighter restrictions on the internal procedures and fund-raising operations of political societies and makes it illegal for such organizations to be based on class, profession, geographical domain, or confessional character.12 Penalties for violating the statute include lengthy jail sentences, even life imprisonment.13 Existing political societies were required to apply to the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs for re-licensing by early October. Some societies, particularly ones based in such predominantly Sunni districts as al-Muharraq but also the major Shia organization al-Wifaq, complied with the new requirement, while a number of others, including the prominent liberal association The Forum (al-Muntada), opted not to do so and reverted to being purely social and civic organizations.

Petitioning the authorities directly continues to be an important means by which Bahraini citizens express demands for change. In July 2003, al-Wifaq presented a petition to the royal court (diwan) signed by 33,000 individuals that called for the immediate repeal of Decree Number 56; the petition went unanswered. The society then shifted its efforts to obtaining as many signatures as possible on a petition that demanded basic revisions in the amended constitution. In response, the minister of the royal court issued a statement that called the petition campaign illegal, as "no other party [except the king and cabinet] has the right to call for changes in the constitution."14 In May 2004, police raided four signature-collection stations across the country and arrested 19 activists. When the authorities agreed not to prosecute the detainees, al-Wifaq temporarily suspended the petition drive.

A group of women organized as the Women's Petition Committee presented the diwan with a petition in December 2004 urging the adoption of a unified personal status code in place of the existing system of religion-based family laws.15 Two months later, after 75,000 citizens had attached their signatures to it, the petition for constitutional revision was presented to the diwan. It was once again refused, this time on the grounds that all political demands should be handed over to the National Assembly.

Restrictions mandated by the 2002 Press and Publications Law impose severe limitations on local journalists including severe penalties for publishing any report that criticizes the monarchy, jeopardizes national unity, advocates changes to the country's political system, or denigrates Islam. In August 2003, the Ministry of Information circulated a memorandum among foreign news agencies that instructed them not to dispatch reports regarding the government's policy of political naturalization. However, the editors of Bahrain's major newspapers have been granted weekly meetings with the heads of various government departments. The journalists take advantage of these sessions to ask tough, unscripted questions. If the audience is small enough, state officials are reported to offer surprisingly frank and direct answers. Ministers have even taken steps on occasion to change policy or revise official procedures in response to the questions and comments raised in these forums. On the whole, major newspapers enjoy a degree of latitude and freedom from official harassment that is not accorded to smaller publications. Local television and radio stations, by contrast, remain government owned and only broadcast reports that praise or congratulate the regime for its activities.

State agencies have routinely blocked local access to a variety of internet sites with the assistance of the country's primary service provider, the Bahrain Telephone Company (Batelco). The justification for doing so has usually been either that the proscribed sites incite sectarianism or that they impugn the good name of the nation. State officials routinely monitor postings and weblogs on sites run by local activists, including such community forums as Diraz.net and al-Muntadayyat. In February 2005, police went a step further and arrested the moderator of the Arabic-language web forum www.bahrainonline.org, 'Ali 'Abd al-Imam. The moderator and two of his technical assistants were charged with "defamation of the king, inciting hatred against the regime and spreading rumors and lies that could cause disorder."16 The three were released after a series of well-organized popular protests.

Recommendations

  • The king should announce a firm date by which members of the Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura) will be chosen by popular election rather than by royal appointment.
  • The regulation that requires any group that wishes to organize a public debate or workshop to obtain a license from the authorities (whether from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs, or the provincial governor) should be abolished.
  • The palace should agree to accept formal petitions from societies and associations rather than only from individuals.
  • The 2002 Press and Publications Law should be rescinded or drastically revised to permit greater freedom of speech.

Civil Liberties – 3.73

In early 2003, the government-sponsored BHRS released a report stating that all political prisoners had been released and that those individuals who had been dismissed from employment in state agencies (including the University of Bahrain) for their political activities during the 1990s had been reinstated.17 In addition, the report noted that the law that prohibited societies and organizations from campaigning on behalf of candidates for the National Assembly had been amended to permit such activity in the future.18 It pointed out as well that peaceful demonstrations and public gatherings no longer elicit brutal and indiscriminate responses from the police, as they had done as recently as the spring of 2002.

