A picture of Bahraini King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa decorates a tank as armed forces secure Manama's Pearl Square on March 19, 2011 Photograph: Getty Images
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Why is former Met police commander John Yates working for the brutal Bahraini regime?

Yates is defending a blood-stained Middle East tyranny.

Oh dear. What happened to John Yates? How did a suave, sophisticated, liberal British policeman, once tipped for the top job in the Metropolitan Police, end up shilling for a vicious Middle East dictator who shoots, teargasses and tortures unarmed protesters?

“Yates of the Yard”, as he became known during his pursuit of Tony Blair over the cash-for-peerages scandal, was appointed by the king of Bahrain to oversee reform of the country’s security forces late last year.

This was the very same King of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who had turned those security forces on his own people when the Arab Spring reached the country’s capital on 14 February, 2011. Protesters had arrived in Manama’s Pearl Square to demand greater political freedom and greater equality for the Shia majority. More than 30 people were killed in the crackdown that followed.

Opposition groups say that Yates, who quit the Met over the phone-hacking scandal, was hired to give the ruling al-Khalifa family a veneer of respectability – and he does seem to have taken to his new role with relish. In February, Yates told the Telegraph that the turmoil in Bahrain wasn’t the result of “organised protests” but “vandalism, rioting on the streets”.

Earlier this month, with human-rights groups calling for the forthcoming Bahrain grand prix to be cancelled, Yates intervened to urge teams to travel to the Gulf kingdom, suggesting that he and his family felt safer in Manama than in London. In a leaked letter, dated 11 April, Yates admitted that there were “nightly skirmishes” but claimed that these were “overplayed” by social media sites sympathetic to the opposition. “I feel completely safe,” he wrote. “Indeed, safer than I have often felt in London.”

Of course, if you’re in charge of security and policing for a brutal, unelected dictator, you do tend to feel quite safe.

Until, that is, the inevitable revolution comes. Then they’re often strung up from the nearest lamppost. If, and let’s cross our fingers here, Bahrain’s al-Khalifah ends up going the way of Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Yates might well find himself desperately trying to book a seat on the first flight out of Manama.

The former Met commander is a disgrace. To cosy up to News International is one thing; to defend and dissemble on behalf of a blood-stained Middle East tyranny quite another. If Yates really believes Bahrain is “safe” and that the protesters are “vandals”, then perhaps he should venture out of his plush, air-conditioned office inside of the interior ministry in Manama and go and speak with the family of 22-year-old Ahmed Ismail, who bled to death last month after being shot by government loyalists at a rally. Or with the parents of 15-year-old Sayed Hashim, who bled to death on New Year’s Eve after being hit in the neck by a tear gas canister.

Yates was appointed to his post in December 2011; according to a recent report by the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, there have been at least 30 documented cases between November 2011 and March 2012 where Bahrainis have died after confrontations with police or security forces. So much for his “reforms”. Yates of theYard has failed. Again.

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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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle