The UK's relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

4  Bilateral relations with Bahrain

Why is Bahrain important?

139.  Bahrain is the smallest, least populous and least oil-rich state in the region. It accounts for only one sixtieth of the Gulf's GDP,[273] and the FCO compared its population size of just 1.3 million people to that of Merseyside.[274] Yet Bahrain's location in the Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Iran means that it is of great strategic significance in terms of energy security, as it is critical to the protection of Gulf shipping lanes (through which 17 million barrels of oil are shipped per day) and global energy supplies. In addition, its religious mix, as well as its West-friendly stance, has given it a strategic importance to its region, and to the UK, that belies its small size.

140.  Recent events in Bahrain have served to both highlight and heighten Bahrain's importance to the region. Bahrain was the only Gulf state to experience significant protests during the Arab Spring in February and March 2011. The protestors had pro-democracy messages similar to those of successful uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. However, the protests also ultimately reflected and magnified existing sectarian tensions in Bahrain between the Sunni ruling Al Khalifa family and the majority Shia population. After an attempt by the Government to negotiate with the opposition broke down, and amid increasing disorder, Bahraini security forces ended the protests in a violent crackdown that was responsible for at least 35 deaths and many allegations of mistreatment and torture.[275] Despite an independent investigation of the allegations and more than one attempt to bring about reconciliation through a National Dialogue, a political resolution has remained elusive, and Bahrain has now suffered more than two years of continued sporadic confrontations between security forces and street protests, as well as political stalemate. The troubles have resulted in an increased polarization of society, growing sectarian grievances, and fears of radicalized extremist groups, with bombing attempts in 2012 and 2013.[276]

141.  The violent events of 2011 drew the world's attention to this small Gulf monarchy. It has remained the focus of substantial international scrutiny ever since. Of the submissions we received for this inquiry, it was telling that over 60% were focused entirely on Bahrain, and 74% included Bahrain.

A divided society

142.  The submissions we received described very different experiences of Bahrain. Some spoke of Bahrain's open and tolerant society relative to its neighbours in the Gulf, pointing to the high level of women's rights and freedom of religion, the way mixed communities of Sunni and Shia Muslims lived together, and its established political opposition and elected Lower House.[277] Some among these submissions tended to blame Iran and fundamentalist Shia religious groups for the problems since 2011, and expressed fear that the goal of the protests in 2011 and the continued unrest is to create an Iranian-style theocracy in Bahrain.[278] Others among our submissions drew our attention to a background of decades of political and economic discrimination by the Bahrain Sunni authorities against the majority Shia community, and evidence of very serious human rights abuses by the security services during the events of 2011 and in the two years since.[279] These submissions tended to emphasis the democratic goals of the protestors, and argued that the Bahraini authorities were deliberately stoking sectarian tensions in order to delegitimise the protestors.[280] These submissions gave an impression of a deeply divided community, poleaxed by a profound lack of trust between the ruling elite and the various opposition groups.

143.  As a Committee, it is not our role to attempt to resolve what Bahrain is going through, or to pronounce upon the various claims of those that have submitted evidence to us, but rather to comment on the UK's policy toward Bahrain to promote its reconciliation and protect British interests.

Close historical ties

144.  The UK's relationship with Bahrain is one of its oldest and closest in the Gulf. Bahrain became a British protectorate in 1820 and in the 1930s the UK moved its Gulf naval base to Bahrain, making it the centre of the UK's activity in the region. Unlike some of its neighbours, Bahrain remained a British protectorate until it became fully independent in 1971, following the wider British withdrawal from East of Suez. A UK- Bahrain1971 Friendship Treaty ensured that strong ties continued, particularly with regard to defence co-operation, and trade and investment between the two states.[281] The UK government describes Bahrain as a close friend and ally that shares "deep historical ties" with the UK. The British and Bahraini Royal families have close relations, and the current Bahraini King, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, was educated in England at a public school in Cambridge, and went on to study at Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot.[282]

145.  Witnesses generally endorsed the Government's description of its warm relationship with Bahrain: Sir Roger Tomkys described how, in the 1980s, "the British Ambassador was quite uniquely privileged in access and was confided in to a remarkable degree",[283] and considered that though relations had become less exclusive, they continued to be "exceptionally close and positive, with benefits to both parties".[284] However, some submissions painted a more negative picture of the UK's history in Bahrain. Kristian Coates Ulrichson told us that UK support for Bahrain's rulers had "time and again" enabled Bahrain's leaders to withstand domestic protests, and that the consequences of this prior support was that Bahrain's rulers now feel betrayed and angry when the UK criticises them, while its opposition is mistrustful of British intentions.[285]


146.  The Al Khalifa royal family has ruled Bahrain as a monarchy for more than two centuries. Upon Bahrain's independence in 1971, a constitution was agreed that provided for a legislative assembly, but this proved to be short-lived and was dissolved by the monarch in 1975. The last two decades have witnessed sporadic turbulence and protest: the 1990s saw a spate of anti-government disturbances, including violent demonstrations and a bombing, which were attributed to the disaffection of some in the Shia majority toward their Sunni ruling elite. The government conducted a strong security response and over 1,000 people were detained.[286] However, the accession of Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in 1999 signalled a change in direction: the new King enacted a number of significant reforms, including the release of political prisoners and return of exiles, the end of emergency laws and the introduction of a National Charter.[287]

147.  The 2002 constitution affirmed Bahrain as a constitutional monarchy and established a National Assembly consisting of an appointed Upper House and an elected Lower House, but gave the king power over the executive, legislative, and judicial authorities. Between 2002 and 2006, a limited process of liberalization took place, the National Assembly sat and, in 2005, the main political opposition group, Al Wefaq, took part in elections and won the largest grouping of MPs. Between 2007 and 2010, however, reforms were thought to have stalled, protests began once more and a violent security response saw Bahrain's standing in civil and political rights dropping once more (see table below; higher numbers denotes less free):

Source: Freedom House. Rankings based on monitoring of changes to civil and political rights (see p.17 for details)

The Arab Spring in Bahrain

148.  The Arab Spring triggered protests in Bahrain in February and March 2011, which culminated in the occupation of 'Pearl roundabout' in Manama. The protestors had pro-democracy messages similar to those of protestors in Egypt and elsewhere. However, the protests also ultimately reflected and magnified existing sectarian tensions in Bahrain between the Sunni rulingAl Khalifa family and the majority Shia population. The protests were ended by Bahraini security forces after Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops entered Bahrain in March 2011. There was outrage within and outside Bahrain at allegations of widespread human rights abuses that took place during the crackdown perpetrated by Bahraini security officials.[288]

The aftermath: an independent commission of inquiry

149.  In an unprecedented move, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa appointed a panel of human rights experts to a Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to examine the allegations of a brutal crackdown on protesters by Bahraini security forces. Chaired by Cherif Bassiouni, an Egyptian former war crimes lawyer for the UN, the Commission published a very critical report in November 2011, which described how prisoners had been hooded, whipped, beaten and subjected to electric-shock treatment, and stated that at least five prisoners had died under torture.[289] The Economist reported at the time that the report was "both a humiliation and a triumph", in that it provided a "devastating and embarrassing indictment" of Bahrain's security forces behaviour, but it was also a "vindication" of the King's claim that it would be an independent and genuine attempt to get at the truth, thereby undermining those who claimed that it would be a whitewash.[290] The King accepted the findings of the report and responded by promising reforms to protect freedom of speech and other basic rights, and to sack those officials who had abused their power. He said the report opened a "new page" in Bahrain's history.[291]

150.  In the two years since the BICI report was published, the political and human rights situation in Bahrain has remained near the top of the international agenda, and the domestic political situation remains unresolved. Although it has accepted many of the criticisms about its response to the protests in 2011, Bahrain has complained that the international community has misunderstood the situation in Bahrain. It argues that the opposition is not pro-democracy but is motivated by a sectarian agenda, and that the illegal demonstrations are inhibiting - and sometimes endangering - the lives of the ordinary public.[292] Some opposition protests have turned violent and there have even been bombings in Manama, for which the government has blamed Hezbollah.[293] Opposition groups claim that they are a democratic movement and street protests are responding to ongoing state-sponsored police violence and repression. As the situation has developed, more nuanced differences between groups have emerged, including Islamist and secular groups, violent and non violent, domestic or connected to expatriates or other groups abroad. The longer the conflict continues, the greater the likelihood that groups move to polarised extremes.

National dialogue

151.  In the first significant step forward since the talks between the Crown Prince and the opposition broke down in early 2011, in January 2013 the King invited opposition groups to a renewed national dialogue. Despite some scepticism among the opposition about the King's commitment to reform, talks began on 10 February with discussions between the representatives of parliament and 'loyalist' political groups, and a coalition of six opposition groups. The majority of the opposition (including the largest opposition group, Al Wefaq) wants a more representative constitutional monarchy, although some more radical elements of the opposition are calling for the downfall of the royal family. The dialogue has gone through multiple rounds of negotiation over the agenda and participants, and is widely seen as stalled. Al Wefaq has temporarily boycotted the Dialogue since September 2013 to protest at the arrest of one of its senior members.[294] Human Rights Watch has been very critical of the Dialogue, arguing that it must be premised on the release of some human rights activists.[295]


152.  The violent events in Bahrain presented a particular dilemma for the UK. Bahrain is considered a friendly state and long-standing ally, and the Foreign Secretary had visited Bahrain and held talks with the King just days before the protests began in February 2011.[296] However, at the height of the Arab Spring in early 2011, there was immense pressure on Western governments to support democratic movements and the UK had voiced significant support for protestors elsewhere in the region.

153.  The Government responded publicly to the situation in Bahrain with a mixture of concern about the action of the security services and support for the Bahraini authorities by distinguishing Bahrain as a reforming state. Following the Bahraini security services' first violent clashes with protestors in February 2011, the Prime Minister spoke by phone to King Hamad on 20 February and his office put out the following statement:

The Prime Minister stressed the importance of responding to peaceful protest through reform, not repression. The violence of previous days had been deeply concerning. As a friend of Bahrain, the Prime Minister said that we supported the process of national dialogue which the Bahraini Government had initiated.[297]

At the same time, the Foreign Secretary told the House that whilst it was important to express the UK's "gravest concerns", "it is also important to recognise that important reforms have taken place in Bahrain and that the King of Bahrain pledged himself in the last week to further such reforms."[298] After negotiations between the Government and opposition broke down in March 2011 and the Bahraini authorities began to enact a further security crackdown, the UK expressed itself in stronger terms: the Prime Minister spoke by phone to King Hamad on 16 March 2011 and "expressed his serious concern at the deteriorating situation on the ground and called for restraint on all sides",[299] and the Foreign Secretary spoke to his Bahraini counterpart, Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohamed Al Khalifa. [300]

154.  Our witnesses told us that the UK's criticism was poorly received in Bahrain, and we heard anecdotally that this displeasure had prejudiced the access that the then-British Ambassador, Jamie Bowden, had to the Bahraini leadership. Dr Eyal described a feeling of disappointment among the Bahraini ruling family:

every time in Bahrain I got—and I think our Embassy got as well—a sort of feeling of sorrow from the local leaders. It was as though they were saying, "We did not expect it from you. We expected you—the Brits—to support us to the hilt," precisely because of the historic relationship.[301]

However, following the end of the main protests in March 2011, and the launch of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) and a National Dialogue, relations between the UK and Bahrain appeared gradually to return to their former level of cooperation and engagement.[302] The Foreign Secretary met the Crown Prince of Bahrain in May 2011, and expressed support for the dialogue process.[303] Mr Burt returned to visit Bahrain in December 2011.[304] Throughout 2012, the UK hosted high-level delegations including the King, the Crown Prince, and the Ministers for Justice, Human Rights, and the Interior.

155.  In November 2012, during a visit to London by the Bahrain Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, the UK and Bahrain agreed to establish a new ministerial-level dialogue. This Joint Working Group was created to provide a forum to discuss "key regional issues such as Syria, Iran, and the impact of the Arab Spring," as well as providing a forum for the UK to raise concerns and discuss means of support.[305] Mr Burt told us that this was part of the wider Gulf Initiative to establish bilateral ties with each Gulf State, which has seen it launch similar cooperation initiatives with the UAE, Oman and Kuwait (see paragraph 13). Its inaugural meeting took place in Bahrain on 11 March 2013 and was attended by Mr Burt and hosted by Bahrain's Minister for Foreign Affairs. The joint statement released after the working group underlined the "close and open relationship between Bahrain and the UK" and said that the two sides had discussed co-operation on key trade and investment opportunities, co-operation and assistance on security and counter-terrorism, and Bahrain's reform programme, including UK support on the implementation of the BICI and UPR recommendations.[306] Commenting on the Agreement, Mr Burt said

It represents a very supportive relationship between the United Kingdom and Bahrain, which we make no secret of. [...] Bahrain was looking to formalise the bilateral discussions that we have right across the board. We have chosen to do it through the working group and the defence accord.[307]

156.  The resumption of contact and support appears to have been welcomed by Bahrain's rulers. The Foreign Secretary visited Bahrain for the first time since the protests in December 2012 for the resumption of the annual IISS Manama Dialogue (which had been suspended in 2011), a forum for governments and non-government experts to discuss regional security issues in the Middle East. The UK received conspicuous praise at the same conference in a speech by Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman:

I would in particular like to thank the diplomats, the leadership and the government of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of the UK. You have stood head and shoulders above others. You have engaged all stakeholders. You have kept the door open to all sides in what was a very difficult and sometimes unclear situation. Your engagement and your help in police reform and judicial reform, and your direct engagement with the leadership of the Kingdom of Bahrain and with members of the opposition, has saved lives, and for that I will be personally eternally grateful. Thank you.[308]

157.  On our visit to Manama we observed that the British Ambassador, Iain Lindsay, and the British embassy had comfortable access to Bahrain's leadership at its highest levels. The UK's two recent ambassadors to Bahrain have taken different approaches to their work in response to the situation in Bahrain at the time of their tenure. We commend the energy that both former Ambassador Jamie Bowden and current Ambassador Iain Lindsay have brought to this role in a difficult situation.


158.  We heard significant criticism of the UK's response to the violent events in 2011 and its ongoing relationship with Bahrain, though some of it was contradictory. Several submissions to our inquiry criticised the UK for not supporting the Bahraini government enough during this difficult time. One cited the UK's provision of two chartered flights out of Bahrain for British citizens wishing to escape the violence as a sign of the UK's over-reaction and misunderstanding of the nature of the protests in Bahrain (they returned almost empty).[309] However, others among our witnesses have considered the UK to be too supportive, and have unfavourably compared the UK's carefully calibrated response in Bahrain with the strong position it has held in relation to Arab Spring protests elsewhere in the region, particularly in Libya.[310] Jane Kinninmont was critical of the fact that the UK was close to Bahrain, commenting that there had been some "self-congratulation about the fact that the Crown Prince selected the UK for particular praise in his speech" and adding:

it seems interesting that now Britain is probably Bahrain's closest non-Arab ally. […] It is also puzzling to see how the relationship has re-emerged so strongly when the relations were tested by the uprising and by the crack-down.[311]

159.  Not all witnesses were critical, however. Some pointed out that a stable Bahrain was an important British goal and in line with our national interests. Sir Roger Tomkys said:

our greatest interest there is the continuing stability and prosperity of Bahrain because, if it fails, there would be a knock-on effect with the intervention of Saudi Arabia, and consequences that would be hard to predict, but very unattractive.[312]

The FCO has responded to criticism of its close relationship with Bahrain by arguing that Bahrain is a close friend and ally, and that the UK's close relationship had allowed it to support human rights and reform in Bahrain. The Government's webpage on Bahrain emphasises the breadth of the UK's relationship, stating that the UK aims to:

help Bahrain to return to a stable and reformist state with a good human rights record, while protecting our significant defence and security interests and enhancing our bilateral relationship.[313]

160.  The aggressive manner in the way that the Bahraini security forces handled events in 2011 has deeply damaged Bahrain's international reputation, and complicated its relationships with Western governments, including the UK. Bahrain's failure quickly to implement the important and practical recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry has created further difficulties in its relationship with the UK, and has squandered the good faith and goodwill that the BICI could have helped to restore.

