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Bahraini Political Reforms Will Have Positive Spillover In GCC, But Slowly.

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NICOSIA - APS sources say that the bold move by Bahrain to set the pace for political reform in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) region would have positive repercussions, but these will take place at a slow and cautious pace. The reforms envisaged by the Emir of Bahrain, Shaikh Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa, are bold in that the National Action Charter (NAC) envisages turning the emirate into a constitutional monarchy with a partially elected parliament and an independent judiciary. No other monarchy in the GCC has considered such wide-ranging reforms. While Kuwait has an elected parliament and Qatar has held municipal reforms, the implications of the changes envisaged by Bahrain could go far deeper.

Much would depend on the way Saudi Arabia, which remains the most conservative among the GCC states in political matters, would deal with the process set in motion in Bahrain. So far, Riyadh has kept a low profile. Bahrain is a very close ally of Saudi Arabia, and heavily dependent economically on the kingdom's goodwill. It would be very careful before undertaking any venture that may be regarded by the Saudi royal family as undermining the interests of the kingdom. Therefore, some sources say, the democratic experiment launched in Bahrain may have the quiet blessings of Crown Prince Abdullah Ibn Abdel Aziz, the day-to-day ruler of Saudi Arabia.

There was strong positive reaction from across the globe to the way in which the Bahraini referendum on the NAC was held. A total of 98.4% of the electorate voted "yes" in the referendum. Out of the 217,579 citizens eligible to take part, 196,262 cast their votes of which 1,374 votes were invalid. The "yes" votes numbered 191,790 while the "no" votes were 3,098. On Feb. 17, Emir Shaikh Hamad endorsed the NAC through Emiri Decree No. 17 for 2001.

In a speech following the announcement of the results, he said: "Based on this mandate which expresses national consensus, I pledge to devote myself to achieve your aspirations as they were clearly formulated in the articles, text and spirit of the charter within a comprehensive national action plan that will, with the grace of God, take Bahrain to greater heights, renew its democratic progress and bring back the parliamentary life within the Constitution and the democratic system that we have chosen for ourselves". The country currently has a 40-member appointed Shura Council, which has no legislative powers and mainly advises the government on draft laws before they are sent to the emir for final approval.

According to the sources, the referendum in Bahrain revealed a fact that is often ignored about the monarchs of the GCC: they are, for the most part, viewed as benevolent figures by the citizens. This is especially true of Bahrain, Qatar and Oman - all countries where the rulers are relatively young and relatively progressive in their approach. There is a great deal of genuine public affection for the rulers of Bahrain and Qatar, both of whom have assumed rulership only recently (Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa in 1995 and Shaikh Hamad Bin Isa in 1999).

On the other hand, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said has been in power since 1970 but he has almost single handedly changed Oman from being a virtually primitive hinterland with no basic infrastructure into a modern well-adjusted and reasonably wealthy state (see profiles of Omani decision makers in this week's OOD). The sources say that the next to introduce further democratic measures may well be Oman. They say it would be opportune for the Sultan to take this course, given that he has not formally appointed an heir. But this may not happen soon, they add, suggesting that he may wait to see how the Bahraini experiment plays out.

According to the sources, it is important to note in this context that the Bahraini ruler's move to hold a referendum on the NAC has taken removed the platform from underneath the opposition movement in the country. The opposition, which flared into the limelight in late 1994 and has since sporadically engaged in acts of violence, is now on the defensive. Although political parties are banned, the majority of Bahraini public opinion as well as many opposition figures believe Sheikh Hamad has gone further and faster in implementing reforms than anyone could have expected.

The opposition has backed the charter after Sheikh Hamad visited Shiite areas that were once trouble spots in the 1994-98 anti-government unrest and met opposition leaders, some of whom had been jailed for years, to discuss their demands. To ease the atmosphere in the country Shaikh Hamad also ordered the release of all political prisoners in the country, estimated at more than 900. The government says that, at present, there are no longer any prisoners in Bahraini jails being held for their political views. In another move aimed at enhancing domestic stability, Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa has ordered the interior ministry to issue more than 1,000 passports to stateless inhabitants of Bahrain, known as "bidoon". Also called "Ajam", they are said to number up to 15,000. Shaikh Salman has indicated that additional passports would be issued, newspapers reported on Feb. 22.

The fact that Bahrain and Qatar have relatively young and dynamic leaders, who are prepared to step outside the parameters set by their fathers, has also had a positive effect on other aspects of regional stability. For example, there are reports that Manama and Doha are moving to settle their territorial dispute over Fasht Al Dibal, Qitat Jarada, and Hawar islands through a bilateral approach.

Recent reports have indicated, for instance, that an "out of court" settlement may be on the horizon. One settlement reported was that Qatar would take the oil rich areas of these islands while Bahrain would take the areas rich in pearls. Whether such a settlement would materialise remains to be seen, but it is clear that neither Bahrain nor Qatar would want to see their stability jeopardised by raising this issue to the level of a military conflict.

In Kuwait, meanwhile, the government is going through a period of instability in view of infighting between factions of the ruling family. The sources say there are differences between Premier Shaikh Saad Al Abdullah Al Sabah and Foreign Minister Shaikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah. The note that these differences are a result of subtle power games over the succession issue between the Bani Jabir and Bani Salem branches of the Sabah family; the latest manifestation was the delay over appointments to the new cabinet. The Emir, Shaikh Jabir Al Ahmed, intervened on Feb. 13 to end the quarrel and get a cabinet appointed - but the government has faced criticism right from the onset.

Opposition MPs and political groups are calling for "radical political reforms at the top" and the removal of the old guard of the ruling family. But the 15-member cabinet, announced on Feb. 14, includes seven members of the ruling family, five of them young and three of them new. In total there are eight new members in the cabinet. No weight was given to opposition demands for Shaikh Saad, a member of the Bani Salem branch of the ruling family, to step down as premier because of his health problems. But on the other hand most of the new ministers were picked by Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah, a member of the Bani Jabir branch and a stalwart of the old guard. According to a written commentary by Al Shall Economic Consultants: "It's difficult to say it's a one-team government with one head. It's a government of quotas, influenced by family balances, rather than needs of public interests".
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Title Annotation:Gulf Co-operation Council
Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Geographic Code:7BAHR
Date:Feb 26, 2001
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