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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.