Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa (R) speaks to British Prime Minister Theresa May (L) during the first Gulf Cooporative Council's (GCC) " GCC British Summit", in Sakhir Palace Bahrain, December 7, 2016..
(photo credit: HAMAD I MOHAMMED / REUTERS)
As reported in The Jerusalem Post, at a gala event of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles last week, the center's heads, rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper, revealed that Bahrain's king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, had denounced the Arab boycott of Israel and stressed that his subjects were free to visit the Jewish state.
The king made the pronouncement when the two rabbis visited Manama early this year. At the Wiesenthal Center event, the king's son, Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa was keynote speaker and the highlight of the interfaith gathering came with the unveiling of the Bahraini king's Declaration of Worldwide Religious Tolerance. The Bahraini National Orchestra played Hatikva, in addition to the US and Bahrain national anthems.
While one might be tempted to think that the king has undergone a spiritual conversion to Zionism, in fact the Bahraini posture cannot be detached from realpolitik considerations, including that the kingdom's image and standing are taking a beating because of its egregious human rights record and increasingly repressive regime. Embracing Jews, taking a friendly stance towards Israel and marketing itself as a beacon of enlightenment and tolerance could be a way of projecting a better image and gaining favor in western circles.
"In the bizaare and conspiratorial ways of the Middle East, there is still a conventional notion that being kind to Israel or currying favor with Israel is seen as an effective way to get into US good graces," says Brandon Friedman, a specialist on the Gulf at Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center.
Egyptian President Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, also on the defensive because of criticism over his human rights record and in need of American succor, has also taken great pains to forge good relations with American Jewish leaders.
According to the Jerusalem Post
report, King Hamad has discussed with Hier and Cooper his plans to establish a museum of religious tolerance in Manama by the end of the year. In so doing, he can draw on his role as friend of Bahrain's tiny Jewish community. To be sure, the king's tolerance declaration sounds lofty, including upholding support for full freedom of religious choice, government protection of minorities and ensuring that the religious factor "serves as a blessing to all mankind and as the foundation of peace in the world."
But King Hamad is in some ways an unlikely symbol of tolerance. As reported in the Jerusalem Post
in July his security forces arrested human rights activist Ebtisam al-Saegh after she tweeted that the king was responsible for abuses against women by the National Security Agency. She now faces charges of terrorism for her human rights work. The king heads a minority Sunni regime that uses coercion against dissenting fellow Sunnis and the majority Shiite population. In 2011 Shiite led protests were violently suppressed by the government with help from Saudi Arabia and low level unrest has flared ever since. The government accuses Iran of fomenting instability. It has erected an elaborate array of councils and bodies that it points to as guarantors of human rights, but these are not taken seriously by western human rights organizations and are seen as a way of trying to obscure a brutal reality.
Indeed, the tolerance declaration at the Wiesenthal Center could be viewed as something of a spin in light of the Bahraini regime's harassesment of Shiite religious leaders, part of a crackdown on freedom of expression that has elicited high profile blowback. According to Human Rights Watch, Shiite clerics were prosecuted last year after they peacefully protested the revocation of citizenship of Sheikh Isa Qasim, spiritual leader of Bahrain's main political opposition group al-wifaq, which was itself dissolved in mid-2016.
On Sept 11, right around the time of the Wiesenthal Center event, UN Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ed al-Hussein flayed the Bahraini regime, saying that "since June 2016 the government of Bahrain has imposed severe restrictions on civil society and political activism through arrests, intimidation, travel bans and closure orders with increased reports of torture by the security authorities. Today the democratic space in the country has essentially been shut down."
Hussein said he had repeatedly drawn attention to the "gravity" of the situation only to be met with "point blank denials, unfounded accusations and unreasonable last minute conditions to technical missions." He added that "no public relations campaign can paper over the violations being inflicted on the people of Bahrain." Hussein's remarks were welcomed by the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) which publicizes abuses and campaigns against British government support for Bahrain. In response to a query from the Post
about the king's statements on Israel and the tolerance declaration made at the Wiesenthal Center, BIRD's director of advocacy, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei said: "The Bahrain monarchy's persecution of its Shia majority population is well documented and has been condemned by UN experts and the US religious freedoms report. This is nothing more than a desperate PR attempt aimed at its western allies to hide their abuses against one religious group by showing off tolerance towards another."
A parallel organization to BIRD exists in Washington, Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, whose discourse also puts the regime on the defensive.
But as Manama sees it, it has the Wiesenthal Center and it is making headway in the Jewish community to counterbalance its increasingly negative image and to blue-and-white wash its abuses.