British foreign policy and the "Arab Spring" - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

6  Implications for British foreign policy elsewhere in the region

Reform in other MENA and Gulf states

Major protests


In February 2011 protests broke out in Yemen against the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled for over 30 years. Hundreds of people were killed in violence between security forces and demonstrators. President Saleh repeatedly promised to step down but backed out of deals brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council to remove him from power. In June, he was injured in an attack on his compound and flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment. He returned to Yemen in October, but under international pressure eventually agreed to step down in return for immunity, handing power to his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi in November 2011 and flying to the US for medical treatment. Mr Hadi led an interim national unity government until February 2012, when he was elected president in an uncontested election.


Protests took place in Bahrain between February and April 2011, which saw protestors occupying 'Pearl roundabout', the central square in the capital, and demanding greater freedom and political participation. The protests in Bahrain are widely considered to be more sectarian in nature than those elsewhere, as the Shia majority protested against the rule of a Sunni minority. The unrest was forcibly put down by the authorities, with controversial assistance from Saudi Arabian forces. There has been public and international outcry about the abuse of arrested protestors, and allegations of torture and deaths in custody. The arrests of medical personnel for treating protestors were particularly criticised. A number of opposition figures were arrested and sentenced. The King agreed to an International Commission to investigate the way the authorities dealt with the protestors, which reported in October 2011.

Reforming monarchies


King Abdullah responded to protests in Jordan by announcing reforms, including a move toward elected, rather than appointed, cabinets. He has also announced changes to the constitution based on the principles of a parliamentary democracy. Elections are due before the end of 2012, but ongoing disagreements about changes to electoral law have caused confusion and delay, and some parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have threatened a boycott. The King has also spoken out about corruption.


King Mohammed VI announced a programme of political reforms resulting in a new constitution on 1 July 2011. This has strengthened the power of parliament, allowing for a Prime Minister to be selected from the largest parliamentary party, strengthened human rights protections, and enshrined the independence of the judiciary. The King is described as the "supreme arbiter" of political and institutional life and remains head of the Ministerial Council, but the FCO describes the reforms as "an important step".

173.  The Arab Spring revolutions have had repercussions for the UK's foreign policy across the region. The FCO told us that although the full impact of the Arab Spring could not yet be addressed, "it is already clear that it has irrevocably changed political and social landscapes in the Arab world, impacting on UK policy in the wider region."[244] We asked the Minister for his comments on accusations that the UK is not implementing a consistently 'value based' human rights policy, and has been inconsistent in its responses to protests across the region. The Minister defended government policy, stating that:

Each of these countries is different.[...] The values may be the same, but the way in which we work must depend on the circumstances of the place. Almost without exception, no two places have given rise to exactly the same set of answers to help deal with the problems."[245]

However, the consistency of the Government's policies has come under particular scrutiny with regard to those states where uprisings have been met with force, as they were in Syria and Bahrain.


174.  While the achievements of pro-democratic forces in overthrowing authoritarian rule in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are celebrated, there is an ongoing and escalating conflict in Syria. The Syrian government's decision to respond to protestors with violent force has posed a major challenge to the international community over the last year. The country has descended into conflict between government and opposition forces, with the government standing accused of multiple human rights violations and responsibility for the deaths of thousands of civilians. The verification of casualties is extremely difficult and the UN stopped providing estimates in December 2011 when the death toll stood at 5,000. Estimates by various organisations now put the figure somewhere between 9,000 and 16,000 lives lost in the conflict. [246] The UK has been outspoken in its condemnation of the Assad regime and active in coordinating an international response, including through EU sanctions, and a Friends of Syria contact group. On 1 March 2012, the UK withdrew its Ambassador to Syria "on security grounds" and closed its Embassy.

175.  Efforts to reach consensus in the UN on Syria have proved significantly more difficult than for Libya. Russia and China have blocked a number of attempts to achieve a UN resolution condemning the Syrian government's actions, although they have both endorsed Kofi Annan's 'Six point plan' for the region, and for a UN observer mission to Syria. The Foreign Secretary criticised a veto by China and Russia of a draft resolution supported by the UK in February, calling it:

a grave error of judgement by the Governments of China and Russia. There is no need to mince words. Russia and China have twice vetoed reasonable and necessary action by the United Nations Security Council. Such vetoes are a betrayal of the Syrian people.[247]

176.  Many observers attribute Russian and Chinese reluctance to allow UN resolutions on Syria in part to a sense of betrayal over the perceived "stretching" of the Libya resolutions not just to protect civilians but to facilitate regime change in Libya.[248] At the time of the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya, then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called it "defective and flawed" and stated that it would allow a "crusade" in Libya. In September 2011, then-President Dmitry Medvedev said "we believe that the mandate granted under Resolution 1973 on Libya was exceeded. We would not want to see the same thing happen in Syria."[249] Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has echoed this view, stating that "The international community unfortunately did take sides in Libya and we would never allow the Security Council to authorise anything similar to what happened in Libya," adding that a second Libya "would be a disaster for the Arab world and for world politics".[250]

177.  However, criticism of the Russian position has grown ever louder, and many observers have attributed Russia's refusal to allow criticism of Syria in the UN as having more to do with Syria's long-standing status as Russia's only major ally in the region. The continued provision of Russian arms to the Syrian government has elicited further criticism, including public condemnation by the US Secretary of State.[251]

178.  Nevertheless, there is also considerably less enthusiasm internationally for a Libya-style intervention in Syria, because it is perceived to be a challenge of even greater complexity, and with much greater consequences for the region. Doubts also exist about the coherence of the opposition to the Assad regime. Following the suspension of the UN observer mission to Syria and a general acknowledgement that the Annan plan had stalled, a Syria Action Group meeting in Geneva on 30 June 2012 agreed a communiqué which:

  • identified steps and measures by the parties to secure full implementation of the six-point plan and UNSCRs 2042 and 2043, including an immediate cessation of violence in all its forms;
  • agreed on guidelines and principles for a political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people, and
  • agreed on actions they would take to implement the above in support of the Joint Special Envoy's efforts to facilitate a Syrian-led political process.

The Foreign Secretary commented that this was the result of a compromise and did not contain everything the UK had wanted, but it is "a step forward that is worth having. It is the first time that the P5 and other key players have spelled out in detail what transition should look like, including a transitional unity government involving the opposition and based on the principle of mutual consent. I welcome the fact that Russia and China have signed up to this."[252] The suffering and loss of life in Syria is unacceptable and we welcome the Government's efforts to reach a consensus on international action both within and outside the UN. However, we note with concern that the consequences of the perceived 'stretching' of the terms of the UN resolutions on Libya are now being visited on attempts to secure a UN Security Council resolution which takes a tougher line on Syria. There can be no certainty, however, that a less interventionist approach in Libya would necessarily have led to readier support from Russia or China for vigorous condemnation of President Assad's actions. On balance, therefore, we do not believe that the diplomatic stalemate over Syria should be seen as too high a price to pay for the scale of intervention in Libya.


179.  Bahrain's government also responded with force against its protestors between February and April 2011 and almost 100 protestors are thought to have died in the clashes. The government succeeded in quelling the protests with some controversial assistance from Saudi Arabia. Bahrain's treatment of the protestors was a particular dilemma for the UK, which counts Bahrain as an important ally in the region. The FCO stated that "the subsequent sentencing of opposition figures, the reports of deaths in custody, the allegations of torture, the denial of medical treatment and the censorship of the media are extremely troubling."[253] Bahrain has since been heavily criticised by NGOs for failing to introduce reforms, and continuing detention of human rights activists. The Minister agreed that progress was too slow, but he praised "the most extraordinary independent commission, which reported on it in public, in a manner previously unknown, I think, in the region. […] we can see a reform process that we are engaged in."[254] We conclude that the Government is right to support peaceful reform efforts where possible in Bahrain, but it must also be clear in its public criticism of human rights violations there if it is to avoid charges of hypocrisy.


180.   Although it did not result in large scale protests in every country in the region, the Arab Spring caused a number of governments in the region to institute reforms. The kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco have each announced a programme of reforms that includes some form of elections and strengthening of parliaments. Algeria's President Bouteflika has lifted its State of Emergency laws and embarked on reforms. The FCO told us that it is "still too early to assess whether declared reform programmes will deliver tangible change," but the UK is providing support to reforming countries through the Arab Partnership and multi-lateral channels.[255]

244   Ev 62 Back

245   Q147 Back

246   See, for example, "U.N. alarmed at rising death toll in Syria, Homs situation", Reuters, 19 June 2012, via website ( Back

247   HC Deb, 6 Feb 2012, Cols 23-24  Back

248   See, for instance, "Putin rejects intervention but fears civil war in Syria", New York Times, 2 June 2012. Back

249   Transcript of interview with Euronews TV Channel, 9 September 2011, via RT website ( Back

250   Transcript of interview with ABC Lateline programme, 31 January 2012, via ABC website ( Back

251   "US accuses Russia over Syria helicopters", Financial Times, 13 June 2012, via FT website ( Back

252   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, "Syria Action Group meeting in Geneva", Press release, 30 June 2012, via FCO website ( Back

253   Ev 81 Back

254   Q 147 Back

255   Ev 79  Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 19 July 2012