By Nilofar Suhrawardy, TMO
NEW DELHI: Bahrain Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa was in India last month as a part of diplomatic drive to assure the Indian government about the security of Indians living there. He held detailed discussions with his Indian counterpart SM Krishna on issues of mutual interest, including recent developments in Bahrain and the region (March 30). Ahead of their talks, the two ministers laid stress on â€œtraditionally friendly relationsâ€ between India and Bahrain, â€œwhich are based on historical and civilizational ties.â€ This â€œlong standing relationshipâ€ is reflected by presence of a large Indian community in Bahrain.
During their meeting, over lunch hosted by India in his honor, Bahraini foreign minister gave â€œfirm assuranceâ€ about â€œsafety and security of Indian communityâ€ in Bahrain. He also appreciated their contribution to â€œprogress and development of Bahrain.â€ There are around 350,000 Indians in Bahrain. Khalid drew Krishnaâ€™s attention to his having met more than 200 Indians in Manama on 26th March, 2011. On his part, Krishna thanked Khalid for his reassurance with regard to Indian communityâ€™s well being. The former also expressed confidence that â€œlaw-abiding Indian community would continue to be a partner in Bahrainâ€™s growth story well into the future.â€
Referring to recent developments in Bahrain, Krishna expressed the hope that â€œpeaceful resolution of all issues through dialogue would pave the way for continued development and prosperity of friendly people of Bahrain.â€
During an exclusive interview with this scribe, Khalid acknowledged: â€œThere is no doubt a wave of transformation in the Arab world.â€ Accepting that winds of transformation were sweeping across the region, he pointed to the human development index in the six Gulf Coordination Council countries â€“ Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar â€“ being much higher than that of other countries. In other parts of the region, the people on the lower end of the scale were vying for a change, he said. Referring specifically to Bahrain, he said that though sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shias have prevailed for â€œaround 1400 years,â€ they have taken such a major turn for first time, reaching the â€œstage of polarization.â€ â€œSectarian turn is the biggest threat to whole region,â€ he said.
Laying stress that there was a need for â€œtrue transformationâ€ in many parts of the area, Khalid expressed that this â€œmovementâ€ had been â€œhijacked and had taken a sectarian turnâ€ between Sunnis and Shias. Expressing favor for a political dialogue to sort out the problem, he said: â€œPolitical dialogue would be way forward in future.â€ The priority at present was to maintain law and order, Khalid emphasized.
Refuting the impression generated about Bahrain taking help of Saudi forces to control protestors, Khalid said that these belonged to Peninsula Shield Force. â€œWe take our security seriously,â€ he stated. The troops would stay as long as they were needed, he said. Khalid specified that their help was essential to prevent the tension from escalating into a civil strife. The situation was â€œunder control,â€ he said.
A â€œvery negligibleâ€ population had left Bahrain because of tension in the country, he said. Though certain elementsâ€™ aim was to scare the expat community, Indians were not targeted, he emphasized. â€œI am visiting India before Europe or America. This is more important. We are regional stakeholders. Without India, we do not have a solution. We need to reassure India about the Indian community in Bahrain,â€ the minister asserted.
Elaborating on security architecture in the region, Bahrain cannot envisage this without India, Khalid said. Indiaâ€™s Deputy National Security Advisor Vijaya Latha Reddy called on Khalid ahead of his meeting with Krishna. She discussed issues of bilateral interest with him.
Bahrain also favors a role for Pakistan as well as Iran. â€œWe want Iran to be part of this security architecture. We want it to prosper and be as active as in the past as a responsible country in the region,â€ he said.
Without elaborating on diplomatic tension between Bahrain and Iran, Khalid categorically stated: â€œWe are for good relations with Iran.â€ â€œThe result of bad relations with a neighbor can be more lethal than that of a nuclear bomb,â€ he said.
Diplomatic tension between Bahrain and Iran has been marked by the former holding latter as responsible for provoking Shia-Sunni tension in the region. Bahrain has warned Iran to keep away from â€œmeddlingâ€ in its internal affairs. On its part, Iran has strongly criticized the arrival of external troops in Bahrain.
Bahrain is also not pleased with external strikes supporting rebels in Libya. When asked to comment on this, Khalid said that Bahrain had no objection to maintaining a â€œno-fly zoneâ€ over Libya. He was, however, skeptical about role of external strikes. â€œWe were a part of the GCC and Arab League resolutions supporting no-fly zone. But we feel there is no clarity whether external strikes can really help in protection of people and their security.â€
This was Khalidâ€™s second visit to India. His visit, according to official sources, â€œhas strengthened the excellent relationship between the two countries.â€