Representatives of popular societies and civic organizations confirm the main points of the BHRS's 2003 report. Leading figures of al-Wifaq concur that there is at present no institutionalized or systematic torture or imprisonment of political activists but only isolated incidents of mistreatment and harassment. The killing of protesters has always been a rare occurrence in Bahrain, even at the height of the popular uprising of 1994-99. The three dozen persons who died as a result of actions by the police during the course of the uprising are still honored openly as martyrs by their home communities, giving the authorities an added incentive to behave with restraint.

Long-term detention without trial is prohibited by the amended constitution and has been abandoned in practice in recent years. Following the repeal of the draconian State Security Law in 2001, anyone who is suspected of committing a crime is routinely charged or released within 48 hours of arrest. The courts are reported to have rejected occasional requests from the police to hold suspects for longer periods of time.19 The constitution also protects the country's citizens from all forms of mental and physical torture and prohibits information gathered by means of torture from being used in judicial proceedings. Oddly enough, the amended constitution fails to guarantee explicitly that Bahraini citizens will not be forced into exile, a measure that was an important instrument of government policy toward political dissidents in the 1990s. It does, however, protect citizens from any imposed limitations on their freedom of movement, which may imply a constitutional guarantee against forced exile. Exile is not being used as a punishment at the present time.

The situation confronting Bahraini women remains fundamentally ambiguous. On the one hand, Article 5 of the amended constitution guarantees full equality between men and women. In addition, Article 18 states that "people are equal in human dignity, and citizens are equal before the law in public rights and duties. There shall be no discrimination among them on the basis of sex, origin, language, religion or creed." The government is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In 2003, the authorities embarked on a highly publicized campaign to end all trafficking in women and children in the country and created a special task force to deal with the problems faced by the large number of vulnerable female domestic servants.20 Major societies and civic organizations, including such overtly Islamist associations as al-Wifaq, openly advocate greater educational and career opportunities for women and actively recruit female members. A small number of outstanding women have risen to top positions in local business, including enterprises closely linked to the state.

On the other hand, Article 5 of the revised constitution also notes that the guarantee of equality between men and women is bounded by "the provisions of Islamic canon law (Shari'ah)." Similarly, Bahrain's adherence to CEDAW is predicated on the stipulation that the convention's implementation must conform to the tenets of Islamic law and that traditional restrictions on the movement of female family members must be recognized.21 Women are routinely treated differently from men in the proceedings of both the civil and religious courts. By early 2004, a law had been enacted that prohibited all female students from entering or leaving the campus of the University of Bahrain with any man who was not her father, brother, or husband.22 Furthermore, women occupy significantly fewer senior posts in private and public companies and government agencies than might be expected given the fact that females currently account for almost one-quarter of the total labor force.

Discrimination against women takes a variety of forms, from a passive adherence to long-standing misogynistic practices and attitudes to an outright refusal to hire and promote females to positions of real responsibility. Most galling to many is the continued importation of non-Bahraini expatriates to work as teachers, health-care professionals, and clerical staff at a time when Bahraini women who have been trained for these same occupations remain unemployed.

Eight women stood as candidates for the lower house of parliament, distributing themselves among the various electoral districts so as not to compete directly with one another. None of them won a seat, despite strong hints from the government that women should be represented in the National Assembly. Some female candidates complained afterward that they had been blocked from speaking and distributing flyers in public places. Others attributed their lack of success to widespread social and cultural biases against women.

