What lies behind Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with Bahrain?


On Bahrain's Day of Rage on 14 February 2011. Peaceful protests were meant with violence by security forces. Wikipedia.org under a Creative Commons Licence

On 14 March 2011 Saudi Arabia sent hundreds of troops into Bahrain to help crush a growing protest movement. More than 30 people died, hundreds were injured and thousands arrested.

The response of the British government was to support and condone the action. We know that Saudi forces used armoured vehicles supplied by Britain as they entered the country, and we know that the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, was told about the plan in advance.

Britain’s military support for the Saudis has continued apace, with arms sales reaching US$5.8 billion. Some may recall the humiliating sight of Prince Charles doing a sword dance for the Saudi royal family in order to lubricate a deal on behalf of BAE Systems.

Arms sales to Bahrain have also increased, with the most recently published figures showing that Britain has licensed almost US$66 million worth of military and dual-use exports to the regime since 2012. These have included assault rifles, explosives, pistols, naval guns and sniper rifles.

As important, has been the  increase in political support. The House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee recently concluded: ‘Both the government and the opposition in Bahrain view UK defence sales as a signal of British support for the government’.

Britain’s relationship with the regime was embodied in GREAT British Week celebrations put on in January by the British embassy in Bahrain to mark what organizers called 200 years of ‘friendship and strong bilateral relations’. The event saw a 250-strong delegation including such luminaries as Prince Andrew, Philip Hammond, the Secretary of State for Defence, a host of weapons companies, such as Rolls Royce and BAE Systems, and even a big red London bus.

The festivities were a far cry from the experience of Bahraini citizens on the receiving end of government-sanctioned abuse. King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah of Bahrain has subsequently introduced a law that imposes jail sentences of up to seven years and a fine of up to 10,000 dinars (US $26,500) on any citizen who publicly insults him.

Unfortunately this was not an isolated event. GREAT British Week was only the latest in a long line of events promoted by the British government to strengthen its relationship with the dictatorship. Since then, Prince Charles has made a visit to the regime with Britain’s ambassador emphasizing that the UK-Bahrain relationship ‘is a warm, close and long-standing one’. Similarly, British Prime Minister David Cameron has met with the regime a number of times, last year receiving the King in Downing Street. After the meeting, Cameron used the opportunity to talk up a possible deal over Eurofighter jet sales, but said nothing of Bahrain’s human rights situation.

In its most recent ‘Human Rights and Democracy’ report, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) listed 27 countries of concern. Bahrain was not included. The report concluded that, despite all of the evidence on the contrary, human rights were improving in the Gulf country. The report concluded that: ‘The UK remains committed to providing the government of Bahrain with the support and assistance it requires’. The decision was widely criticized by human rights organizations, with Human Rights Watch saying ‘we believe that the FCO continues to overstate the extent of reform in Bahrain and downplay serious and continuing rights abuses there’.

Of course Britain is not alone in aligning itself with tyrants and ignoring human rights concerns. The most recent European arms exports report, which covers licences for 2012 shows that during the 2011 Saudi invasion into Bahrain EU member states licensed US $43.5 million worth of weapons to the regime. In 2012, despite the deteriorating human rights situation, this figure increased by over 150 per cent, resulting in almost US $111 million in licences. The profitable nature of these relationships has muted criticism, which has been instrumental in ensuring that pro-democracy activists in Bahrain are campaigning in an environment characterized by violence, intimidation and repression.

Earlier this year the Stop The Shipment campaign succeeded in halting a huge cargo of South Korean teargas canisters to Bahrain. Following international attention, South Korea’s arms export licensing agency Defense Acquisition Programme Administration (DAPA), announced that due to political instability and pressure from international rights groups it would cease all teargas exports to the regime.

This has set a precedent that needs to be built on with a European-wide embargo on all future arms sales to both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Only by putting a stop to the political and military support that is strengthening them can we ensure that when the next anniversary of the invasion comes the human rights situation and the prospects of their citizens will look stronger than today.

Andrew Smith is the spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade.