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Britain Should Stop Blocking Democracy and Human Rights Progress in Bahrain

The real trade with Bahrain is in favours exchanged between the British Establishment and the Bahraini elite says Alastair Sloane


The Queen sits alongside King Hamad of Bahrain at her 90th birthday horse show in June

What a summer it was for the Establishment in Bahrain and Britain. As the Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, clasped his ears, the King of Bahrain roared with laughter. It was a Sunday evening in May and the upper tier of British royals watched as Her Majesty’s Household troops fired an artillery salute for her 90th birthday; the Queen had invited King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa personally to join the celebrations. He is considered to be such a close friend that he sat directly next to Queen Elizabeth. This was no accident. Their family friendship goes back generations.

In fact, the Bahraini monarch was on a return visit to Britain, as a key sponsor of the Royal Windsor Horse Show. Equestrians competing in the grounds of Windsor Castle had the chance to win the “Kingdom of Bahrain Trophy”, the “Kingdom of Bahrain Stakes”, “the Bahrain Pearl Stakes” and the “Manama Speed Stakes”. Do we detect a theme here? Is the Royal Windsor Horse Show, held in the grounds of Windsor Castle, serving only as brazen royal whitewashing of the human rights abuses taking place in Bahrain?

Earlier that week, King Hamad had taken part in a very different kind of ceremony. With his household staff busy preparing for the birthday visit to Britain, with great pomp and ceremony the king placed a medal over the shoulders of Professor Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, the Chair of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. BICI, as it is known, was set up in the wake of the 2011 uprising and identified twenty-six human rights failings of the security services. The commission had gone to work soon afterwards, doing as little as possible to address the issues in question. The medal ceremony five years down the line was held, in theory, to celebrate the end of the BICI process. Rejoice! Human rights in Bahrain are restored! Or are they?

State media quoted Bassiouni as saying that every single one of the recommendations to improve the human rights situation in the tiny Gulf kingdom had been implemented. He later claimed that the quote was fabricated; only ten of the new policies, designed to safeguard human rights — and the people of Bahrain — from the savagery of the security services, were actually in place. Human rights organisations questioned even that figure, and concluded that only two of the promised twenty-six reforms had become reality. Hamad had thus awarded Bassiouni a medal for failure.

As international royalty hobnobbed in Windsor, dark plans were afoot. When King Hamad returned home, a new crackdown began. The arrests, show trials, collective punishments were of a ferociousness not seen since the temporary imposition of martial law in 2011. There was one last whitewasher to meet though: not a dodgy human rights professor or a British royal, but a dreary businessman turned World Bank official turned Foreign Secretary; step forward Conservative MP Phillip Hammond. On 30th May, he tweeted excitedly, “My Gulf visit continues in Bahrain” along with a picture of him looking impressed in King Hamad’s office. “Welcome commitment to continuing reforms,” he added.

Hammond either wasn’t aware, or had just been told by the King of Bahrain to pretend that he wasn’t aware, that a court in Manama had just jailed the leader of the country’s main opposition party for nine years. The crackdown didn’t stop there. The following day, an appeal court in Bahrain upheld the death sentences of three pro-democracy activists – Sami Mushaima, Abbas Al-Samea and Ali Abdulshaheed Al-Singace – as well as the life sentences of six others; the court also upheld the stripping of citizenship of eight more. Coercion, torture and ill-treatment against the defendants was all well-documented, but the evidence of mistreatment — the kind of mistreatment that BICI was supposed to have got rid of — was ignored by the judges.

As a veteran Middle East correspondent put it only a month later, “Once considered one of the more liberal Arab monarchies, Bahrain is turning into a police state as vicious and arbitrary as anywhere else in the region.” As June wore on, the police arrested, once more, the well-regarded human rights activist Nabeel Rajab on expression-related charges and placed him in solitary confinement. The regime forced Zainab Al-Khawaja, the daughter of a reformist already serving a life sentence, into exile following threats of re-arrest and indefinite detention. A week later, the government in Manama imposed travel bans on a group of activists planning to go to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, thus preventing them from being able to embarrass the kingdom. Fifty-three persons were stripped of citizenship, including leading religious figure Shaikh Isa Qassim. The majority of denaturalised persons are native Shia Bahrainis, “punished under terrorism laws for acts of protest.” The Ministry of Justice suspended the leading opposition group, Al Wefaq political society. The trials of the Bahraini pro-democracy movement continued throughout the summer.

As autumn rolled in, the new British naval base in Bahrain was finally ready for business. The Daily Telegraph, the newspaper of choice for human rights-abusing dictators wanting to get a voice in Britain, carried a piece from the Bahraini ambassador heralding the base. He said that it marked two hundred years of defence co-operation between Bahrain and Britain. It was, we were told, “a reaffirmation of the UK’s commitment to the Gulf, and to Bahrain in particular.” In reality, the base is tiny; it is a symbolic presence. When asked if British naval ships would ever be based there permanently, the Ministry of Defence was coy: “It is too early to say what the future scale of the Royal Navy’s deployment to the region will be and whether any further Royal Navy vessels will be permanently located” in Manama.

When the deal to build the base was developed in 10 Downing Street last year, well-connected sources told me that it came with two other “pillars”: the first was to encourage trade, and the second was to strengthen civil society. The latter has obviously not come to pass. Civil society is persecuted in Bahrain, persecution which is tacitly tolerated by the British Establishment. As for trade, the Telegraph piece boasted that, ” Bilateral trade between Bahrain and the UK generated £432 million in 2015 alone, an increase of 35 per cent on the previous year.” That isn’t an impressive figure, although for the Bahraini economy it is a great deal of money. For Britain, though, it doesn’t put the kingdom in our top twenty-five trading partners; it doesn’t even account for a hundredth, or perhaps a thousandth, of our global trade deals.

The real trade with Bahrain is in favours exchanged between the British Establishment and the Bahraini elite; a sense of colonial fraternity and loyalty, the last royals battling it out for each other. It is an alliance built on friendships between the Queen, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Edinburgh, and their various counterparts among the Bahraini royals. This is a partnership based on personalities. For sure, the defence establishment knows that it must keep the Bahrainis sweet to keep the Saudis and Emiratis sweet; we do have significant trade with them.

The Bahraini regime is more a friend of the British elite than an ally of the British people. Our solidarity should lie with the people of Bahrain, who need at least a constitutional monarchy on the road to a full democracy. The “progress” that Phillip Hammond spoke of is a demonstrable falsehood. It’s time for democratic and human rights progress in Bahrain; and the British Establishment must stop blocking it.

Source: Middle East Monitor