The Chamber’s folly

IMG_3034A new board of directors have been elected to lead the Chamber of Commerce forward. Apart from a few new faces, the incumbent board remains largely intact. The birth of this new board; however, was a bit onerous.

Arriving at the Chamber to render my vote at 1pm, I discover that there are over 200 voters ahead of me. The speed at which the numbers were called suggested that it will be a long wait, so rather than just remaining in the ante-room, I went to have lunch with my wife in the nearby Seef Mall. I came back after lunch, some 45 minutes later, and my turn was still to come, but another 100 voters or so. This thing is going to be slow.

IMG_3032So like so many others, I sat back and chatted with various colleagues awaiting our turns. The hold-up was clearly not the organisation, there were many pods serving people as they came in. The hold-up was rather the penultimate step in the voting process, one that is governed by the Chamber’s own by-laws. It appears that voting must be done manually on paper, and before receiving the ballot, the voter must sign against his or her company’s membership register. Add to that the fact that each commercial registry (rather than person) is eligible to vote and that many people had multiple entities, and the fact that some eligible voters abrogated their right by assigning their vote to a block – some allege this is a prime method of buying such votes – one could easily recognise the bottleneck.

IMG_3031So we waited for our turn to come up. That wait; however, wasn’t without entertainment! I personally witnessed two almost-full-blown-fists-flying fights between candidates and other representatives and officials! I still am unaware of why those fights started and frankly, I wasn’t going to even attempt to find out beyond recognising the so called businessman/candidate who was seeking votes and making absolutely sure that I would not vote for him.

The papers the next morning carried several reports of alleged corruption and corrupt practices. I wasn’t privy to the alleged vote-buying. I clearly witnessed several infractions which should be noted and corrected for future elections. As Human Rights personnel were present to monitor the elections, I hope they noted them too and have raised the proper objections with the elections committee.

Here are my observations:

  • 1. Candidates were milling about unhindered in the ante-room, clearly still campaigning;
  • 2. Candidates supporters/family/friends were also present in the room and they too were actively campaigning for their candidate;
  • 3. As every voter received a queue number, and as the wait was very long, some candidates exchanged higher numbers with lower ones, clearly attempting to influence the voting process. If someone gives you a number that will save you an hour, what would it cost you to simply tick their name, I mean you still have 17 more choices to make!
  • 4. I was aghast that Kadhem Al-Saeed gained the most votes. For a first time candidate and one who has been convicted and imprisoned for harassing a minister, I find it surprising that his candidature was (a) accepted and (b) gained the most votes, even surpassing the incumbent president of the Chamber!
  • 5. The other surprise is another first time candidate – Mohammed Sajid Sheikh – a controversial figure, gaining the third highest votes cast. This gentleman apparently was helped by the large Asian business community in Bahrain, but his candidature created a flurry of unsavoury accusations, least of which that he doesn’t speak Arabic properly, being Pakistani originally whose mother tongue is Urdu, and like Mr. Al-Saeed, both are alleged to have worked for months prior to the elections to buy as many votes as possible. The surprising results for both gents speak for themselves. As each candidate must be seconded by two members of the Chamber, I’m not sure what Othman Sharif and Jawad Al-Hawaj had in mind when they seconded this unsavoury gentleman, regardless of his origin and affiliation.

This brings me to my hero of the day. And that is my good friend Jassim Abdulaal, an MP of note in the first parliament in 2002 (and my tough auditor I must say) who stood up to Sheikh when the other ruffled his feathers unnecessarily at the end of the evening after the gates for casting votes have closed and his supporters complained about a lone person still to vote in the voting hall:

I’m not very optimistic that this board will actually enact any changes to the business society in Bahrain, nor can I see them creating an effective lobby to push parliament and the government to create better opportunities for businessmen and women, especially when you consider that their traditional roles have been severely curtailed by the advent of Google on one hand, and the creation of various government institutions like the EDB, Tamkeen, and others who individually and collectively do and have done a better job.

