Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from Citizens for Bahrain

Summary of Key Points:

Britain was right to continue engaging with the King and Crown Prince, as moderate figures capable of bringing Bahrain safely through a period of crisis.

Britain was right not to treat Bahrain as a pariah state. Instead adopting a position of constructive, friendly advice; not finger-wagging and megaphone diplomacy.

Britain was right not to cut Bahrain loose and leave us to the mercy of sectarian extremists. Bahrain is by far the most tolerant and liberal country in the region.

Britain was right to back initiatives to support the justice & security sectors & investigate terrorist activity in Manama. These gave tangible evidence of Britain’s solidarity.

Who are we?

Citizens for Bahrain is an organization dedicated to reflecting the views of ordinary Bahrainis and ensuring that the full spectrum of opinions get a fair hearing locally and internationally.

Citizens for Bahrain’s evidence to the FAC

Citizens for Bahrain’s position regarding the FAC’s investigation was set out in some detail in an article included below which was circulated previously.

The points in the below submission refer specifically to Bahraini views concerning the questions being investigated by the FAC. We hope that this evidence will be given its due weight: On too many occasions the Bahrain crisis is discussed as if the only two important constituencies are the Government and Protesters, as if the views of the vast majority of Bahrainis not taking to the streets every Friday are irrelevant.

We hope that the wise figures within the FAC do not fall into this trap.

Full Text of Submission:

Much international criticism of UK policy on Bahrain began from the simplistic standpoint that Bahrain and other Gulf governments were the “bad guys” and therefore any kind of engagement with Bahrain’s leaders was not in Britain’s higher interests.

A key question should have been: Was the Bahraini government a pariah regime acting against the interests of its citizens and the region—as was the case with Qadhafi and Al-Assad? Or was the Bahraini Government—despite some serious mistakes—essentially acting in the interests of its citizens and, as Churchill would have said: the least worst option for Bahrainis?

It is likely that FCO officials specializing in Bahrain and the Gulf came to the latter conclusion: ie; despite making some well-known grave errors at the outset of the uprising, the Bahraini leadership, under the direction of the King and Crown Prince, took a step back from the brink, commissioned the BICI report and embarked on a far-reaching programme of reform.

Empowering the moderates

The most prominent Bahraini figures who Britain has consistently engaged with are the King and Crown Prince. There is almost certainly a very good reason for this, as these are the two stalwarts of enlightened and moderate rule within a ruling system pulling in several directions.

At moments during the worst of the disturbances the public standing of the Crown Prince and King were arguably damaged by seeming to concede too much to the opposition and being too ready to make concessions. In the eyes of many loyalist Sunnis they were going too far.

In such a polarized environment, by publically standing by these two figures of moderation the British government sent an important signal of support. We are aware that more ignorant parts of the British press were denouncing our King as a “brutal dictator” whenever he was due to meet the Queen or British Prime Minister, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Without the King wisely pulling Bahrain back from civil violence and sectarian strife and trying to get the sides into dialogue, Bahrain would be a very different place today.

We have the King to thank that since his accession to power just over a decade ago he took Bahrain in the direction of Constitutional Monarchy, an elected Parliament and progressive reforms.

Learning the wrong lessons from the Arab Spring

The British media had a tendency to lump all Arab states together, as if all these nasty Muslim states are ruled by bloodthirsty dictators and the Arab world suddenly awoke from political slumber in 2011 to overthrow their evil leaders and establish utopian democracies. The lesson which should not be drawn from the so-called Arab Spring is that all leaders are bad and all protesters are liberal democrats.

For example, in Bahrain in February 2011 there was indeed a coalition of Sunnis, liberals, women, intellectuals and middle classes who went out and called for reform. Most of these constituencies quickly deserted the movement because they were repulsed by the sectarian agenda of the de facto leaders of the movement. In recent months mass demonstrations have taken place when the religious leadership, like Ayatollah Isa Qassim, have told people to come out.

Britain should not make the mistake the West made in 1979 and sit back while a retrogressive and repressive regime stormed to power in Tehran.

British solidarity with an oasis of liberalism in an intolerant region

For diplomats who have spent time in Bahrain, it is only too obvious that this country is something unique in the region; liberal in dress, culture, civil society and attitudes and tolerant of diverse religions and backgrounds. It is only too obvious from nearby experiences of how easily a cosmopolitan culture can be swept aside when extremists and bigots gain the ascendancy.

