SPIEGEL Interview with the King of Bahrain: 'Arab Spring? That's the Business of Other Countries'

One year ago, Arab Spring protests briefly gripped the tiny Gulf country of Bahrain. Just as quickly, however, they were crushed. SPIEGEL spoke with Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa about the need for reform, whether democracy is right for his country and what exactly a king does.

Photo Gallery: Bahrain's Stalled 'Spring' Photos
REUTERS

It was exactly one year ago, on Feb. 14, 2011, that a few thousand demonstrators gathered in the Bahraini capital of Manama to demand more popular participation and political reform. It was the first sign that the "Arab Spring" was spreading to the Gulf region. From the very beginning of the protests, Bahraini security personnel used violence in their attempts to clear demonstrators from Pearl Square.

On March 15, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa announced a state of emergency. One day earlier, tanks from the Peninsula Shield Force, a kind of rapid reaction force assembled by the six Gulf monarchies, had rolled into Bahrain from Saudi Arabia. In no other place were Arab Spring protests so rapidly and thoroughly crushed as they were in Bahrain. Forty-six people, including police officers and immigrants, died in the demonstrations, five of them as a result of torture. Some 3,000 people were arrested and 700 of them were still behind bars at the end of the year. More than 4,000 people lost their jobs as a result of participating in the demonstrations.

Shiites are in the majority in Bahrain, but the Sunni Al Khalifa royal family has held power there for over 200 years. Shiites are largely excluded from the military and from the police force. Until February 2011, the kingdom of King Hamad had been seen as a model country in the region.

In addition to several churches, Manama is also home to a synagogue as well. Hamad bin Isa, now 62, rose to the throne in 1999 and since then has expanded the rights of women, modernized his country and established Bahrain as a financial center in the region.

Indeed, the protests were not initially aimed at the rule of Hamad bin Isa. Instead, his uncle, hard-line Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa, who has been in office since 1971, was the target.

In June, the king commissioned the Egyptian-American human rights expert Cherif Bassiouni to carry out an inquiry into the protests and the resulting violence. The king promised to implement his recommendations regarding a police reform and a reform of the judiciary.


SPIEGEL: Your Majesty, one year ago the opposition movement started in Bahrain. Many of your subjects have bitter memories of those days.

Hamad: As I have said before, I regret the events of last year. In a sense there is no "opposition" in Bahrain, as the phrase implies one unified block with the same views. Such a phrase is not in our constitution, unlike say the United Kingdom. We only have people with different views and that's okay. And now they are talking with their brothers.

SPIEGEL: Leaders of the Shiite majority in Bahrain, such as Sheikh Ali Salman, are asking for a constitutional monarchy similar to that which exists in Morocco. What's wrong with this idea?

Hamad: We are a constitutional monarchy. I don't order laws, I propose them. Article 35 of our constitution states that the king can only refuse a law of parliament once, then he has to sign it -- if the same law is then supported by a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament. No king should rule absolutely, like a dictator.

SPIEGEL: Do you know, Your Majesty, how many political prisoners there are in your detention centers?

Hamad: There are no "political prisoners" as such in Bahrain. People are not arrested because they express their views, we only have criminals. Can you give me a name?

SPIEGEL: Fadila Mubarak, a middle aged woman who has been detained for 18 months and, according to Amnesty International, was maltreated because she listened to revolutionary music in her car.

Hamad: As you will understand I do not track individual cases. (He turns to ask the Minister of information about the case.) She has been released.

SPIEGEL: Your Majesty, what would happen if we were to shout: "Down with the King?"

Hamad: They do shout it on the streets. As I emphasized in my speech last year, this is not a reason to imprison someone. It's just a case of manners. But when they shout: "Down with the king and up with Khomeini," that's a problem for national unity.

SPIEGEL: Is there a dialogue taking place between you and the opposition?

Hamad: There have been offers of dialogue several times, but they have been rejected. My door will always be open and I will support whatever consensus is reached by the people. But for this to happen, they have to talk to each other. The constitution says talk to your brothers, not to the king. On one hand, people say they want a constitutional monarchy. But then on the other, they want the king to give the orders. I don't like contradictions.

SPIEGEL: What, then, is the king's role?

Hamad: I provide the environment and the table for the dialogue. But first the people have to find a consensus and then I will support it.

SPIEGEL: How does the word "Arab Spring" sound to you, Your Majesty?

Hamad: Arab Spring? That's the business of other countries. If you mean by "Arab Spring" the call for democratic reform, then we started that process 10 years ago. We were one of the first to have parliamentary elections in the Arab world. It worked.

SPIEGEL: Do you think democracy could work for Bahrain?

Hamad: Yes, but it has to be democracy from within. You cannot transpose the US system on Turkey, and the Turkish system on France etc. You have to understand the people and their culture. That's leadership.