161.  The BICI report made 26 recommendations relating to independent institutions to address past problems and accountability, and to improve court procedures, as well as relating to the use of force, arrest, treatment of persons in custody, detention and prosecution in connection with the freedom of expression, assembly and association; the reinstatement of students and fired employees for taking part in protests; media issues. In our view the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry made sensible recommendations and the Bahrain government's failure to implement them fully is inexplicable. If it had done so, if would have been easier for the international community as a whole to engage with the Bahraini leadership.

162.  The Government was correct to take a firm line in 2011 urging an end to the unacceptable violence and expressing its deep concern to the Bahraini authorities. The Government's efforts to re-establish close relations since 2011 appear to have been successful, and the UK is now well placed to help Bahrain as it shapes its future. The Government must, however, continue to monitor its policies in respect to Bahrain closely.

People to people contact and public opinion

163.  The historical connection between the UK and Bahrain has resulted in substantial contact between nationals and a sense of strong links and deep cultural ties between the two states. This warm feeling appears to be most immediately evident in Bahrain, which the UK's ambassador to Bahrain Iain Lindsay describes as "incredibly anglophile".[314] However, some elements of Britain's history in Bahrain have left a more negative view of the UK. Several submissions from NGOs and individuals in the UK and Bahrain mentioned the British former security officer Ian Henderson, who took over the running of the Bahraini security services in 1981.[315] Rosemary Hollis told us that Mr Henderson "has a reputation for being particularly nasty in the handling of detainees. Political dissent was not something that he encouraged the Bahrainis to tolerate."[316] The UK is also still seen by many as exerting considerable influence in Bahrain 'behind the scenes', which is resented by some.[317] However, the presence of both long-term and more recent opposition figures in London suggests that the UK is not generally disliked or feared by the Bahraini opposition, or the broader society in Bahrain.

164.  Contact from the British side has been in part maintained by a substantial British expatriate community in Bahrain. The UK constitutes the largest western expatriate community (8,000 nationals in 2012) and a vocal and prominent presence in society.[318] British nationals appear to have found Bahrain a pleasant home: we received several submissions from current and former British expatriates in Bahrain who spoke positively of their warm reception in Bahrain, and of the open and tolerant society they found there, particularly in comparison to other Gulf States.[319]

165.  In the aftermath of 2011, public opinion on both sides appears to have become more negative. In the UK, Bahrain has received heavy criticism in Parliament, the media, and by British NGOs for its crackdown on protestors and ongoing failure to implement reforms. In Bahrain, the UK has been criticised by both sides of the divide, as either being too critical or not critical enough: Dr Eyal told us that "the media in Bahrain is almost constantly hostile to us, […] We are not seen as their stalwart supporters."[320] However, we note that criticism of the UK is not new in Bahrain: Robin Lamb told us that while he was ambassador he experienced public criticism and was even censured by the National Assembly.[321] Nor is the UK alone in this regard: the US ambassador to Bahrain was publicly criticised by Bahraini Parliamentarians in March 2013 for 'interference' in Bahrain's internal affairs.[322]


166.  The British Embassy has a high profile in Bahrain. On our visit we saw that the ambassador was featured prominently in the English-language media, and that his public comments on the political situation in Bahrain were known and used as a subject of discussion by the people we met at all levels of the government. As in Saudi Arabia, the British Embassy in Bahrain also has a website, Facebook page and Twitter feed. The UK's high profile can mean that the embassy in Bahrain can be subject to intense scrutiny and criticism. When it published two articles on its website written by pro-government supporters that boasted about Bahrain's human rights record for World Press Freedom Day in May 2013, it attracted international comment and criticism.[323] The FCO later clarified that the views expressed in the blogs were "definitely not those of the UK Government."[324]

167.  While criticism of the UK in Bahrain is not new, it is a cause of concern. The UK's high profile in Bahrain is an asset for the UK that can be used to influence and support Bahrain's reform, but it also makes British actions and statements a target for scrutiny and criticism. Given the detailed attention that statements and actions by the British Embassy receive, the UK must be extremely careful about the message it sends to the broader public in Bahrain and internationally as it positions itself as a "critical friend" to Bahrain. We conclude that the UK Government is correct to try to use its high profile and influence to good effect to support evolutionary reform in Bahrain and to act as a critical friend.

British Council

168.  The British Council told us that it had a strong presence and established networks in Bahrain, where it has been operating since 1959. Proficiency in English "is seen as crucial to employability". Its teaching centre in Manama has almost 2,000 students per term and it holds community events to encourage reading. The British Council also supports the education and Further and Higher Education sectors in Bahrain by supporting links between schools, colleges and universities in the UK and Bahrain. In addition to its language programme, the Council supports art programmes, including street art and pioneering art therapy for the disabled "in order to harness the many creative energies released by recent events in the country".[325]

169.  The British Council emphasised that it "includes every shade of political and religious affiliation" and that its history and network gives it a special position in Bahrain in a society that is "increasingly divided along sectarian lines":

Our position in Bahrain as an honest broker allows us to provide a safe, neutral place for people from differing political and religious traditions to meet, learn and debate together. Even when tensions were at the highest our classrooms remained full and calm and our Kids Read events open and inclusive to all sides.[326]

We visited the British Council in Manama, where it was located in a predominantly Shia neighbourhood. The Council was keenly aware of the ethnic and religious make-up of its student body, and is now taking steps to open a second, centre in an area where it could reach a more mixed population.

170.  The British Council provides a valuable vehicle for the promotion of British values and the provision of useful skills in Bahrain. We particularly welcome its commitment to learning and debate, which is a critical service in a society that appears to be becoming more divided. We recommend that in response to this report the Government provide details on what skills training the British Council is providing in Bahrain in order to enhance their students' skills to participate more effectively in the political process of evolutionary reform and change.

Trade and commercial relations


171.  As Bahrain has relatively few oil and gas reserves, it has developed the most diversified economy of all the Gulf States, with lower taxes and a more robust regulatory structure than many of its neighbours, making it an investment destination and a major trading hub and financial centre in the Middle East. It is connected by a 25 km causeway to Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province, and Bahrain particularly markets itself as a 'Gateway' into the Saudi and other Gulf markets. Bahrain has an established financial services sector with particular expertise in Islamic finance, and overall financial services account for 25% of GDP. Oil production now comprises only 13% of Bahrain's GDP, although hydrocarbons still provide the largest share of government revenue.[327]

172.  Bahrain faces some of the same challenges as other Gulf States, including a very young population (65% of the population is under 25 years old), and a reliance on migrant labour: expatriates make up almost half of its population. It is also a very unequal society with much of its wealth heavily concentrated at the top.[328] Bahrain's economy was also affected by the unrest in 2011, with tourism receipts falling, and a number of businesses closing and/ or relocating to other parts of the Gulf.[329] Formula 1 returned in 2012 but it is only recently that tourism has shown a modest increase, with most visitors coming from Saudi Arabia to take advantage of Bahrain's more liberal laws with regard to entertainment. Nevertheless, Bahrain saw GDP growth of 3.4% in 2012, and growth is forecast to continue to grow over the next five years.[330] In addition, it is expected to benefit from a $10 billion economic package pledged by the GCC over the next ten years, which should maintain economic growth and allow for increased infrastructure spending by the government.
International Monetary Fund

Bahrain: Selected Economic Indicators, 2008-12
2008 20092010 2011 Prel. 2012
(Percent change, unless otherwise indicated)
Production and prices
Real GDP6.3 3.24.7 2.1 4.8
Real oil GDP1 0.4-0.8 1.83.4 -8.5
Real non-oil GDP7.2 3.85.2 1.9 6.6
Nominal GDP (billions of US$) 22.219.3 21.525.9 27.1
Consumer price index (period average) 3.52.8 2.0-0.4 2.8
(Percent of GDP, unless otherwise indicated)
Financial variables
Total revenue32.4 23.827.2 29.2 29.9
Of which: oil revenue 27.719.8 23.225.7 26.1
Total Expenditure24.7 28.732.6 29.3 31.0
Overall fiscal balance 4.9-6.6 -7.0-1.7 -2.6
Change in broad money (percent) 18.45.8 10.53.4 9.0
(Billions of US$, unless otherwise indicated)
External sector
Exports17.3 11.913.6 19.6 19.8
Of which: Oil and refined products 13.88.9 10.215.5 15.2
Imports-14.2 -9.6-11.2 -12.1 -13.2
Current account balance 2.30.6 0.83.2 2.2
Percent of GDP10.2 2.93.6 12.6 8.2
Gross official reserves (end of period) 3.83.5 4.84.2 4.9
Months of imports2 4.13.3 4.23.4 4.0
Months of imports (excluding crude oil imports)2,3 5.46.3 7.88.1 9.8
Real effective exchange rate 15.44.5 -2.4-5.7 1.5
Sources: Bahraini authorities; and IMF staff estimates.

