In February 2011 large scale protests inspired by the Arab Spring erupted against the Bahraini government, an ally of the United States and United Kingdom. Rooted in the country’s majority Shi’a population and propelled by socio-economic inequality and perceived government corruption, the protestors initially pushed for political reform and escalated soon thereafter to demands for regime change. Headed by the ruling Al Khalifa family, the Bahraini government has forcefully cracked down on the demonstrations, killing and injuring hundreds of people and arresting thousands.
Ian Sinclair asked Dr. Ala’a Shehabi, founder of the research and advocacy organisation Bahrain Watch, about the ongoing struggle between the opposition and the government, the November 2014 national elections in Bahrain and the role of the UK.
In January 2015, UK foreign secretary Philip Hammond MP praised Bahrain’s human rights record. Bahrain, he said, ‘is a country which is travelling in the right direction’ and ‘making significant reform’. What is the current human rights situation in Bahrain? Is the Bahraini government’s crackdown on peaceful protest continuing?
To understand the current human rights predicament in Bahrain is to understand the public advice that a British think-tank, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), gave in a parliamentary select committee investigation: ‘Suppressing dissent is not something most countries have problems with; it is doing so in an acceptable manner that poses the challenge, and that is where the UK's efforts in Bahrain can help’.
Shortly after foreign secretary Philip Hammond made the statement above, the Bahraini regime revoked the citizenship of 72 Bahrainis, the majority of whom were peaceful dissidents, rendering them stateless, and imprisoned one of the region’s most ardent human rights activists, Nabeel Rajab, for his critical tweets. Virtually every political leader of the major opposition groups in the country is behind bars. However, the population of political prisoners come from a wide spectrum of backgrounds including doctors, unionists, photographers, academics and clerics, as well as swathes of youths that comprise the 3000+ prison population today. A new report from Amnesty International, entitled ‘Behind the Rhetoric: Human rights abuses in Bahrain continue unabated’, details the most recent examples of egregious abuses in a country that Hammond praises ad nauseam.
The 200-year old relationship between the UK and Bahrain has withstood the test time of time, weathering cycles of popular uprisings over the past century and participating where necessary in their suppression. The two governments are inseparable, the relationship unquestionable, resilient and unconditional. Over the past financial year alone, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has directed more than £1.2 million towards its Bahraini allies. Effectively, British taxpayers’ money has been used to enable a police state to continuously upgrade its sophisticated and modern system of coercion and social control, a system that utilises the services of British and American security consultants like John Timoney and John Yates and highly sophisticated British-made surveillance technology like FinFisher. You can read about the wide spectrum of military, logistical and legal support that the Bahraini regime receives from the United Kingdom here.
In realpolitik terms, British interests are so intertwined with those of the Bahraini ruling family that the problem of human rights abuses has been cited by the British government as reason for policy continuity, in the form of yet more security consultants, mediators, legal support, and even military assistance and arms sales in the name of ‘reform’ and ‘the rule of law’ that always seem to entrench rather than alter the reality that Bahrainis have to live with. So far from the Bahraini regime’s repression causing any tension in relations with Britain, business between the two states is booming, and indeed new investment opportunities have been created.
Last month, Bahrain's main central prison was tear-gassed by police forces trying to quash a prison riot and credible reports of injuries amongst prisoners due to torture continue to emerge. The UK's HM Inspectorate of Prisons has been supposedly assisting 'reforming' the Bahraini prison system since at least 2013, yet during this period, reports of torture, abuse and miscarriages of justice have persisted unabated. Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch notes that ‘Bahrain’s problem is not a dysfunctional justice system, but rather a highly functional injustice system’. The unarmed opposition has been effectively throttled, unable to freely mobilise in ever more restricted spaces. Protests are outright banned in the majority of the country. The internet is monitored and censored. It is a stifling situation, in which a highly visible police state exerts heavy-handed and conspicuous control over a small territory and a small population.
