The crackdown in Bahrain is an embarrassment for David Cameron

After David Cameron's recent meeting with King Hamad at Downing Street, the Bahrain authorities began a punitive clampdown on pro-democracy campaigners. Sooner or later, the PM's links with repressive Gulf states will come back to haunt him.

The current wave of repression in Bahrain is an embarrassment for David Cameron and the British government, with the Gulf state yesterday heading off the threat of pro-democracy demonstrations by deploying razor wire to prevent public assembly and attacking demonstrators with birdshot and teargas. Only last week, in the middle of the regime’s brutal pre-emptive crackdown on the opposition ahead of the planned protests, Cameron met King Hamad at Downing Street apparently to discuss deepening the strategic relationship between Bahrain and the UK. Indeed, it seems as though the more desperate the situation in Bahrain becomes, the closer Britain ties itself to its ruling family.

To recap: in Spring 2011 a huge, broad based and overwhelmingly peaceful pro-democracy movement was violently crushed by regime security services backed-up by a Saudi-led intervention force. The regime subsequently promised reform (largely to save the blushes of its Western allies) but delivered next to nothing, save for a ‘National Dialogue’ that British ministers were quick to praise, but which proved something of a joke given that leading opposition members are currently in jail for having the wrong opinions.

Last month, a call went out for large, non-sectarian anti-regime protests to coincide with yesterday’s anniversary of independence from the UK (an occasion which, tellingly, the royal family does not celebrate). The response was a series of measures effectively returning the country to a state of martial law, with all public political demonstrations banned in the capital, and any parent whose child participated in such activity being liable to a year in jail for a second “offence”. Activists have been subjected to a wave of arrests and torture, according to reports received by Amnesty International. The pretext is anti-terrorism, but as Amnesty notes, the definition of terrorism used by the regime is “overly broad and ambiguous”. According to Emile Nakhleh - academic, former US intelligence officer, and author of Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing Society - the regime regards as a terrorist not only the few engaged in armed actions, but “any Bahraini who is suspected of being a dissident or actively advocating genuine reforms”. The regime’s own brand of state terrorism, by contrast, continues with impunity.

Bahraini police attack a protester during demonstration against the ruling regime, 14 August. Photograph: MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images.

King Hamad’s emergency decrees – described by Amnesty as “a shameful attempt to completely ban any form of dissent and freedom of expression” - were issued just hours after he met with David Cameron, apparently to discuss a sort of renewal of vows between the two states. In the early days of the uprising Britain had suspended certain arms export licences to Bahrain, but relations reverted fairly swiftly to business as usual, with a defence agreement (reportedly including provision for assistance in securing “internal stability”) quietly signed in October of last year.

More seriously, an April 2013 research paper from the Royal United Services Institute speculated that Britain was gearing up for a return to the positions “East of Suez” that it abandoned in 1971 when Bahrain and the other Gulf states gained their independence. One of the main agenda items discussed at Cameron’s meeting with Hamad was a £1bn Typhoon fighter jet sale; part of a broader attempt to bolster the military forces of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states that assisted Bahrain in its spring 2011 crackdown. The Daily Telegraph’s defence correspondent Con Coughlin reported that this was potentially the prelude to a major recommitment by Britain to the security of the region’s monarchies, which could see “a permanent garrison of [British] troops and an RAF combat squadron stationed in the Gulf”. Such a strategic move would amount to a dramatic vote of confidence in some of the most anti-democratic regimes in the world, and a revealing British response to the Arab uprisings.

Putting aside the fairly obvious moral concerns, connivance with the Bahraini royals could prove deeply misguided even from the British state’s own point of view. Christopher Davidson, a leading academic expert on the Gulf, notes that of the six GCC regimes, “Bahrain’s has by far the bleakest future, with little hope that the ruling family can restore sufficient legitimacy to ever govern again without resorting to martial law and extensive repression”. For Davidson, the current strategies employed by the Gulf states to prevent either revolution or substantive reform are unsustainable in the medium term, with change inevitable whether it is desired or not. Another academic commentator, Gilbert Achcar, notes in his recent book, The People Want, that the Arab uprisings are the product of deep political and economic contradictions that will continue to produce social upheaval until they are resolved, however long that process takes. If these analyses are correct, then neither Bahrain’s tactic of crushing all dissent, nor Britain’s policy of supporting it come what may, can possibly qualify as a serious strategic response. When the dam finally bursts, London will quickly find itself on the wrong side of history, with few friends left in the Gulf region and a lot of explaining to do at home.

David Wearing is researching a PhD on British relations with the Gulf states at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Find him on Twitter as @davidwearing

David Cameron with King Hamad of Bahrain 6 August. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.