x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Bahrain's crown prince says time is not right for him to join talks

Government backs crown prince, who says there is a 'time and a place' for him to join talks aimed at ending Bahrain's two-year political crisis. Elizabeth Dickinson reports

A fireman tries to extinguish a fire at wood storage area that was allegedly set ablaze by anti-F1 protesters in Tubli village, south of Manama.
A fireman tries to extinguish a fire at wood storage area that was allegedly set ablaze by anti-F1 protesters in Tubli village, south of Manama.

Participants in talks aimed at ending a two-year political crisis in Bahrain should first seek understanding between one another, a government spokesman said yesterday, after the kingdom's crown prince said it wasn't the proper time for him to join in.

Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, long seen by opposition groups and diplomats as a reformer, suggested on the sidelines of Bahrain's Formula One Grand Prix on Saturday that there was a "time and a place" for him to "step in" to ongoing talks.

His comments that he will wait for further progress disappointed opposition groups who have advocated for his active role in the talks.

"At this stage, the most important thing is for all sides to constructively engage in this process. Each side must try to understand the opposing view and allay concerns," said Isa AbdulRahman, the official spokesman of the discussions, in response to questions about the crown prince's participation.

"If we achieve this, then we are in a position to ensure that political development can occur in a sustainable manner."

Bahrain's political crisis began in February 2011, when Shiite-dominated opposition groups escalated protests demanding democratic reforms and greater political participation. More than 90 people have been killed in clashes between security forces and demonstrators since, according to the country's public prosecution.

In February this year, Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa invited groups from across Bahrain's political spectrum to sit for a National Dialogue. In bi-weekly meetings, two dozen delegates are trying to hammer out a set of reforms that could bring an end to street protests and address a wide range of concerns from discrimination to corruption.

Prince Salman, who was recently apponited deputy prime minister, had worked to organise similar discussions at the height of the crisis in 2011, but the efforts collapsed. In December 2012, he called for talks once again, though he has not been publicly involved in the current discussions.

"If I attend talks and [they] fail as it did in 2011, the costs are extremely high," he said.

Events during the F1 race weekend have been a microcosm of the challenges that remain for political discussions.

Opposition groups have staged demonstrations throughout the weekend to highlight their demands for reform. Yesterday, the largest group, Shiite society Al Wefaq, said 43 people had been arrested and more than a dozen wounded during clashes between demonstrators and police in 17 Shiite villages across Bahrain.

The clashes continued yesterday as a youth group blocked roads and burnt tires, sending black plumes of smoke into the air in Manama and its surrounding villages.

"Security forces are deployed in all regions countrywide, undertaking pre-emptive and precautionary measures to ensure citizens and residents' safety and security and protect public and private properties," Major General Tariq Hassan Al Hassan, the public security chief, said, according to the state news agency.

Meanwhile, the F1 chief, Bernie Ecclestone, dismissed concerns from rights and opposition groups about continuing violations.

"I keep asking people, what human rights - I don't know what they are?" he said. "The rights are that people who live in the country abide by the laws of the country, whatever they are."

Although the protests this weekend were an escalation, demonstrations remain a near-daily occurrence. Political talks have so far moved slowly. After more than two months of meetings, participants have yet to agree to an agenda.

One sticking point has been the opposition's call for a member of the royal family to participate in the discussions, arguing that their grievance is not with fellow Bahrainis but with the country's rulers. Currently, the government is represented by two ministers.

Asked about the crown prince's role in talks, Khalil Al Marzouq, a spokesman for Al Wefaq, said that "any positive contribution will be welcomed ... The people of Bahrain are waiting for action from the crown prince".

But Ahmed Al Saati, a member of parliament and a participant in the dialogue, echoed the crown prince's concerns that it could be too early from the ruling family to take part.

"Now we are equal in the dialogue, all the representatives are either from the political societies or from the legislative bodies, but if [the crown prince] comes, he will be an upper voice, so it's not a wise decision to bring him in at this stage," he said.

Mr AbdulRahman, the government spokesman, said that, for the moment, Prince Salman will continue to urge all sides to engage in the talks.

"He recognises the need for all sides to reach consensus on the way ahead and he believes the process we have initiated is the right way forward."

Bahrain's National Dialogue was expected to hold its next session last night, just hours after the F1 race concluded.

edickinson@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting from the Associated Press