1 Includes crude oil and gas.

2 Imports of goods and non-factor services for the following year.

3 All imported crude oil is exported after refining.


173.  Bahrain is one of the UK's smallest but fastest-growing export markets in the Gulf, with a 39% increase in trade between 2009 and 2012, bringing the current total bilateral trade of goods and services to £884 million.[331] The FCO told us that after a "flat" 2011, UK imports from Bahrain had increased in 2012 to $195 million, and that the Government continued to look for opportunities to increase trade.[332] The UKTI has identified Bahrain as holding opportunities in financial and professional services; education and training; infrastructure; healthcare; business services; downstream manufacturing; and logistics.[333] In addition, the FCO said that the GCC's $10 billion development fund is expected to result in further opportunities for the UK to support Bahrain's re-development plans and benefit from its spending on infrastructure. Iain Lindsay, British Ambassador to Bahrain, told a recent business conference that on the UK's historical share of major contracts, the Government estimates that the five biggest projects alone could be worth around £1 billion to UK business.[334]

174.  Nevertheless, our trade witnesses described a hesitancy on the part of UK businesses to pursue trade opportunities with Bahrain due to concerns about stability since 2011. David Lloyd told us that the Middle East Association had cancelled a planned trade delegation to Bahrain in December 2012 due to lack of participants.[335] However, Iain Lindsay was more positive about the outlook, noting in a 2013 UKTI Doing Business in Bahrain brochure that Bahrain has witnessed a steady increase in commercial and investor confidence across key sectors, including tourism and retail "both of which reflect a return in consumer confidence." He added that:

The Bahraini authorities want to see more British business in Bahrain. There are good opportunities for British companies here, with British products and expertise held in high esteem.[336]

175.  The UK is well placed to capitalise on its business reputation in Bahrain as it begins large-scale infrastructure spending.


176.  As a small state with a limited defence budget, Bahrain is at present not a major market for the British defence industry. Nevertheless, the UK previously designated Bahrain as a key market for arms exports[337] and, prior to 2011, the Government had granted export licences for equipment including tear gas and crowd control ammunition, equipment for aircraft cannons, assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles and sub-machine guns.[338]

177.  After the outbreak of violence in Bahrain, the Government reviewed its export licences for military and dual-use equipment and revoked 23 individual export licences and removed Bahrain from 18 open licences, explaining:

The licences revoked covered equipment which could be used for riot control destined for end users including the Police, Ministry of Interior, the Bahrain National Guard and the Bahrain Defence Force (BDF). Licences which were not revoked included goods such as aircraft components for the BDF. [339]

The Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) recorded 105 extant export licences for Bahrain as of May 2013. Limitations on export licences continue to be in force, and the Foreign Secretary told the CAEC in December 2012 that "there have been export licence applications in relation to Bahrain that we have recently refused, or are in the process of refusing."[340] Nonetheless, the Campaign Against Arms Trade has estimated that the UK granted almost £8 million of export licences for Bahrain in 2012.[341] In August 2013 during a visit to the UK of Bahrain's King Hamad, BAE announced that Bahrain had expressed an interest in the Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft and said that the British Government was leading "very early discussions".[342]

178.  Several of our witnesses considered the revocation of export licences to be of little significance. Dr Eyal took the view that the UK's portion of the Bahrain defence market was so small that it was "not a big issue",[343] while Rosemary Hollis suggested that the withdrawal was somewhat for the sake of appearances, telling us that "the Bahrainis could not survive without the Saudis, so it makes absolutely no difference whether the British withdraw these licences or not."[344] However, for some of our witnesses the continued sales sent a symbolic message of support to the Bahraini government with which they disagreed. In November 2011, Maryam Alkhawaja, Interim President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, particularly criticised the sales:

If you're really serious about pushing through these values, of human rights and democracy and respecting citizens, you shouldn't be selling arms to a country that uses them against civilians. And I think that's a message that needs to be sent very clearly to the UK government along with the others: stop the arms sales, now.[345]

The UK Government denies that there has been any evidence of equipment sold by the UK being used in the security crackdown in Bahrain. However, in her evidence to us, Maryam Alkhawaja argued that defence sales were nonetheless encouraging the Bahraini Government to "continue with their crackdown, because they see this as being business as usual."[346]


179.  An issue that received particular attention and criticism in submissions to this inquiry was allegations regarding the export by British companies of surveillance technology to Bahrain. Bahrain Watch submitted detailed evidence claiming to demonstrate that UK-based Gamma International had sold surveillance technology to Bahraini authorities, who had used it to monitor Bahraini activists, including one activist based in the UK (Dr Ala'a Shehabi).[347] Gamma International denies that it sold this technology to Bahrain, and has speculated that Bahrain might have procured a pirated version.[348] The UK Government has confirmed that such technology would require an export licence, and that none had been requested or granted.[349] However, the Government has since declined to make any more information public about any investigation it has conducted into the allegations, for which a group of NGOs, including Privacy International, has secured a Judicial Review.[350] The hearing is set for early next year.

180.  The Government should not grant any licence that could contribute to internal repression and should make decisions on other export licences on a case-by-case basis, ensuring the strict implementation of existing policies. The Government should provide in response to this report further evidence that it is adhering in practice to its own strict policies with regard to British defence equipment sold to Bahrain including any evidence gathered by end-use monitoring.

181.  Both the government and the opposition in Bahrain view UK defence sales as a signal of British support for the government. The UK Government should take this into account when considering high-profile sales, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, to Bahrain.

Defence and security relationship

182.  Bahrain plays a key role in regional security, largely by merit of its location in the Arabian Gulf and its openness to international partners and coalition operations. Bahrain's position between Saudi Arabia and Iran means that it is of great strategic significance in terms of energy security, as it is critical to the protection of Gulf shipping lanes (through which 17 million barrels of oil are shipped per day) and global energy supplies. Bahrain also hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, as well as the Combined Maritime Forces' base in the Gulf, a multi-national naval partnership focused on defeating terrorism, preventing piracy, encouraging regional cooperation, and promoting a safe maritime environment. In 2002, President George W. Bush designated Bahrain as a major non-NATO ally of the United States, and the US has provided significant defence support and funding to Bahrain.

183.  Bahrain is a regular participant in multilateral action, contributing to Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991 and various multi-lateral naval operations, as well as providing approximately 100 personnel in support of NATO forces in International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. It also regularly conducts joint exercises with a number of western powers, including the US and UK. Bahrain was the first Arab state to lead a Coalition Task Force patrolling the Gulf and has supported the coalition counter-piracy mission with a deployment of its flagship.


