On the Side of Repression: UK Foreign Policy in the Gulf

by Daniel Wickham

As human rights NGOs go, Freedom House, with its reliance on federal funding and close links to the U.S. government, is far from impartial. Even so, its annual report on world freedom presents damning evidence against Western foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa. It shows that almost all British allied governments have stepped up their repression of popular democratic movements in the last year. The result has been a sharp decline in political freedom for the people of Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

The report also reveals a striking contrast between the deteriorating human rights conditions in the British-backed Gulf States and the impressive democratic gains made since the overthrow of British-allied dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. Both countries have subsequently been upgraded by Freedom House from 'not free' to 'partly free' since the revolutions in 2011.     

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia came under particularly harsh criticism in the report, scoring the lowest possible rating for freedom and civil liberties. The oil-rich kingdom ranked below the likes of Iran, Cuba and China, and was matched in the Middle East only by war-torn Syria.

But while our government rightly condemns the Assad regime in Syria, it remains a close and loyal friend to the Saudi royal family. In fact, Britain sells more weapons to our Saudi allies than to any other country in the world.    

Unfortunately, such double standards are far from exceptional. The UK is also allied to the regime in Bahrain, where as many as 60 people are reported to have been killed during a violent government crackdown on democracy protests. Some of these demonstrations have been crushed with the use of British arms. Britain continued to give military training to the Bahraini security forces months after the repression had began, and has trained Saudi troops in public order techniques.

Last year, David Cameron invited the King of Bahrain to Downing Street and urged his government to implement reforms—whilst continuing to license the sale of arms to Bahrain. But the Prime Minister’s efforts, such as they were, have come to nothing: the latest Freedom House shows, not improvements in Bahrain, but further decline. 

And in Kuwait, whose “democratic traditions” David Cameron once praised “as a model for others in the region”, protests were violently dispersed by security forces and then subsequently banned by the government. Unsurprisingly, Kuwait’s freedom rating was downgraded this year by Freedom House; the country remains a valued British ally.

In neighbouring Iraq, the Maliki government is developing a world class reputation for violent repression. In January five Sunni protesters were shot dead by government forces. But such brutality has not warranted an end to British arms sales, as the UK continues to give the new Iraqi government crucial support. 

Freedom House is also highly critical of the UAE, which now ranks as low as Iran for political freedom. The country is also Britain’s largest export partner in the Middle East and the fourth largest recipient of British arms in the world. Late last year it was rewarded with a joint defence partnership after David Cameron’s visit to the Gulf. Human rights, typically, were not on the Prime Minister’s agenda.

Mr. Cameron, of course, loves to make ringing declarations about his support for democracy in the Arab world. He told the UN back in 2011 that “we have a responsibility to stand up to regimes that persecute their people.” In the Arab world, dictators and monarchs continue to do exactly that—most of them with the support of the British government. Contrary to popular belief, these are not ‘rare exceptions’, they are the norm.  

If governments allied to Britain and the West have stepped up the repression of their people and curbed their freedoms, the converse is also true: those countries where British-allied dictators have been removed from power have become more free.

In Tunisia, for example, the pace of reform has been striking since the overthrow of our old ally Ben Ali. It is now one of the region’s freest countries, having been “transformed from a showcase for Arab autocracy into an electoral democracy.”

In Egypt, progress has been more modest since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the dictator once described by David Cameron during some of his worst atrocities as "a friend of Britain". But its setbacks have not stopped Freedom House from praising the democratic gains made over the last two years, and duly upgrading Egypt to 'partly free' for the first time in the country’s history.

The situation in both countries remains unstable. And true democracy, though it lingers on the horizon, still seems distant. But this much is clear: where the people have been victorious against their leaders, progress has been made. If there is one thing that the Freedom House report shows, it is that there is hope for a free and democratic Middle East.

Here in Britain, the real significance of the report is what it says about British foreign policy. Where our allies have been overthrown, countries have become freer, and where our allies continue to rule, countries have become less free. Measured against the facts, Mr. Cameron’s support for democracy amounts to, at best, empty rhetoric. But is it not now time for our government to practice what it preaches? Our Prime Minister is right. Britain does have a responsibility to “stand up to regimes that persecute their people.” If we care about freedom, Britain must make a stand, taking the side of the Arab people over their rulers, and sever our alliances with the repressive governments we have until now done nothing but strengthen.   

Daniel Wickham is a part-time youth worker and freelance journalist going on to study History and Politics at university. Follow him @DanielWickham93

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First published: 28 February, 2013

Category: Foreign policy

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