The Queen and her despotic friends

Why is the king of Bahrain coming to the royal wedding?

Last month, in my column in the magazine, I wrote:

Have you been invited to Kate's and Wills's wedding at Westminster Abbey on 29 April? No? I didn't think so. Nor have I.

But Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa has. He happens to be the king of Bahrain, where thousands of people have been peacefully protesting against his unelected royal regime since 14 February. His Majesty's response? On 16 February, shortly before dawn, he ordered his security forces to storm Pearl Square in the heart of Bahrain's capital, Manama, where the protesters -- emulating those who had gathered in Cairo's Liberation Square -- were camping out. The police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the king's sleeping subjects, killing at least four, including a two-year-old girl, and injuring hundreds of others. The next day, they switched to live ammunition.

Nonetheless, the king of Bahrain has received his gilded invitation from Buckingham Palace, embossed with the Queen's EIIR royal cypher.

As far as I'm aware, the Bahraini monarch's invite still stands -- even though his country's security forces have spent the past couple of days firing live ammunition and tear gas at pro-democracy protesters in the heart of the capital, Manama, as well as denying the wounded access to hospitals and health centres. At least five people have been killed and hundreds have been injured. In the early hours of this morning, Bahraini security forces -- aided by their Saudi army allies, who arrived in the kingdom on Monday -- arrested and detained six opposition activists and political leaders after breaking into their homes, "brandishing automatic weaponry". The crackdown continues.

Yesterday, Graham Smith, head of the anti-monarchy campaign group Republic, wrote a letter to Kate Middleton and Prince William, calling on them to remove the King of Bahrain and other "vile men" from their wedding invitation list:

I am sure you were as appalled and disgusted as I was at the news that the king of Bahrain has crushed a peaceful pro-democracy rally with tanks and live ammunition, killing a number of protesters. So I have no doubt that you must have serious misgivings about the inclusion of the king on the invitation list for your wedding on 29 April.

You will be aware that there are millions of people around the world who suffer oppression and tyranny on a daily basis. Many of these people look to countries such as Britain for inspiration and support in their struggle for freedom and democracy. As such, surely we have a duty to support the oppressed and the democrats over the despots and oppressors. Clearly, then, it would send an appalling message to the world were any dictators of the Middle East -- royal or otherwise -- seen enjoying the hospitality of your family and rubbing shoulders with Hollywood stars and politicians at your wedding.

I cannot imagine it would reflect well on you, your family or the monarchy were those vile men to remain on your guest list. More importantly, it would seriously damage the reputation and image of Britain and would do harm to the wider cause of democracy and freedom. I am therefore asking you to ensure that the invitation to the king of Bahrain and to any other Middle Eastern despot be withdrawn immediately.

Will the royal couple respond? If not to Republic (why would they?) then perhaps to a friendly reporter (ITN's Tom Bradby, say)? They risk having their much-awaited, much-discussed wedding being overshadowed by the inevitable protests against their VIP guests from the Middle East -- the kings of Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the rest. What is Wills's and Kate's defence? How does the Queen justify her invitation to an unelected tyrant with fresh blood on his hands?

Meanwhile, the British and American governments -- which have supplied the Bahraini autocracy with tear gas, small arms ammunition, stun grenades and smoke canisters -- continue to look the other way and instead agitate for military action against Libya.

But as Seumas Milne writes in his column in today's Guardian:

Considering that both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, home to the United States fifth fleet, depend on American support, the crushing of the Bahraini democracy movement or the underground Saudi opposition should be a good deal easier for the west to fix than the Libyan maelstrom.

But neither the US nor its intervention-hungry allies show the slightest sign of using their leverage to help the people of either country decide their own future. Instead, as Bahrain's security forces tear-gassed and terrorised protesters, the White House merely repeated the mealy-mouthed call it made in the first weeks of the Egyptian revolution for "restraint on all sides".

Perhaps the fact that Bahrain is home to the US navy's fifth fleet, while the Shia protesters on the streets of Manama have the support of Iran, has something to do with the west's glaring double-standards with regard to Libya and Bahrain. Or am I being cynical?

 

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.