Now with at least two members of this new board buying their way in (allegedly of course), they water down the effectiveness of the board and its respect in the community.

No wonder that for the first time in its modern history, HRH the Prime Minister didn’t bother to visit them on election day.

  • bahraini4eva
    18 November 2009

    Dear Mahmood,
    I very much agree with the comments you have made regarding the voting process, but your conclusion which was rather pessimistic about the BCCI’s diminishing future role due to this inefficient election is a pure exaggeration.

    Let’s remember that the previous elections were also very much corrupt (actually some would say even more so than this time, since again, some of the running mates, some whom also made it in to the board at the previous 26th round were involved in buying their way in). Regardless of this fact, the board remained very much in tact, and was by far the most effective board that ever served the BCCI which is very evident given the huge turn-out (more than 60% greater than the previous elections), meaning that members are taking the BCCI much more seriously than in the past.

    Now, I completely agree with you that some of the members that are in there do NOT deserve to be in there, but that does not mean that they will bring the BCCI to shackles, since the Chairman (as with any organization) has the most control, and we all know that there is no better person to perform this tremendous task, than the previous and hopefully the very same upcoming one!

    Further, what you might call a diminishing role of the Chamber (due to the creation of several other entities), would to some mean the exact opposite. I have heard this comment before, but the reports and press statements that come out prove otherwise, and from what I have seen and heard, the Chamber has been much more pro-active and involved during this last term, and has brought on some real changes that are very much appreciated, given the fact that it is only a Consulting Organization!

    Again, I completely agree with you about the imperfection of this previous election (like the previous other ones), but I disagree that that will have a drastic negative outcome in its preformance in the future.

    Like the previous elections, I am happy with some of the members that got in, and angered by others (of whom you mentioned some), but I will not let that stop me in believing in the Chamber and its strength in representing the business community, which I think will continue to be the case into the future! An organization’s main strength, like that of a country, is it’s leader, and so, believe you me, Bahrain’s business community is very fortunate of having a great leader to allow the BCCI to progess especially during these very difficult times. Question is, who will be next? I can’t think of any of the same calibre!

    Oh, and about HRH the PM not showing up on election day, well, I don’t even think that deserves mentioning. The CP just went to the BCCI to deliver a remarkable speech about Unemployed College Grads in Bahrain, and he himself pointed out at the great role this organization plays today and will play in the future, under his wise leadership of the Kingdom.


  • mahmood
    18 November 2009

    I have every confidence in Essam Fakhro to continue to lead the Chamber. I’m sure you will agree with me that he faces a bigger challenge this term – and while I have every confidence that he will do a good job – I don’t agree with you that a leader him/herself alone dictates how and where an institution goes. He needs the support and cooperation of his other board members.

    I also believe that the Chamber needs to work on its PR efforts to make businessmen – let alone the public – believe in the importance of its role, which I believe, is limited to lobbying on behalf of businesses. Now when you consider that there are around 70,000 businesses and only 12,000 bother to register with the Chamber and only some 6,000 of those bother to maintain and renew their membership, then I fail to see how the Chamber can say that they represent businesses when over 90% of them are outside of their auspices.

    Good luck to them. I do believe that they actually are more powerful than the Parliament and for that they have a chance. But you will forgive my pessimism for the moment.

  • Deborah
    18 November 2009

    Mahmood, what does it cost for a small business to register and become a member of the BCCI?

  • mahmood
    19 November 2009

    Any business, large or small, pays an annual BD20 fee for membership. That’s it!

    And it only costs BD20 to register an establishment or company regardless of size too.

  • Gollygee
    19 November 2009

    “Mohammed Sajid Sheikh – a controversial figure, gaining the third highest votes cast. This gentleman apparently was helped by the large Asian business community in Bahrain ..”