184.  The UK's defence relationship with Bahrain stretches back over almost 200 years to when Bahrain first became a British protectorate and the UK took on responsibility for its defence and security. When the UK withdrew from Bahrain in 1971, the defence relationship continued under the new 'Friendship Treaty', and the Government told us that Bahrain is an important partner for the UK in the region, where it "plays a key part in our strategic defence, has given the UK support with basing rights and helped us in relation to Afghanistan."[351] As of December 2012, the UK had 20 military personnel (naval) stationed in Bahrain, working on "Bi-lateral engagement; wider regional engagement; attaché and defence section Support; defence sales; Training Naval Support; support to Operations; counter terrorism".[352]

185.  As well as hosting the US base, Bahrain is also home to the UK Maritime Component Command (UKMCC). The Government told us that this gives

the Royal Navy the ability to operate not only in the Gulf but well beyond to the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and North West Indian Ocean. Bahrain also provides vital basing for four UK mine-hunters in Al-Mina port, stationed in the Gulf to keep the Strait of Hormuz clear.[353]

According to RUSI, the UK-Bahrain defence relationship is "crucial to the UK's pursuit of its national strategic aims."[354] It is also favourable to the UK, as the UK is afforded special treatment in Bahrain beyond what it receives from others in the region:

Bahrain welcomes British naval vessels into its waters and port facilities, allows the RAF to use its airfields, and routinely waives the sorts of protocols Britain would have to follow before entering the national territory of certain of its neighbours. Bahrain also supplies the UK with intelligence, in particular though not exclusively in connection with counter-terrorism. In a sense, the kingdom is a substitute for an aircraft carrier permanently stationed in the Gulf.[355]

186.  Successive generations of Bahraini officers have been trained by the British armed forces. The UK routinely hosts Bahraini-funded students at Sandhurst, Cranwell and Dartmouth and, according to the FCO, provides in-country UK Officer Training Programmes "to the same high standards received by UK armed forces, which helps ensure professionally-trained armed forces and raises awareness of human rights." [356]


187.  One of our witnesses suggested that this solid defence relationship was nevertheless susceptible to pressure: Jane Kinninmont told us that Bahrain had threatened to withdraw this defence co-operation with the UK in 2011 as a way to "push back" strongly against the UK's criticism of its handling of protests.[357] Dr Murrison, Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, declined to confirm or deny whether Bahraini authorities had made this threat, however, he commented that:

We would manage; we always do. However, Bahrain is very important to us. It is a longstanding friend and ally, and it has been extremely helpful in providing basing and overflight facilities. Our defence engagement with Bahrain is very strong. […] Bahrain is extremely important to us, but in the event that it was not there, we would clearly have to seek other alliances and partnerships. However, Bahrain is one of our closest relationships in that region, and we are very grateful to the Bahrainis for their hospitality and accommodation.[358]

188.  All our witnesses agreed that Bahrain provided a valuable partnership in terms of defence, but most also said that this cooperation was not irreplaceable. RUSI told us that without Bahrain's cooperation, "the UK's strategic flexibility would be curtailed". It argued however that, although this gave Bahrain a degree of leverage, "one must not jump to the conclusion that British access concerns dominate policy-making. The relationship is much more robust than that."[359] Dr Eyal set out the consequences if defence cooperation were to be withdrawn by either side:

There are other countries in the region that can fulfil the same job, assuming that the Government wants to have a British military presence in the region, which the current Government has indicated it does. However, it would be costly. It would have to be negotiated, and it would have to be negotiated for the time when none of the countries of the region want to negotiate basing agreements if they can avoid it, for political reasons. It is important in that respect.[360]

Dr Eyal also pointed out that the defence relationship with the UK was important for the Bahrainis, in particular as a counterbalance to "the overwhelming influence of Saudi Arabia."[361]

UK-Bahrain Defence Cooperation Accord

189.  In a further development of the UK-Bahrain defence relationship, in October 2012, the Government agreed a UK-Bahrain Defence Cooperation Accord (DCA), which was signed in London during the visit of Bahraini Foreign Minister HE Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa. The Foreign Secretary told the Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) that the Accord "complements existing agreements":[362]

It provides a framework for current and future defence activity with Bahrain, including training and capacity-building, partly in order to enhance the stability of the whole region. [...] we have defence assets of our own stationed in Bahrain, our minesweepers in particular, which are responsible in any crisis for maintaining freedom of navigation in the Gulf, are physically based in Bahrain. We need regularly to update and amend our defence cooperation arrangements. [363]

He added that the Accord "does not change our approach to export licensing in any way."[364]

190.  While the UK Government appeared to give the Accord the minimum of publicity, the Bahraini authorities published a news story that quoted the Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, hailing it as "mirroring deep-rooted historic relations bonding Bahrain and the UK".[365] The UK Government has since acknowledged the agreement though it has declined to publish it, stating that it is not standard practice to publish such agreements with any country, for reasons of confidentiality and respect for the other country. When he appeared before us, Dr Murrison denied that the timing of the Accord was a signal of support, telling us that it was rather "part of our routine, ongoing engagement with Bahrain."[366] However, Dr Eyal commented that for the UK, "When you have street demonstrations, people being arrested and human rights violations being reported, it is a bit embarrassing to sign an agreement with that country, especially on a military subject." He said that from the Bahraini perspective "it is in their interest [...] to suggest that their country is not being ostracised—that its traditional allies are standing by it. That is part of the narrative." [367] He added that, in private, "they know where we stand."[368]

191.  In its earlier written submission to the Committee's inquiry, the Government rejected outside criticism of its co-operation with the Bahraini armed forces, stating that it "firmly believes that continued engagement provides the opportunity to support reform within the Bahraini military and beyond."[369] Defending the Accord, the Foreign Secretary pointed out that "To the extent that the relationship includes training and capacity building, that might have benefits in the human rights area. After all, it is often argued by those in authority in Bahrain that what they need is their security forces to know what to do, to be trained in how to handle civil disorder."[370] RUSI's written submission provided some support for the Government's position:

[…] there is little doubt that training received from the UK is more likely to promote a measured and discriminating approach to crowd control - something in line with British policing standards - than training received from Saudi Arabia or any number of other providers. 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."[371]

192.  Bahrain provides the UK with an immensely valuable home in the Gulf and the defence co-operation is mutually beneficial. Ending defence co-operation and naval basing in Bahrain and seeking a substitute would be an extremely costly and difficult step.

193.  We recommend that UK-supplied training, delivered in the UK or Bahrain, should always include human rights elements, and that the Government should set out in response to this report the elements included in its each of the training programmes provided to Bahrain that cover rights, the rule of law and the correct use of force.

194.  We are disappointed that the 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 understand that the Government does not publish Defence Accord Agreements but in its response to this report, the Government should consider what, if any, further information it could release about this Defence Accord and the UK's reasons for signing it at this time.

The UK's support for human rights and reform in Bahrain

195.  The Bahraini government says it has implemented a number of reforms in response to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) and it accepted over 140 of 176 recommendations during its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN's Human Rights Council in September 2012. However, Amnesty International told the Committee that while there had been some improvements in the situation in Bahrain since 2011, there was "a gap between rhetoric and reality". In particular, Amnesty International drew attention to the fact that prisoners of conscience were still in prison in Bahrain, that allegations of torture continued, and that there was little accountability for the early violations. [372] A number of NGOs cited cases in which the implementation of changes - such as the installation of CCTV in police stations - had simply led to the problem being displaced to unofficial torture centres.[373] Ali Alaswad, a former Al Wefaq MP in Bahrain, called for implementation "on the ground", rather than "paperwork [and] websites".[374] He claimed that over 2,000 protestors remained behind bars.

196.  A number of members of the BICI panel, including British expert Sir Nigel Rodley, have criticised the failure fully to implement its most substantive recommendations. In January, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) issued a statement condemning "the continued harassment and imprisonment of persons exercising their rights to freedom of opinion and expression in Bahrain".

