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.