Bahrain: Government Pushes to Rehaul Image, Economy

Despite the political instability, Bahraini authorities are enhancing their communications and PR strategies to reassure their external partners. A few days ahead of the Manama Dialogue, organized on December 6-8, by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, we asked Ethnographic Edge, a geopolitical research center, to contribute the following piece on Bahraini politics and the government’s attempt to rehaul its image.

Bahrain: Government Pushes to Rehaul Image, Economy

By Eduardo Zachary Albrecht and Theodore Milosevic.

Over the past few weeks Bahrain has been making progress not only in the realm of business, but also in matters of international affairs.  Prior to the Dubai Airshow, held earlier this month, his Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, received King Hamad Bin Issa Al Khalifa of Bahrain and his delegation. A number of issues of common interest, specially regarding the situation in the region, were discussed between the two rulers.

The King of Bahrain also met with representatives of the British government about the possible sale of Typhoon fighters, according to UK Defense Secretary Philip Hammond. The Secretary termed the discussions with the king as “very fruitful” and said he hoped the Gulf nation would make “a decision to join the Typhoon family soon.” Dismissing any possibility of the deal falling foul over concerns about Bahrain’s human rights record, Hammond explained that the deal has “nothing to do with the internal situation. Jets are about external defense of the country and allowing Bahrain to contribute to the defense of the Gulf Cooperation Council member states.”

Following this wave of positive partnerships, Egypt and Bahrain vowed to reinforce security co-operation. In an article from the Gulf Daily News we learn that, “the pledge came as Interior Minister Lieutenant-General Sheikh Rashid bin Abdulla Al Khalifa was received by Egyptian Prime Minister Dr. Hazem Al Beblawi.” The Egyptian Prime Minister thanked Bahrain for its support “which reflects the historical ties between the countries.” Sheikh Rashid said that Egypt will remain the strategic hub of the Arab world, and that the security and stability of Egypt is an Arab and Islamic goal. He hopes Bahrain and Egypt will continue to work together to confront the many “criminal conspiracies” in the region.

Ethnographic Edge, a geopolitical research center, explains that foreign policy implications of these meetings should be read within the context of an attempt by the Bahraini government to promote a positive image internationally. After recent government clashes with the country’s Shia community, the Bahraini government seems set on establishing a higher degree of perceived stability, at least in the short-term. This move towards stability comes both in the form of increased trade/diplomatic relations, and in an explicit communications strategy endorsed by the Bahraini Cabinet. The government may be looking to quiet things down internally, too. Some see the charges the government recently brought against two senior Wefaq figures as a pressure tactic in preparation for an eventual settlement with the opposition.

On November 17, the Bahraini Cabinet met to discuss how Bahrain could pursue “fair global and media recognition of the real progress Bahrain has achieved in politics, economics, social affairs and human rights,” as per the state-run Bahrain News Agency. As a result of this meeting, all ministries and governmental bodies were instructed to compile and publish a list of all the good things they have done. The meeting also addressed a number of issues related to attracting big business to Bahrain, especially in the telecom sector, by mitigating the fears of instability.

Not by chance, then, preliminary talks towards a deal between Bahrain and British Telecom started last week. According to Trade Arabia, BT has discussed the possibility of establishing its regional headquarters in the Kingdom. No decision has been made yet, but if a deal is reached, the UK firm would provide new services that are not being offered by Bahrain’s existing telecommunication operators.

It is not simply a matter of image, then. The Cabinet’s latest push can be seen as a response to the strain placed on Bahrain’s economic growth by instances of civil unrest. The Bahraini financial sector is still recovering from the rapid decline it experienced after the global financial crisis. The Bahrain Stock Exchange Index has still not recovered to anywhere near its pre-crisis level, and its growth has largely stalled over the last half year. The government is worried that perceived instability may be serving as a deterrent to economic growth and FDI. This worry is compounded by a perception in the Gulf that the US’s reconciliation with Iran will be at the expense of its relationship with the Gulf Monarchies.

It is important to note that this push toward an image of stability is largely coming from the government’s executive level, which is predominantly populated by individuals with close ties to the ruling family. Shia representation is extremely limited at this level. The executive branch of the Bahraini government is attempting to portray an image of Bahrain as a stable polity, circumventing other institutions, such as parliament, which would rather voice Shia concerns. While Shiites are the second largest Muslim sect globally – after Sunni Islam – in Bahrain they are the majority. The population is now on the order of 58% Shia and 42% Sunni. These facts portend future problems even if Bahrain’s image does improve in the short term. It is difficult to solve deep seated historical issues with better PR.

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