3 April 2007 - NATO PARLIAMENTARIANS' VISIT HIGHLIGHTS DEMOCRATIC PROGRESS IN BAHRAIN AND KUWAIT [PRESS COMMUNIQUE]
NATO Parliamentarians have just completed a five-day fact-finding mission to Bahrain and Kuwait, where they met fellow legislators as well as senior government officials of the two Gulf countries. Discussions focussed on common security concerns in the Gulf and the Middle East, economic and political developments in the region, and relations with NATO in the context of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI). Meetings with civil society and media representatives were also held in both countries.
In Bahrain, some 20 European and North American members of the Assembly's Mediterranean Special Group (GSM) met with Mr. Ali Bin Saleh Al-Saleh, Chairman of the Shura Council (upper house) and Mr. Khalifa Bin Ahmed Al-Dhahrani, Chairman of the Council of Representatives (lower house), as well as selected groups of legislators. Defence Minister General Sheikh Khalifa bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Nizar al-Baharna also met the Alliance parliamentarians.
In Kuwait, GSM members met Mr. Jassem Mohammad Al-Khorafi, Speaker of the National Assembly together with members of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. NATO legislators were also received by Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammad Al-Sabah and had discussions with Sheikh Thamer Ali Al-Sabah, Vice Chairman of the National Security Council.
Against the backdrop of tensions in the region following the detention of 15 British marines by Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the US decision to hold a major naval exercise in the Gulf, officials from both Bahrain and Kuwait expressed their serious concerns about the deterioration of relations between Western countries and Tehran. While NATO parliamentarians voiced their profound anxiety at the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, legislators from the two Gulf countries were apparently more worried about an extreme radioactive release from the Bushehr Iranian civilian power plant-situated near the Northern shore of the Gulf-as a result of a military strike against Iran or a nuclear accident.
Discussions among parliamentarians often focussed on the situation in Iraq and the Middle East peace process. Several members of parliament in both Bahrain and Kuwait were keen to highlight US and UK "mistakes" in handling the aftermath of the conflict that toppled Saddam Hussein. When asked to offer advice, Kuwaitis in particular lamented the fact that the US administration had so far failed to follow some of the main recommendations of the Iraqi Study Group, notably to open a dialogue with Syria and Iran. There was however general consensus that the Coalition, supported by the international community, should make every possible effort to avoid the partition of Iraq and preserve the country's unity.
Officials from both countries had a very positive evaluation of ICI and the role of NATO in the Gulf region. However, Kuwaiti officials expressed their unease at the idea that the NATO Training Cooperation Initiative launched at the Riga Summit in 2006 may include the development of a common training facility or centre for Mediterranean Dialogue and ICI countries. Kuwaiti officials would prefer that the two programmes remain separate for the time being.
NATO PA members were pleased to witness the vitality of democratic institutions in both countries, where elected assemblies offer a real counterbalance to the executive branches. They also noted the relatively free role of the media, particularly in Kuwait. Meetings with civil society representatives highlighted the limited impact and success of extremist Islamist groups in the two countries compared to other societies in the Middle East. With regard to human rights, however, Bahrain and Kuwait, like some other Gulf states, have great difficulties in dealing with the presence of numerous foreign workers who often lack basic rights and suffer abuses.
Parliamentarians from Bahrain and Kuwait, following this visit, will be invited to participate as observers in selected NATO PA activities.