Questions raised over Thailand and Bahrain's 'close ties' as Hakeem Al-Araibi's detention continues


While the refugee footballer continues to fight for his release, SBS News can reveal a long history of close economic and political ties between two of the countries involved.

As Hakeem Al-Arabi’s teammates at Pascoe Vale Football Club in Melbourne prepare to start a new season, their star defender is about to mark two-and-a-half months in a Bangkok jail

The Bahraini refugee and Australian permanent resident was arrested in November last year, on an invalid Interpol red notice from the country he fled as he entered Thailand for his honeymoon.

And while Australia continues to fight to bring him home, concerns are being raised that the close bilateral relationship between Thailand and Bahrain might hinder the efforts.

Australian refugee Hakeem Al-Araibi
Australian permanent resident Hakeem Al-Araibi has been detained in Thailand since November last year.

“We are concerned Hakeem is paying the bill for this strong relationship between these two countries,” Fatima Yazbek of the Australian-based Gulf Institute for Human Rights and Democracy told SBS News.

According to academics and human rights groups, the two countries have long held extremely close ties, both financially and between the two royal families.  

“Even up to today, the two countries are actually really close,” said Dr Aim Sinpeng, an expert in South-East Asian politics at the University of Sydney.

She pointed to a Thai scholar who specialises in Middle Eastern relations that “believes that Bahrain is probably the closest ally Thailand has in the Middle East.”

The two countries are members of a joint-commission aimed at strengthening cooperation between their nations, which saw political leaders from each country meet at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Thailand, as recently as August 2018.

Facing international calls for Al-Araibi’s release, the Thai government said in a statement on Wednesday that it “did not gain anything” from continuing to detain him.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Getty Images

“As a sovereign country that has legal obligations and commitments to the international community, Thailand finds itself in the middle of a case involving two countries [Bahrain and Australia] competing for Mr Hakeem’s custody.”

According to Dr Sinpeng, the issue has become a “hot potato” for Thai politicians, as the government prepares for an election in March this year.

“No one wants to talk about it because whatever happens Thailand loses,” she said.

“They don’t want to do anything from the political perspective that would give them negative spotlight. So this is probably one of the reasons they are saying it’s up to the court.”

Close relationships at the top

According to Dr Sinpeng, the Thai and Bahraini royal families have always had a close relationship, reporting that the Bahraini royal family visits Thailand every year.

Thai deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs Surapong Tovichakchaikul said the relationship between Thailand and Bahrain “was very close and strong” in an interview with Oxford Business Group in 2012.

In the same interview, he also disclosed Bahrain Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa was a “close personal friend” of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and had “donated roughly $2 million of his own money” to Thailand for flood relief.

Bahrain's Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa.
Bahrain's Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa.

But Mr bin Salman Al Khalifa’s relationship with Thailand’s leaders does not end with the former prime minister.

The Bahraini prime minister and the former King of Thailand Bhumibol Adulyadej appear to have had business dealings as joint shareholders of the luxury hotel group Kempinski Hotels.

From 2004, The Thailand Crown Property Bureau - the body responsible for managing the property assets of the crown - was the majority stakeholder in the international company until 2017 when it handed over its majority shares to an “existing Bahraini-shareholder”, maintaining a minority holding.

The “Bahraini shareholder” was identified as Mr bin Salam Al Kalifa in a First Gulf Bank market report from the 20 July 2016 that announced his upcoming acquisition.

Thai-mart set to open in Bahrain

More recently, the two countries are on the cusp of a new business endeavour - a 6,700 square metre Thai shopping centre in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, set to launch in the first half of 2019.

Thai-Mart Bahrain will offer consumers products exclusively imported from Thailand and is described on its website as a “fine and strong collaboration” between Thailand’s Vega Inertrade & Exhibition LLC and Bahraini developer Diyar Al Muharraq.

A mock-up of Thai Mart Bahrain, as featured on its website.
A mock-up of Thai Mart Bahrain, as featured on its website.

The website pitches the Bahraini development as an opportunity for Thai small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to reach Saudi shoppers “who are very fond of Thai products and services”.

“Due to the poor diplomatic relationship between the two countries, it is very difficult for Thai SMEs to travel to Saudi Arabia and do business directly,” the website reads.

“Therefore, Bahrain is considered a bridge to link between Thai SMEs and the Saudis. Thai products are very popular in the region and able to be imported to Bahrain easily.”

Diyar Al Muharraq is also behind Dragon City - a 55,000 square metre Chinese market also in Manama.

And Bahrain has even granted Thai people a free pass to do business there.

In 2018, managing director of Dragon City Dr Maher Al-Shaer thanked Prime Minister bin Salman Al Khalifa for allowing Thai passport holders to “engage in retail commercial activities in the country with 100 per cent ownership rights”, as reported in local media.

“We interpret this announcement as a free gift for the Thai government and the Thai people,” Ms Yazbek said.

Dr Sinpeng believes Thailand is stuck in a “no win” situation over Al-Arabi’s detention, adding that while Bahrain and Thailand share close ties, Australia and Thailand do too.

“Whichever way this pans out, [Thailand] is going to hurt one of its friends,” she said.

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