Wow! What a fascinating couple of days it’s been! I just had the pleasure of attending a half day conference in Chatham House in London. The subject of the conference was “Bahrain after the BICI report.”
I have to say I learnt a lot, and would like to thank my friend Jane Kinninmont from Chatham House for inviting me. I had initially declined the invitation, but Jane insisted and bribed me with free tickets and hotel accommodation. I’m glad she insisted, and I’m glad I attended. It provided a good forum to promote my message of reconciliation.
There was a small reception for speakers before the event, and I made sure to say hello to everyone. And I made sure to take photos with some key opposition members, as well as with Dr. Abdulatif Al-Mahmood and some of his team.
I also found myself in the position of being an interpreter for Dr. Abdulatif in an impromptu meeting held between sessions. I like how he trusted me to attend the meeting and translate for him, I was caught completely off guard. Having spent some time with him, I ended up quite liking him, though I disagree with some of his views. The most important thing is that he has his heart in the right place, and I believe he passionately wants the best for Bahrain.
Most attendees knew who I was, and were happy to see me there. I was asked to relay an unusual message from a friend in Bahrain; he told me ” Suhail please pass on my regards to Maryam Al-Khawaja, I really admire her.” Okay… I’m not her biggest fan but I passed on the message nonetheless, and she said hello back.
The conference consisted of three parts. The first was a panel consisting of Bahrain Ambassador Alice Samaan and BICI commissioner Sir Nigel Rodely, and chaired by Elizabeth Wilmshurst.
The second consisted of Sheikh Ali Salman and Dr. Abdulatif Al-Mahmood, chaired by Lord Williams of Baglan. The third session (which was meant to show the views of young Bahrainis) consisted of Mohammed Matar nephew of Matar Matar, Maryam Al-Khawaja, and yours truly.
Now, the event was held under the Chatham House rule, which means you can mention what was said, but not who said it. So I’ll give you some highlights and my impressions, without being too specific:
– There are good and bad things to take away from the event. On a positive note, it was healthy to have an open forum where things could be discussed openly without restrictions – and without fear. We desperately need such a forum in Bahrain. On a not-so-positive note, I got the impression that we are no closer to reconciliation after the BICI report than we were before. There is still a LOT of bad blood.
– Sadly, too much time was spent talking about the past, rather than focusing on the future. And the blame game was played there was well. The idea of letting bygones be bygones did not feature highly.
– The topic of HRH the Prime Minster came up several times, and that he should resign. This was countered by emphasising that the appointment of the Bahrain Prime Minister is done according to the Bahrain Constitution, and can be discussed and acted on through legal channels in the parliament.
– Sadly, a bit too much time was spent talking about religion, and the -real or imagined- Shia/Sunni divide. There was some concern expressed by some sunni attendees about the -alleged- Shia obsession with Imam Al-Hussain, and how shias supposedly divide Muslims into good (those who supported Imam Hussain) and evil (those who did not support him and thus supported Yazid). He said that this obsession was a real obstacle to overcoming sectarianism. Some shia attendees were shaking their heads while this was being said.
– There was a lot of agreement between some of the points raised by the TGONU guys and Al-Wefaq, but it seems that there was a big difference in the perceived implementation. Also, there was a gulf of a difference in the crisis narrative.
– The issue of BTV was raised by several of the attendees, and there is a LOT of anger about how BTV behaved during the crisis.
– There were numbers, names and figure brought up of alleged continued human rights abuses after the BICI report was issued.
– I sat next to Sheikh Ali Salman during one of the sessions, and he had this zen-like energy about him. It was like he was in a meditative trance. He kept his cool throughout even when tempers flared around him. He did, however, go over his time limit by quite a bit, causing the session, and subsequent sessions to be delayed.
– Some opposition members emphasised that they wanted the ruling family to stay, but they wanted a Western style constitutional monarchy.