After months of campaigning by the government-sponsored Higher Council for Women, the Chamber of Representatives in October 2005 started to debate a draft personal status law that would supersede the existing corpus of customary Islamic law (Sharia) that deals with such matters as divorce, alimony, child support, and inheritance. Several influential Shia scholars quickly condemned the statute, and one recommended that it be submitted to Grand Ayatollah 'Ali al-Sistani in Najaf for advice. Local Shia notables orchestrated a series of popular demonstrations against the draft law, many of which drew large numbers of women. The head of the Council of Shia Scholars ('Ulama) charged that the bill was intended "to please the United States" and predicted that violence might break out if it were adopted.23 The controversy left the otherwise proreform organization al-Wifaq in a quandary; educated younger women make up a large proportion of the society's active membership, yet the leadership hesitated to take a position that might split the Shia into opposing factions. The head of al-Wifaq took the guarded position that the government has no right to draft legislation that deals with religious matters and that the amended constitution should be revised to ensure that such issues are left in the hands of individuals well versed in Islamic doctrine.24 Still, female members of al-Wifaq played a key role in organizing demonstrations against the draft personal status law, and by November senior figures in the society had begun to follow their lead.

Members of the country's most important political minority – Arabic speakers who follow the Shia branch of the Islamic faith, who make up between one-half and two-thirds of the native-born population – maintain that active and sustained discrimination by Sunnis in general and the ruling family in particular explains their generally disadvantaged position in local society. The poorest neighborhoods of Manama and the most dilapidated villages in the surrounding countryside are invariably inhabited by Shias. Districts populated by Sunnis contain attractive houses, paved streets, and well-maintained public buildings, whereas many Shia areas contain older, run-down dwellings, lack paved roads, and have no public offices. Shia neighborhoods also tend to be overcrowded, often with clusters of school-age children playing or loafing in the streets.

On the other hand, Article 17 of the amended constitution stipulates that citizens are protected against discrimination on the basis of religion. More specifically, Article 22 guarantees "the inviolability of worship, and the freedom to perform religious rites and hold religious parades and meetings in accordance with the customs observed in the country." These provisions are aimed directly at the local Shia community, whose periodic celebrations include a wide range of public demonstrations of collective and personal piety. The neighborhood institutions in which many of these festivities are organized and planned, the mourning houses dedicated to the memory of al-Imam Husain, remain largely outside the purview of state agencies. Government officials also tend to keep their distance from Shia mosques, and tolerate a good deal of freedom of expression on the part of preachers who enjoy popular respect. Sunni mosques, by contrast, are more closely regulated by the central administration.

Other national and cultural minorities fare rather well in economic terms, although few of the thousands of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, and Palestinians who reside in the country have been granted Bahraini citizenship. Those expatriates who do become citizens possess it only in the third class. This means that they cannot vote in municipal and parliamentary elections or run for elective office, although they do enjoy the right to bring cases before the criminal and civil courts. Unlike their counterparts in neighboring Arab Gulf states, naturalized and resident expatriates are usually permitted to bring their immediate families with them to Bahrain. Nevertheless, in March 2005, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination formally requested that the government of Bahrain prepare a detailed report on the measures it was undertaking to end discrimination against both the indigenous Shia and other minority communities.25

The council of ministers refused on four different occasions to rescind an official ban on labor unions imposed in 1977. When it became evident that the cabinet was going to refuse for the fifth time, King Hamad promulgated a decree in September 2002 authorizing workers and salaried employees to form organizations to promote their economic interests. The decree grants workers the right to strike, so long as three-quarters of the members of the affected union vote to do so by secret ballot and the company involved is given at least two weeks' warning. A General Federation of Workers' Unions (GFWU) was formed in January 2004 by the country's 40 legally sanctioned trade unions.26 On May 1 of that year, hundreds of workers took part in a spontaneous demonstration to demand pay increases, better working conditions, and greater efforts to combat unemployment. The federation in March 2005 took the Civil Service Bureau to court to force it to allow government workers to set up unions. Several hundred GFWU members marched on May Day 2005 to demand fair representation on the boards of the public and private sector social security agencies.27

Sporadic popular protests are met with a variety of countermeasures. In May 2004, a march in central Manama by more than a thousand Shias demanding the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala was broken up by police, who lobbed tear gas canisters and shot rubber bullets into the crowd. The king immediately fired the long-standing minister of the interior and replaced him with the chief of staff of the Bahrain Defense Force, General Rashid bin 'Abdullah bin Ahmad Al Khalifah.28 Clashes between protesters and police erupted once again in late October 2004 following the arrest of the human rights campaigner 'Abd al-Hadi al-Khawajah. Participants in a sit-in at the offices of the royal court to show solidarity with unemployed workers in June 2005 were roughed up by the police and placed under arrest.29 A young woman active in the campaign to reduce unemployment was reported to have been sexually assaulted by police in late November.30 The incident sparked an outburst of violent demonstrations across the country. By contrast, successive protests in favor of constitutional change throughout the spring and summer elicited less violent reactions from police and security personnel.

