In his 15 plus months as ruler of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad has opened new branches in relations with internal opposition elements and with neighboring states. In contrast to his father's belligerent approach, Hamad has extended a peaceful hand to dissidents, a policy manifest by the July 1999 pardon of leading opposition member Sheikh Abdul-Amir al-Jamri.
A bizarre sequence of events that unfolded in mid-March confirms the conciliatory position Bahrain's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khaleifa has adopted towards local dissidents since assuming power. Bahraini authorities freed and later re-arrested Abdul Wahab Hussein, a prominent Shi'ite opposition figure who had been detained without trial for more than four years. At the time, his brother had indicated that police were finalizing arrangements for Hussein's permanent release. Abdul Wahab was first arrested along with seven other Shi'ite leaders in 1996 during anti-government disturbances by members of the majority Shi'ite community. Although violence abated two years ago, Shi'ite opponents of Bahrain's ruling Sunni family continue to demand the restoration of parliament, which was dissolved back in 1975.
Sheikh Hamad has also strived to improve relations with Bahrain’s neighbors, achieving mixed results. Although Bahrain has historically accused Iran of backing its Shi'ite community's violent anti-government protests, economic ties between the two states have warmed as authorities continue to pardon political detainees. This past March, Iran's Trade Minister led a business delegation to Bahrain, wherein a Joint Economic Committee was established. This new establishment aims to expand three-fold the volume of bilateral trade, which currently stands at $30 million annually.
Several rounds of high-level official visits between Bahraini and Qatari officials appeared to signify an emerging reconciliation process and a mutual desire to solve their territorial dispute internally. Furthermore, ambitious economic cooperation ventures (including a causeway linking the two nations) were planned. In late May, however, another verbal war erupted, and both parties agreed to entrust the case over the disputed Hawar Islands to the International Court of Justice. All plans for compromise and collaboration are now on hold.
Testimonies at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) have entered full swing, as Bahrain and Qatar each seek to stake their claim on the disputed Hawar Islands. Bahrain’s defense centers on historical determinism, since the disputed islands have been an integral element of the fabric of Bahraini society, both socially and politically, for over 200 years. Qatar’s case rests upon its geographic proximity to the islands, which lie off the coast of the Qatar Peninsula. Once a verdict is eventually reached, relations between these Gulf neighbours could rapidly deteriorate.
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)