Bahrain is arguably the closest country there is in the region to a liberal European-society. For that reason alone, in such a strategically crucial region, Bahrain deserves Britain’s support and solidarity to help avoid the evils of sectarianism, extremism and intolerance.

Britain as a Partner for Reform:

Britain has been most effective in encouraging the Bahraini Government to follow through on its reform promises when this has been done in a constructive and pragmatic manner. The US acquired a lot of unnecessary criticism in the Bahraini media because of a number of poorly-chosen statements and there are still numerous Sunnis who believe that Pearl Roundabout was somehow a US conspiracy.

Britain managed to quietly establish itself as a partner by providing tangible support for judicial and security reforms, and therefore in the minds of most Bahrainis Britain is a partner in reform, rather than a closet supporter of militant revolutionaries.

Many of the most criticized recent measures by the Bahraini Government, such as the temporary halt on protests have actually been highly popular among important swathes of the population was well as the majority of expats and foreign workers. Most Bahraini citizens have for too long been held hostage by a small number of militants determined to bring Manama to a halt every week and there is widespread frustration that the Government didn’t act sooner.

While the British Government is right to call on the Bahraini Government to abide by its human rights commitments, it is also important that there be recognition that the interests of all citizens be taken into account. While the Government of Bahrain has certainly not always made the right call, it is important for there to be wider recognition that the protest movement does not equate with the interests of ordinary Bahrainis and is often diametrically opposed to the aspirations of those who want to get on with their lives.

Britain’s undertaking to provide support for investigating recently discovered bomb factories and explosives stores was important. Many Bahrainis are gravely concerned about a wave of explosions that has recently rocked the capital. While not on the scale of Baghdad or Beirut, it would not take much to scare off tourists, terrorize civilians and create the kind of climate London witnessed during the IRA bombing campaign.

We value such pragmatic gestures of support, which may produce results in showing who is providing the youth of Bahrain with sophisticated explosive devises.

Carrots and sticks

We are glad that Britain generally shunned the policy option of embargos, boycotts and threats. There was much pressure to boycott this year’s Grand Prix, an event which Bahrainis are rightly proud of and which puts our tiny nation on the map. Hundreds of Bahrainis are employed every year in jobs associated with the F1 and the associated wave of tourism and revenue helped refloat our economy. Small and medium sized businesses were the worst hit by continual opposition activism and thus, most ordinary Bahrainis would deeply oppose anything which reduced Bahrain’s trade connections with the outside world.

Similarly, threats to halt sales of military goods is not just an issue which concerns the Government. We are situated on a tiny island in the centre of the Arabian Gulf and a much larger neighboring nation periodically claims Bahrain as its 14th province.

The smaller Gulf States largely owe their existence to British defence guarantees, as one-by-one they gained independence during the 20th century. We have Britain to thank that these states exist today as sovereign independent entities. This is an achievement, which Britain can be deservedly proud of. We hope that Britain would never consider backing out of these historic commitments by withdrawing Bahrain’s capacity to defend its sovereignty—a right enshrined in the UN Charter.

When Bahrain benefits Britain benefits

Too often the media sees trade and political engagement with Bahrain as exclusively benefitting Bahrain’s leaders. Britain is not only promoting its own interests when encouraging trade and investment with Gulf states, it is also acting in the interests of citizens in this region.

In an oil-dominated economy, our struggling private sectors greatly need stronger ties with Britain and Europe. The primary beneficiaries will be the medium-sized businessmen and their families—in all our countries.

Too often diplomats allude to trade issues and promoting British business as if it is something to be ashamed of. In fact, by empowering smaller businessmen we help create a broader civil society which can interact with Gulf rulers; lobbying for more effective services, better infrastructure, less bureaucracy, a better trained workforce etc.—aren’t these the factors which drove democratic reform in 19th century Europe?

In summary, let’s not bow to the wisdom of those idealists who believe that because a Government is imperfect it deserves to be swept away and replaced with a blank slate. You, as experienced experts in international politics, do not need us to provide you with historical examples to show that this is a recipe for catastrophe.

Britain can help to make Bahrain a better place for all its citizens by continuing to be the pragmatic friend of all Bahrainis and guaranteeing British solidarity in enabling Bahrain to move forward as a haven of enlightened reform.

We Bahrainis know best our own shortcomings and profit little for outsiders pointing out our failures—however, we do benefit when our friends help us with constructive solutions.

19 November 2012

Prepared 21st November 2013