Ongoing violations

197.  In addition to its failure to resolve past mistakes, opposition groups and NGOs have accused the Bahraini government of continuing to use violent intimidation, including the use of tear gas as a weapon, and of being responsible for the detention, mistreatment and torture of activists and protestors. Human Rights Watch referred to allegations arising in May 2013 of detainees being subject to electric shock treatment, hung from ceilings, beaten or waterboarded.[375] Amnesty noted that allegations of torture and enforced disappearance are still being made.[376] Maryam Alkhawaja, of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), a particularly critical human rights organisation, said that they had seen a "continual deterioration of the situation on the ground." She alleged cases of extrajudicial killings, house raids during the middle of the night by masked men, torture and excessive use of force against protestors, concluding that "more or less everything that was documented in the BICI report continues to happen today, and in some cases it has gotten worse."[377]

198.  The Bahraini Government has also enacted a number of retrogressive policies, including banning street protests, arresting citizens for defaming the King on Twitter, and revoking the nationality of 31 opposition activists, citing them as a threat to "national security".[378] More recently, it has reportedly banned opposition groups from meeting foreign officials without government permission and without a member of the government being present,[379] and on 17 September 2013 Bahrain detained a senior member of Al Wefaq, the main opposition group, Khalil al-Marzooq. Al Wefaq argued that the arrest was "a clear targeting of political action in Bahrain." [380] More broadly, there are ongoing concerns about the lack of judicial independence in Bahrain, and there have been a number of specific cases of trials with serious concerns about due process and fair procedure, including the trials of the medics who stood accused of helping the protestors.[381]

199.  Bahrain's government has accepted some criticism, for example in the UN Human Rights Council, but it has robustly defended itself against some of the NGOs' criticism, which it states is one-sided and does not take into account the government's position. The Bahraini government strongly criticised Human Rights Watch after it sent a delegation to Bahrain and reported that Bahrain's rulers had made "no progress on key reform promises" and had failed to release unjustly imprisoned activists or to hold high-level officials accountable for torture. Human Rights Watch concluded that "All the talk of national dialogue and reform mean nothing so long as the country's most prominent human rights and political activists remain unjustly imprisoned while officials responsible for torture and murder remain in their positions".[382] The Bahraini government responded that the delegation had misrepresented officials' remarks and ignored the significant reforms that had taken place.[383] The British Ambassador to Bahrain, Iain Lindsay, gave an interview to the Gulf Daily News shortly afterward, in which he also criticised the Human Rights Watch statement:

I don't think that accurately reflects what happened here or is happening here and I find their comments about the political dialogue deeply unhelpful. I think it has taken a lot of courage and a lot of effort to get people for the first time in two years to sit around a table to talk about dialogue. That is no mean feat, that is a significant step, and to essentially pooh-pooh that and say these people are wasting their time I think is deeply unhelpful, condescending and patronising. [384]

200.  Bahrain's implementation of the BICI recommendations has been disappointingly slow and has further damaged its international reputation. Swift implementation of the recommendations would have gone a long way toward preventing the breakdown in trust and fracturing of opposition in Bahrain.

201.  We are particularly concerned by recent reports that the Bahraini authorities have banned political groups from having unrestricted access to diplomats. In its response to this report the Government should provide its assessment of the situation including information on whether it has affected any of the Embassy's meetings, along with any representations it has made to the authorities to lift the ban.

UK engagement on human rights and reform since 2011

202.  The UK has responded to events in Bahrain in 2011 and the aftermath with a mixture of support for the government and concern about human rights violations that have taken place. Most submissions and witnesses to this inquiry, whether supportive of the UK Government's policy or not, have agreed that the UK was initially strongly critical in early 2011, but has since become more outwardly supportive of the Bahrain government.[385] The UK has appeared to try to strike a balance between supporting its longstanding friend and ally to make necessary reforms, and maintaining a strong line against human rights violations in Bahrain. For example, in response to a Written Parliamentary Question in April 2013 on progress in Bahrain, Alistair Burt stated:

I believe the Government of Bahrain remains committed to improving its human rights record, including full implementation of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry and the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review. However, as I continue to voice both in private and in public, more needs to be done. Our decision to include Bahrain as a case study in 2011 FCO Human Rights Report, and to do so for the 2012 Report, reflects our view of the current trend of events and concerns.[386]

203.  The UK Government has on occasion been openly critical of a number of developments in Bahrain, including publicly expressing concerns about the bans on demonstrations, the court cases of Bahraini medics, and the need for Bahrain to follow through on the BICI and to implement its recommendations. However, the Government has also resisted calls, including from this Committee, to designate Bahrain a 'country of concern' in its annual human rights report, though the FCO did feature Bahrain as a case study and committed to providing quarterly updates on its progress. The UK Government did not respond to pressure from NGOs to boycott the 2012 Bahrain Grand Prix.[387]

204.  The UK has engaged with Bahrain to provide a number of training programmes and initiatives to assist in its implementation of reforms. These include a programme with the HM Prison Inspectorate and funding through the Arab Partnership for a project to develop a national monitoring mechanism for human rights.

Too close to Bahrain?

205.  NGOs and witnesses criticised or expressed concerns about the UK's policies in five main areas:

a)  Almost all NGOs and several witnesses expressed concern that the UK was over-estimating reform in Bahrain, and under-reporting the serious ongoing problems, which include recent allegations of torture. David Mepham told us that he was unsure how the UK had reached its conclusion that the trajectory in Bahrain was positive, while Ali Alaswad compared the UK's approach to that of the US, whose statements and recent reports were "much clearer than the report published by the UK government."[388]

b)  Both British and Bahraini NGOs criticised the UK for failing to assist their work, either by not helping to ensure access for NGOs and journalists to Bahrain, or by not meeting Bahraini NGOs when requested. Maryam Alkhawaja claimed that "as human rights defenders, my colleagues on the ground have a very difficult time getting meetings with the UK embassy to discuss the situation. I have colleagues who have been told flat-out by the ambassador that he will not meet them". [389]

c)  Bahrain Watch criticised the lack of transparency over meetings between the UK and Bahraini ministers and officials, noting that the main source of information on such meetings was the Bahraini government press, which provided an unreliable report.[390]

d)  Several NGOs criticised the UK for hosting Bahraini officials and Ministers in the UK, including one with an allegation of torture against him.[391]

e)  Many submissions criticised the presence of British advisers (such as John Yates, former Assistant Commissioner in the London Metropolitan Police Service) and British companies (including PR companies), which were employed by the Government.[392]

206.  Overall, there was considerable criticism of the UK for being too supportive of the Bahraini government, which some believed had allowed the Bahraini government to become complacent and fail to carry out reforms. David Mepham of Human Rights Watch said that engagement had been tried for two years without much impact. Witnesses compared the UK's support for Bahrain unfavourably with the position held by the UK in relation to Arab Spring protests elsewhere in the region, and have warned that it is damaging the UK's reputation. Maryam Alkhawaja said that "We have seen a rise in anti-US and UK sentiment among people on the ground, which has happened quickly over the past two years".[393]

207.  Mr Burt was bullish in response to criticism of the UK's approach:

The United Kingdom has set out its stall. I make no apology for this and I will be totally up front: we think that the best chance for stability in Bahrain lies through the successful national dialogue process by Bahrainis, which will seek their own political settlement, which is highly likely to encompass the Al Khalifa leadership and the structure of Bahrain.[394]

The FCO argued that its close relationship with Bahrain has allowed it to support human rights and reform. Mr Burt highlighted the benefit of the joint working group in increasing the UK's support for reform in Bahrain[395] and argued that it gave the UK the opportunity to discuss where it could do more:

sitting across the table from those responsible for implementing BICI, I can say, "How is this going? Why have some parts stalled more than others? What are you going to do about such and such? Why aren't we making progress on that?" The working group gives the opportunity to do that.[396]

RUSI Director Dr Jonathan Eyal appeared to support this position, stating that, in private, the dialogue post-2011 was "very intensive and shockingly frank.... But we cannot say [these things] in public. We can only do that because we are perceived to be friends."[397]

208.  Mr Burt strongly refuted our witnesses' criticism of the UK's approach, arguing that the Embassy had been "meticulous" in seeing opposition groups, apart from those that it deems are connected with violence.[398] He added that he did not "mind facing up to the criticism for supporting the Bahraini authorities in trying to see through reform, and I am prepared to criticise them when they do not. [...] If we take a reputational knock fairly, that's fine, but sometimes it is a bit unfair."[399] Mr Burt said that British advisers were independent but he saw no reputational risk associated with the advisers, who "are trying to do something of benefit to the people of Bahrain and the political process [...] I would say that our involvement is a good thing and seek to persuade others that that was the case."[400]

209.  Conversely, the UK has also some received criticism for its public demonstration of human rights concerns in Bahrain: George Williams, Editor of the Gulf Daily News, said: "Britain is always waving the banner of human rights, democracy and freedom in [Gulf governments'] faces, all of which ARE developing here. Such a brow-beating and sometimes patronising attitude, accompanied by endless statements, often resulting from an ignorance of street realities, creates doubts and damages the reputations and economies of GCC nations."[401] Neil Partrick was sympathetic, telling us that UK diplomats had an "almost impossible path to try to tread", and that it had received both criticism from the opposition and "knock-back" from the Bahraini government for its efforts.[402]

210.  We conclude that the Government is right to pursue a strategy of engagement with Bahrain and to demonstrate the benefits of a reforming, moderate approach. However, British engagement and support should not be unconditional in the face of continued violations and slow implementation of reforms. There is a danger to the UK's credibility if it allows itself to become associated with the problems in Bahrain rather than solutions.

