Mon, 03 July 2023
In his second year as US Ambassador to the Kingdom of Bahrain, His Excellency Steven C. Bondy speaks to Kristian Harrison about his objectives as ambassador, his experiences on the island and the cooperation between the two countries with regards to regional maritime security, trade and more.
Your Excellency, can you give us a brief summary of your career to date?
I have had the wonderful opportunity to serve as a diplomat for the United States for 32 years now. I thought when I joined, I’d see the world, but in fact I’ve just seen a narrow swathe which is the Middle East. I was previously in Bahrain from 2004-2007 so it was a wonderful opportunity to come back to the Kingdom, a place where I feel like I know the people and culture well. I have also served elsewhere in the Gulf in places including the UAE, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan. I also worked on issues on the Middle East in Washington.
You’re now in your second full year in Bahrain, in what ways is your job different now compared to when you first arrived?
First and foremost, I arrived in early February 2022 when the pandemic was still on, which was hard for diplomats. As our Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, said: “Diplomacy is a contact sport.” You have to meet people, shake hands and look one another in the eye to work out issues. Thankfully, due to Bahrain’s effective handling of the pandemic, we emerged out of that soon after which allowed citizens of Bahrain to see each other again.
From a substantive point of view, also in February last year Russia invaded Ukraine which changed how the US works with Bahrain and other nations to push back on the unfair, unjust invasion of a peaceful nation.
Following this, have your mission and goals shifted at all based on current events? What are the current main objectives of your ambassadorship?
Firstly, my job is to build upon the very solid foundation of relations between the governments and people of the United States and Bahrain. We can go back 130 years when US citizens first came to Bahrain as missionaries who formed a hospital, school and church, all of which are incredibly still operating today. We’re proud of that legacy and the contributions still going on. We have this great depth of common understanding, of values that Bahrain and Americans share.
It’s my job to build on that relationship, to make it ever stronger which we do in key areas such as the strategic realm where our military relationship deters our adversaries. The US is also working very hard to build Bahrain’s relationship with Israel through the Abraham Accords. Finally, we also have the commercial side and what I like to call the ‘values aspect’ of our foreign policy; human rights, civil society, democratic development, religious freedom and more.
What have been your key observations of Bahrain now that you’ve had time to truly experience the country and its culture?
Bahrain has grown substantially; in terms of population, infrastructure and also literally because of the land reclamation programme! The Kingdom is central to the regional economy and the focus on education and training skills so that Bahrainis can thrive in the global economy is something that’s new for me. It’s a focused and practical exercise to ensure that the next generation is ready to thrive economically, which is extremely wise.
Of course, the kindness and spirit of the people hasn’t changed. Bahrain has been open to the world for thousands of years and that shines through. Friends, family and colleagues are all welcomed. I also admire how Bahrainis are willing to work hard which is not the case all over the world.
What experiences in Bahrain, whether positive or challenging, have led to you becoming a better ambassador?
Every day there are new challenges, surprises and more. I would say that the key thing for me is that I try to develop my leadership skills so that we as an embassy can make progress and achieve objectives. Leadership is an art not a science, you can’t go through a checklist but instead have to create an environment. This is both the greatest challenge and also the most satisfying aspect of what we do. Communication and empowering the staff to use their creativity, alongside monitoring our approach, is so important.
I feel the need for prudent risk-taking; we have to look for opportunities to always do better. I like to compare it with snow skiing; if you’re doing it all day and don’t fall, you’re probably not pushing yourself. Similarly, in diplomacy we need to take risks to achieve objectives.
How important is the US-Bahrain relationship when it comes to the maritime environment and protecting the US’ interests and safety in the Middle East?
Our defence relationship is fundamental. Our first military deployment in the Gulf region was right here in 1947 when we launched our enduring presence, which still exists to this day. Maritime security is not just important to us but for the world, as a huge supply of the world’s energy comes through the Arabian Gulf and out into the economies of the world. Being able to project power to ensure commerce and trade continue unhindered with free movement of commercial vessels is an important aspect of prosperity and growth in the global economy.
Our military relationship is blossoming. Bahrain recently became the first customer of our F-16 Block 70 aircraft, and the first one rolled off assembly a couple of months ago. This opens up a whole new area of military interoperability and all of us here at the embassy and the 8,000 strong military members work tirelessly with our Bahraini counterparts to achieve our common objectives.
How does the US support the members of the US military in Bahrain?
There is a whole suite of options available to our service members and their families, here, from mental health to physical health and also spiritual health. For example, we have a Chaplain Corps on base who provide pastoral and religious guidance to our team. We also provide the Bahrain School for children of our service members, following the American curriculum, and we are proud that many of Bahrain’s leaders including HRH Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, Crown Prince and Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Bahrain, are graduates.
What is the current state of trade relations between the US and Bahrain? Do you have any specific figures?
The commercial relationship is thriving. In 2022, the bilateral trade volume was USD2.85 billion, which is the second highest on record behind only 2018. We also noticed that Bahrain had a trade surplus with the United States meaning it was exporting more goods to the US than the other way. My job as an ambassador is to boost the export of US goods and services, and we have a free trade agreement in place to pursue that. What is a certainty is that commercially, we have more interactions, innovations and opportunities because of our relationship.
The Export-Import Bank, a US government function that provides trade financing to export goods and services, is one of the ways in which we can support American exports into Bahrain.
Secondly, we are working very carefully on resuming direct flights between the two countries with Gulf Air. The logistics are being ironed out, but when that happens, tourism, education, business and medical travel will increase tremendously.
Finally, we are working closely with the Bahrain government on the United States Trade Zone, which provides a specific location for US companies to set up to do light manufacturing and logistics to pursue opportunities throughout the region.
Anything else to add?
I just want to reiterate that it’s an incredible honour to represent the government and people of the US here in Bahrain. The depth of the relationship is hard to fathom; we have common objectives and tend to see things in the same way. That doesn’t mean we don’t have disagreements, as even brothers fight! However, when we do disagree, we do so unemotionally and with great respect and appreciation for the other’s point of view. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing than what I am right here, right now.