Joseph Adam Ereli spent 22 years working for the US Foreign Service, with four years as US ambassador to Bahrain. In a revealing interview, he describes the balancing act involved in such a role, his thoughts on current tensions among the Gulf member states and why he is such a critic of America’s policy towards Bahrain and in the wider region.
Last year the BBC launched a television show called Ambassadors, a comedy-drama following the lives of a new British ambassador and his staff as they juggled the challenges beset the British embassy in a fictional Central Asian nation of Tazbekistan.
The opening episode focused on the team’s struggle to rescue a faltering multi-billion dollar helicopter deal as news surfaced of the regime’s arrest of a notorious British human rights activist.
Someone who knows all too well the fact behind such fiction and the juggling involved in high-level international diplomacy is Joseph Adam Ereli, a former human rights activist and investigative reporter who joined the US Foreign Service in 1989 and served a four-year term as US ambassador to Bahrain until June 2011.
During his tenure in Manama, Ereli oversaw the implementation of a Free Trade Agreement with Bahrain, resolved a number of contentious issues and doubled bilateral trade between the two countries. He also secured a number of significant joint-venture partnerships, helped oversee a $3bn sale of Boeing aircraft to Gulf Air and negotiated important base access and security cooperation agreements on behalf of the Washington government.
At the same time, Bahrain became engulfed in Arab Spring anti-government protests and suffered a backlash from human rights activists, such as Amnesty International, who criticised its crackdown and accused it of excessive use of force, torture of rebels and a failure to implement proper reforms fast enough.
So, in real life, how does a Middle East diplomat balance the sometimes conflicting obligations? “That is a really good question... There is clearly and undeniably a tension,” Ereli concedes. “The trick is how you balance that. Human rights is important [and] something every ambassador cannot neglect.
“Some would argue, ‘forget about the human rights stuff, you need to sell arms and arms are more important to America than human rights and someone in prison’. That is true but only up to a point.
“America’s power is a combination of our economic might, our military might and our moral strength. When I say moral strength I mean the ideal of what America represents, that is what I would call our brand. If you are selling a product... if the ideal of the brand suffers, you are not going to be able to sell anything.
“If you cease to be that shining city on the hill, which is what the American ideal is, then nobody is going to buy anything from you. At the same time, in the near and short term, are you going to say don’t sell billions of arms to Qatar because they are supporting the Muslim Brotherhood?”
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