Overtly religious demonstrations encounter greater restraint. When marchers commemorating the death of al-Imam Husain on the occasion of 'Ashurah in February 2005 displayed banners bearing the picture of Iran's spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, and symbols of Lebanon's Party of God (Hizbullah), the minister of Islamic affairs summoned prominent Shia scholars to his office to "express the government's dismay over such unpatriotic actions."31 No arrests were made, and a ministry spokesperson remarked that the government was "keen to solve the issue through dialogue."

Recommendations

  • The government should expand both educational and employment opportunities and social services for the most disadvantaged groups in Bahraini society.
  • State officials should permit public employees to form trade unions to promote their economic interests.
  • Police and security officers who develop and implement ways to respond to nonviolent public demonstrations without the use of excessive force should be rewarded.
  • The government must rescind Decree Number 56 and thoroughly investigate and punish perpetrators of torture against political activists.
  • The authorities should work with local civic and religious associations to formulate a mutually acceptable personal status law that guarantees the legal rights of women.

Rule of Law – 3.67

It is difficult to assess comprehensively the degree to which Bahrain operates according to the rule of law. A large majority of the country's citizens hoped, and perhaps even expected, that an updated version of the 1973 constitution would be instated as the permanent basis of Bahrain's political system. There is now almost no possibility that this will happen, and the amended constitution of 2002 has supplanted the earlier document as the foundation of political and economic life. Critics of the amended constitution have largely resigned themselves to this state of affairs, and have begun to demand not that the new constitution be replaced by the previous one but instead that it be revised so as to include some of the more liberal provisions of the National Action Charter, which won overwhelming approval from voters in a February 2001 plebiscite.

Extensive political, juridical, and economic prerogatives remain firmly in the hands of senior members of the ruling family, the Al Khalifah. Members of the Al Khalifah are virtually exempt from civil and criminal law, although they do answer to a family council headed by senior Sheikhs. Since independence in 1971, the justice minister has been a prominent Al Khalifah Sheikh. Moreover, the king himself, in his capacity as the country's highest judicial authority, decides especially sensitive matters, including ones that involve members of the ruling family, according to his own judgment.

Various groups in Bahrain agree that the situation confronting anyone accused of a political crime is much more satisfactory now than it has been in the recent past. The amended constitution states that those who are charged with a crime are considered innocent until proven guilty. Any defendant who cannot afford legal counsel may request that a lawyer be appointed by the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs. Most individuals who find themselves charged with breaking the law, even the comparatively strict Press and Publications Law, appear in open court and are permitted to present evidence and arguments in their own defense. Defendants are usually released with only minor penalties, and charges are often dismissed even before guilt or innocence has been formally determined. In fact, it is the very uncertainty that pervades the operation and deliberations of the judicial system that causes the most anxiety for defendants and the greatest concern among those who champion further reforms. There is no question that the judiciary currently exercises considerable leniency in dealing with political cases, but it is impossible to ascertain how long this extraordinary degree of tolerance may last or where its precise boundaries may turn out to lie.

Bahrain's regular armed forces are entirely subject to civilian control. In the first place, the highest ranks of the officers' corps are dominated by members of the ruling family. In addition, mid-level and junior posts tend to be occupied by a wide range of expatriates, who remain in the country at the sole discretion of the regime. Furthermore, the regular army plays almost no role in domestic affairs. Conventional police units are complemented by an extensive internal security apparatus. These formations have exercised greater restraint in dealing with protesters in the wake of the 1994-99 uprising, although allegations that police employ excessive force to subdue demonstrators continue to crop up on a regular basis.

