In Bahrain, British diplomacy is an insult to real democrats

Without taking definite steps to promote democracy in Bahrain, Britain will, to all intents and purposes, have sided with the oppressor.

Exactly two years ago, a huge and overwhelmingly peaceful pro-democracy movement was being violently crushed by the government of Bahrain, with the help from mid-March 2011 of a Saudi-led intervention force from the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. So a panel discussion held in London a few days ago featuring Sir Tom Phillips, UK ambassador in Riyadh at the time, seemed like a good opportunity to challenge Britain’s close alliances with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. But then a better idea occurred to me: instead of asking a question myself in the Q&A, why not see if a Bahraini activist of my acquaintance would like me to put a question on her behalf?

I met Maryam al-Khawaja - Acting President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights - last year while she was in the UK raising awareness about the situation in her country. Her father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja , is a leading Bahraini human rights activist who has been tortured by the regime and jailed for life as a political dissident. The question she sent to me to ask Phillips was a simple one: “Are they [the British government] going to continue with silent diplomacy after two years of utter failure? Or will they actually promote human rights [in Bahrain]?”

Phillips’ answer had three elements. First, he objected to my saying that the Saudis had helped crush the uprising. In fact, they had responded to a request from an ally, under a treaty obligation, and relieved Bahraini troops at their bases rather than become involved in the clashes themselves. This is a line previously used by William Hague when giving evidence to Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee . In effect, Britain’s diplomats have been reduced to claiming that the GCC sending reinforcements cannot be regarded as them giving assistance to Bahrain’s security forces. Indeed, the fact that the Saudi-led intervention happened at the same time as the crushing of the protests was perhaps nothing more than a sort of strange coincidence.

Second, Phillips argued that contrary to the characterisation of British “silent diplomacy”, the UK had been highly outspoken about the spring 2011 crackdown, to the consternation of the various Gulf monarchies. Doubtless Phillips and his colleagues are to be congratulated for inviting the displeasure of the GCC autocrats, although to put this diplomatic triumph in context, these are of course states which are thick-skinned enough to treat an insult to the monarch as a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment.

In fact, Britain’s response to the savage repression of thousands of  peaceful protestors was to urge “all sides” to show restraint, and to welcome the King of Bahrain’s proposals for “dialogue”, while noting the “long friendship between Bahrain and the UK”. Britain’s “strong disapproval of the use of live ammunition against protesters”, and other abuses, was severely diluted when couched in this broader narrative, which contrasted sharply with the UK’s unequivocal response to the early stages of the crackdown in Syria.

Third, Phillips said that the situation in Bahrain is very complicated and can only be resolved through political negotiation. He welcomed the Bahraini regime’s current "National Dialogue", and expressed puzzlement at what Britain could be expected to do other than support that process. This seemed an odd response to a question asked on behalf of a woman whose father is serving a life sentence for his non-violent calls for democratic reform, and who says he has been tortured and threatened with sexual assault while in custody. Last Friday, Maryam’s sister Zainab was jailed for three months for her political activism . Perhaps she and her father should join the former ambassador in welcoming their jailers’ commitment to political discourse? As Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has asked : "How can you have a dialogue if representatives of the groups you mean to dialogue with are in prison?"

“What more Britain can do” in these circumstances seems reasonably obvious. Rather than talking up the regime’s “National Dialogue”, Britain should publically acknowledge that, as Amnesty International says, talks will be an “empty exercise” unless all prisoners of conscience are unconditionally released, and all restrictions on freedom of expression are lifted. Instead of welcoming regime pledges of reform, and disingenuously saying as Phillips did to me that the extent of those reforms is “something we can debate”, Britain should acknowledge the fact that (to quote Human Rights Watch ), “no progress” has been made, and that “all [the regime’s] talk of national dialogue and reform mean nothing”. In short, Britain could stop parroting its ally’s obfuscatory narrative .

If the monarchy does not change course, the British government should cancel the UK-Bahrain defence agreement (with its reported focus on "internal stability" ) that was signed with minimal coverage last October. It should put an immediate and complete end to all arms sales and any continuing training of Bahraini security forces . And it should reverse the contemptible decision to rename the Mons Hall at Sandhurst military academy after the King of Bahrain, following a £3m donation. The hall was originally named after a First World War battle that claimed the lives of 1,600 British troops, the betrayal of whose memory speaks volumes about the squalid relationship between the British state and the Bahraini royal family.

In the absence of such measures, Britain will not merely have failed to promote democracy in Bahrain but will to all intents and purposes have sided with the oppressor. As Maryam al-Khawaja told me in response to Phillips’ comments, “the UK needs to hold its allies accountable for human rights violations. As long as the international state of immunity for the Bahraini regime continues, the human rights situation will continue to deteriorate”.

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.

Bahraini Shiite attend the funeral of a man killed during the 2011 crackdown. Photograph: Getty Images
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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.