September 11, 2017

The Bahrain Foundation for Dialogue: Promoting Social Reconciliation

Bahrain Foundation for Dialogue meets with Prince Charles
The Bahrain Foundation for Dialogue meets with Prince Charles, far right, during an official visit to Bahrain. (Suhail Algosaibi)
by Mai Alfarhan

The Bahraini uprising, and its aftermath, has left profound rifts six years on, in political views, sectarian relations, and even geography. To address these negative social ramifications and bring in the voices of people often lost amid conflict and crises, Suhail Algosaibi established the Bahrain Foundation for Dialogue. BFD aims to create civil dialogue and social reconciliation between Bahrainis of different sects, ideologies, and backgrounds. Suhail, the foundation’s chairman, is an award-winning serial entrepreneur, startup investor, consultant, and author. AGSIW spoke with Suhail to discuss the foundation’s inception and offerings, as well as the sectarian challenges within Bahraini society, especially among youth.

AGSIW: What inspired you to start BFD and how did your entrepreneurial experience help?

Suhail: We went through a big political crisis in Bahrain in 2011. This crisis really affected the Bahraini community where we started hearing sectarian terms being used against Sunni or Shia; there was a nasty divide. It affected friendships, families, marriages. Friends were not talking to each other; cousins were not talking to each other. It became very ugly. The political tension between the opposition and the government increased all the time. So my ambition was to see some form of reconciliation and dialogue take place between the government and opposition, but since this is not my domain, and “above my pay grade” as they say, I decided to focus on social reconciliation and civil dialogue. In the middle of 2011, the idea was there at the back of my mind for a while until I approached His Royal Highness Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa and I said to him, “I want to start this nonprofit, nonpolitical foundation concerned with social reconciliation and civil dialogue.” I told him, “I’ll only do it if you endorse it.” And he told me to go ahead with it. We filed forms with the Ministry of Social Development in January 2012, got the approval in June, and had our first event in July.

I think being an entrepreneur really emboldens you because being an entrepreneur you’re an action-oriented person. Sometimes you shoot first and then you ask questions later. I had no previous experience in reconciliation or dialogue. I didn’t really know what I was going to do, but I knew I needed to do something. So an entrepreneurial attitude really helped take the foundation forward and bring it off the ground.

Joint Sunnia/Shia prayers

Joint Sunni and Shia prayers organized by the Bahrain Foundation for Dialogue (Suhail Algosaibi)

AGSIW: Through what activities does the foundation promote civil dialogue?

Suhail: Since our inception, we have had 55-60 events – anything from workshops, lectures, community outreach initiatives, visits to different Sunni-Shia communities in Bahrain, leadership courses, and dialogue dinners. At dialogue dinners, we have people from different sects, backgrounds, and ideologies come to a private dinner and we just discuss issues in Bahrain. There is no press release, or photos. It is really done in a private setting and we try to get people together who normally would not sit together in the same room. It is off the record, but not in terms of it taking place. People know about it, but we don’t announce who is there, what is said, or anything else like this so what happens there is completely off the record. We have had around 1,200 people attend our events over the years. I think the impact from that is much more if you use a multiplier effect.

AGSIW: The foundation was created in response to the Arab Spring, yet it is not political. Would you explain?

Suhail: The Bahrain crisis has two main narratives. One narrative is that it’s a purely political and rights movement started by the “Bahraini people.” Then you have another narrative, which is that the Bahrain crisis is a sectarian movement endorsed and pushed by outside forces, primarily Iran. At the Bahrain Foundation for Dialogue, we don’t subscribe to a particular narrative. We respect both narratives and accept the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry’s report in its totality; we concur with it one hundred percent. Regardless of its origin, the crisis had considerable social consequences. We are addressing the social consequences not the politics behind it. I am not going to Parliament or lobbying ministers for certain things. My concern is how this crisis has affected Bahrain and how it can potentially affect future generations. People used to feel much more comfortable going to certain areas. We not only have now sectarian or mental isolation, but also geographical isolation. After the crisis, for a few years, people wouldn’t go to certain areas, fearing for one’s safety. Bahrain is tiny. It is unfathomable that certain areas would be no-go areas for people because they are afraid the people living over there would be from the other sect. Regardless of the politics, there is a lot of work to be done on the social side of things. But the good news is that today the sectarian and social tensions are considerably less than they were in 2011.

AGSIW: Who is the targeted audience? And why?

Suhail: We focus a lot on youth because they are the most affected age group. Born in the 1980s, I come from a generation when we went to Sunni-Shia mixed schools. I went to a governmental and not a private school and we were really well-integrated. Of course you’d have students teasing you saying “Yal Bahraini, ya Sunni/Shiite.” It would come up but nothing serious. The generation before that was even more integrated because the community was much, much smaller. My father grew up in an area called Freej al-Fadhel in Manama, in the 1940s and 50s, which was a melting pot of different religions, sects, and nationalities. It was a totally integrated place.

The future generation now is the most vulnerable to these new ideas and thoughts. These sectarian ideas are on WhatsApp, Twitter, and social media. They watch videos and are so easily influenced that they sometimes get angry. They don’t have as many mixed schools as before so really we have to make sure we set them on the right path. If a plane is taking off say from London to New York, and you just change the direction/angle in the beginning by two-three degrees, you’ll be in a completely different country. I think you can do the same with youth. Take a young man or a woman and just implement some right thoughts and new ways of thinking, God knows what you can do with this person. So we focus a lot on teens, and people in their 20s, and we have gotten a lot of positive feedback.

We’ve conducted youth leadership initiatives to teach youth how to use nonviolent conflict resolution methods. We’ve also had the pleasure of going on learning trips abroad. We’ve gone to Northern Ireland, which was a fascinating trip, where we sat with former Irish Republican Army and Unionist terrorists, people in the community, victims, and various commissioners in Northern Ireland; it was a very, very powerful experience. We also had a learning visit to South Africa, where we met members of the African National Congress, members of the truth and reconciliation commission, academics, and business people; and it was equally a powerful experience.

AGSIW: What role does BFD have in light of the current rift between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain?

Suhail: We don’t have a role at all and don’t take a stance on the Qatar crisis. As someone who believes in dialogue, I believe every problem can be solved by dialogue, be it at home, at the workplace, or on a national or regional level. I think all crises can only be solved through dialogue and I hope, in time, inshallah, those who are working on moderating between the countries will prevail at the end.

AGSIW: What’s next for BFD?

Suhail: We’ve had the privilege of having some partnerships in the past. We had partnerships with the Causeway Institute for Peace-building in Northern Ireland. We’ve worked with an organization called Beyond Conflict in Boston. We have also worked and continue to work with Search for Common Ground. Search for Common Ground is the world’s largest peacebuilding organization; it is in 36 countries all over the world. We have a joint program that we’re doing in Bahrain. It is an 18-month program training trainers on peacebuilding and dialogue. These trained trainers will now train youth in Bahrain and we think we can really scale up dialogue and peacebuilding training through this program. This program is expected to run until March or possibly June 2018. We plan to train at least 50 youth as part of this program – male, female, and from different sects and backgrounds. These youths are then encouraged to come up with ideas and initiatives in their own neighborhoods, which this program will then fund. This is an ongoing program that we’ve been working on in Bahrain.

We want to make sure youth in Bahrain realize that there are other ways of solving conflict other than resorting to anger or violence.

To learn more about the Bahrain Foundation for Dialogue, visit the foundation’s website. To stay connected with Suhail, follow him on Twitter.

Mai Alfarhan is a research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.