5 – 11 May 2016
A major theme dominating the Bahrain media this week was the implementation of the 2011 BICI recommendations, following a visit by Cherif Bassiouni who headed the BICI investigation.
The Crown Prince launched an initiative for facilitating the registration of new businesses in Bahrain, with a view to attracting foreign companies. The Shura Council in parallel on 8 May approved legislation for encouraging foreign companies to establish themselves in Bahrain.
MPs had been preparing for an open debate this week about rumors that retirement benefits would be cut. However this was halted after a definitive statement by the Cabinet on Monday denying these rumors and asserting the Government’s commitment to maintaining old age pensions at current levels.
Other major issues of discussion in political circles this week was a proposed bill for banning clerics from membership of political societies; and recommendations from MPs regarding the Mumtalakat sovereign wealth fund and the subsidies issue.
BICI recommendations implemented
On Monday this week Professor Cherif Bassiouni, the judge who headed the 2011 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), visited Bahrain and received an award from King Hamad for his services to the country. Bassiouni acknowledged that the reforms he recommended for the most part had been fully implemented.
The BICI was commissioned by the King after the period of unrest in February and March 2011, to investigate these incidents and recommend measures to address shortcomings. Following Bassiouni’s visit, a statement by the Royal Court said that implementation of the BICI recommendations “increased the Kingdom’s commitment to continuing reforms and modernization in all areas”.
Politics ban for clerics
On 10 May the Government passed new draft legislation to Parliament proposing a ban on membership of political societies for active clerics and preachers. This proposal originated in the Shura Council, where it was approved in a vote on 6 December 2015. The Government said that the legislation aimed to “prevent the religious pulpit from being exploited for propagating political ideologies or for political mobilization”.
The proposal was approved in the Shura Council relatively easily, with the only notable source of opposition being the Sunni cleric and member of the Salafist political society Al-Asalah, Adel al-Moawdeh.
However, in the elected Parliament it is likely to face greater opposition from the half-dozen MPs associated with the Sunni Al-Asalah and Al-Minbar societies, and possibly by a number of other conservative MPs who often vote with the Islamists on such issues.
Over the past few months, a parliamentary committee has been investigating the activities and financial affairs of the sovereign wealth fund, Mumtalakat. The committee recently completed its final report which was discussed during the 10 May parliamentary session.
The principal demands arising from the report were for a halt to Government financial support to Mumtalakat companies and bringing the revenues from these companies within the State Budget. The report also called for higher standards of best practice and oversight.
MP Ahmed Qaratah pointed out that Mumtalakat’s losses were BD 586 million, while its net revenues for the state were zero. Rua al-Haiki went even further, saying: “Everyone involved in corruption, plotting to plunder state funds, and covering up this crime must be held to account. The word ‘crime’ is too soft to describe [losses of] BD 650 in 10 years with nothing in return”.
However, Transport Minister Kamal Ahmed said that the issues cited in the report were in the past, noting BD 92 million and BD 81 million dividends for 2013 and 2014 respectively. He pointed out that the losses for Mumtalakat companies like Gulf Air occurred when these companies were transferred from ownership by multiple GCC states to ownership just by Bahrain. Large costs were incurred when buying out the other states, as well as covering historic debts and transferring and reconstituting several of the entities.
Nevertheless, MPs voted to approve the committee’s 30 recommendations, which in addition to the above points, propose merging several of the companies and paying a set proportion of profits back to the State Budget.
Other parliamentary business: Subsidies & scandalous behaviour
Also during the parliamentary session, MPs voted in approval of a package of recommendations for the Government on the subsidies issue. The recommendations stressed the importance of consultation with Parliament before taking any further steps; the need for detailed studies to assess the effect on people of different income levels; and the need for a clear timeframe for studying the ration card proposal.
Meanwhile Islamist MPs condemned commercial activities on Reef Island, including what they described as unlicensed building and the unregulated sale of alcohol in the popular tourist location. MP Abdulhalim Murad complained of “immoral behaviour” and said that there had been a failure to patrol the area except after specific complaints. Tourism officials responded, saying that steps had been taken against at least one unlicensed business and that measures had been adopted by the local authority to ensure compliance with regulations.
Parliamentary infighting continues
On 2 May Bahrain’s Prime Minister Prince Khalifa Bin-Salman visited Parliament. After several months of Parliamentary sessions which have been distinguished by infighting between MPs, the Prime Minister called for unity to confront challenges and enhance their efforts in service of the nation.
The Prime Minister said that MPs should not allow “those who lie in wait to attack our democracy to exploit differences of opinion,” thus diverting attention from “the most important issues”.
The visit seemed to mark a moment of reconciliation, as two MPs whose infighting has dominated many parliamentary sessions – Khaled al-Shaer and Anas Buhindi – shook hands in front of the Prime Minister.
However, just one day later, at the opening of the weekly session, Buhindi stood up and demanded to know why his complaint against Al-Shaer hadn’t been passed on to the Legal Committee. Parliament Chairman Ahmed al-Mulla angrily responded that the query had nothing to do with the issue being discussed and that such complaints had been put to one side because of the Prime Minister’s visit.
A few weeks before, during the heated CEDAW debate, Al-Shaer had accused Buhindi and his colleagues in the Women’s Committee of taking bribes from those opposed to CEDAW. All members of the Women’s Committee resigned in protest, although MPs voted to reject this mass resignation.
A week later, during the 10 May session MPs were deadlocked on a vote over whether to submit the complaint against Al-Shaer to the Legal Committee. Several MPs spoke up about the need to draw a line under these differences so as not to waste parliamentary time and not continue to flaunt these divisions in public. “Honestly, I just want this issue to be resolved for the sake of unity;” said the exasperated Parliament Chairman.
Shura Council session
The Shura Council on 8 May spent much of its session scrutinizing new legislation making it easier for foreign businesses to be registered in Bahrain.
A new law was also discussed banning those who had voluntarily left their jobs and those who had been fired for malpractice from receiving unemployment benefits.
Shura MPs had also been due to discuss a proposal banning a loophole in the law which allowed a rapist to escape punishment by marrying his victim. The proposal was submitted by Shura MPs Khaled al-Musallem, Khamis al-Rumaihi, Hamad Mubarak al-Noaimi, Abdulaziz al-Ajman and Fatima Abduljabbar al-Kooheji and received a lot of support online by women’s rights supporters. However, apparently it was delayed until the next week’s session due to lack of time.
Week in politics
Social media attacks: 20-27 April 2016
Shura Council rejects “Islamicization”: 7-13 April 2016
CEDAW victory: 31 March – 6 April 2016
MPs reject budget statement: 24 – 30 March 2016
Pensions dispute: 17 – 23 March 2016
Committees of inquiry: 10 – 16 March 2016
Protection for Shia families: 3 – 9 March 2016
Political societies in decline: 25 Feb – 2 Mar
Lebanon travel restrictions: 19-24 Feb
Constitution celebrations: 11-18 Feb
Russia State visit: 4-10 Feb