Foreign AffairsWritten Evidence from Dr Omar Al-Hassan

Executive Summary:

Bahrain and Britain share a rich history of strong and meaningful relations, as illustrated by the level of support Britain has extended onto Bahrain both prior to and following its independence in 1971. The two countries have always circumvented the challenges they face through dialogue and understanding. Britain acknowledges Bahrain’s critical positioning in the oil-rich Gulf region, and thus is astutely aware of the pivotal role that Bahrain plays in terms of global energy security and the stability of the international system. Distinguished relations between both countries have aided Bahrain’s democratic development


In response to the calls for evidence by the Foreign Affairs Committee I feel it is important in the introductory remarks to recall the recent progress that has been made within Bahrain in terms of incremental democratic reform and the provision of human rights guarantees. I would also like to offer my own evaluation of the period of unrest that has followed the events of February and March 2011 which I believe to be unnecessarily prolonged due to the opposition’s obstinacy.

1–1 Since King Hamad came to power in 1999 Bahrain has undergone a period of profound democratic development, as illustrated by:

Issuing an amnesty for political prisoners in February 2001, allowing the return of exiled persons, and rescinding the state security law and court.

Drafting the National Action Charter which was subsequently approved by 98.4% of voters in the 2001 national referendum.

Issuing the amended national constitution in 2002.

Conducting parliamentary and municipal elections in 2002, 2006 and 2010.

Permitting the establishment of political societies—a precedent for the Gulf region. By 2012 there were 20 political societies in operation, along with 656 civil society organizations (compared to 275 in 2001), and several trade unions.

There have been over 10 charters, agreements and treaties related to human rights. A Ministry of Human Rights was also established in 2011.

In 2000 the Press Association was established, issuing licenses for the creation of new newspapers. As of 2012 there are more than 14 newspapers in Bahrain.

Although temporarily prohibited—Bahrain has witnessed a number of sit-ins, marches and demonstrations in Bahrain, with approximately 420 such events in the last three years alone.

Empowering women socially, politically and economically. In 2002, women were notably able to vote and stand for political office for the first time In addition to their representation in the two chambers of the parliament, the Supreme Council of Women was established in 2001. Moreover, in 2012 there were 18 active Women Associations operating inside Bahrain.

As revealed by the UN Human Development Index (HDI) Bahrain has headed the Arab states in terms of human development in eight of the last fifteen years despite its limited resources and size.

Positive responses to the events of February and March 2011

(a) Persistent attempts to establish a national dialogue:

The Crown Prince launched an initiative for dialogue with opposition forces after less than a week after the beginning of protests in February 2011. This was rejected by the opposition, thus prompting the King to declare a state of national safety to maintain security and stability within the country.

After the situation was stabilized, a dialogue of national consensus began in July 2011, with participation of all sections of Bahraini society, which initially included Al-Wefaq Society prior to its later withdrawal. Dialogue has resulted in drafting constitutional amendments that have been ratified in May 2012. These constitutional amendments granted parliament greater supervisory powers over government, as well as the authority to approve government appointments, and the ability to dissolve entire government, etc…

(b)Dealing with the crisis’s repercussions and holding perpetrators accountable for their actions:

In July 2011, King Hamad ordered the establishment of an independent fact-finding commission—the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI)—in consultation with the UN Human Rights Council. The BICI report revealed that some violent acts were carried out against demonstrators (in response to the violence committed by demonstrators themselves); however, the claim that torture was systematic was unproven. Nevertheless, the King then agreed to all of the BICI recommendations and established a National Commission to oversee their implementation. The following progress has been made:

Compensating the families of victims—eg thus far $2.6 million has been paid to the families of 17 victims.

Creating a Special Investigations Unit—which presents its reports to the Attorney General with the aim of investigating potential police misconduct.

Installing cameras in all relevant police stations and interrogation rooms to ensure the protection of human rights.

90% of those laid off from their work during the events have returned to their jobs. The remaining 10% is related to the private sector and is being investigated by Ministry of Labour.

All charges related to the right of exercising freedom of expression were dropped.

Security personnel accused of engaging in acts of violence against demonstrators are being investigated, and, wherever necessary, prosecuted.

Personnel previously prosecuted in a military court were referred to civil courts for retrial.

Eight houses of worship were repaired, five demolished sites are being rebuilt, and eight other sites are still being studied in terms of their status of title deeds and planning requirements.

It is worth mentioning that 96% of the recommendations have been implemented, while the recommendations that hadn’t yet been fully implemented are those that require legislative changes or judicial decisions.

