By Rasha Al Ebrahim
Manama, May 21 (BNA): US Ambassador to Bahrain Steven Bondy has stressed the close relations between the two countries as among the oldest and closest in the region.
In an interview with Bahrain News Agency (BNA), his first since he took up his post in the Kingdom, Bondy said that the two countries are endeavoring to expand their partnership across all areas based on their shared values, friendship and common commitment to Bahrain’s continued progress and success.
“We maintain close partnerships with the government of Bahrain on the full range of bilateral issues, from education and the arts to trade, investment, and security, with an emphasis on strengthening people-to-people ties,” he said.
The ambassador stressed the significance of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) – one of only two in the Gulf region – in strengthening the bilateral trade and investment relationship.
“Since coming into force in 2006, two-way trade in merchandise and services has more than tripled, from $782 million in 2005 to nearly $3 billion in 2018. Even during the disruption of the pandemic-induced economic downturn, trade exceeded $2 billion in 2021, up from $1.5 billion in 2020,” he said.
“We believe in expanding commercial relations with Bahrain as a U.S. government priority and we are here to support businesses that are interested in doing that.”
The ambassador, who throughout his career has focused on the countries and issues of the broader Middle East region, emphasized that “the U.S. is and will continue to be Bahrain’s closest partner for advanced defense systems and equipment.”
“Such systems greatly improve and enhance regional security, as do the high pace of bilateral and multilateral military exercises and training events. The United States and Bahrain both benefit from closer operational coordination.”
The United States looks forward to the initiation of direct flights connecting the two countries, he added, and “together with the new 10-year multiple-entry visa for Bahraini citizens, we expect to turbo-charge business and tourism travel.”
Below is the text of the interview:
Can you please give us an overall assessment of the Bahrain-US relationship?
The United States’ relationship with Bahrain is one of the oldest and closest in the region, starting more than a century ago. Intrepid Americans delivered needed education and health care services starting in the late 1800s, projects that developed into the American Mission Hospital. The values those Americans held remain – friendship, partnership, and a shared commitment to Bahrain’s continued progress and success. We maintain close partnerships with the government of Bahrain on the full range of bilateral issues, from education and the arts to trade, investment, and security, with an emphasis on strengthening people-to-people ties. Also, the United States remains a destination of choice for Bahraini students, including numerous recipients of the Crown Prince’s scholarship.
We at the U.S. Embassy appreciate Bahrain’s close partnership with the United States and value our shared security commitment, including through Bahrain’s hosting of U.S. Navy Central Command and the U.S. Fifth Fleet since 1995.Bahrain was the first country to join the International Maritime Security Construct, which it commanded to ensure freedom of navigation and safe transport of commercial shipping. Bahrain also hosts the Combined Maritime Forces, which focus on defeating terrorism, preventing piracy, encouraging regional cooperation, and promoting a safe maritime environment.
Our relationship with Bahrain is built on joint efforts to counter violent extremism, promote regional security, and confront the threat and malign activities presented by Iran. Bahrain plays a key role in the regional security architecture and is a vital U.S. ally in defense initiatives.
Also, in our efforts to build on our historic relationship by advancing cooperation to further our mutual interests in strengthening regional stability, security, peace, and prosperity, the United States and Bahrain worked together to offer support for the evacuation and safe transit of over 7,000 U.S. citizens and others from Afghanistan. Bahrain was one of the first countries to offer this type of assistance. Bahrain’s courageous efforts were lauded by Secretary of State Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Austin visited Bahrain to express the appreciation of the United States directly to His Majesty the King and His Royal Highness the Crown Prince and Prime Minister. The generosity of the Bahraini people during this time of need gave these evacuees the chance to create a safe, secure life and epitomizes the closeness of our partnership.
Another key element of ensuring peace, prosperity, and security in the region is the United States’ support for Bahrain and Israel as they build their bilateral relationship. We salute His Majesty King Hamad’s bold decision to have relations with Israel, via the Abraham Accords, which we believe represents a fundamental change of strategic orientation in the region. Both Bahrain and Israel have been extremely active in building and strengthening their bilateral relations across a wide spectrum of activities and they are working off a joint program called “The Warm Peace Strategy.” And of course, His Excellency Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullatif Al Zayani participated in the Negev Ministerial in March with his counterparts from the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Egypt, Israel, and the United States. We at the U.S. embassy are working hand in hand with the Bahraini government to ensure the people of Bahrain benefit from their relationship with Israel.
Almost 16 years after it was signed, how do you see the Bahrain-US Free Trade Agreement? What should be done to strengthen it further?
The Free Trade Agreement, or FTA – one of only two in the Gulf region – significantly strengthened the bilateral trade and investment relationship. Since coming into force in 2006, two-way trade in merchandise and services has more than tripled, from $782 million dollars in 2005 to nearly $3 billion in 2018. Even during the disruption of the pandemic-induced economic downturn, trade exceeded $2 billion in 2021, up from $1.5 billion in 2020—a remarkable turnaround that is creating jobs and growing new businesses in both countries and contributing to Bahrain’s economic recovery.
Here at the embassy, we are always looking for opportunities to increase two-way trade under the FTA. In addition to promoting trade and investment opportunities for American companies in Bahrain, we are devoting efforts to stimulate additional Bahraini trade and investment in the United States. Bahraini firms have been invited to the SelectUSA Investment Summit to be held in-person in Washington, DC, on June 26-29. Our Embassy remains fully engaged with AmCham Bahrain and the Bahrain Economic Development Board to ensure our commercial partners leverage the U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement to the maximum extent possible to access markets both here in Bahrain and throughout the United States.
