The King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s official visit to Switzerland on Thursday is the first ever by a Bahraini king. He met with Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann, in a sign of the two states trying to improve on a distinctly soured diplomatic relationship.
Details of what exactly is being discussed are being kept under wraps, but the occasion is a momentous one in terms of relations between the two nations.
The Gulf states make up an important trading bloc for Switzerland, with jewellery and watches being particularly popular Swiss exports to the region. A free trade agreement signed in 2009 between the four European Free Trade Association (EFTA) countries, including Switzerland, and the six Gulf nations had a difficult ride to fruition, only coming into effect in 2014.
This should have enabled a much freer flow of trade between Switzerland and Bahrain, but in fact, not much changed. According to figures from the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), the value of Swiss exports to the Gulf states in 2013 was CHF7 billion ($7.21 billion ), and from the Gulf states to Switzerland, CHF1 billion.
However, Swiss exports to Bahrain in 2015, one year after the free trade agreement came into effect, topped out at CHF245 million, and from Bahrain to Switzerland that figure was CHF26 million.
In April, the Swiss government decided to partially lift a ban on arms exports to the Middle East that had been in place since March 2015. It means that CHF178 million worth of spare parts for air defence systems can be delivered to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE. Spare parts for F-5 fighter aircraft in Bahrain will also be allowed.
While this is somewhat controversial in Switzerland, given its neutral position, the move can be viewed as a positive one in terms of trade.
2. Diplomatic concerns
Switzerland has an honorary consulate general in the capital Manama, but no ambassador in the country. The Swiss embassy in Qatar represents Switzerland’s interests in Bahrain, while the Bahraini embassy in Paris extends its reach to Switzerland.
An ongoing money laundering investigation by the Swiss authorities into a former Bahraini oil minister and member of the King’s family, added pressure to relations. The case began in 2011, and included allegations of a $24 million bribe paid to the Bahraini authorities by the US aluminium giant Alcoa.
While the case has been settled in the US with a guilty plea and fine, legal proceedings continue in Switzerland and two of the minister’s Swiss bank accounts remain frozen.
A visit by Swiss Secretary of State Yves Rossier to Bahrain in February 2015 was seen as a positive sign towards improve relations.
3. Human rights abuses
In September 2015, Switzerland made a statement at a session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, demanding an explanation from the Bahraini authorities for human rights abuses and torture of prisoners in Bahrain. Although the declaration was not adopted, 32 states voted in agreement with the Swiss, including the United States and numerous European countries.
The Swiss ambassador to the UN, Alexandre Fasel, said that the situation concerning human rights in Bahrain would remain a priority for them. At the start of 2016, Switzerland made human rights an important factor in their foreign policy.
There are a number of high profile political activists who are currently being held in prison and undergoing torture. Ahmed Al-Fahan, Nabil Rajab and Zainab Al-Khawaja are famous cases. Al-Khawaja is the daughter of a well-known opposition activist in Bahrain. She has her two-year-old son in prison with her.
On Wednesday, the Bahraini authorities announced they would soon release Al-Khawaja. This can be interpreted as a positive gesture towards Switzerland’s human rights agenda, ahead of the King’s visit to Switzerland.
During the Swiss visit on Thursday, the King and Schneider-Ammann signed two memorandums of understanding (non-legally binding agreements) on human rights.
4. Swiss abroad and security
Former Swiss diplomat Francois Nordmann told the Swiss newspaper Le Temps that in the 1980s there were 300 Swiss in Bahrain. The current number is just 123.
The Swiss foreign office advises extreme caution to be taken in Bahrain with regard to personal security. The situation is volatile, owing to tensions between the Sunni population and authorities, and the Shia majority, which wants social and political reforms and democratic governance.
The risk of a terrorist incident is high, and given the “internal tensions and the complex relationships” in the region, a “sudden deterioration” in the situation is possible, according to the foreign office. The instability and threat of attacks complicates trade and normal business procedures between the countries.