211.  We recommend that the UK seek to meet members of the opposition groups whenever possible, and advocate on behalf of international and British NGOs for access to Bahrain. In its response to this report, the Government should set out the meetings held with Bahraini NGOs and opposition figures in the last 12 months, and the steps it has taken to improve NGO access to Bahrain.

UK support for action by NGOs and International Organisations

212.  In addition to bilateral dialogue and pressure, the UK has also supported international action in the United Nations, for example. In its written submission, Human Rights Watch emphasised the importance of these mechanisms and recommended that the UK:

Should take a strong and consistent position on rights abuses in these countries in dedicated forums like the UN Human Rights Council. It should press all of these countries to allow regular and unfettered access to UN special mechanisms (rapporteurs, for example) and international human rights organisations.[403]

The UK participated in Bahrain's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council in 2012 and made recommendations for further reforms by Bahrain. However, in April 2013 Bahrain postponed a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. The visit, which had been postponed once before, was seen as an important part of the reforms and improvements Bahrain had committed to make as part of its UPR. The Special Rapporteur, Juan Mendez, criticised the decision by the Bahraini authorities, stating:

This is the second time that my visit has been postponed, at very short notice. It is effectively a cancellation as no alternative dates were proposed nor is there a future road map to discuss.[404]

A spokesperson in the FCO told the BBC that the decision was "disappointing", and said then FCO minister Alistair Burt, had raised the issue with the Bahraini government "stressing the importance we and the international community place on the visit".[405]

213.  We recommend that the Government make securing an invitation to the UN Special Rapporteur on torture a priority in its next Joint Working Group with the Bahraini authorities.

214.  The UK is right to be understanding of Bahrain's dilemmas. For its region, prior to the protests it was liberal and reforming, and there is not an easy answer to its internal political issues. However, many of Bahrain's problems are of its Government's own making. The UK must press with greater urgency and force for Bahrain to implement the BICI reforms, engage seriously in dialogue and welcome UN mechanisms in order to re-establish good faith in its intentions. If there is no significant progress by the start of 2014, the Government should designate Bahrain as a 'country of concern' in its Human Rights Report.

Bahrain's international context

215.  Owing to its size and relatively limited wealth, Bahrain's capacity to act as a foreign policy partner to the UK is inevitably limited, although it has proven to be a useful partner in multilateral action (see defence section, above) as well as by supporting initiatives in the United Nations and GCC. However, Bahrain's position in the Gulf and its religious make-up (a majority Shia population ruled by a Sunni leadership) has made it a source of intense interest to the main regional rivals of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

216.  Although Bahrain regularly blames Iran for its current crisis, the BICI report found no evidence of Iranian interference at the time of the outbreak of protests in 2011. Nevertheless, most of our witnesses agreed that while Iran had not created the protests, it was now exploiting the situation and 'stirring up' the discontented Shia population in Bahrain in order to advance its own agenda. Dr Eyal drew our attention to "at least five television stations broadcasting in Arabic, 24 hours a day into Bahrain", adding:

The Iranians have perfected a new technique, which is the invention of news stories. A lot of the tension in Bahrain is from invented stories. Press TV has buried the Saudi royal family three times over, simply by announcing that the Saudi King is dead. They know that people will discover that it was not the case, but it keeps the tension going. [406]

RUSI told us that Iran thereby "amplifies Bahrain's civil strife by vilifying the Government and the security forces, exaggerating casualty figures, fabricating outrages against Shias and generally inciting sectarian hatred."[407] Dr Eyal concluded that "the bombardment of Bahrain by Iranian propaganda and the raising of the stakes have made it impossible for a Bahrainian leadership to deal with it rationally."[408] In response, others have argued that Bahraini state broadcasting has also been inflammatory and divisive.[409] Nonetheless, we understand that Iran also includes Bahrain as part of its territory on it maps and holds seats in its parliament for representatives from Bahrain.[410]

217.  Mr Burt agreed that Iran's TV coverage was significant and that some of the material "is not designed to be helpful or conducive to peace." More worryingly, he added that "We have had evidence more recently of some more active involvement on the ground. Alas I am not able to share that evidence."[411] This reflected earlier comments by Iain Lindsay, British Ambassador to Bahrain, who had given an interview to local press in Bahrain just before our arrival in Manama, in which he labelled those behind a spate of bombings across the country as "terrorists", and said there was "increasing evidence" that Iran was "providing support to people here who are bent on violence".[412] Mr Burt commented that:

I am very conscious that there are some in Bahrain who would like to see Iran as the source of all the problems, but I don't think that is fair or correct. [...] My overall impression remains that Iran can and does exploit the situation, but there are many issues in Bahrain that can be settled by Bahrainis between themselves.[413]

He added that successfully seeing through reform "is the most likely counterbalance to anything the Iranians might wish to do."[414]

218.  Saudi Arabia is Bahrain's nearest neighbour and strongest ally. It has a strong interest in ensuring that Bahrain's society remains stable, given the potential knock-on effect for its own Eastern province, which has a sizeable Shia minority. Sir Roger Tomkys told us that "I believe that the Saudis have made it quite clear that they do not intend to let radical change take place."[415] Bahrain is therefore subject to considerable external pressure in opposing directions, and has the potential to export sectarian problems to its neighbours in the Gulf if its domestic crisis is not resolved.

219.  We conclude that Bahrain is subject to intense pressure from other states in the Gulf, which have strong and opposing interests in what happens in Bahrain. The UK Government should work to improve the international context in which Bahrain seeks a national reconciliation. Regional players must be involved in the reform and reconciliation process if it is to have any chance to succeed. The sectarian element to Bahrain's troubles are a complicating factor, but also make Bahrain's reconciliation even more of a prize: if these communities can find a way to reconcile and work together then it will be an example in the region.

273   'GDP ranking', World Bank data, accessed July 2013, :  Back

274   Ev 138 Back

275   For a detailed narrative of events see: Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, 23 November 2011 Back

276   See, for example,' Five bomb blasts hit Bahrain capital, two killed' Reuters, 5 November 2012; and ' Bahrain violence on rise after car bomb', Financial Times, 19 July 2013 Back

277   Ev w1, Ev 10-11, Ev w43-45, Ev w57-61 Back

278   Ev w5, Ev w10-12, Ev w16-17, Ev w33-36 Back

279   Ev w21-22, Ev w39-43, Ev w64-74, Ev w75-77 Back

280   See, for example Ev 179 Back

281   See Ev w 23-25 [Sir John Shepherd] Back

282   Bahrain Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Back

283   Q 37 Back

284   Ev 96 Back

285   Ev w112. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is Co-Director of the Kuwait Research Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States, based at the London School of Economics. He also is an Associate Fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. Back

286   Freedom House, Freedom in the World 1998,  Back

287   Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2002, Back

288   For a summary see 'International Crisis Group, 'Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VIII): Bahrain's Rocky Road to Reform', Middle East Report No.111, 28 Jul 2011 Back

289   Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, 23 November 2011, pp 241-246 and p 287 Back

290   'Bahrain's human-rights report: The king's risky move', The Economist, 26 November 2011 Back

291   Speech by His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, 23 November 2011, Manama. Transcript at Back

292   The Bahraini government's criticism is particularly aimed at the February 14 movement, which is a more radical youth resistance movement, but extends to members of the more "moderate" opposition. It has detained and charged two senior members of Al Wefaq, one under charges of terrorism.See also, 'Interview with Bahrain's Prime Minster: The Opposition 'Are Terrorizing the Rest of This Country', Spiegel Online, 27 April 2012 Back

293   See, for example, 'Bahrain - Four Arrested in Bombings - Officials Hint at Hezbollah Role', The New York Times, 6 November 2012 Back

294   Bahraini authorities detained Khalil Marzook, assistant secretary general of Al Wefaq, on terrorism charges in mid-September 2013. The five opposition groups of the National Democratic Opposition Parties announced that they would suspend their participation in the National Dialogue as a result. Since then, the Secretary General of Al Wefaq, Sheikh Ali Salman, has also been charged with insulting authorities following an exhibition that showed alleged abuses against anti-government protesters. Both have been released but charges remain outstanding. Back

