Two top Bahraini officials visited Washington this week after the country’s king lifted a state of emergency used to counter anti-government protests. Washington Post senior associate editor Lally Weymouth sat down with Foreign Minister Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa. Excerpts follow:
L.W.: The king of Bahrain said recently that the government will resume the dialogue but at the same time, protesters are being arrested.
The opposition figures in jail [had] been arrested before his majesty called for a dialogue.
L.W.: Are you sure?
We are talking about three people. But if you are talking about protesters or people in the streets causing problems for law and order, then nothing prevents a policeman from doing his job. … There are many members of the opposition who are out free and have accepted his majesty’s offer for a dialogue, which made us very happy.
L.W.: What is on the table?
There are no preconditions from any side to come to the table, and there is no ceiling. Anything can be put on the table for the dialogue.
L.W.: So election laws are on the table. What else?
Constitutional reforms, the election laws, giving powers to the elected assembly—it would gain powers over time. Also the issue of the accountability of government. … We all believe that it is time that we move forward in these fields. There is one thing that everybody agrees on in Bahrain—that it cannot be done all at once.
L.W.: All the reforms can’t be done at once?
For example, one of the demands was that the parliament would form the government.
L.W.: And elect the prime minister?
Exactly. We all agree it should happen step by step, and we are looking forward to that. Everyone now believes that we missed a good opportunity two months ago.
L.W.: In other words, the crackdown was a mistake?
No, the crackdown was not a mistake. Restoring law and order was not a mistake. Not coming to the dialogue and leading to such chaos in the country was a big mistake.
L.W.: You are blaming the opposition for that?
Yes. No doubt. And people should accept blame.
L.W.: Blame is usually on both sides. People say that the ruling family is divided. That the crown prince and you favor reform, whereas others do not.
It’s not fair to say “split,” but it’s fair to say we have different views. Of course, there are views that are conservative, there are views that are more liberal, there are views that can move faster, and those that say we should go slightly slower. I think this is quite healthy and natural. … What happened is the phase of national safety was only to restore law and order, it wasn’t a solution. … The solution starts now, and it has to be agreed upon by everybody.
L.W.: The dialogue starts July 1?
This is not the first dialogue for Bahrain. We did it 10 years ago, and that led us to getting back our parliament, abolishing the state security law, and led us to press freedom and a lot of things.
L.W.: Your country has a Shiite majority and a Sunni minority, and although you did have those reforms 10 years ago, the Shiites view them as institutionalizing them as second-class citizens.
How do you institutionalize second-class citizenship?
L.W.: They see less employment, less—
Yes, that’s true. But whether they have been treated as second-class—no. Maybe some areas did not get development as much as the capital or other major cities, but yes, some of their villages do need more help, more housing, more projects and infrastructure, and that will be taken care of. … The whole Gulf Cooperation Council [is] helping Bahrain and Oman with $10 billion over 10 years. That should ease up a lot of things for us.
We have to be very careful with pitching the people of Bahrain as majority against minority. This only happened right after the Iranian revolution and the jihad in Afghanistan, when the Sunni-Shiite polarization really started to take hold. Then came the issue of Iraq after the fall of the dictator, Saddam Hussein. It didn’t help the situation between Sunnis and Shiites in the region. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, intermarriages between Sunnis and Shiites were so high.
L.W.: So the parliament will have more powers?
Yes, there is no doubt. That’s the way parliaments develop.
L.W.: Human Rights Watch reports that there are still arrests of protesters.
The number of people arrested has gone down considerably.
L.W.: Are you going to release those who are in jail?
At one point the total number of arrested people in Bahrain peaked at around 1,100. That went down considerably, to around 400-something.
L.W.: Are you concerned about the so-called forces of darkness, that the people who are against the dialogue can sabotage it?
Yes, I am concerned that there are forces of darkness who don’t want this dialogue to succeed. They want to see Bahrain fall into anarchy.
L.W.: Are those forces in the royal family?
No, not in the royal family, but they are out there.
L.W.: Are you referring to Iran?
Yes, I am referring to Iran being supportive of many extremist groups that held the country hostage and eventually led to the state of [threats to] national safety. It was unprecedented how Iran sustained a campaign against Bahrain.
L.W.: What do you think of the trial of Hosni Mubarak?
Anyone from the Gulf will never forget President Hosni Mubarak and his stance for the liberation of Kuwait back in 1990. He led the Arab world into supporting Kuwait and to that historic vote in the Arab League. Second, in Bahrain we will never forget President Mubarak’s stance when Iran claimed Bahrain to be part of Iran two or three years ago. He was the first Arab leader to fly to Bahrain in solidarity.
For the Egyptian people, the matter of who is president is a purely Egyptian matter. But when it comes to the treatment of Hosni Mubarak, we feel that he deserves better.
L.W.: Did you express your views to the Egyptians?
A lot of countries in the Gulf did express that view to the Egyptians. What worries me in Egypt is that whatever direction it takes, I hope it doesn’t veer from the direction and line drawn by the late President Anwar Sadat.
L.W.: What do you think of Egypt’s future?
Nothing is clear yet; it could go any way. I hope Egypt continues to be in the path of peace. We have differences with Israel, [but] we shouldn’t lose the peace agreement. If Egypt chooses to take a path of confrontation, then the whole Arab world will be on that path. Even if we don’t like whoever is in government in Israel, at the end of the day, it is a country that will produce reasonable partners that we can work with in the future.
L.W.: What about the American diplomat who was forced to leave your country because of anti-Semitism? How could you allow that to happen? They said his photo was published on a government website.
It wasn’t on a government website.
L.W.: Why didn’t the government stop it?
It did stop it. Newspapers were gagged from talking about the issue. But the websites—how can it be stopped? It was a terrible situation. I wonder why would they attack someone for being Jewish. We have a Jewish ambassador here.
L.W.: What about the doctors who were fired?
I believe that the majority of doctors in Bahrain have treated protesters. But there is a group of doctors—33 doctors and nurses—who took control of a hospital, took possession of firearms, and turned the hospital into a no-go area, and two of them are charged with serious crimes. Treating protesters, going to the roundabout [where protesters gathered]—that is not a crime. Nobody is being charged with that.
L.W.: Do you think that having Saudi and UAE forces in your country promotes stability or exacerbates tensions?
The portrayal that they came into the country to suppress the demonstrations did not help give the right portrait of them. They didn’t come into contact with people—they came straight to the bases to protect vital installations against outside threats.
L.W.: Do you think the troops should go now?
The troops are there against foreign threats. We received many threats from Iran.
L.W.: How do the Saudis feel about the efforts of the crown prince? Do they want a tougher policy?
The Saudis want a calmer, happier Bahrain. They are very supportive of any effort to bring Shiites and Sunnis together.
L.W.: There is a charge that your government tries to bring Sunnis from other countries and give them citizenship so you increase the number of Sunnis.
There are Bahrainis over the last three or four decades who went to the rest of the Gulf looking for a better life.
L.W.: Isn’t there an argument about naturalization?
We don’t have a policy of naturalizing people who are Sunnis in order to balance the Shiites. It so happened that a lot of the people who left Bahrain were Sunnis because a lot of our surrounding area are Sunni countries and they would [be] hire[d] because they are Sunnis.
L.W.: What do you think is going to happen in Syria?
The Arab Spring is bringing winds of change. It started in Tunisia, but it was Egypt that made it an Arab Spring. And it’s everywhere. It’s not necessarily something bad. … We are a part of the Arab Spring, but we wanted to make sure that this Arab Spring goes in favor of the people and is not hijacked.