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Bahrainis ‘Thrilled and Surprised’ by Obama’s Call for Dialogue

May 19, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a speech Thursday, President Obama pledged aid to Arab nations that are shifting toward democracy and renewed calls for an Israeli-Palestinian two-state settlement. Margaret Warner reports from Bahrain on reactions to the president's address, which called for dialogue between that nation's government and the opposition.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Our Margaret Warner has been reporting from the Arab kingdom of Bahrain this week. And she joins us now.

Hello, Margaret.

The president devoted a full paragraph in his speech to the situation in Bahrain, calling for dialogue. So how are the people there reacting to this?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, it depends whom you’re speaking to, of course.

Members of the opposition — I spoke to a number of prominent members of the opposition and the reform movement — said they were at first dismayed that President Obama didn’t mention this country in the litany at first of countries where people were crying out for freedom.

But when he got to the Bahrain paragraph, they really — they used words like thrilled and surprised. And there were three things they were pleased by: one, that he did call for dialogue directly from the opposition to the government, which the government here has been backing away from; two, that he said it’s going to be hard to have talks with the opposition when a great number of them are in jail; and, three, that he talked about the destruction of Shia mosques.

And all the — everyone in the opposition, as well as, frankly, on the Internet, were saying, you know, they thought this was a lot farther than anyone in the administration, but, of course, the president especially, had gone.

On the government’s side, I would say it was a little cooler. One member of the royal family did say to me, well, he recognized the threat that Iran poses to us.

But if you — certainly, if you look at the Twitter feeds, what you see is a lot of action, but the people on the opposition side much more energized than the people who are supporting the government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret, the criticism we have heard from the region is that the United States has been following a double standard in the way that it’s reacted to the Arab spring, that there’s been a different approach to different countries.

Do you think what the president said today allayed those concerns?

MARGARET WARNER: I would say in part, but not entirely.

That is, particularly it is the opposition side, the Shia-led opposition that has felt this way, that they were pleased that he had a whole paragraph about it and that at least it was included. And it was included along with Yemen, one noticed — noted, as a friend, a — an ally who is trying to stand in the way of this movement. And they liked being included with that.

But a couple of them said to me, you know, there still is a double standard in the sense that America’s security and oil interests still seem to matter more than their belief in a democratic revolution in the Arab world, that he talks about the need for change throughout North Africa and the — and part of the Middle East, but not on the Gulf, didn’t mention Saudi Arabia, and didn’t really put it to the leaders of Bahrain.

So, there is still a feeling there is a double standard. Now, the pro-government people said to me, “Well, that should put that to rest.” And another one said, “Yes, there is a double standard, and there should be. We’re not Egypt. We’re not Tunisia. We have had a 200-year-old,” he called it pact between the people and the ruling family, the monarchy, that, “we’re not a revolutionary society. You know, we didn’t have a strongman take over by force, as, say, in Egypt and Tunisia.”

So there is a recognition even on the government side, there is a double standard. But they think it is welcome and entirely appropriate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Remind us, how much tension has there been between the U.S. and the government of Bahrain over the U.S. response?

MARGARET WARNER: There has been considerable tension dating back to the way that the United States reacted when President Mubarak was in trouble and ultimately left power in Egypt.

And Bahrain, along with — along with Saudi Arabia, felt that here was a longtime ally, a Sunni ruler who had been a good, good friend to the United States, and essentially, the U.S. threw them under the bus. And that’s the perception. And so, there has been tension and distrust.

And I say that that still continues, despite the number of visits from U.S. officials here and the calls from President Obama to the king. So that remains, I would say, a tension.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What reaction are you picking up from the rest of the region, across the Middle East, across North Africa, to the speech?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, it was interesting, Judy, if you just looked at the media. Bahrain TV didn’t even run it live. They had patriotic music videos on.

But Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, which everyone said is what they planned to watch anyway, covered it heavily. It was on live, a lot of commentary. It won’t surprise to you know that, initially, most of the commentary was about the Arab-Israeli situation.

But when they — when they did talk about Bahrain and the rest of the Arab Spring, there was a recognition that — that Bahrain at least had come in for some recognition, but that still a double standard remained. And it was noted that President Obama had used the words about President Assad he either has to lead the transition or step aside.

It’s pretty much the same words he used about Mubarak at one critical point. And one commentator on Al-Jazeera, I think it was, said, “why is he saying that about Assad or Yemen, but not saying it about Bahrain?”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner reporting from Manama, the capital of Bahrain, thank you.