The destructive influence of opposition groups:

Opposition groups (especially Al-Wifaq bloc), have changed from being a positive influence (as embodied in its previous participation in the Chamber of Deputies) into a negative, or even destructive influence, as demonstrated by:

The resignation of its representatives from the Chamber of Deputies in May 2011.

Using threatening and provocative language against the state and the government.

Refusing offers for dialogue free from any pre-conditions.

Seeking to benefit from political and media support offered by external powers, namely Iran, Hezbollah, and certain Iraqi Shiite leaders.

Deliberately attacking police men, terrorizing citizens and expatriates, in addition to attacking public facilities and trying to harm the national economy. For example there have been: approximately 1,300 injuries incurred by the security forces, 70 with serious injuries that could cause permanent disabilities; 129 military vehicles have been damaged as a result of Molotov cocktails, explosives, and petrol bombs; 293 attacks have been conducted at schools; 2,089 incidents of blocking streets; 2,910 cases of burning tires.

Attempts to deliberately damage the national economy through the siege of Financial Hub has resulted in a $1.4 billion loss in the Bahraini economy following the Kingdom’s damaged reputation as an attractive market for investment and tourism etc.

1. Britain’s foreign policy priorities in its relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and how the government balances effectively between its interests in the fields of defense, trade, energy, security, fighting terrorism and human rights:

1.1 Maintaining the flow of oil supplies and energy to the United Kingdom is one of the central pillars of British foreign policy towards the Gulf region, with the Gulf accounting for 41.7% of the world’s oil reserves, 20 % of crude oil exports, in addition to its oversight over the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 40% of the world’s seaborne oil exports pass. The Gulf also holds at least 22.8% of the world’s proven reserves of natural gas.

1.2 Having acknowledged the importance of the Gulf region to broader international energy security and stability, such acknowledgement has led to ever increasing coordination with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in the fields of defense, security, business and commerce. For example, according to the UK Trade and Investments Department, there are approximately 200 joint Saudi-British companies in Saudi Arabia, whose investments amounted to ₤11 billion; in addition to about ₤8 billion worth of British exports.

Britain is one of Bahrain’s leading European trade partners. There are 548 British trade agencies registered in Bahrain and 72 branches of British trade companies, working in the fields of industry, trade and services. There are more than 100 Bahrain-based British companies, in addition to 300 joint companies between British and Bahraini investors. Moreover, there are more than 7 thousands Britons living in Bahrain.

1.3 The subtle approach the UK government and foreign policy officials adopt when addressing any Gulf-related human rights concerns they might is commendable, favouring closed-door discussions as opposed to overt-aggressive public defamation. Mediators are arguably more successful if criticism stays behind closed doors. Such an approach also prevents the undesirable inflammation of tensions on the ground. To its credit, with regards to Bahrain, the UK has persistently urged the need for dialogue, calling on all parties to come to the negotiating table free without any preconditions for their engagement.

2. To what extent the Foreign office’s Gulf initiative achieved its goal to improve relations with Gulf countries in general, and also to make the UK “a major strategic partner” in the region as a whole.

2.1 In 2010 the British Foreign Office launched an initiative to strengthen its relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council through strategic dialogue, stemming from its belief in the importance of each party to the other. In the context of this dialogue, two ministerial meetings were held, the first in New York in September 2011, the second in London on 21 June 2012. In these two meetings, suitable mechanisms were considered to activate the bilateral security agreements and related Memoranda of Understanding, as well as underlining the importance of facilitating trade exchange, and travel procedures for citizens and businessmen in order to help deepen bilateral relations between the GCC and the United Kingdom.

2.2. This strategic dialogue could have several benefits for both sides:

Politically: Britain has a long experience in democracy and could help the GCC states implement their incremental reform projects.

Economically: the GCC is considered the seventh largest market for British exports. According to the figures of 2011, the volume of trade exchange between the GCC and Britain reached ₤17 billion.) The GCC also has approximately $1,380 billion worth of sovereign wealth funds—as revealed by the Institute of International Finance’s report in April 2012. Thus there is room for yet further GCC investment in UK markets.

Militarily: The exportation of arms, technology and technical assistance has been a defining characteristic of British-Gulf relations. Currently in the pipeline are the Typhoon jets which Britain is looking to sell to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Oman. Also, in October 2012, Britain signed a new agreement on defense cooperation with Bahrain.

Security: both Britain and the Gulf states have benefitted from the exchanging of intelligence to combat terrorism, particularly after the events of 9/11. The Gulf states have also taken advantage of British security expertise in their own attempts to fight organized crime.

3. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as partners in British foreign policy, particularly in relation to Iran and Syria, and as members of the regional and international organizations:

3.1 Iran:

The issue of Iranian interference in Bahraini affairs:

Iranians’ migration to Bahrain has led Iran’s rulers to believe that they have a legitimate territorial claim over Bahrain. It is to Britain’s credit that it sent a memorandum to the Iranian government on 29 November 1927 confirming that it did not recognize Iran’s claims of sovereignty over Bahrain, as well as also later supporting a referendum held under the auspices of the United Nations in 1970 during which the Bahraini people chose independence of Bahrain, and stick to its Arab and Islamic identity led by the “Al Khalifa” ruling-family.

Iranian allegations have not stopped since Bahrain’s independence, and especially after the Iranian revolution, with Bahrain still perceived as the 14th Iranian province. Iran has not hesitated in its attempts to destabilize Bahrain by fomenting civil unrest through the exploitation of its ties with certain forces operating inside Bahrain—as was evident in the protests of February and March 2011. These interventions led to the crisis taking on an increasingly sectarian dimension since February 2011, which in turn threatens the security and stability of the economically important Gulf region.

The Iranian Nuclear issue:

The Iranian nuclear programme is regarded as a source of mutual concern for both Britain and Bahrain because of the two nations’ doubts about the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The danger here lies in the negative repercussions of Iran evolving into a nuclear power, which would endanger western interests in the region. Britain is rightfully weary of Iran blocking the Strait of Hormuz, consequently endangering global oil supplies, which would inevitably lead to inflated oil prices. This concern led Britain to deploy a new battalion of ships in the Gulf region, resulting in increased coordination between Britain and the Gulf states.

3.2 The Syrian crisis:

The Syrian crisis is rightly regarded as a grave threat to regional security, with Syria’s neighbours weary of the apparent spill-over effects of a bloody civil war fuelled by Bashar Assad’s unrelenting brutality. Moreover the situation is worsened by external actors vying for influence, with Russia, China, Iran and Hezbollah coming up against the US, UK, Turkey, and some of the Gulf nations.

Settling the Syrian crisis is a primary concern for both Britain and Bahrain, as exemplified by the fact that:

During the Bahraini King’s meeting with the British Prime minister David Cameron on 23 August 2012, both expressed their concerns over the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and the negative repercussions of the Syrian crisis on regional stability.

There was also an agreement, reflected by the British-Gulf joint meeting on 21 June 2012, on the significance of ending the Syrian peoples suffering.

3.3 Cooperation through regional and international organisations:

There is a shared understanding between Britain and Bahrain of the importance of coordinating efforts through discussions within regional and international organizations. This is clear when looking at Bahrain when operating under the framework of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and also when Britain operates under the framework of the European Union (EU), exerting joint efforts to sign a Free Trade Agreement between both parties. On the other hand, both countries have coordinated with one another in several conferences related to the vital issues emanating from the Middle East such as the London conference on the situation in Yemen in January 2010, as well as a conference on Afghanistan held in London on 28 February 2010.

4. Arab Spring’s implications on British foreign policy and Britain’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain:

4.1 Following the events of February and March 2011, the current British ambassador to Bahrain, Ian Lindsay, indicated that Britain acknowledges that each country differs from the other in terms of protest movements, as well as recognising the reformist trend of the Bahraini leadership.

4.2 Britain was keen to monitor how Bahrain dealt with the crisis, on the basis of the historical importance the Kingdom represents for Britain. This was indicated in the following developments:

It praised Bahrain’s decision to establish the BICI. For example, David Cameron, in a letter to King Hamad on 26 January 2012, welcomed the swift response of the Bahraini government to the BICI investigation, citing the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Bahrain Ministry of Interior. On the 13 June 2012 Alistair Burt, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, outlined his support for the Bahraini government and the progress made vis-à-vis implementing the BICI recommendations.

Bahrain hired British personnel such as John Yates, the former assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, to develop the Bahraini police; as well as legal experts Sir Daniel Bethlehem and Sir Geoffrey Jaoal, to help with the implementation of the BICI recommendations.

John Yates declared on 6 May 2012 that Bahraini Police were on the brink of achieving comprehensive developments, including: establishing a forensic laboratory and an academy for criminal sciences; deploying 500 police officers to carry out patrols in streets; establishing an independent body for complaints; and taking measures to prevent the recurrence of abuses mentioned in the “Bassiouni” report.

5. How can United Kingdom encourage liberal and democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, including using its influence to achieve improvements?

5.1 Adopting a balanced foreign policy approach towards the unrest in Bahrain that differentiates between peaceful protests and acts of violence and sabotage carried out by opposition forces. The wave of protests doesn’t reflect the reality of the social, political and economic situation in Bahrain. On the contrary, there were huge demonstrations in which about 300 thousand people, Shiites and Sunnis, participated, with the aim of supporting the leadership after these events. Yet such events are never acknowledged outside of Bahrain.

