Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from Brigadier Peter Sincock, Chairman The Bahrain Society in UK

1. Introduction

It is my privilege to be the current Chairman of the Bahrain Society in UK, a non-political, bi-lateral Society, which aims, through a variety of meetings and events, to foster relations between UK and Bahrain. There are over 400 members the majority of whom have lived in Bahrain, some for many years, and who want to maintain contacts and interest in a country they have come to admire.

I personally worked in Headquarters British Forces Gulf between 1968 and 1970, was the British Defence Attache resident in Riyadh but accredited to Bahrain between 1988 and 1991 and I have visited on many occasions since retiring from the Army in 1992, most recently in October 2012.

2. Impressions of Bahrain

My overall impressions of Bahrain have always been of a friendly and well organised country which strives to maintain a neutral stance in the Gulf, is a stalwart member of the increasingly successful Gulf Cooperation Council and which values its special relationship with the United Kingdom.

In the 1960s, living in Bahrain was easy for members of the British Armed Forces and it was obvious in many ways that Bahrain valued highly its then relationship with us.

I was responsible then for advice to Gulf countries which were considering establishing or increasing their own armed forces prior to British withdrawal from the Gulf in 1971. I got to know and like many of the senior Bahrainis, including the present King, during that period.

Returning in 1988 it was good to see that Bahrain had developed into a successful and economically viable small country which looked back on its long association with UK as a cornerstone of it defence and foreign policy.

Although it has always been known that there were differences between the Sunni and Shia’a elements of the population in the background these did not then cause serious problems. There are many examples from then of inter-marriage, successful Shia’a businesses and senior positions in Government held by Shia’a. The present problems are caused by only a small percentage of the Shia’a while the vast majority are happy with the status quo.

Iran in the 1960s claimed Bahrain as part of its territory and two seats in the Iranian parliament were reserved for the non-existant Bahraini members. This was not then a problem within Bahrain and was treated by many as a joke. Later in the Shah of Iran’s reign the claim was dropped but was resurrected soon after the Ayatollahs came to power.

I believe strongly that many of Bahrain’s problems in recent times, and particularly the organised rioting in February/March 2011, have been caused by meddling in Bahrain’s affairs by its powerful neighbour across the Gulf. Iran seems intent on exporting its version of the Muslim faith wherever it can.

An indication of the freedom of expression in Bahrain is shown by the wealth of places of worship. There are, of course, mosques to suit all forms of Islam, there are Christian churches, Hindu temples and places worship for many other religious sects.

3. The 199091 Gulf Crisis

Saddam Hussein’s unwise attack on and occupation of Kuwait was a particularly poignant moment for British/Bahrain relations. Bahrain immediately offered whatever assistance it could and the small country was quickly a valuable base for British forces again. It was strange to see the RAF Tornados parked in exactly the same places as their Hunters had been some 20 years before. I was in a pivotal position in 199091 and the contrast between the immediate welcome from Bahrain and the difficulties experienced in Saudi Arabia was striking. But I do have to say that the Saudis came good later !

4. The Succession of King Hamed

The sad death of Sheikh Isa in 1999 and the coming to power of King Hamed has changed much in Bahrain. Under the rule of Sheikh Isa Bahrain was quietly well governed and he was personally of the opinion that all of his people should share in the success of of his country. Undoubtedly there were undercurrents of dissatisfaction and some excesses by the security forces but as ruler, Sheikh Isa had the well-being of his whole population in his heart. The extremists were there but there was little sign of their presence on the surface. However, the influence of Iran was taking greater hold during Isa’s later years.

The arrival of Hamed was the start of many reforms and attempts to bring the population together.

The National Charter, electoral reform and tighter control of the security forces were all positive and well received initiatives. The way of life of ordinary Bahrainis was steadily improving. Sadly the extreme elements could see that such reforms, if successful, would diminish their own aims.

5. February/March 2011 and the Aftermath

The rioting which broke out in early 2011 was I believe a direct result of Bahraini extremists seizing on the problems of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt (to name the main ones) and believing they had at last the opportunity to change Bahrain forever.

As the situation elsewhere calmed down the world’s media descended on Bahrain and proceeded to tell the same story as they had been telling elsewhere, whereas the situation was totally different.

The British Government did not give nearly enough help and support to the Government of a staunch but small ally. Undoubtedly the security forces did not always act with sufficient restraint but the number of deaths and injury were far fewer than had occurred elsewhere and many of those deaths were of security forces members. The British Government could have been much more supportive in its statements and maybe at least some of the media might have listened.

There is no doubt that the influence of the Iranians was strong in the background during this period and was, in my opinion, one of the main reasons that The Crown Prince’s initiative to hold unlimited discussions with all elements of the population did not receive the attention it deserved.

The Bahrain authorities were totally bewildered by the behaviour of the foreign media and could not understand why only the sensational stories were reported and little notice was taken of the Government initiatives to calm the situation. It seemed then that the media arrived in force from their coverage of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, determined that Bahrain was to fit their pattern regardless of the facts they found on the ground. Reporting was wildly over-enthusiastic and sensational and in my view contributed to the increase in unrest. Even the BBC did not send correspondents who understood the country and its nuances.

The arrival of the Saudi forces in late February is a particular case in point. Stronger statements in London to the effect that they were in Bahrain as part of the Peninsular Shield forces established by the Gulf Cooperation Council could have done much to limit the wilder reporting. At no stage did these forces confront the rioters but were merely there to guard vulnerable points and to release Bahraini forces to take on the front line security tasks. As it was, many reports tried to show that Saudi Arabia had “taken over”.

6. Conclusions

I spent a week in Bahrain in early October 2012 with a party of Bahrain Society members and so much of what I have laid out above is from recent observation. I found Bahrain to be as welcoming and a pleasure to visit as always.

Had all sides in the 2011 events been prepared to enter into the Crown Prince’s offer of unrestricted dialogue in March and later, the situation would probably have calmed down. Again, I believe the malign influence of Iran in the background caused the breakdown.

Bahrain is vital to the security of the Gulf area and so to the free flow of much of the world’s energy. The defence cooperation extended by Bahrain to British and US forces contributes greatly to this free flow.

The Bahrain system of government undoubtedly allows the most freedom of expression in the Gulf and is the most inclusive in the region. It is a prosperous and “go ahead” country.

Huge strides have been made since early 2011 in the control of the police and security forces, the participation of the people in government and the ability of all people to live their own lives as they would wish.

Bahrain is a valuable ally in a potentially volatile part of the world and needs to be more fairly treated by any British Government. The Bahrainis have a high regard for UK and have many historical links with us. We need to treat them more even-handedly and as a valued friend.

The British Government should continue to treat Bahrain as an entity on its own. It is a very different country to Saudi Arabia. Bahrain has an elected government with its parliament able to call unelected ministers to task. There is complete religious freedom. I spoke to the editor of the main opposition newspaper about two years ago and asked him whether he would print anti-government stories. He smiled and said that he did so most days ! Since the unrest he has continued his editorial policy.

There is no doubt that were the present governmental system to fall every single person in the country would be worse off.

7 November 2012

Prepared 21st November 2013