But the state has failed to silence voices of dissent and stop the protests. The latest iteration of protests, now in their fifth year, has been the longest standing of the Arab uprisings and the most peaceful. With nearly 100 people killed directly by security forces, this is also the most bloody confrontation in modern Bahraini history. Back to RUSI’s advice: the ‘suppression of dissent’ has not been successful and, despite the UK’s help, it has not been done in a particularly ‘acceptable’ manner either.
In November 2014, Bahrain held parliamentary elections, which the main opposition groupings in Bahrain, including the largest, al-Wafeq, boycotted. The UK ambassador to Bahrain ‘welcomed’ the elections, noting that turnout was ‘encouraging’. What’s your take on the elections and the UK ambassador’s response?
The UK ambassador’s response is consistent with Britain’s policy of unshakeable support for the ruling family. The elections, essentially a liberal façade for an illiberal authoritarian state, were naturally celebrated and praised by the British, even when a majority boycotted them (the government claims 52 percent turnout, though no internationally independent monitors were allowed to oversee the vote) and they failed international standards of free and fair elections. Bahrain Watch documented the structural flaws in the electoral process and its consequent inability to produce any political change.
As punishment for this boycott, the ‘tolerated’ opposition—registered political groups that are negotiating and dialoguing with the regime, of whom President Obama said in 2011, ‘you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail’—have been effectively obliterated. The head of the main political society, al-Wefaq, was arrested and faces serious charges. All its rallies have been banned.
There is a massive PR drive by the regime to burnish its image, and the British ambassador frequently volunteers his services. Here he is sky-diving at the 2012 Bahrain Air Show. We at Bahrain Watch try to track and document a small sample of the PR contracts that have been made between the West and the Bahraini regime since 2011, amounting to more than £50 million.
Elections are only as important as the political change they are able to effect. In our case that is virtually zero, given the structural imbalance in the separation of powers (judicial, legislative, executive), a disempowered parliament, the gerrymandering of voting districts, and the lack of equal citizenship rights. The country is run by royal decree with the decorative features of a parliamentary democracy. The British ambassador applauds elections in which various forms of political coercion and harassment were used against those who boycotted, and thus is complicit in denying Bahrainis’ right to self-determination.
In December 2014 the UK announced it would be establishing a military base in Bahrain—‘the first permanent military base in the Middle East since it formally withdrew from the region in 1971’, according to the BBC. What effect do you think this news will have on Bahraini politics?
Bahrain has a special place in the heart of the British establishment. ‘We’re back’, read the headline in the Economist magazine when the new British base was announced last December. In fact, the British never really left Bahrain, even after ‘independence’. There is a revolving door of police officers, British private secretaries and former ambassadors that shift between positions in the Bahraini government. The island already hosts an American base and a GCC military base. Its political and economic sovereignty has effectively been forfeited in order to maintain the regime’s survival. In October 2012, while street protests and the police crackdown were raging, the Bahraini government agreed a UK-Bahrain Defence Cooperation Accord. A 2013 British parliamentary committee stated,
We are disappointed that the [British] Government has provided so little detail to Parliament and this Committee on its most recent defence accord with Bahrain. It was predictable that Bahrain would consider it a public signal of support and, if the Government did not mean it to send this message, it would have been more sensible to have immediately released information about the Accord and the UK's reasons for agreeing it at this time.
We remain in the dark.
Since the 2012 Accord, Bahraini protests have taken a markedly anti-British tone. Activists have sought to highlight the paradox of having a partner like Bahrain in the anti-ISIS coalition, when it has itself nurtured a sectarian pretext for its suppression of dissidents, who it has portrayed as a Shi'ite fifth column loyal to Iran. When human rights activist Nabeel Rajab tweeted that Bahrain’s security forces have served as an ‘ideological incubator’ for extremists, many of whom have gone on to join ISIS and several of whom have been killed or carried out suicide attacks, he was jailed and put on trial. As evidence he has provided samples of the books printed and distributed by the Bahrain Defence Force.