    Welcome to the future.Your new ‘compatriots’ will vote according to ethnic criteria. They will also do business, choose partners, hire & fire, allocate contracts, etc, etc in a similar fashion.

    Right now he’s not speaking Arabic properly. Maybe mere decades from now others won’t be speaking Urdu properly, eh?

    • mahmood
      19 November 2009

      I’m not afraid of people being naturalised here. What I’m afraid of is the absence of integration policies which creates cantons of ethnic groupings as the ones you suggest.

      How does the other migrant countries do this? Australia, USA, UK and others get migrants to integrate? Language learning I guess would be a first thing to impose. So I think if anyone is running for a public position in Bahrain, the very least criteria to put is good spoken and written Arabic, wouldn’t you think?

  • Gollygee
    19 November 2009

    I don’t know what to think.

    I reckon it should be about how the natural Bahraini peers react to the naturalized person. Some naturalized people are demonstrably and obviously loyal to Bahrain and want to make it a better place. By their actions and by the results do we know them 🙂 Assess case by case, person by person. That’s the best way, but is it the most workable?

  • bahraini4eva
    19 November 2009

    A public-service organization is only as capable and effective as it’s permitted to be by the Gov’t and people of a country. Today, the BCCI continues to be the most powerful organization, I think, that has a say in the economics and commerce related issues in Bahrain. I agree, it still has a lot of work to do for the future, starting with getting the business community to be more involved in its activities, but the point I was trying to make is not that the leader alone dictates how and where an institution goes, obviously there must be cooperation between all, rather a leader can influence and bring unity, it does not happen in one day, it takes time and it’s achievable.

    I honestly think that the BCCI’s role has become more significant than ever, and the fact that the most prominent businessmen in Bahrain are involved in it, means a lot. I, like you, wish them all the best of luck. And trust me, just because some not deserving people won seats in the board doesn’t mean that they gained any more weight or respect in society, for the majority of the Bahrainis, I believe, know the good from the not good (or dare I say, bad).

    Oh, and actually, it now costs BD 40 to register an establishment or company regardless of size too.

    • mahmood
      19 November 2009

      Did they increase the fee recently? I just checked our CR and it says BD30 that was paid, and BD20 for the Chamber. Anyway, the fees themselves are negligible.

      I appreciate what you’re saying, but please allow me to disagree with you as to the perception of the utility of the Chamber to businesses now. I believe that their role has diminished and will continue to do so. Therefore; unless an urgent re-evaluation of their role is undertaken, and unless they find a way to include the majority of businesses on the island, their future will continue to flounder.

      At the moment the numbers speak for themselves. Even with a conservative estimate of having 30,000 registered businesses (I know that the figure is closer to 70k) then the paid up members of the Chamber of 6k does not represent the majority, thus bringing its premise as “the” representative of the business sector in Bahrain to complete falsehood.

  • bahraini4eva
    19 November 2009

    You are right, the BCCI needs to include the majority of business on the island, in order to really develop itself.

    The actual amount of registered businesses in Bahrain is around 58,000; however, please keep in mind that most (I think) are either fake businesses (for free visas purposes) or too small to want to pay ANY fee to ANY entity regardless of whatever miracle it could perform for it and the entire business community (it would much rather have the bigger businesses pay up for these services, which is known in economic terms as the free rider problem).

    Again, the role of the Gov’t here comes into play, being how seriously is the BCCI taken by it, in which this issue has drastically evolved especially during the last 26th term, thus the high turnout by voters in the previous 27th elections as compared to the ones before, and the fact that 2 board members of the BCCI during the last term were appointed as ministers (1 of whom is still serving). To me, that and more simply means that the BCCI’s role has become more significant today than ever before, and once the country starts to open up even more, and the Gov’t starts to be held more accountable, then things will definitely change for the better, and the BCCI’s role as a consultative organization which represents the business community will automatically be given a stronger emphasis by the Gov’t and the people.

Bahraini Views – Ali Al-Riffai – Eye for Business