guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 11 January 2012 09.00 GMT
Ala’a Shehabi and Kristian Ulrichsen – 11/01/2012 – 12:25 p | Hits: 307
It’s no surprise the Countess of Wessex accepted jewellery from the Bahraini royal family: Britain has been its backbone for years News that the Countess of Wessex accepted gifts of jewellery from Bahrain’s royal family is not surprising. After almost 200 years of British-supported rule by the House of Khalifa, Bahrainis are no closer to human rights or democracy. Meanwhile, British firms continue to profit from the ongoing crackdown, as the British government seemingly turns a blind eye to continuing abuses.
Prince Charles rolled out the red carpet for the Sandhurst-trained king of Bahrain in December, soon followed by Prince Edward’s visit to Bahrain with his wife, the Countess of Wessex.
British officials maintain there is nothing the British government can do to pressure the Bahraini government to stop its human rights atrocities. In reality, there isn’t much that they want to do. But the UK arguably has more leverage over Bahrain’s ruling family than any other Arab autocracy, because of its long historical connections.
Britain has provided legitimacy for the Al Khalifa regime ever since it labelled them the “rulers of Bahrain” in an 1820 treaty. This arrangement assigned all power relating to foreign affairs to the British, who intervened twice to remove rulers they didn’t want, most recently in 1923.
A long line of British “advisers” stiffened the backbone of the Al Khalifa’s security services. Charles Belgrave lasted 30 years until being forced out by anti-Suez protests in 1956. Ian Henderson lasted 32 years, and became known as the “Butcher of Bahrain” for his alleged role in torturing opponents of the regime. John Yates is the latest incarnation of Britain’s advisory role in Bahrain’s security services.
The British eventually left Bahrain in 1971, much to the delight of the local population at gaining independence, and to the disappointment of the Al Khalifa. To this day, any celebration of 15 August, the date marking British departure, is forbidden.
Bahrain’s foreign minister (himself a member of the ruling family) has said that it would be wrong to use the word colonialism to describe Britain’s role in Bahrain. In reality, Britain was the ruling family’s backbone, and their protector in maintaining the status quo against the democratic aspirations of ordinary Bahrainis.
From providing the intelligence-gathering software to monitor social media and spy on activists, to arranging canine security for the interior ministry, tender records show how British companies, consultants and special advisers are raking in the cash from the security crackdown.
They include legal and PR services to advise on “reform” and minimise the fallout from continuing repression, as well as organising the Bahrain International Airshow.
Meanwhile, the British government’s objective is to increase its lucrative trade relations by projecting a “business as usual” image and keeping quiet about the appalling human rights abuses.
Much fanfare has been made about the promised “reforms” supposed to follow the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report on 23 November. Instead, there has been a renewed crackdown on protesters, with at least four further deaths and the near-continuous use of teargas.
This places Bahrain’s international partners in a very awkward position. Most did not abandon Bahrain when the pro-democracy uprising erupted last February, preferring a wait-and-see approach. Last summer saw companies and institutions cancel events such as the Bahrain Grand Prix, the Manama Security Dialogue and the Volvo Golf Champions tournament, as the unrest continued.
The BICI report raised hopes that the regime would turn over a new leaf and embark on meaningful reforms. But with little sign of that happening and amid an intensifying fog of teargas, the question for Bahrain’s partners is now one of where to go from here.
A delicate balance needs to be identified. Abandoning Bahrain altogether doubtlessly comes with risks, but when the British did so in 1971 they offered Bahrainis the opportunity of self-determination through a UN referendum, in which they voted to become an independent Arab state and paved the way for the first short-lived democratic experiment that lasted only two years before the Al Khalifa got fed up of it. This conditionality is not even on the table this time round, although combined with American leverage with the presence of the US fifth fleet, it could be.
Even through indirect influence, British companies should consider whether their continuing presence in Bahrain legitimises a regime that is fast becoming an international pariah. Their continuing involvement in providing the moral support and implicit endorsement of an authoritarian regime that is perceived to have relied on foreign (Saudi) forces to suppress its own citizens is deeply problematic.
Bahrainis are not calling for a Libya-style military intervention by Britain (nor by the United States, Iran or Saudi Arabia for that matter). Instead, they are asking the British government to uphold the values it claims to support, rather than upholding authoritarian rule. It should explicitly encourage democratic transition in the country rather than providing the Bahraini regime with with the moral and physical military support through arms and security training to violently suppress overwhelmingly peaceful protests. It is not in Britain’s interest to stand against the tide of the Arab uprisings.
Bahrainis see Britain as complicit in the crackdown by not doing enough to influence the ruling family to change its ways. It might be business as usual for the British government, but for Bahrainis facing the brutality of western-armed and trained police, it certainly is not. The Countess of Wessex may enjoy her diamonds, but they represent the blood and tears of a people who rose up in the Arab spring – only to be forsaken.