Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from Amjad Bseisu

I am a Bahraini of Palestinian origin. My first recollection of life is in a house on Juffair Road in Manama where I lived with my parents and two siblings. Life in those days was relatively simple.

I grew up in Bahrain doing my primary and secondary education before leaving for higher education in Lebanon and the US. I have lived intermittently in Bahrain since my youth. I was naturalised as a Bahraini citizen in 1973 and view Bahrain as my nostalgic home, with all my childhood and adolescent memories being there.

Bahrain was a British colony in my early years. I vividly recall Christmas evenings at the high commissioner’s house and Christmas plays in my Christian missionary school, which gave me a varied and open perspective on all walks of life. The plays have been etched in my memory and were some of the best training I ever received in my early years. I recall the day of Bahrain’s independence; I was in the home of one of my father’s best friends whose wife was British. I remember the friend being so happy about the independence but so sad to see the British leave since they had given their systematic help to Bahrain over so many years.

My first job was as a technical assistant at the BAPCO refinery (Bahrain Petroleum Company) in Sitra. Even though the conditions were harsh, there was no favouritism or partiality given to anyone, irrespective of sect or creed. The main focus of the competitive staff was to move up in the organisation and replace the expatriate population, which was predominantly British, to Bahraini nationals. There was also some tension between the higher management expatriates and the technical expats. My mentor was a British gentleman named Paul who took the time and effort to teach me the intricacies of the electrical systems in the refinery. From Paul I learnt focus and persistence were critical issues for applying academic knowledge to practical solutions. He was one of my early inspirations.

In my youth my closest friends were a mix of Bahraini, Lebanese and Palestinian Shia and Sunni individuals. In my time there I don’t even once recall ever discussing religious backgrounds. Bahrain always saw itself differently to other Gulf Arab states—it had always been a settled area since 4,000 BC as opposed to a tribally based culture. Hence, the population was accepting and supportive of differing people from various backgrounds.

The role of women improved during my time in Bahrain and a number were taking more prominent positions in business, education and government. I noted my mother and sister were changing roles to be more engaged in publishing and banking, respectively.

I have a holding Company in Bahrain—Mecon Holdings—which manages investment, both in-country and outside. Its staff is a mixture of Bahrainis from different religious backgrounds, as well as expatriates.

Only one of the employees was impacted by the recent events and opted to take a services severance package rather than continue to work with the business. Most Bahraini employees are Shia. In all my years of employment I have not seen any form of discrimination against any of the sects in the company I run, nor any intervention from the government or its subsidiaries who have promoted favouritism towards anything other than Bahrainis. The government has an active nationalisation program which stipulates that at least 70% of employees are Bahrainis, which is definitely understandable. The disturbance last year perturbed but has not halted the operations of the company.

In the past few years, and with politicisation of the social and youth movements in Bahrain, an unwelcome bifurcation has occurred. This divergence has created a Shia based political movement which represents the underclass and a wider Sunni based coalition representing the Sunni population and status quo.

This bifurcation is a dangerous one. I believe this detracts from the modern principle of civil society and respect for the rule of law. I truly believe that political organisations need to be based on political and social platforms, not religious platforms. Building a successful civil democracy has to be driven by meritocracy based on performance across all religious sects and ethnic backgrounds.

Bahrain was always a place where, for many centuries, people co-habited peacefully. I ask why this has now changed and we have reverted to a religious focus of the society. There are three reasons for this. First, post colonisation, the population saw their affinity to the wider Arab world and Arab culture as a defining core of their values. Arab Nationalism’s failure created a big gap in this core value and created a clearing for religion defined by sectarianism. The second reason for the division of the people in Bahrain is the prevalence of Iran and the Iranian Islamic revolution, plus the bi-polarization of Saudi and Iran in the region. The third and last reason for this breakdown is the relative disparity of wealth between all lower classes and the upper classes. This disparity is across all sects but represents a higher percentage of Shias since they form a greater part of the population.

Engaging the entire population on social and political reform is needed to move the country to a successful constitutional monarchy. The ability to engage with all sectors of society is imperative for the start of a national dialogue. The UK system and approach is very relevant to Bahrain as it moves to a constitutional monarchy system. The close relationship and respect of the UK system would allow the UK to intervene very effectively on both sides and introduce concepts and principles of governance and political organisation. I believe the UK is uniquely placed to carry out this role, as other players are viewed with more differential practices which render them less credible, especially with the Opposition.

12 November 2012

Prepared 21st November 2013