Private property rights appear to be particularly susceptible to contravention by the Al Khalifah. Influential members of the ruling family continue systematically to requisition extensive tracts of productive agricultural land. These lands are quickly cleared of trees, denuded of topsoil, and then sold or leased to developers at a considerable profit. Such activity is particularly widespread along the northern coast, where confiscated properties are attached to land that has been newly reclaimed from the sea at public expense to yield valuable parcels of commercial real estate.

Recommendations

  • King Hamad should begin to relinquish the absolute authority that he exercises with regard to judicial affairs.
  • Current judicial practices that protect the rights of defendants should be codified in an explicit form.
  • All encroachments on private property should be adequately compensated.

Anticorruption and Transparency – 2.07

The National Action Charter of 2001 clearly states that "public funds are sacred, and every citizen has a duty to protect them. Public authorities have to take all measures to safeguard them."32 The document goes on to assert that "economic openness must be accompanied by a change in the general management towards easing procedures, transparency, the elimination of overlapping responsibilities, the improvement of services, and the modernization of economic legislation, all of which must be governed by the principles of honesty and the equality of opportunities." To this end, the charter envisaged the establishment of "an office for financial control and an office for administrative control," to be responsible for supervising "the increase of work transparency in all state institutions." These two agencies have yet to be created, and all mention of them was omitted from the amended constitution.

The long-time prime minister, Sheikh Khalifah bin Salman Al Khalifah, plays a key role in economic affairs. He is reputed to be involved in virtually every major business deal in the country, amassing great wealth as a result. Other members of the ruling family also receive handsome side payments from business transacted on the islands, either in the form of large commissions that are required or expected as part of all contracts and investments involving foreign companies, or by being appointed to lucrative positions on the boards of directors of local subsidiaries of transnational corporations.

It is generally hard to distinguish between the perquisites of office and corrupt administrative practices in Bahrain. High-ranking officials enjoy magnificent houses, large staffs of personal servants, and expensive automobiles. State-funded construction projects tend to benefit individuals and families with close ties to the Al Khalifah. Oil revenues flow directly into the central treasury, obviating the need for taxes and fees to fund the operation of government agencies. As a result, licenses and contracts represent political arrangements rather than economic ones and are subject to a wide degree of latitude depending on the actors involved. The process by which government contracts are awarded is kept hidden from public view. Considerable speculation about the illicit activities of the rich and powerful circulates in the form of rumor and innuendo, but no mechanisms currently exist to obtain reliable information about the finances of state agencies and public sector enterprises. At present, Bahrain ranks 36th (out of 158) on a scale of perceived corruption published by Transparency International. This puts the kingdom below Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, but above Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the remaining Arab countries.33

Allegations of large-scale or sustained corruption on the part of government officials, particularly if they might implicate members of the ruling family, can be reported in the local press only in the most oblique fashion. By the same token, the head of the Women's Petition Committee was put on trial for asserting publicly that the presiding judges in the country's network of family courts were for the most part "corrupt, biased and unqualified."34 In November 2005, the first deputy speaker of the National Assembly announced that he intended to push for the establishment of a transparency commission that would investigate charges of corruption and propose new ways to clean up corrupt administrative practices. Immediately after this announcement, the prime minister told reporters that greater attention should be paid to economic growth and less energy devoted to political controversies. The president of the pro-regime al-Mithaq society elaborated: "It is great to have a parliament and to expand freedom of expression, but what Bahrain really needs is politicians who think of the country's national interests and look for ways to consolidate its modern trends in an increasingly globalised world."35

Recommendations

  • The government should encourage the National Assembly to adopt and implement measures that heighten the transparency of contracts and agreements drawn up by state agencies and public sector enterprises.
  • The offices of financial and administrative control should be established and allowed to function as envisaged in the National Action Charter.
  • State officials should work with the ruling family council and transnational corporations to stop all demands for or expectations of illicit commissions as a precondition for economic projects and investments.
  • State agencies and public-sector companies should begin to draw up and publish detailed accounts of their annual income and expenditures.

