By Ahmed al-Qudah/Doha
A Bahraini court recently acquitted a prominent opposition leader who was accused of spying for Qatar. Sheikh Ali Salman, head of Bahrain's largest, yet banned, opposition group Al-Wefaq, was accused in November 2017 of conspiring and colluding against his country.
The charges were brought a few months after Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt fabricated some accusations against Qatar and, eventually, laid a blatant air, sea, and land siege on the country in a shocking move that appalled the whole region.
The 'Qatar-colluding' charges against Sheikh Ali pertained to a recorded phone conversation between him and former Qatari prime minister HE Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani in 2011, when the US, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain asked for Doha’s help to end the widespread protests of Bahrainis in 2011.
Bahrain witnessed sporadic violent protests over the policies of the government in 2011. The demonstrations were part of a widespread public condemnation over calls for reforms that included a new constitution, release of hundreds of activists, and end to civil rights abuses.
The government, however, responded with harsh tactics that exceeded the level of killing and detaining activists to “sexually harass[ing] and humiliat[ing]” them, as reported by The Guardian on September 29, 2011. Arbitrary detentions, coerced televised confessions, and other inhumane techniques also took place in what can at the least be described as a mass punishment with impunity.
In other words, the Bahraini events made headlines and became front-page news, while the world was watching the Arab Spring sweeping other Arab countries in awe. Fearing an imminent Bahraini version of the Spring, the US, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain asked Qatar to mediate and help in containing the protests.
Why the mediation of Qatar in particular? The answer is obvious. Doha has a long, outstanding and positive record in international mediation. Starting with Yemen in May 1990, Qatar was among the first countries to mediate, resolve, and finally unify the Northern and Southern parts of Yemen. Qatar also played a vital role in resolving the conflict that raged in Lebanon between the years 2006-2008, bringing rival Lebanese parties to Doha for negotiations in May 2008 and ending Lebanon’s political crisis of the time.
The conflict that reached its peak in Sudan’s Darfur in 2008 was also resolved by Qatar in February 2010, when the government of Sudan and the Justice and Equality Movement signed a ceasefire framework agreement. The internal political division between Palestinians also saw numerous Qatari attempts to resolve and unify the rival Hamas and Fatah factions. The 2008 territorial dispute between Eritrea and Djibouti saw a Qatari-brokered resolution, culminating in the signing of a peace agreement in Doha in 2010.
Those pre-2011 mediations contributed a lot in building the high profile of Qatar as a country that can resolve crises peacefully, building a growing influence for Doha as a prominent mediator on the international arena and a reputation that garnered significant attention among regional countries. Hence, it was not surprising that the USA, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain sought the urgent help of Qatar in calming down the 2011 situation and saving the regime’s rule in Manama.
In a 2017 interview on Qatar TV's programme “Al Haqiqa,” HE Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim spoke about the Bahraini crisis of 2011, saying that then US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs Jeffrey D Feltman, had called him asking for help in the mediation. “Late Prince Saud bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud [former Saudi foreign minister] called me too, asking for help,” he said.
HE Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim added: “I went to Bahrain where Prince Saud bin Faisal and I met the King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifah. We spoke about what was taking place and I told him [King Hamad] I was going to meet with Ali Salman… By the way, I did not know Ali Salman and had never met him. We only spoke over the phone and he [Ali Salman] told me that Jeffrey Feltman was with him. Feltman spoke to me and said he was waiting for me”.
Months later, the protests were brought down after Bahrain called for foreign intervention. Manama approved the deployment of the Peninsula Shield Force, Qatari troops included, to restore stability to the country and, consequently, ending the alarming threat the demonstrations posed to the monarchy and the kingdom.
However, in August 2017, the same recorded 2011 phone call between HE Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim and Ali Salman was broadcasted by Bahrain’s official TV. The series of fake news and fabrications against Doha also dramatically increased. The timing was significant as it came two months after the Qatar blockade was announced. Yet, what was surprising was that the recording was cut and forged to give the impression that Qatar was colluding against the regime to intervene in the internal affairs of Bahrain, backing the uprising of 2011 and staging the popular unrest to overthrow the regime.
The new forged recording was met with disdain and condemnation, since Bahrain was trying to fish in troubled waters by trying to link a six-year old regime-help phone conversation with its fresh, disgraceful participation in the Qatar blockade.
Still, history never forgives and leaves no room for the ingrates, the ungrateful backstabbers. Ironically, in a report published back on November 2011 Bahraini official daily newspaper “Alayam” quoted Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifah praising the role of Qatar in the 2011 crisis. Minister al-Khalifah was speaking during an interview on “Al Arabia” channel on November 27, 2011, when he said that “the role of Qatar was positive".
Qatar-based Al Jazeera channel has also been blamed for backing the Bahrain 2011 protests, although the reputable Washington Post newspaper reported on May 14, 2011, quoting the associate professor of modern Arab politics at Columbia University, Joseph Massad, that Al Jazeera in Bahrain, “pretended to be impartial while pushing the line of the Bahraini regime".
On June 29, 2011 the king of Bahrain tasked Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni to lead an investigation into what occurred during the country’s unrest between February and March 2011. The report, dubbed Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, was alarmingly shocking that said King Hamad “sat mostly motionless on a podium as Bassiouni recounted the abuses their citizens had suffered to extract confessions and as punishment for protesting against the family,” reported Reuters on November 25, 2011.
The Bassiouni report, too, said that Qatar tried several times to mediate and end the unrest: "According to opposition sources,” the report reads, “it was suggested that the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the State of Qatar, HE Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani, could act as the sponsor of the proposed United States initiative”.
The report adds that “Opposition sources also indicated that the Emir of the State of Qatar, His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, attempted to mediate between the GoB [Government of Bahrain] and opposition parties in the following days, and that this initiative was accepted by the opposition but rejected by the GoB."
Bahrain was vainly trying to kill two birds with one stone, achieving some poor internal gains by taking advantage of external crises. Yet, that futile seizure of opportunity has ended in yet another crisis of a moral perspective.
Manama’s poorly led diplomacy has been causing itself some unprecedented humiliations in front of the international community. The world is still watching closely the double-standard policies which Bahraini officials have consistently adopted in shaping their country’s political relations, especially the regional ones.
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