October 22, 2010 5:35 pm

Row over land deals unsettles Bahrain election

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Bahrain’s main opposition movement is struggling to convince supporters that working within the system is worthwhile as it campaigns for parliamentary elections on Saturday.

Al-Wefaq seeks to represent the Shia majority in a country ruled by a Sunni monarchy. It has used its parliamentary presence to turn an unprecedented spotlight on one of the most controversial and sensitive issues in Bahrain – the allegedly illegal transfer of state land to the private sector.

After more than two years of investigation, a parliamentary committee reported in April that 65 sq km of state land had been misappropriated by “VIPs” and members of the royal court.

The value of the land was estimated to be 15bn dinar ($39.7bn), almost twice the kingdom’s gross domestic product. But the committee could find no records of any payment for the land from its new private owners.

Land is a particularly sensitive issue in Bahrain, which covers only 720 sq km.

Significantly, the parliamentary report received support not only from al-Wefaq MPs, but also members of pro-government Sunni blocs.

But names of ruling family members who allegedly benefited were removed before the report was presented to King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.

The investigation focused only on a sample of land transferred from government ownership after 2002, says Abdul Jalil Khalil Ebrahim, a Wefaq MP who chairs the parliamentary committee.

“It could be much bigger,” he says. “We proved it was government land and the government failed to prove it was transferred legally.”

The government responded by forming its own committee and analysing each case. “They say members of the royal family did this and that . . . this is not correct,” says Sheikh Khaled bin Ali al-Khalifa, justice minister and a member of the government’s committee.

He said the government’s response proved it was taking parliament seriously.

But opposition figures remain unconvinced. “They have taken no corrective action,” says Mr Ebrahim.

He fears that hardliners may try to restrict parliament’s investigatory powers during its next term, undermining the case for participating in Saturday’s election and working inside the system.

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