You know, even though we just went through one of this country’s worse crisis to date, the silver lining is that the government has not backed away from continued reforms. His Majesty King Hamad was quoted as saying (and I’m loosely translating from the Arabic Newspaper Akhbar Al-Kahlaeej from 18th of April) “Ongoing reform and development will not stop, and we are determined to work hard to achieve all that we aspire to achieve.” That’s great news.
His Majesty also said in a recent article in the Washington Times “… There is no doubt that grievances about civil and political rights for all Bahrainis are legitimate. In response, we offered an unconditional dialogue with the opposition so as to maintain the stability of our country and address the demands for reform… Unfortunately, the legitimate demands of the opposition were hijacked by extremist elements with ties to foreign governments in the region.” Good on you Your Majesty, well said!
Back to you dear reader, in line with the plans of on-going dialogue and reform, I’ll have some thoughts to share with you about Bahrain Reforms 2.0 in the coming weeks. But first, I want to offer another analysis of the Bahrain reforms the first time around.
The Good Intentions of Reforms 1.0
Let me reiterate something I’ve said before, I think the reform efforts were absolutely genuine. I have no doubt about it. Anyone who thinks that there was an intentional marginalisation of a certain sector of society is mistaken. Why would a king start a complex series of reforms, introduce a new constitution, introduce political reforms and parliamentary elections, allow freedom of speech, announce an amnesty, release political prisoners, return exiles, reduce corruption, improve transparency and much more… only to then marginalise some of his people? It’s a ridiculous claim.
Further, why would he pardon previous perpetrators (several times) only to then go after them again later? It’s ludicrous to assume that there was an evil conspiracy against Shias, or anyone else for that matter. What the King did in a few short years was nothing short of remarkable, seldom seen in a Third World country.
This of course begs the question…
So what went wrong the first time around?
This is something that’s been on my mind from when the crisis first started. The February 14th crisis is deeply complex and multifaceted, and I doubt anyone really fully understands it. I think I might have a partial answer. In a nutshell, I think we had an “implementation gap.”
You see, when the reforms first started in the early 2,000’s there were some obvious, easy fixes that needed to be done. They were addressed first and were done with relative ease, and I think as the next layer of reforms needed to take place, the implementation was not so easy.
Let me give you an example. The government was keen to regulate the messy labour market in Bahrain. So a Labour Market Regulatory Authority was introduced (known as the LMRA). As I remember it, the goal of the labour reforms were to allow more freedom for expatriate workers to change employers (removal of the sponsorship system), and at the same time it would eliminate the “Bahrainisation” quotas [minimum percentage of Bahrainis that had to be employed in the private sector]. In return for the removal of the quota, employers were charged a tax of BD 10 per month per expatriate employee (a very unpopular tax with the business community)
Now, when it came to implementation, things did not go so smoothly. I remember seeing government officials in the media proudly proclaiming that the “sponsorship system has been eliminated.” But when you went to hire an expatriate from another company, you still had to present the LMRA with a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from his current employer! I remember trying to hire someone who’s employer did not want to release, and I couldn’t do anything about it. It was really frustrating! I don’t remember quite when the NOC requirement ended, but I know it was long, long after the announcement of the sponsorship system having ended. It was really frustrating to say the least.
What made matters worse, was that Bahrainisation quotas were not lifted! For example, in my category of business, I must have at least 25% Bahrainis. That’s not too difficult for me, as we have a preference for nationals anyway, and I’m happy to report that we are closer to 70% . But it’s devastating for businesses that require many unskilled and semi-skilled labourers. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration when I say most of them play with their books to make it look like they meet the Bahrainisation requirements. Contractors, manufactures and other businesses felt they had no choice but to scheme against the system.
So there was this great idea of reforming the labour market, but when it came to implementing, there was a big gap.
Another thing the government was keen on doing was promoting business. The government considered the business community it’s partner in the modernisation and development of Bahrain. There were many excellent initiatives introduced to facilitate business and entrepreneurship.
But the requirements to start a new business were still complex and bureaucratic. When I had a martial arts school, I needed the following approvals to open a school:
1) A Commercial Registration (CR) from the ministry of commerce.
2) Approval from the local municipality.
3) Approval from the ministry of health.