– Overall, I expected the attendees – speakers and members of the audience – to be a bit more mature. There was a not insignificant number of interruptions and objections from the audience. And a few grunts here and there when some points were being made. It’s obvious some people came to give the other side a piece of their mind. Like I said, reconciliation was not high on the agenda.
I think I was the only speaker to stick to the time limit. If you’ve been following me for a while, what I said at Chatham House would not be new to you. I spoke from a “moderate’s” perspective. I spoke about the different stages I went through during the crisis, with regards to my online activities. I emphasised that my current agenda is reconciliation, and that I thought it was pointless to obsess over the past.
I also emphasised my mottos “yes to the ruling family, no to corruption” and “evolution not revolution,”. I also mentioned that I accept the BICI report in its entirety. I also added my suggestions for reform, and that I dream of seeing a truth and reconciliation commission in Bahrain. I also emphasised that I do not endorse the horrific acts committed by some members of the government.
Things got slightly rowdy during our session, where several members of the audience highjacked the Q&A mic to make long-winded points. Some people got really passionate, a bit too passionate.
Someone asked me what I think would be the best way forward after the crisis, and I said “I think we need to lock five people together in a room; His Majesty the king, HRH the Crown Prince, Sheikh Isa Qassim, Sheikh Ali Salman and Dr. Abdulatif Al-Mahmood. And not let them out until a resolution has been found.” Some people agreed with me, while others vehemently disagreed. Someone asked me “but which of these will represent you Suhail??” “All five of them,” I replied.
To be honest I did not feel nervous or intimidated, even though my other panellists were “anti-government” and some aggressive questions were thrown my way. I think though, that my presentation was quite well received with all but the most extreme of attendees. A lot of people thanked me afterwards and gave me their business cards. One guy gave me his card and asked me to get in touch, it was only later, when I had a closer look at the card, that I realised he was from Lulu TV. I did not contact him.
I left the conference with mixed emotions. On one hand I felt sad that there was still so much disagreement, the wounds are still raw, and the frustrations high. On the other hand, I felt a sense of optimism and hope. The fact that so many people managed to express themselves in a -mostly- civilised way was good. It’s something to build on. Either way, I will continue down my path, and hope it makes a difference some how.
Dinner with Sir John:
After the event I had the honour of being invited to dinner by former UK ambassador Sir John Shepherd. He took me to the 100+ year old Oxford and Cambridge Club. Sir John reminisced about his time in Bahrain as ambassador 20 years ago, and told me how fond he was of my late father and my mother. He also very generously gave me his advice when I asked him about his views on reconciliation. We had a wonderful dinner in the posh club, and I left feeling nostalgic, and very lucky to have the friendship of such a distinguished man.
Meeting King Hamad:
The next day I got a call from a member of His Majesty’s court telling me that the king, who was in London at the time, wanted to see me. I was delighted! I was asked to come to the hotel where he was staying. I was told that he was about to leave and that he wanted to see me on his way out. I waited in the lobby a few minutes and when he came down I greeted him.
The king thanked me for my efforts and my views, and said that moderation was the key to moving forward. “Moderation is the answer, and extremism here or there [pointing left and right with his hand] is counter productive.” I thanked His Majesty politely and told him that I learnt moderation from him. As usual, he asked about my mother as well.
Personally, I am delighted to get this kind of encouragement and endorsement directly from King Hamad. It reinforces my view (and that of Prof. Basyouni incidentally) that he is a moderate, and wants to see an end to the crisis.
Some people have suggested that since king Hamad, Sheikh Ali Salman and Dr. Abdulatif Al-Mahmood are in London, that some sort of secret meeting took place between them. I cannot claim to have any insider information, but I very much doubt such a meeting took place. It’s most likely just a coincidence.
Meeting Mr. X:
Later in the day I had a very unusual meeting, I actually met with a guy from the Feb 14th movement! I shall refer to this person as Mr. X. It seems Mr. X was keen to meet me, and share some of his views. This was kindly arranged by a third party. Mr X attended the Chatham House event.