The Bahraini regime, which has already purchased nearly £70 million in arms from the UK, will be paying for the construction of the new British base. Ironically, when the Sheikhs offered to pay the British to keep their bases in the Gulf after their withdrawal in the 1970s, ‘they were brutally and gratuitously shot down by [British Defence Secretary Denis] Healey, who in a television interview retorted “that he was not ‘sort of a white slaver for Arab shaiks’”. British soldiers should not become ‘mercenaries for people who like to have British troops around”’, Healey said.
What explains the UK’s on-going support for the Bahraini government?
Next year, we will endure year-long celebrations of the bicentenary of UK-British relations. For most of this time—1816 to 1971—Bahrain was officially a British protectorate. In this era, the British effectively crystallised the political order and the Al Khalifa tribe’s hold on power, thwarting invaders, replacing rulers and assisting in repression of periodic uprisings—in effect stalling what could have become one of the few early democratisers in the Middle East. If the formal protectorate has now ended, British concern for Bahraini rulers' well-being persists. Thus, in December 2014 Foreign Secretary Hammond assured the Al Khalifa ruling family that, ‘Your security is our security; your prosperity is our prosperity; your stability is our stability’.
Of course, this praise is publicly reciprocated by the faithful ally. In 2013, the Bahraini King Hamad said,
On Britain’s withdrawal from the gulf—a unilateral decision—which my father said: ‘Why? No one asked you to go!’ In fact, for all practical and strategic purposes, the British presence has not changed and it remains such that we believe we shall never be without it.
His son, the Crown Prince, declared that he would be ‘personally eternally grateful’ for its role in Bahrain.
The principle factors are therefore historical continuity, privilege, and invitation, but to these we must add economic interests. Bahrain is now the pinnacle of a toxic combination of raging neoliberalism driven by Gulf, in particular Saudi, capital accumulation (in the form of massive real estate investment projects and financial aid package) and Western imperialism. We have three military bases, a British base, a GCC military base and of course, the US Fifth fleet. What could possibly shake a regime that has become so fortified with Western and Gulf support?
What should UK citizens concerned about the situation in Bahrain do?
Like many others, I have come to the slow realization of the sheer extent of British involvement in repression. I face things like British-manufactured spyware sent to my email by the Bahraini government. British ‘consultants in London and Manama [i.e. the capital of Bahrain] are paid millions to be the designated legal defence team of the regime, or to organize prestige events like Bahrain Air Show (based on the Farnborough Air Show) and international security conferences by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. In the UK, the Bahraini King still gets the red carpet rolled out and enjoys tea and horses at Windsor every year.
By the way, those Saudi tanks that you saw rolling into Bahrain on 14 March, 2011 were British. Even the police dogs we have are trained up by a British company called Top Dog.
Tony Blair, who never met a dodgy dictator he didn't like, visited Manama earlier this year and again last week. I once had a meeting about the planned Grand Prix in Bahrain with Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, who told me to stop hammering on about democracy, amongst many other outrageous comments that I have not gone on the record with. It isn’t so much business as usual as more business than usual.
Transnational solidarity is an important part of every struggle, and struggles are themselves stronger when they are part of a wider global movement. Citizens of Western countries whose governments have intervened destructively in foreign countries must interrogate this behaviour and challenge it. In the UK, this would mean initiating and supporting initiatives that question the FCO’s role in Bahrain and the British media's failure to cover a conflict in which the government is siding with a rogue state against its people, using British taxpayers’ money.
There are endless things people can do. Previous actions range from stopping arms shipments and exposing the ‘dark arts’ of PR companies for the regime to exposing UK assets belonging to the Bahrain ruling family. Others have taken legal action to lift the immunity of torturers, and to try to force the FCO to release secret documents from the 1970s that may demonstrate British complicity in Bahrain’s human rights abuses.
The British elections are coming up. Much work needs to be done to pressure the new government to change course.