Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from Sir John Shepherd KCVO CMG

Summary of Evidence

This evidence will not cover the second, sixth and seventh of the Committee’s questions which focus on evaluations of current UK policy, which the writer is not qualified to comment on; it will concentrate on the background, primarily in Bahrain, against which that policy has to operate. It will deal only tangentially with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States:

(a)The strategic importance of Bahrain is often under-rated, as it is relatively poor, very small and internally divided. But, respecting its long relationship with the UK, it has always stood by the UK and Allies when needed—within the limits of its resources—in the second world war and both Gulf Wars. In addition Iran regularly seeks to destabilise it (partly to weaken Saudi Arabia and the GCC), and trouble in Bahrain, let alone the overthrow of the current political system or its annexation, has to be seen as a major prize for Iran.

(b)Given its vulnerability, we cannot expect Bahrain to take a leading role in international or Arab forums; but, with care, we can ensure they understand and where possible support to the reasonable aims of the UK, EU and US in the region.

(c)The internal situation in Bahrain is not simple, as it is often portrayed. In many respects the complexity of the situation resembles that in Northern Ireland, where religious, ethnic and economic divisions overlap and are mutually reinforcing. Events in Cairo and elsewhere have triggered an outburst of protest and frustration (which the authorities did not handle skilfully), but this is merely one chapter in a longer saga. A policy of pressing for rapid “progress to majority rule” is no more appropriate in Bahrain that it was in Northern Ireland.

(d)But a policy of engagement in and encouragement of a process bringing the communities together, while back-channel political contacts slowly build the political conditions for change, has a better chance of achieving long-term improvement, without increasing the strategic risks (see a)) inherent in mistakenly treating Bahrain as if it were a smaller version of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya or Syria.

The Writer

I was a Middle East specialist in the Diplomatic Service, serving as Ambassador to Bahrain (1988–1991—covering the first Gulf War) and Director for the Middle East (1996–1998) and Deputy Under Secretary supervising the Middle East (1998–2000). After retiring from the Service I was the founding Secretary-General of the Global Leadership Foundation (GLF), which seeks to deliver discreet mentoring to political leaders worldwide; I remain a Board Member and project manager for GLF (details: I submit this evidence in my personal capacity.


(i) the UK’s foreign policy priorities in its relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and how effectively the Government balances the UK’s interests in defence, commerce, energy security, counter-terrorism, and human rights

1. For long periods the warmth of the UK’s relations with Bahrain has been expressed in words rather than deeds, even though the relationship dates back to a treaty in the early 19th century, which gave Britain a privileged position in Bahrain’s relationships with its neighbours and other powers. Bahrain has frequently showed its loyalty to the partnership with the UK, even after the UK ceased to exercise effective control over the island’s foreign relations, including defence and trade.

2. In the Second World War Bahrain financed the building of a Spitfire. It provided basing facilities for the RAF in the Kuwait crisis of 1961. Its support was more conspicuous when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and the UK needed forward bases for its forces, first the RAF and later the RN; the Bahraini authorities bent over backwards to accommodate these forces even though both the RAF and the RN had initially reckoned they did not need basing in Bahrain, where other allies quickly took up the slack, during the late summer. They remained close and helpful allies throughout the first Gulf war (unlike others in the region, such as King Hussein) and the second.

3. So much had the UK taken Bahrain for granted that until early 1990 there was no defence agreement. It was ironic that, although it was the Bahrainis who invoked the agreement’s obligation to consult within 6 months of its signature, it was the UK which soon drew the greater benefit. The Bahrainis were kind enough not to point that out.

4. No doubt in a period of tension, especially if Bahrain felt exposed to an external threat, they would again support UK involvement in any way they could. But it would be short-sighted to assume that to be automatic, if we were to display indifference to Bahrain’s problems and the efforts of the authorities there to resolve them.

5. Bahrain’s long survival—some 5,000 years—as an identifiable organised community owes much in modern times to a consistent policy of maintaining good relations with all its neighbours. (Britain’s 19th century treaty fits the pattern, as the activities of the East India Company in the Gulf brought Britain into close contact with the Gulf states.) Its tiny size and relative lack of natural resources have ensured it never harboured regional ambitions but made it vulnerable to any predatory and powerful neighbour. In practical terms it is caught between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The revolutionary regime in Iran revived the claim to Bahrain reluctantly abandoned by the Shah. While one may doubt whether the Iranians would in any way gain from pursuing that claim aggressively, they undoubtedly exploit it frequently, not least to exacerbate tensions within Bahrain. Were the Iranians to detect or infer any weakening of the commitment of the UK (which fathered the process by which the claim was dropped) to Bahrain’s sovereign independence or the system by which Bahrain and other Gulf States are ruled, they would be encouraged to press their claim more vigorously, and step up internal trouble-making, increasing tension in an area already subject to enough stress. This factor needs to be brought to bear on the readiness of UK governments to see as the main basis of policy towards Bahrain open public criticism of the human rights problems in Bahrain and the government’s handling of them, as reported in the media. Such over-simplification of a complex scene is regarded in Bahrain as unconstructive in the same way as was the support which came across the Atlantic, often from influential quarters, for the “anti-colonialist freedom fighters” of the PIRA.

