By Shane McGinley
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?”
The deal Ereli refers to is Qatar’s signing of agreements worth about $23bn with Boeing and Airbus to buy attack helicopters, guided missiles, tankers and other military hardware, at a time when diplomatic relations among the six Gulf states was getting increasingly antagonistic.
Tensions moved up a gear last month when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain took the unprecedented step of recalling their ambassadors from Qatar in protest at what they see as Doha’s political meddling and support of Islamist groups that they see as a regional political and security menace.
The three countries, led by Riyadh, have accused Doha of interfering in the internal affairs of countries by backing such Islamist movements, namely the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. Qatar has denied those allegations and has vowed to stick to its foreign policy.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf officials, as well as Egypt’s military-backed rulers, also complain that Doha’s pan-Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera is too supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood and critical of their own governments, allegations hotly refuted by the station.
“This is all very new isn’t it?” says Ereli. “When I was in Bahrain, everything was hunky-dory in the GCC, pretty much. This really is a new twist on things, it certainly is a wrinkle we haven’t seen in a long time: member states taking such pointed measures.
“It is interesting and I was just in Doha and I can tell you it has really rattled people there and the feeling is that it is not entirely warranted... It is not warranted and what is going to come next? From the point of view of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, it is not what comes next from them but what is the next step from Qatar?” Ereli warns.
Some Arab officials have gone as far as to claim Qatar and Turkey are establishing spy networks in GCC states to report on plans to act against the Muslim Brotherhood, a leading Gulf military analyst reveals.
While Dr Theodore Karasik, director of research and consultancy at the Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), cannot elaborate on the allegations he says the suspected spying is a key element of the anger in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain against the Doha regime.
As a result, Karasik says changes in security ties in the region could affect businesses, with firms based in Qatar and also operating in other GCC states potentially forced to reconsider their alliances.
“Depending on where the company is, they might need to make an adjustment in order to have business continuity because this is a political disaster for them,” he says.
“I know there are businesses in the southern Gulf states that are now very wary of doing any business in Qatar and... there are expats who work in Qatar who are trying to change jobs to southern Gulf countries and their residence visas are not being approved.
“There seems to be some policy in place making it difficult to do contractual agreements and joint business operations between those countries. Companies that have headquarters in Qatar and also operate in other Gulf states might face some problems. It will depend on the nature of the company and its relationship with the leadership in the country,” he warns.
Ereli says the move to withdraw ambassadors from Doha is certainly an unprecedented step and one he describes as “a shot across the battlefield and “a signal of extreme displeasure and that it is time to take a different approach”.
“What is unusual is that the traditional approach of doing things is usually behind the scenes and less confrontational, so why the departure from the norm? I think there are a number of factors that explain why it is not business as usual. Firstly, clearly the Arab Spring has rattled people and the whole thing about the Muslim Brotherhood.
“What I find very interesting is the assertiveness of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, not just in Gulf affairs, but in world affairs. This signals a shift in the power relations and you have two very wealthy and increasingly powerful and increasingly influential countries asserting themselves beyond the economic sphere. I find that quite an obvious evolution and it reflects a growing confidence and sense of what their interests are and how they can advance their interests... I see that as a positive development.
“Having said that, I don’t think it’s a good thing what is happening between the UAE and Qatar and Bahrain. As a friend of all these countries, I think most of us would like to see this resolved in a way that does not adversely affect the economies... They are a family and it is best to let the family resolve the dispute.
Back in Ereli’s old backyard, the Bahrain government has been confronted with ongoing political unrest since February 2011 and it is another juggling act which he believes is “a very difficult situation for everybody.”
“The government wants justice and peace and responsible governance and I think different parts of the population want reform at different speed and reconciling all those different demands or expectations is complicated and challenging and frustratingly difficult.”
He describes observing “a great sense of frustration” in Manama and admits that despite being a former high-ranking US diplomat he is not a fan of the current Washington administration’s handling of the situation in the Gulf state and compares it to how he believes the Obama government also failed to support former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, a former US ally, when he was removed from office three years ago after nearly three decades in power.
“I would like to make clear I am not a fan of US policy towards Bahrain right now. I don’t think the United States has been supportive enough of the government. I think we have, what I would call, ‘pulled an Egypt’ on Bahrain.
“I mean, we have not acted as faithful and steadfast to partners who are a strong, trusted ally. The reason I think we have pulled an Egypt is because I mean we threw Hosni Mubarak under the bus in a very unseemly way. I don’t think we are doing that with the Khalifas [Bahrain’s ruling family] and I don’t think we will do that with the Khalifas.
“Let me be clear... if I was a Khalifa I’d be asking myself ‘where’s my friend in need?’. We beat up on them all the time, in public, for no reason and with no justification. These guys, whatever you think about what’s going on, have to be, and will be, part of the solution. What good does it do anybody to take issue with them? Why not work with them? It is stupid and short-sighted.”
His replacement in Bahrain, Thomas C Krajeski, was recently heavily criticised in an official report by the US Department of State for having “a reactive ‘seat of the pants’ leadership” and for not nurturing relationships with key government officials. “I think the current ambassador is carrying out US policy, like all ambassadors do,” Ereli says without addressing Krajeski specifically. Instead he reiterates his criticism of the Washington administration and calls on them to do more to support the Bahrain regime in its hour of need.
“I think what America should be doing is standing foursquare behind the government and behind the king, because that is the political centre of gravity in Bahrain and it is the indispensable element to the solution and so second guessing, doubting or undermining the government is wrong.
“I think we’ve totally botched our approach and relationship with the opposition... We have made things more difficult... and that’s I think is what has contributed to the difficulties there.”
Before getting embroiled in the difficulties of the diplomatic sphere, Ereli studied history at Yale University and completed a Masters in International Relations. After academia, he went on to work as an investigative journalist and a human rights activist. In the years before being sworn in as ambassador to Bahrain, he worked at the US State Department, stationed in Doha, Sanaa, Addis Ababa, Damascus and Cairo.
Since leaving the diplomatic corps in June 2011, he has become vice chairman of Mercury’s Washington, DC office, a company which is described as “a high-stakes public strategy firm” which uses its expertise “to gain competitive advantage for clients.”
Now in a marketing background, Ereli points to the recent visit of controversial Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe to Dubai as an example of the crossover between diplomacy and marketing and how a country can unwittingly damage its brand through its actions on the political stage.
“If someone is concerned about their reputation I think dealing with Robert Mugabe is highly problematic,” Ereli says. “If someone’s primary concern is making money go for it. If someone’s primary concern is balancing brand versus your profit then it is a reason for concern and hesitation.”
When it comes to balancing competing factors and agendas, being a US ambassador is the perfect storm, and, as Ereli well knows, the reality is often much more dramatic and bizarre than anything dreamt up by even the best television writing minds.