We believe in expanding commercial relations with Bahrain as a U.S. government priority and we are here to support businesses that are interested in doing that. I was pleased and honored to participate in the late February launch of the U.S. Trade Zone with His Excellency Minister of Industry, Commerce, and Tourism Zayed Al Zayani, which will consolidate all of Bahrain's competitive advantages–including business-friendly regulations, reduced operating costs, and modern logistics and industrial infrastructure–into an integrated commercial platform for American companies that want to do business in Bahrain and pursue opportunities in the wider Gulf region. The USTZ offers a range of business opportunities for U.S. companies, from manufacturing green and renewable energy technologies to pharmaceutical production, to assembly lines for microchips and advanced electronic equipment. It is our hope that this new endeavor will increase Bahrain's international competitiveness and one day make "Made in Bahrain" a global brand name.
What is the volume of trade between Bahrain and the US? How many US businesses, joint-ventures are there in Bahrain?
The FTA facilitates large volumes of international commerce because it eliminates tariffs and customs fees on virtually all merchandise and finished products traded between Bahrain and the United States. Despite the disruption to trade growth caused by the pandemic-induced economic downturn, bilateral trade exceeded $2 billion in 2021, up from $1.5 billion in 2020.
How satisfied is the US with the level of investment in Bahrain?
Let me say that as one of the most open economies in the Middle East and North Africa region, with strong trade relations within the GCC and beyond, accompanied by excellent infrastructure and strong financial institutions, Bahrain is well positioned to host U.S. investors seeking access to local, regional, and international markets.
Here at the embassy, we continue to use the FTA to promote Bahrain as an international destination for U.S. business and investment. We welcomed the Bahraini government’s announcement of new investment projects across the infrastructure, manufacturing, tourism, and transportation sectors, and we will work closely with Bahrain Economic Development Board, American Chamber of Commerce, and other partners to promote these opportunities to American companies.
How can Bahrain-US relationship, particularly the military and defense partnership that spans 75 years, be strengthened for the sake of peace in the region?
Bahrain and the United States both strive for regional peace and stability and applaud the Kingdom’s leadership in this endeavor by hosting the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, the 34-country Combined Maritime Forces, and the International Maritime Security Construct, which Bahrain has commanded.
We also congratulate Bahrain for being our first partner to operate the AH-1Z attack helicopters and will be the first country in the world to fly the next generation of the F-16 aircraft.
The United States is and will continue to be Bahrain’s closest partner for advanced defense systems and equipment. Such systems greatly improve and enhance regional security, as do the high pace of bilateral and multilateral military exercises and training events. The United States and Bahrain both benefit from closer operational coordination.
We face the same threats and share perspectives on how to address regional challenges. Bahrain is a Major Security Partner and Major Non-NATO Ally of the United States. As a steadfast ally and a leader in the region for driving integrated, multilateral responses to a range of conventional and nonconventional threats, we are proud to work alongside Bahrain.
Going forward, Bahrain and the U.S. are consistently increasing our interoperability and streamlining communication and threat-sharing processes to deter and defend against threats from unmanned systems and missiles. Additionally, we are breaking new ground in other realms, such as cyber-security and cyber-defense. These are just some of the ways in which our close defense and security relationship with Bahrain is developing to meet the rapidly evolving threat environment.
What is the level of intercultural and educational exchange programs between the two countries?
I love promoting our EducationUSA office, which offers free, comprehensive, objective, and timely information about educational opportunities in the United States and guidance to qualified individuals on how to best access those opportunities. The United States offers countless options for a world-class education, and U.S. colleges and universities are eager to welcome more Bahraini students to programs on their campuses. The United States educational system has a good fit for everyone, whatever they desire to study. The Embassy hosted a Ramadan Iftar for dozens of Bahraini exchange students and alumni. Bahrain’s future is in good hands as these individuals are smart, engaged, ambitious, and want to work hard to promote Bahrain’s progress and prosperity.
The U.S. Embassy sponsors several educational programs to assist Bahraini citizens who wish to study in the United States, and throughout our bilateral relationship, over 1,100 Bahrainis have participated in our U.S. government exchange programs.
Some of our most prestigious programs are the MEPI Student Leaders Program, which is a leadership and civic engagement program that supports community engagement and a five-week U.S. study program. Another is the Global Undergraduate Program, which awards grants to outstanding students for one semester of undergraduate, non-degree studies at a diverse network of accredited colleges and universities in the United States. The famed Fulbright Graduate Scholarship provides one to two years of fully funded Master’s-level study in the United States at a diverse network of accredited universities in almost any academic field. The Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program provides young and mid-career professionals with an opportunity to enhance their professional skills through graduate-level coursework and professional affiliations at institutions throughout the United States.
What are the challenges to having direct flights between Bahrain and the US?
The United States looks forward to the initiation of direct flights connecting our two countries, and together with the new 10-year multiple-entry visa for Bahraini citizens, we expect to turbo-charge business and tourism travel. The Ministry of Telecommunications and Transport is working closely with the United States government and private sector to prepare for the initiation of these flights.
In addition, during the second U.S.-Bahrain Strategic Dialogue in early March, the Ministry of Interior and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security signed the final agreement to formalize implementation of the Global Entry trusted-traveler program. This program permits expedited entry clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States, allowing them to skip processing lines and paperwork at United States ports of entry.
Two years ago, Bahrain launched a 10-year multiple-entry visa for US citizens. Why has such a measure not been reciprocated?
I am happy to affirm that Bahrainis have enjoyed a 10-year multiple entry tourist & business (B1/B2) visa since August 2020.