Interview with His Excellency Mr. Abdulla Abdullatif Abdulla Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Bahrain to the United Nations Office and Specialized Institutions in Geneva
Bahrain, Abdulla Abdullatif Abdulla, Undersecretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Kingdom of Bahrain, Middle East, Crown Prince
The Ambassador is a dedicated man and, by the time this interview is published, His Excellency will be ranking even higher –– as Undersecretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Kingdom of Bahrain. We understand why he was given this promotion because he is not only an excellent diplomat, hard working and generous, but he is also very good at promoting his country. Among the Gulf States, Bahrain is known to be a pleasant place to live, an open society and a place where women have equal rights with men. Here, you will find women working in all professions. It is far from the clich?s that many might hold about the Middle East.
It’s not often we meet a man who is as proud of his country as His Excellency. Before giving him the floor, the Diva team wanted to wish him the very best of success in his new endeavours. We are quite sure that he will continue putting Bahrain on the world map!
Q: First of all, your Excellency, congratulations on your new position.
Thank you so much. I will be leaving Geneva after almost four years where I have been dealing with all of the international organizations. It has been a very good experience, dealing particularly with human rights issues. Since I arrived, with the discrediting of the Human Rights Commission and the establishment of the Human Rights Council, we had a lot of work to do. We prepared ourselves to become a Member of the Human Rights Council, and unfortunately the lots were not with us.
We only had one term of one year as a Member of the Human Rights Council. Honestly, it was a historical event. Then by establishing the new body, there was a new mechanism –– the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). We were chosen to be the first one to go through that process, so we had lot of work to do.
In theory, matters are clear, but in practice things are not always that easy. We worked very hard and our leadership in Bahrain –– His Majesty the King Hamad Bin Isa AL-KHALIFA, King of Bahrain, His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Salman AL-KHALIFA, Prime Minister and His Highness Shaikh Salman Bin Hamad AL-KHALIFA, Crown Prince –– were keen that we should do our utmost and go through this process. We had a very successful UPR process and we became a model. By the way we apply for….
We have a lot of good stories to tell the world about the positive human rights development that is taking place in Bahrain. In addition to that, Her Highness Shaikha Sabeeka Bint Ibrahim AL-KHALIFA, Wife of His Majesty the King of Bahrain, has been working very hard to empower women in all aspects of life –– economically, socially, politically, etc.
We were the first country in the Arab and Islamic world to nominate a woman as the President of the General Assembly and we have two women in the Government …
There was a lot of development in terms of human rights issues, the empowerment of women and lately we have accomplished some challenging labour-market reforms.
Recently, we established a long-term economic strategy for Bahrain 2030 (The Economic Vision 2030 for Bahrain). We are very keen that by 2030 the income of each Bahraini household will be at least double what it is now in real terms. We are trying to diversify our economy basically to be more proactive, and we always feel that our main asset is our people. Thus, we are working to attract foreign investment in high-tech, in communications, in banking, factories, etc., and to concentrate on high-wage jobs. We have had very good economic growth over the last five to six years, which has been sustainable at around 6%.
As you know, the oil production of Bahrain is very limited, so we have decided to diversify our economy –– aluminium, petrochemicals, etc. We have an economic development board chaired by His Highness the Crown Prince.
The Prime Minister was here in Geneva receiving a prize from the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN–HABITAT) for housing development. His Highness the Crown Prince was here too addressing the International Labour Organization. As you might know, we are the first country in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to get rid of the sponsorship system.
Q: Could you explain this a little further
Freedom of movement of labour means that you do not need the authorization of your employer to move from one job to another. If you find a better opportunity, you are free to take it. This is something that was not possible earlier. We also introduce unemployment insurance benefits. Anyone who is unemployed will be paid by the Ministry of Labour for six months until he or she finds another job.
Despite being a very small county, we have a lot of good stories to tell the world. We have a very open and democratic system of legislation, with two chambers –– an upper and a lower house.
His Majesty the King Hamad Bin Isa AL KHALIFA, King of Bahrain has taken very courageous reforms in all aspects of life: political, economic and social reforms which help in busting the country.
Bahrain has always been known for its freedom of faith. We have all kinds of churches, a small Jewish community, Buddhists. In terms of faith, we are a very tolerant society.
We have many nationalities from all over the world. Some people have taken their retirement in Bahrain.
Q: Is it a good place to retire to because people do not pay taxes?
It’s not only about taxes. Of course, people do not pay taxes, private ownership –– you have education –– private or public. The universities only charge administrative costs. Health care and education are also free thus far; not only for Bahrainis but for foreigners too.
Of course, we have a very advanced housing policy –– that was the reason why His Highness the Prime Minister was awarded a prize by UN-Habitat for our housing programme. Every citizen is entitled to receive a house from the Government. We started this in the late 1960s and big programmes are in place.
We are also very keen on attracting foreign investment, so you will see that there are a lot of employment opportunities –– either in hospitals, education, banking, etc.
Q: Bahrain is known to be aiming at becoming the financial hub of the Middle East.
This has actually been taking place since early 1970s. As I told you earlier, our leaders recognized at an early stage that we had to diversify our economy; one of the sectors to be developed was the banking sector. Of course, in the beginning a lot of offshore banks moved to Bahrain. They subsequently found that the environment was suitable as a centre for the Gulf in terms of location, in terms of restrictions and, most importantly, we have a very advanced monetary system. Bahrain has been the country that was least affected by the financial crisis because the Central Bank of Bahrain has a very good monitoring system.
Today, in finance as a whole, including insurance, nobody can compete with us in the Middle East. In terms of Islamic banking, we are number one in the world.
Q: What is the difference between a normal bank and an Islamic bank?
In terms of the system, they apply different rules. I do not want to go into detail, but basically Islamic banks are based on profit-sharing, whereas the commercial banks are based on interest rates. We have very big Islamic banks in Bahrain and they are doing very well, but it is a free market and they have to compete. People have the freedom to choose. We have seen that commercial banks have also included sections that are ruled according to Islamic law, so they are moving in a very good direction.
Q: In Switzerland there are banking secrets.
Ours is a totally different system. As I told you, we have a very advanced monetary system, but totally different. I know the advantages that Switzerland has, but these cannot be applied worldwide. The movement of funds is carried out in a very transparent way. This is an advantage for trust building and you are avoiding a lot of problems. We are proud of our system and we have been able to attract a lot of foreign investment.
Q: You are actually leaving Geneva to take up a new position.
Actually, I’m leaving very soon. I have been appointed by the Government of Bahrain and the Minister of Foreign Affairs to be the Under-Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I feel that the Geneva experience has been a very good one that will be useful to us. There have also been a lot of developments taking place in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Despite being a small country, we are very active with leadership in the multilateral arena. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is always participating in conferences and workshops that are taking place, especially when it concerns our region.
We are not a country that attempts to impose itself. We are always being asked by our friends to attend these conferences because they know that we have a moderate foreign policy and we always try to support our region and our friends. We have very good relations with all the countries of the world.
Q: Your Excellency, what is your background?
My background is business and economics. I did my masters degree at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, specializing in corporate finance and economy. I was teaching business and administration as part time while I was in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I was posted to London as the Deputy Ambassador for five years. Then I was appointed as Ambassador to both Geneva and Vienna. It is quite an interesting job because you keep changing from human rights, to trade (WTO), to intellectual property (WIPO), to humanitarian aid (ICRC), to labour relations (ILO), to Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), to telecommunications (ITU) , to development (UNCTAD). It is a good experience. In Vienna you have the atomic energy (IAEA), in addition to UNIDO and the UN fighting against crime and drugs. So, indeed, it has been a very good experience.
I am very grateful to our leadership for my appointment here because Geneva is really the capital of multilateral diplomacy.
Q: What is the issue that has given you the most satisfaction?
I think it was the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) because it was a huge challenge –– something that will place Bahrain in history as the first country to go through this exercise. Everybody was very concentrated on succeeding in this task. As I told you, I’m very thankful to our leadership –– His Majesty the King Hamad Bin Isa AL-KHALIFA, King of Bahrain, His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Salman AL-KHALIFA, Prime Minister , His Highness Shaikh Salman Bin Hamad AL-KHALIFA, Crown Prince, Her Highness Shaikha Sabeeka Bint Ibrahim AL-KHALIFA, Wife of His Majesty the King of Bahrain, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs –– in addition to all the other ministries and Supreme Council for Women that helped us to carry out this task in a very successful manner. We had very few recommendations.
Q: In your new position, what will be the main focus?
Things are moving in the ministry and now our Minister of Foreign Affairs Shaikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohamed AL-KHALIFA likes to advance more and more with training so as to have diplomats who can face all kinds of challenges –– because the challenges are there. We need to encourage a new generation to take up a diplomatic career. We should also promote Bahrain abroad as we feel that it is something very important, to increase knowledge about the country and the existing investment opportunities. Not everyone knows about all the things we can offer –– business, education, social life, investment possibilities, business environment, etc. We need to talk to people about these matters. We have already started to do so through workshops for our ambassadors, but we need to continue.
Q: For people who would like to do business in Bahrain what should they do?
First, we have good relations with Swiss-Arab Chamber of Commerce. I personally participated in their business events in order to explain about Bahrain. What we need from Geneva is more banks … Of course, we already have UBS and other banks.
Q: So you want more Genevan private banks in Bahrain?
It does not necessarily have to be banks; it can also be insurance companies because Geneva is very well known for its financial services sector. We feel that we can attract more of them to the region and to Bahrain. Of course, we have participated in Davos in recent years, but in 2008 we had a big Bahrain day in Davos it was led by His Highness the Crown Prince, and a big companies CEOs from Bahrain who participated in this event explaining all that Bahrain can offer. It was a very successful event.
We are concentrating on trade because we feel that there are opportunities that we can develop further. Tourism is another facet in which we are investing a lot, and the number of visitors is increasing year by year.
Q: You mention tourism; is it only regional or from elsewhere?
It’s not only regional because we are attracting tourists from Europe, the Far East and the United States. Although it is very hot in July and August, we have lovely weather from September to April and we have a lot of tourism sites that people can visit – the Bahraini museum, the Bahrain Fort, etc. Our Minister of Culture and Information has devoted a lot of energy to convert old houses to museums, and we really have a lot to offer.
We have, of course, good hotels and nice beaches. In addition to that, there are the Hawar Islands. So there are a lot interesting things to see, and nice shopping malls. In addition to that, we have tracked a lot of tourists coming from all the world to see the Grand Prix Formula 1 Circuit. Up until recently it was the only one in the region, but now they are building one in Abu Dhabi.
Leaving the Ambassador’s office on a hot August day we are more and more convinced that Bahrain is the place to be…