6. Saudi Arabia is, of course, a more agreeable neighbour for Bahrain. Economically it has helped Bahrain for decades. A serious Iranian threat to Bahrain would be seen there as a threat to Saudi Arabia, partly because Saudi Arabia has its own internal tensions, especially in the neighbouring oil-rich Eastern Province. But this cuts both ways: over the years it has made clear to Bahrain that there are limits to the social “progress” it is prepared to tolerate there. That restrains the Bahraini authorities in their search for ways to resolve problems such as those recently experienced. The readiness of the Saudis to send forces into Bahrain at the height of last year’s tensions clearly strengthened the hand of those in power in Bahrain who wanted to avoid concessions to the people who had come out on to the streets, in their attempt to exploit the Arab Spring in the context of Bahrain’s long-standing problems.

(iii) Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as foreign policy partners for the UK, particularly with regard to Iran and Syria and as members of international and regional organisations

7. Faced with Iran’s long-term hostility, Bahrain understandably welcomes any sign of willingness on the part of its friends to limit Iran’s ability to threaten the region as a whole. But precisely because it is a target of an Iranian territorial claim we cannot expect the Bahrainis to take any sort of lead on Iran (or indeed other Middle Eastern issues such as Syria) in regional or international forums, including the UN. It lacks the wealth and the internal cohesion to allow it to act with the self-confidence displayed by its nearest neighbour, Qatar. But with careful nurturing of the relationship, we can be fairly sure they will not lead any opposition to UK/EU/NATO interests in those organisations. A Bahrain that feels it is not always under attack by its Western “allies” and their media will be a more outspoken defender of their legitimate interests.

(iv) the implications of the Arab Spring for UK foreign policy in its relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain

8. That is not an argument for the UK and others turning a blind eye to the problems and instabilities in Bahrain’s political and communal set-up. Reasoned criticism, also in public, has an important role. One element of great stability, unique to Bahrain in the Gulf (providing it does move with the times) is the assured succession at head of state level. But that stability can have a downside if it leads to immobility; it tends to be outweighed by ultra-slow and cautious movement, reflecting in part all too visible divergences between leading members of the ruling family. But, leaving aside the question whether there really is an “Arab Spring”, it would be a grave mistake to see Bahrain through the same prism as Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and other Arab dictatorships which have experienced greater or lesser degrees of regime change. It is an equally grave error to see Bahrain in simple terms of a ruling elite repressing the rights of a majority of its population, even though a decision such as the recent deprivation of citizenship imposed (subject to appeal) on a former MP might seem to belie that.

9. Although the parallel is far from exact, it can be helpful to make comparisons with a long-running problem close to home—in Northern Ireland. As in Northern Ireland, Bahrain has a toxic combination of fault-lines in its population: ethnic, historical, religious and economic. These fault-lines broadly coincide and reinforce one another. But they are more complex than the usual portrayal of ruling Sunni elite and Shi’a underclass.

10. The ruling Al Khalifa (Sunni) arrived in 1789 (from Saudi Arabia via Kuwait and Qatar) attracted by the resources of pearl-fishing under-exploited by the indigenous Baharna people (Shi’a). In order to trade internationally the Al Khalifa welcomed merchants from (then) Persia, who settled and became Bahrainis—several of the key business families today are the descendants of these merchants. Most are Sunni. The indigenous Baharna people, not of Persian/Iranian origin, maintained their historic links with Shi’a communities elsewhere, especially in Iraq and Persia/Iran. After the Iranian revolution these links provided Tehran with an easy opportunity to exploit the long-standing grievances of the relatively poor Shi’a communities, which the ruling family had never seriously addressed. Some among the Shi’a were ready to take such support, but the majority have never felt themselves to be other than Bahraini nor wanted to be subject to Tehran. However, many of them do not accept the rule of the Al Khalifa. An early experiment in parliamentary democracy failed, as the Shi’a majority simply voted en bloc against the government. As there is almost certainly a Shi’a majority still, the ruling authorities understandably assume that any “simple” move to a majority parliamentary system would equate to their overthrow. So advocating a rapid transition to democracy in the form of majority rule would hasten an unpredictable and possibly violent situation in an already tense environment.

11. Historically, the nervousness of Saudi Arabia about knock-on effects in the Eastern province of the relative liberalisation in Bahrain, added to the activities in London and elsewhere of opposition figures advocating violence (egged-on, as the authorities saw it, by human rights activists in the UK), reinforced the instinctive caution of the ruling family and the Sunni elite. As in Northern Ireland, when the “troubles” started, the conservatives among those in power were able to prevent rapid change occurring, but using police methods which inevitably proved counterproductive for the longer-term relationship between the communities.