4) Approval from the ministry of interior.
5) Approval from the General Organisation of Youth and Sport
6) Approval from the Bahrain Martial Arts Federation.
All the above are also required for a health club except for the sixth. You also need to present things like a recent electricity bill (poor you if you have anything outstanding with the Ministry of Electricity), and various other paperwork. If each one of these approvals were to take just a week, that’s six weeks of waiting! If it takes them two or three weeks each (which it can) you end up waiting for months. The standard answer when you follow up is “come back next week”
I think I own or partially own at least five or six CR’s in Bahrain, one of them took about eight months to get, and one took ten months! Getting these CR’s were VERY stressful experiences.
You see, the grand vision from the top did not get translated to the front line staff in the relevant ministries. They did not get re-trained, nor it seems did they even get told that they have to facilitate matters for the business community. They more or less just kept doing things the way they’ve always done them. Somewhere in the middle management of the ministries and government departments the grand visions did not get passed along to the front line. An implementation gap.
Though as an entrepreneur, I might be very frustrated with these obstacles, I know very well that I’m not being targeted or intentionally marginalised. They just happen. I try to remind the relevant people whenever I can.
I’m not excusing anyone. But the point I’m trying to make is that reform is not easy, it takes several trials and errors before you can get it right. You make mistakes, learn from them, and then try again. I think this implementation gap existed in several places and is one of the reasons we are where we are today.
Example of my own implementation gaps
I think implementation gaps happen everywhere, in all countries, in both the public and the private sector. Just speak to anyone who works in a large corporation, and they can probably reel off examples and examples of implementation gaps between the top management and the front line staff.
I’ve had my own in the past, and continue to have them. One the of things that made Zen-Do, my former martial arts school (it still hurts to say “former”) so successful was that I treated it like a professional business, not like a hobby. And one of the things we had was a 200+ page operations manual. The manual explained everything from how to answer the phone, to giving a sales tour, to teaching classes, to grading students, and more.
But I realised something over the years. I realised that some things I added into the operations manual were just not being done. Over time I realised that some things were just not realistic, and were taken out. Other things just needed better training and follow up. As time passed I became much better at making sure that all parts of the operations manual were implemented. Let me tell you, it took me about 5 or 6 years to get good at it! And there were many trials and errors.
I think this reform implementation gap left the door open for some ambitious, power-hungry community leaders in the poorer Shia villages to exploit their youth (or I should say “our youth, Bahrain’s youth”). They told them tales of the ruling family intentionally victimising them. They co-mingled their perceived suffering with the sufferings of Imam Hussain and gave the illusion that there was sectarian discrimination taking place. This was intensified with songs, photos and videos dramatised with images of blood and religious chants.
Two VERY IMPORTANT points I want to add quickly. First, this analysis is in no way meant to belittle or degrade ANY of our Shia brethren or their religious beliefs. Nor is it meant to belittle the Imam Hussain’s suffering or meant to be disrespectful to him in any way. I offer my sincere apologies if it appeared derogatory, it was not meant to.
Second, this is not to say that there weren’t/aren’t some corrupt government officials that do have racist views of Shias, I have no doubt that they exist. And some may have tried to marginalise Shias. But I also believe that these types of people exist on both sides. Further, I think they are the minority in the government, and in society as a whole. Most people in Bahrain believe in peaceful and harmonious coexistence, as the many Shia/Sunni marriages in Bahrain attest to.
The biggest damage that was caused by the implementation gap was the disenfranchised youth (the ones we saw acting like enraged bulls). It seems they felt completely left behind. As I said many times before, we have to ask ourselves how this happened. What, specifically, went wrong? Why were they so ready to revolt and risk their lives? Why were they so ready to lie and falsify for their cause? Why did they hate so much? Why were they keen to attack security forces that were better armed and equipped?
The biggest question of all is how can we make sure this never happens again?
I think there will always be a group that will not rest until they see a regime change, and for those the government must always be vigilant, and ready to thwart if they attempt to do violent protests again. But I think so many of the youth were misled and exploited. We have to make sure that they never again feel like they have nothing to lose, so that they cannot ever be exploited again. This has to be an important element of Reform 2.0. And it’s all of our collective responsibility.
Talk to you soon.