SPIEGEL: French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville said once the most critical moment for a regime comes when it's about to reform. Would you agree on this?

Hamad: I would. As a helicopter pilot, I know the so-called "Dead man's curve," -- a phrase describing a sharp turn -- as very critical, the moment of transition between two movements. I thought it would be easier when I started with the reforms over 10 years ago.

SPIEGEL: What are the difficulties?

Hamad: As I already said, in establishing democracy, we have to be sensitive to the regional and national context. Democracy also means to guarantee the rights of the minorities. That's my job as a king. We have for example a Jewish ambassador in the US and a Christian in the UK.

SPIEGEL: Why did you declare a state of national safety on March 15, four weeks after protests began?

Hamad: Bahrain came to a standstill, there was racially motivated violence, with people injured and killed, schools and universities were stormed and our main hospital was taken over. Also our women were very scared and it is the duty of a gentleman to protect women, so I had to protect them.

SPIEGEL: Actually, Your Majesty, this is the exact same argument the Bahraini Shiite preacher Issa Kassim recently used. He said that anyone should feel free to attack the police if they were to mistreat female protesters.

Hamad: Women were not attacked by policemen. I don't know about any such case. But if a woman is attacked, she can take her case to court. We don't condone violence. We have set up a victim compensation fund, which is unique in the Arab world.

SPIEGEL: Why did you call Gulf Cooperation Council forces into Bahrain, a hitherto unseen move?

Hamad: What about Kuwait? Have you forgotten what happened there in 1990? We invited the GCC troops to come in to protect our strategic installations in case Iran became more aggressive. They were not visible on the streets, as the report of human rights expert Cherif Bassiouni confirmed.

SPIEGEL: How are your relations with Iran?

Hamad: It is important to have good relations with your neighbors, which is what we are trying to do.

SPIEGEL: Do you think Iran is influencing the tensions in Bahrain?

Hamad: There is no doubt that some in Iran have an unhealthy focus on Bahrain, as some of the broadcast coverage shows. But our focus is on matters in Bahrain.

SPIEGEL: Just a few kilometers from here lies the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet. Recently, Iranian Commander Hossein Salami said that Iran would consider any Gulf country hosting US bases or providing overflight rights as an enemy and a potential target. One cannot be more explicit.

Hamad: But is he the decision maker? I don't know. But nobody would hear from us, that we would attack Iran. This is un-Islamic. But we do have the right to defend ourselves.

SPIEGEL: What would you tell Syrian President Bashar al Assad were you to meet him?

Hamad: The best advice for him is from the Syrian people.

SPIEGEL: Do you think he should step down?

Hamad: Who am I to tell him to step down? This is up to the Syrian people.

SPIEGEL: The gap between Shiites and Sunnis in your country is widening after the protests were crushed one year ago.

Hamad: No, I don't think this will happen. I am confident that we can achieve greater unity through the many reforms and initiatives that we have put in place since last year. Some want more? Okay, then find the consensus and bring it to me.

SPIEGEL: Do you seriously believe, with all what is going on right now in your country, that Bahrain can be a role model for other Arab countries?

Hamad: It is important to understand that the test of modernity is how you respond to difficult situations. We are the number one in reforms of all the Arab countries. We introduced parliament so that a dictatorship would be impossible in Bahrain. Bahrainis are better off than many other Arabs. We have a welfare state, everybody gets a salary whether they have a job or not. Electricity and food are subsided; school and healthcare are free. And we don't differentiate between Bahrainis and foreigners. We are very proud of that.

SPIEGEL: But it seems that for some Bahrainis, a welfare state is not enough. They want more participation and political reform.

Hamad: We have made political reforms. We have just passed a number of amendments to the constitution which allow parliament to dismiss the government. We invited everyone with openness. But some people boycotted the election and certain people just walked out of parliament. If you want a better system you have to join. The recommendations from Bassiouni …

SPIEGEL: … who presented the results of his inquest in November …

Hamad: … are good recommendations as they help Bahrain. There is no reason to reject them. He was very frank and I accepted his report in public.

SPIEGEL: Is it not true that members of the royal family occupy all influential positions in government?

Hamad: No. In Bahrain the royal families are citizens like any other. There are some people in influential positions who are not part of the royal family, including the minister of oil or the deputy prime minister.

SPIEGEL: That may well be. But still, many of the minister posts are given to people bearing your family's name.

Hamad: Not because they are members of the royal family, but because of merit. But let's get back to the situation in Bahrain. If some people think they can draw my attention to fights, they are misleading. I am not losing sight of my objective. Our objective is more reforms.

SPIEGEL: Your Majesty, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Alexander Smoltczyk and Souad Mekhennet

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