Author

Fred H. Lawson is Professor of Government at Mills College. He is author of Bahrain: The Modernization of Autocracy (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1989) and "Repertoires of Contention in Contemporary Bahrain," in Quintan Wiktorowicz, ed., Islamic Activism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003).

Notes

1 Nadeya Sayed Ali Mohammed, "Political Reform in Bahrain: The Price of Stability," Middle East Intelligence Bulletin 4 (September 2002).

2 Mohammed Almezel, "Plan to Legalise Bahrain Political Parties Shot Down," Gulf News, 18 May 2004.

3 Tariq Khonji, "Businessmen Push for Political Role," Gulf Daily News, 5 July 2004.

4 Almezel, "Bahrain MPs to Quiz Ministers Despite Speaker's Warning," Gulf News, 21 January 2004.

5 Abdulhadi Khalaf, "Bahrain's Parliament: The Quest for a Role," Arab Reform Bulletin 2 (May 2004).

6 Almezel, "MPs Demand Resignation of Bahraini Minister," Gulf News, 25 August 2004.

7 Almezel, "Call to Change Constitution Gathers Steam in Bahrain," Gulf News, 20 June 2005.

8 Almezel, "Bahrain Allows Opposition Forum," Gulf News, 15 February 2004.

9 "King Denounces Bid to Divide Bahrainis," BBC, 27 September 2004.

10 Almezel, "Dozens of NGOs and Societies Face Closure," Gulf News, 20 October 2004.

11 Almezel, "Battle Looms Over Proposed Law to Regulate Rallies," Gulf News, 7 November 2004.

12 Habib Toumi, "Political Societies Divided over New Regulation," Gulf News, 10 August 2005.

13 Mazen Mahdi, "Move to Regulate Groups Draws Flak," Gulf News, 28 September 2004.

14 Almezel, "Bahrain Warns Opposition Groups," Gulf News, 28 April 2004.

15 "Activists Call for Judicial Reforms," Gulf News, 14 December 2004.

16 "Bahrain Detains Moderator of Online Forum for 'Defaming King,'" Agence France Presse (AFP), 1 March 2005.

17 Annual Report 2001-2002 (Manama: Bahrain Human Rights Society [BHRS], 2003), 4.

18 Ibid., 13.

19 "Bahrain," in Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2002 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, 31 March 2003).

20 "Kingdom Lauded for Protection of Expats' Rights," Bahrain Tribune, 19 June 2003.

21 Sabika al-Najjar, "Bahrain," in Women's Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Citizenship and Justice (New York: Freedom House, 2005) 54.

22 Gerald Butt, "Undercurrents of Change in Bahrain?" Middle East Economic Survey, 16 February 2004.

23 "Bahraini Shiite Cleric Warns against Family Law," AFP, 4 November 2005.

24 Toumi, "Al Sistani's Opinion Urged on Bahrain's Draft Family Law," Gulf News, 29 October 2005.

25 "Bahrain Human Rights Record Gets a Boost from Sottas" Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 28 September 2005.

26 Almezel, "Bahrain's First Federation of Labour Unions Formed," Gulf News, 13 January 2004.

27 "Federation to Rally for Unions," Gulf News, 1 May 2005.

28 Mahdi, "King Hamad Orders Probe into Clashes in Manama," Gulf News, 23 May 2004.

29 Nora Bustany, "In Bahrain, Doubts About Reform," Washington Post, 24 June 2005.

30 "Bahrain on Verge of Turmoil after Rape of Activist" (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Gulf Affairs, 29 November 2005), www.gulfinstitute.org/artman/publish/article_33.shtml.

31 Almezel, "'Unpatriotic Displays' during Ashura Processions Anger Government," Gulf News, 8 March 2005.

32 "Draft National Charter," Bahrain Tribune, 24 December 2000.

33 Corruption Perceptions Index 2005 (Berlin: Transparency International, 2005).

34 "Bahraini Activist Tried Over Insulting Judiciary," ArabicNews.com, 6 June 2005.

35 Toumi, "Focus More on Economy than Politics: Khalifa," Gulf News, 16 November 2005.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.