The first thing I said to Mr. X, when we sat at the cafe table, was “who the hell are you guys?” He smiled, and we ended up having a two hour conversation. I’ll try to list some of the major points that we discussed, as best as I understood them:
– The Feb 14th movement is not a structured, unified movement. It’s a loose coalition of different Bahrainis in Bahrain and abroad. “We consist largely of intellectuals and academics,” he told me.
– When I asked him how many people were in the movement he did not give me a straight answer, I think no one really knows how many there are. They don’t all know each other, and they don’t all agree. They communicate via email & BBM mainly.
– As we have heard before, they do not have a leader, it really does seem to be a loose coalition.
– When I asked Mr. X about his views of Al-Wefaq, he did not have good things to say about them. He said that he considers himself a secularist, and did not like “Al-Wefaq’s religious agenda.” he criticised how, according to him, Al-Wefaq boycotted the 2002 elections saying the were haram [religiously illegal], and then said they were okay in 2006. Also, he was no fan of Sheihk Isa Qassim, saying that in the past, whenever there were problems, he would “escape to Iran.” He had more positive things to say about Haq, and thought they were better than Al-Wefaq (with the exception of Hassan Mushaima calling for a republic, which he thought was “very stupid.”)
– The Feb 14th movement consists of a mixture of moderate and more extreme elements. Mr. X told me that he does not agree with everything that the movement did or encouraged, but he saw nothing wrong with things like the Manama traffic encirclement, as long as it did not cause direct harm to anyone. He did believe in putting strong pressure on the government, through any means possible, but did not agree with pouring oil on the street, because that could kill people.
– Mr. X told me that they never expected events to unfold the way they did, and that he and some friends, pre- Feb 14th, were laughing when one of their colleagues suggested that 50,000 people would show up to a rally. They thought the number was ridiculously high.
– The topic of the 2002 constitution came up, and Mr. X was of the opinion (as I have heard many times) that the 2002 constitution was illegal and void, and that we need a new constitution. He gave me a mini history lesson of Bahrain, most of which I’d heard before.
– Mr. X was also critical of Dr. Al-Mahmood and the TGONU gang, citing some of Dr. Abdulatif’s stances in the 1990’s. I’m afraid I cannot remember all the details he mentioned.
– We also discussed the topic of the rule of law, and Mr. X was of the opinion that laws that were, according to him, unfair and one-sided do not need to be obeyed.
– We discussed the phenomenon of road blocks and tyre burnings in Bahrain, and he reiterated what Al-Wefaq told me, which is that these youths are acting on their own accord, and are not receiving instructions from anyone. He also said that Haq does not have that much influence among them.
– Concerning the BICI report, Mr. X was of the opinion that it came out the way it did “because of Sir Nigel’s involvement”, suggesting that Sir Nigel was the one who made sure it was as professional and detailed as it was.
– Mr. X also politely suggested that I should blog less, and read up more on Bahrain’s history. I reminded him that blog posts were opinion pieces, and that I never claimed to know the full truth. I also told him that I learnt a hell of a lot of Bahrain’s history in the last 10 months, and that I saw no point in dwelling on the past, and that I would rather focus on the future.
– Mr. X was not too optimistic of Bahrain’s future saying that “unless there is drastic change, things will only get worse.”
Mr. X and I left the cafe walking towards a tube station. We shook hands when we parted and I told him “I hope we can meet again in Bahrain under better circumstances.” “I hope so too,” he replied.
I had to smile to myself after our meeting, did I really just meet nearly the whole spectrum of Bahraini politics in the past 24 hours? Who knew being so outspoken (and opinionated) could lead to this?
As far as my reconciliation agenda is concerned, I’m as determined as ever to go down that path. It’s a long and difficult one, but it has to be done, for the love of Bahrain…
Thanks for taking the time to read this, talk to you soon.