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
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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