12. The “Arab Spring” provided a context in which accumulated tensions produced an outburst. The efforts of those who wanted to deal with it by dialogue were swamped by those who insisted that control had to be re-established first. Saudi National Guard forces played psychologically the same role as the Army in Northern Ireland, though on a quite different scale. Differences became more deeply entrenched. Reporting in the western media (seen as biased by a large section of the Bahrain population) and easy comparisons with events in Cairo and elsewhere led spokesmen to adopt positions critical of the Bahrain government, reinforcing the hands both of the opposition and of the hard-line conservatives.

13. It is tempting to take the lack of response from opposition figures to offers of dialogue from the government as a signal that the government is simply not doing enough. But its publication and simultaneous public acceptance of the bulk of the report of the BICI amounted to a courageous step by the government, which cannot have been easy to take, given the background described. It accepted many criticisms of its actions and undertook to address the criticisms. Implementation has been slow, and it is still hard to point to any specific improvements on the ground. But, with some external help and advice parts of the framework are changing. The challenge now is for the individuals involved to make that changing framework deliver better results: there is a good way to go, and the reform agenda itself is incomplete.

14. The government stresses how frequently it offers dialogue, but only with those who renounce violence. The Northern Ireland case (in common with many UK end-of Empire experiences) shows that such a precondition impedes dialogue, even on “back-channels”. The government has still probably not yet found a way to open a real “back channel” dialogue with opposition figures with authority to engage. The opposition is far from united, and many in it would be suspicious of colleagues who appeared to sign up to the government’s demand. Northern Ireland experience suggests that bringing about such change after generations of deepening distrust requires an enormous, sustained and imaginative engagement by political leaders, away from the glare of publicity. It is easy to forget how long it took to achieve peace in Northern Ireland and how much quiet external effort was needed to help the two sides to build enough trust to talk. In Bahrain’s case one may doubt whether the capacity for such action exists at the top levels. But the response should be to help them develop it.

15. Given Britain’s historical relationship with Bahrain (during much of which the internal situation has been unsatisfactory and unstable), and Bahrain’s regional strategic importance (iii above), discreet engagement in specific actions and patient encouragement are more likely to be effective in bringing about change (rather than violent revolution) than diluting a long-standing alliance because of the difficulties Bahrain has in dealing with its deep internal problems.

(v) how the UK can encourage democratic and liberalising reforms in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, including its power to effect improvements

16. Private engagement and patient encouragement are not sufficiently specific to constitute a policy recipe. If the UK government is already doing much in private to strengthen the hands of those who would lead the sort of change that can command the support of a large majority of the people, so much the better—even if power-sharing as such must be a long way off. But it is likely that the authorities and others in Bahrain need time to re-establish their trust in the goodwill of UK governments and non-government actors after recent events. A longer term and preferably bi-partisan policy strategy is needed, which the Bahrainis can learn to trust. General lines of a policy within the UK’s power to deliver could be:

(a)continued demonstration (by word and military presence) of UK commitment to security in the Gulf, including Bahrain, not least in the face of territorial threats from whatever quarter (the last perpetrator was, after all, an Arab not an Iranian).

(b)refraining from instant comment on every unsettling event within Bahrain, which too often only makes matters worse, either because blame is mis-attributed or because a spurious balance is attempted even when responsibility is clear. (That should not inhibit comment when clarity has been achieved locally through investigation, legal process etc.)

(c)ensuring that when comment is necessary it serves the strategic purpose of encouraging engagement and dialogue (without being specific as to the details which may be deliberately kept secret).

(d)exploiting the UK’s trump card, ie our (ongoing) Northern Ireland experience, to introduce Bahrainis—not necessarily at central government level or indeed in government at all—to the methods painstakingly developed to bring the communities there together and keep them together even when setbacks occur. This does not need to involve UK government figures but can be implemented by providing linkages and modest funding for private or charitable operations to share their experience and help Bahraini counterparts (who do exist), with the knowledge and backing of key people in Bahrain. One recent such case (not involving governments at all) has shown that such possibilities exist, for action even on a very small scale.

(e)continuing to respond to any Bahraini interest in advice on institutional development, which may result from the seriousness that would be demonstrated by support for small-scale community-level steps. It would be sensible not to beat the drum for the Westminster model.

(f)as much as anything, the Bahrainis who see change as necessary need help in gaining the support of those who resist change, at all levels of society. Discreet mentoring at top levels by non-government actors would be one method; discreet professional PR advice, directed at the Bahraini audience, not the usual effort to influence the “image of Bahrain” abroad, is another.

14 November 2012

Prepared 21st November 2013