New Generation, New Challenges
(Manama) First impressions mean a great deal. Mine go back three years in Bahrain at an Arab Business Council meeting. The voice seemed nearly out of place, a mid-Atlantic accent emerged from a crowd of executives and government officials as the American-educated crown prince of the kingdom swept the room.
A big smile and warm greeting clearly mask the undertaking within the court of the crown prince to complete an economic and political reform process.
The intense heat of August is nearly enough to keep movement to a bare minimum, but we made our best efforts to see, what some in government like to describe as the Ireland of the Middle East, is up to nearly four decades after independence.
In an exclusive interview in his office, it is abundantly clear Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa is determined to protect and even enhance the role for Bahrain as a regional financial and services hub. He has accelerated, for example, a process to train workers to stave off intense competition from Dubai, Qatar, Abu Dhabi and neighboring Saudi Arabia.
“If we don't capitalize on diversifying away from oil, the real estate and brand new buildings, stunning architecturally, are not going to solve anything unless there are good people inside of them.”
His Highness is using his chairmanship of the Economic Development Board to consolidate the reform process. After three days of protests last December from the majority Shia population, he sent a letter to his father King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa, signaling that there was too much resistance to change.
“Change is a constant, change is here, change is never easy but I think it must be tackled with the right ambition. It must be tackled with the right energy as well to achieve success,” said the crown prince, “His (the king’s) reform agenda was not clearly understood by some elements and by him speaking directly to people not just in the government, but also to others in the community, I think it helped to set the record straight.”
One could easily read into that effort a high-stakes move to consolidate authority and renew a mandate to push through privitizations and labor reforms – both sensitive issues to those in government and the private sector who have resisted the change he talked about and who benefited from market protection.
Some of those same elements of society have also not fully embraced the need to spread the wealth during this time of $100 oil. The crown prince sees it quite differently, “Making sure that poverty or relative poverty, this is a very important term, is addressed here in the kingdom and distribution of wealth is managed in a more actionable manner is something that I am very focused on.”
It is a delicate balancing act, something the kingdom of Bahrain is accustomed to. Bahrain remains home to the U.S. military’s Fifth Fleet. Once a new port facility is built, the fleet will be able to spread its wings and have the existing facility to itself. The relationship with Washington goes back decades and partially explains the kingdom’s loyalty to the U.S. dollar, despite its 35 percent correction in the last few years.
“Being linked and pegged to the dollar, of which I am a strong proponent, removes any uncertainty in our revenue collection. Secondly, it facilitates regional trade because five of the six member states are pegged to the dollar,” and the crown prince finished on the diplomatic point, “Thirdly, it is something that we have taken a long view to, since 1980, so you don't quit when the going gets tough and benefit with the good times.”
Those five members of the Gulf Cooperation Council are aiming to launch their own dollar-pegged single currency in the next few years. It is a sign that members of the oil-rich group want to control their own destiny. We are witnessing that as well in the Middle East peace process with both Saudi Arabia and Qatar actively involved in talks to push that process forward.
Meanwhile, Bahrain continues to straddle relations with Washington and Tehran. This effort has been made more challenging by some of the bellicose comments coming from Iran. When asked what he thinks Iran’s intentions are when it said it can block the Straits of Hormuz, a major shipping line, the crown prince steered towards greater collective dialogue, “Only Iran knows what Iran intends with those kinds of comments. But what we certainly call for is an increased dialogue, understanding and tolerance. I hope that cooler heads will prevail and that peace and dialogue are the victors.”
That is certainly something that everyone can sign onto.
ABOUT THIS BLOGJohn Defterios’ blog accompanies the weekly business program, Marketplace Middle East (MME) that is dedicated to the latest financial news from the Middle East. As MME anchor, John Defterios talks to the people in the know, finding out their opinions on the big business moves in the region, he provides his views via this weekly blog. We hope you will join the discussion around the issues raised.
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