295   "Bahrain: No Progress on Reform", Human Rights Watch press release, 28 February 2013 Back

296   "Foreign Secretary visits Bahrain", FCO press release, 10 February 2011 Back

297   "Prime Minister speaks to King of Bahrain", FCO press release, 20 February 2011 Back

298   HC Deb, 17 February 2011, col 1135 Back

299   "Cameron calls for restraint on all sides in Bahrain", Prime Minister's Office press release, 16 March 2011 Back

300   "Foreign Secretary expresses concern over ongoing unrest in Bahrain", FCO press release, 16 March 2011  Back

301   Q 193 Back

302   See, for example, Q 1 Back

303   "Foreign Secretary meets HRH The Crown Prince of Bahrain", FCO press release, 26 May 2011 Back

304   "Minister for the Middle East visits Bahrain", FCO press release, 13 December 2011 Back

305   "Foreign Secretary holds talks with Bahraini Foreign Minister", FCO press release, 20 November 2012.  Back

306   "Joint Bahrain-UK Statement on Inaugural Meeting of Joint Working Group", FCO press release, 11 March 2013. The group met again in November 2013, see "Joint Statement of the UK-Bahrain Joint Working Group" , FCO press release, 12 November 2013.  Back

307   Q 435 Back

308   Speech by HRH Crown Prince Salman, 7 December 2012, at the Manama Dialogue 2012, Bahrain.  Back

309   See Ev w9  Back

310   Ev w55 Back

311   Q 1 Back

312   Q 39 Back

313   Bahrain page, FCO website,, accessed November 2013 Back

314   Speech by Ambassador Iain Lindsay, UK-Bahrain Business Forum, 24 April 2013 Back

315   See, for example: Ev w42, Ev w82, Ev w93, Ev w104, Ev w112 Back

316   Q 65 Back

317   For instance, Q 4 and Q 284 Back

318   For example, British nationals lead the Bahrain Federation of Expatriates Back

319   See, for example, Ev w4, Ev w6, Ev w12, Ev w29, Ev w30 Back

320   Q 199 Back

321   Q 58 Back

322   'Bahraini lawmakers call on U.S. envoy to end "interference"', Reuters, 6 May 2013 Back

323   See, for example, 'Britain, undermining press freedom in Bahrain', The Telegraph, 3 May 2013  Back

324   Tweet on UK Embassy in Bahrain Twitter feed, 3 May 2013  Back

325   Ev w123 Back

326   IbidBack

327   'Doing Business in Bahrain' UKTI website, 5 September 2012. Back

328   Q 46. See also Jane Kinninmont: Bahrain: Beyond the Impasse, Chatham House, June 2012 Back

329   World Economic Forum, The Travel & Toursim Competitiveness Report 2013, pp.100-101. Back

330   'Bahrain economic growth accelerates strongly in first quarter' Reuters, 30 June 2013 Back

331   Q 436 Back

332   Ev 138 Back

333   'Doing Business in Bahrain' UKTI website, 5 September 2012. Back

334   Speech by Ambassador Iain Lindsay, UK-Bahrain Business Forum, 24 April 2013 Back

335   Q 137 Back

336   UKTI publication, Doing Business In Bahrain, 2013 Back

337   Information provided by letter from UKTI to Campaign Against Arms Trade, 17 December 2009. Back

338   "UK arms sales to Middle East include tear gas and crowd control ammunition to Bahrain and Libya", Campaign Against Arms Trade press release, 17 February 2011  Back

339   Ev 138 Back

340   Oral evidence taken before the Committees on Arms Export Controls on19 December 2012, HC 689-ii, Q117 Back

341   'UK Arms Sales to Bahrain', Campaign Against Arms Trade website states that the UK issued Single Individual Export Licences (SIELs) to Bahrain worth £7,968,437 in 2012. Back

342   'Bahrain in talks over possible Eurofighter deal: BAE', Reuters, 7 August 2013 Back

343   Q 195 Back

344   Q 76 Back

345   'Bahrain' webpage, Campaign Against Arms Trade, Back

346   Q 304 Back

347   Ev w125-129 Back

348   'UK firm faces questions over how spyware ended up in Bahrain', The Guardian, 2 February 2013 Back

349   Letter from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to Bhatt Murphy Solicitors, 11 September 2012. Available on: Back

350   "Privacy International files for judicial review of HMRC refusal to reveal the state of any investigation into Gamma International", Privacy International press release, 16 April 2013 Back

351   Q 435 Back

352   HC Deb, 19 Dec 2012, Col 835W Back

353   Ev 138 Back

354   Ev 108 Back

355   IbidBack

356   Ev 138 Back

357   Q 1 Back

358   Q 364 Back

359   Ev 108 Back

360   Q 192 Back

361   Ibid. Back

362   Letter to Rt Hon Sir John Stanley MP, Chairman of the Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC), 6 February 2013 Back

363   Oral evidence taken before the Committees on Arms Export Controls on19 December 2012, HC 689-ii, Q117 Back

364   IbidBack

365   'Bahrain and UK Sign Defence Cooperation Agreement', Bahrain News Agency, 11 October 2012. Back

366   Q 368 Back

367   Q 197 Back

368   Q 199 Back

369   Ev 138 Back

370   Oral evidence taken before the Committees on Arms Export Controls on19 December 2012, HC 689-ii, Q118 Back

371   Ev 108 Back

372   Q 272 Back

373   Q 272 and Q 287 Back

374   Q 291 Back

375   Q 275 Back

376   Q 276 Back

377   Q 286 Back

378   'Bahrain revokes citizenship of activists', Financial Times, 7 November 2012 Back

379   'Bahrain says political groups need permission to meet diplomats, agencies', Washington Post, 5 September 2013 Back

380   'Bahrain arrest of opposition politician fuels crackdown fears', Financial Times, 17 September 2013 Back

381   See, for example, Human Rights Watch, No Justice in Bahrain: Unfair Trials in Military and Civilian Courts, February 2012, Back

382   "Bahrain: No Progress on Reform", Human Rights Watch press release, 28 February 2013 Back

383   "Ministry rejects HRW Press statement as wrong and contradictory", Bahrain Ministry of Interior press release, 2 March 2013.  Back

384   'Human Rights Watch criticised', Gulf Daily News, 25 March 2013.  Back

385   See, for example, Q 1, Ev w5, Ev w26, Ev w41, Ev w78 Back

386   HC Deb, 23 April 2013, Col 780W Back

387   See, for example, 'Bahrain Grand Prix should not go ahead, says Ed Miliband', BBC News online, 20 April 2012; and "Human Rights Watch warns Formula 1 over Bahrain Grand Prix", Human Rights Watch press release, 12 April 2012. Back

388   Q 306 Back

389   Q 308 Back

390   Ev w67 [John Horne for Bahrain Watch] Back

391   Ev 67w and Ev 114 Back

392   See, for example, Ev w93 [Islamic Human Rights Commission], Ev w102 [Bahrain Watch], Ev w77 [Index on Censorship] Back

393   Q 308, see also Q 17 [Jane Kinninmont] and Ev w60 [The Bahrain Federation of Expatriate Organisations] Back

394   Q 454 Back

395   Q 436 Back

396   Q 437 Back

397   Q 185 Back

398   Q 454 Back

399   Ibid. Back

400   Q 442 Back

401   Ev w9 Back

402   Q 33 Back

403   Ev 114 Back

404   "Bahrain / Human rights: Government effectively cancels UN Special Rapporteur on torture's visit", Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights press release, 24 April 2013 Back

405   'UN torture investigator 'deeply disappointed' with Bahrain', BBC News online, 24 April 2013 Back

406   Q 204 Back

407   Ev 109 Back

408   Q 204 Back

409   'Bahrain accused of crackdown on media', Financial Times, 23 May 2012 Back

410   Ev w4, Ev w17 Back

411   Q 456 Back

412   'UK Ambassador accuses Iran', Gulf Daily News, 25 March 2013 Back

413   Q 456 Back

414   Ibid. Back

415   Q 46 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 22 November 2013