5.2 Supporting the King’s vision for incremental democratic reform.

One must acknowledge the cultural and religious particularities which shape Gulf society—eg the preeminence of Sharia law—and thus understand the friction caused when trying to implement Westernized democratic reforms. Nonetheless, democratic development in Bahrain continues to evolve and thus shall continue to develop as time goes on. The FCO can help in this regard through taking advantage of mechanisms and joint agreements between two countries which contribute in achieving this goal, including:

The Joint Bahraini-British work team, which was agreed upon between the King and British Prime Minister during their meeting in London in July 2010. This team can perform periodic discussion for the contents of the Foreign Office’s annual report on democracy and human rights in Bahrain.

The initiative launched by British Foreign Office in 2010 to improve relations with GCC countries, through strategic dialogue.

Specialized workshops organized in the field of democracy—eg establishing workshops in which parliamentary delegates, researchers, and academics from research institutions and prestigious universities from across the globe are invited to participate.

Britain could consider including the Kingdom of Bahrain in the Arab Partnership Program.

5.3 Urging opposition groups in Bahrain to participate in the national dialogue. Moreover, the Foreign Office must take a firmer stance on opposition figures who utilize Britain as a base to exercise their counter-productive activities, scrutinizing opposition’s viewpoints that often: falsify facts; defame the Kingdom’s reputation; and increase political tensions, thus reducing the possibility of kick-starting the national dialogue.

6. Long-term trends and scenarios in the region that the British Foreign Office should be prepared for, and the extent of its achievements in this regard:

6.1 The Gulf region remains a regional playing field prone to outside interference with external powers looking to benefit from the generous economic, geo-political and strategic benefits on offer. This competition could at any time boil over into conflict, and as a result of the so-called Arab Spring a new local and regional dimension has been added to this external competition for influence. The consequent security vacuum and social unrest in the Arab region has damaged the security and stability of the GCC, and therefore British interests therein. This makes it a must for the British foreign policy to prepare itself to face the future challenges related to this matter, through:

Helping to contain the crisis in Bahrain, with the realization that the threat of the sectarian dimension of the crisis does not only affect Bahrain, but affects the whole region, subsequently playing into the hands of Iranian regional aspirations. Hence, the British Foreign Office, after having signed the recent defense cooperation agreement with Bahrain (October 2012) should adopt a position that urges the opposition to meet the King’s call for dialogue and to renounce violence and acts that disturb security.

Neutralizing the Iranian nuclear programme by continuing to search for diplomatic and political solutions, no matter how long it takes in preference to engaging in a costly military operation.

Assisting with the various reform programmes in the GCC states.

Adopting a carefully constructed approach that deals with its Gulf partners in a rational and diplomatic manner that avoids inflaming the problems within these countries.

7. Recommendations and Proposals for the Commission:

I would advise that the FAC present the results of its inquiry in a list of recommendations to the Bahraini and Saudi government in a diplomatic and confidential way rather than public defamation through media outlets. Public criticism would intensify protests, threatening the two countries’ security and stability. At the same time, it would provide Iran with a foothold in Bahrain, then in the rest of GCC member states, to the detriment of British interests and international stability.

Whilst it is only natural to focus on the distressing events that continue to take place on the streets of Bahrain; one should not lose sight of what is occurring elsewhere. King Hamad and the Bahrain government are doing far more than is rarely acknowledged, in the hope of achieving some form of reconciliation between the conflicting parties and interests within Bahrain. One should acknowledge the positive steps that have been taken thus far (particularly with regards to the extensive implementation of the BICI report’s recommendations), and the steps that shall continue to be taken in the hope of bringing Bahrain out of this troubling moment of uncertainty. I hope that the FAC will recall the progress that has been made in the fields of socio-economic, political and human rights over the last thirteen years as a stark reminder of what the Bahrain leadership is hoping to achieve, namely, incremental and durable democratic reform that is able to weather severe internal and external pressures.

In the context of the UK’s historical responsibility to the Palestinian cause, and to avoid accusations of hypocrisy, I would urge the FAC to conduct a similar investigation into the UK’s relations with Israel. Let us not forget the daily suffering of the Palestinians within the occupied territories (and those living in refuge elsewhere). For example, there are over 4,500 prisoners held by Israel, many under the unlawful terms of administrative detention, and about 1,600 inmates having gone on hunger strike. Then there is the unrelenting demolition of Palestinian homes, the bulldozing of farms, all to be replaced with illegal Israeli settlements. Extra judicial killings and the disproportionate use of force are but further measures which have come to define the Palestinian people’s existence.

15 November 2012

Prepared 21st November 2013