Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

Dr Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

Co-Director, Kuwait Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States, London School of Economics and Political Science

The following constitutes my evidence submitted to the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee on the UK’s Relationship with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. I would be happy to give oral evidence to the Committee, should that be necessary or appropriate.


British relations with Bahrain have a longstanding historical dimension that complicates current ties between the two countries.

British engagement with Bahrain takes place across a range of formal and informal levels, with the latter creating difficulties for the former.

The extent of Saudi Arabia’s political, economic, and security leverage over Bahrain means that British engagement with, or policy toward, the two countries is intertwined.


Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is the 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. His research focuses on political and security developments in the Gulf States, and, specifically, on the challenges of transition toward post-oil forms of governance. In 2011, he published a book, entitled Insecure Gulf: The End of Certainty and the Transition to the Post-Oil Era (Columbia University Press, 2011), which described the vulnerability of regional security structures to domestic fault-lines and tensions within ruling elites unwilling to contemplate any meaningful sharing of political power or control.

Since the onset of the Arab Spring, he has written extensively on the meaning and significance of the Bahraini uprising, its regional and international implications both for other Gulf States, notably Saudi Arabia, and for Western security and commercial interests, and the implications for British foreign policy in light of the report and recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. These began with a co-authored article in October 2010, on the occasion of the parliamentary election in Bahrain and four months before the start of the uprising, entitled Bahrain on the Edge, that drew attention to the escalating security crackdown on human rights and opposition activists and predicted challenging times ahead for an increasingly-embattled government. His articles have appeared in Open Democracy and in Foreign Policy, as well as a book chapter, entitled Bahrain’s Uprising: Domestic Implications and Regional and International Perspectives, in a forthcoming volume edited by Fawaz A. Gerges, The New Middle East: Protest and Revolution in the Arab World (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

The following is a list of his written work on Bahrain since the February 14 uprising in 2011:

Bahrain on the Edge (with Christopher Davidson), Open Democracy, 19 October 2010.

Bahrain: Evolution or Revolution, Open Democracy, 1 March 2011.

What Next for Bahrain? Foreign Policy, 6 June 2011.

Dark Clouds over Bahrain, Foreign Policy, 6 September 2011.

Bahrain’s Uncertain Future (Foreign Policy, 23 November 2011).

Business as Usual in Bloody Bahrain (with Ala’a Shehabi), The Guardian, 11 January 2012.

Post-BICI Bahrain: Between Reform and Stagnation (with Elham Fakhro), Open Democracy, 19 January 2012.

The Hollow Shell of Security Reform in Bahrain, Foreign Policy, 12 April 2012.

Britain and Bahrain: Mutual Interests and the Politics of Protection, New Left Project, 1 August 2012.

Historical Background

1. For nearly two centuries, Britain has been the guarantor of Bahrain’s ruling Al-Khalifa dynasty, and for much of the past century its security backbone. Time and again, British support has enabled the Al-Khalifa regime to withstand local agitation for greater political freedoms and human rights. Britain’s protectorate relations with Bahrain may have formally ended on 15 August 1971, but they live on through informal channels and personal relationships in the royal, military, and commercial spheres.

2. A treaty in 1820 between Britain and local notables in the small coastal Gulf sheikhdoms first elevated the Al-Khalifa family to the title of ‘Rulers of Bahrain.’ The Al-Khalifa originally formed part of the larger tribal migration from central Arabia (the Najd) to the coast in the early eighteenth century, where they founded modern Kuwait alongside the present-day ruling Al-Sabah family. In 1766, a dispute between the Al-Sabah and the Al-Khalifa led the latter to leave Kuwait and move down the coast, first to what is today Qatar and, subsequently, to the island archipelago of Bahrain, conquering it in 1783 from the Persian dynasty then in power.

3. Since 1820, the links between the dynasty and the British have flourished and proliferated, with a protectorate declared in 1861. This lasted until 1971, during which period power over Bahraini foreign policy was transferred to the British, who also intervened regularly in Bahrain’s domestic affairs. This included deposing three rulers deemed unsuitable, in 1868, 1869, and 1923.

4. Connections between Bahrain and the United Kingdom also have rested on a succession of powerful British ‘advisors’ to the Al-Khalifa family. Charles Belgrave was appointed personal adviser to the ruler in 1926 and remained ‘Chief Administrator’, and effectively the most powerful man in the emirate, until 1957. He was only forced out after popular anti-British (and pan-Arab nationalist) fervour following the Suez crisis united Sunnis and Shiites in a cross-sectarian social movement for political and economic reform.

5. Belgrave’s advisory services were resurrected less than a decade later when Ian Henderson arrived as head of state security in 1966. Prior to his arrival in Bahrain, Henderson had served as a Colonial Police Officer in Kenya, and had been accused of using torture in putting down the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s. He later faced similar allegations of torturing opposition activists and political detainees during the Bahraini uprising in the 1990s. International pressure led to his removal in 1998 but he continues to reside in Bahrain and reportedly faces an arrest warrant should he return to the United Kingdom.

The Bahraini Uprising

6. It is in this historical context that continuing British support for the Al-Khalifa regime must be seen. Unlike the United States, British actions frequently are viewed against this long record of political and security support for the ruling family/government. This exposes Britain to governmental anger when that support is perceived as dwindling (as for example when engaging with the major political opposition Al-Wefaq society). It also generates an underlying sense of mistrust of British intentions in the eyes of many opposition figures.

7. Mass demonstrations in support of political reform erupted on 14 February 2011 and, at their height, saw up to one-third of the population on the streets demanding their rights. This was the highest per capita involvement in any of the protests during the Arab Spring, and the scale of the mobilisation shook the ruling family and the other Gulf monarchs to the core.

8. Significantly, the initial protests involved individuals and groups from across the political (and sectarian) spectrum. This was evident in the tent city that sprang up at Pearl Roundabout, in the involvement of predominantly-young Bahrainis from all social backgrounds in organising the protests, and in the slogan ‘no Sunni, no Shiite, just Bahraini’ that became the rallying-chant.

9. Faced with the rapid escalation of a broad and unifying social movement, the regime resorted to lethal force to disperse and subsequently contain the demonstrations, and also worked to fragment the protest movement by ramping up sectarian rhetoric, deliberately targeting Shiite religious symbols, selectively applying the rule of law and repressive measures to different communities, and splitting the movement in a classic tactic of ‘divide and rule.’

10. A three-month period of national emergency was declared on 15 March 2011. It was lifted on 1 June 2011 and a National Dialogue was convened on 2 July, running until 30 July.

11. It began under a cloud following the 22 June decision of the National Safety Court to sentence 13 prominent opposition figures to varying terms of imprisonment. They included the head and the founder of the Islamist Haq Movement (Abdeljalil Singace and Hassan Mushaima, who both received life sentences), the president of the liberal Wa’ad Society (Ibrahim Sharif, sentenced to five years), as well as prominent Shiite clerics and human rights activists. The majority of those sentenced were committed to non-violent protest and many had participated in the political opening that followed the ending of the previous bout of internal unrest in 1999. Their imprisonment, following a military trial, illustrated the gloved-fist nature of the regime’s approach, jailing some of its opponents while simultaneously reaching out to others.

12. The National Dialogue suffered a credibility gap from the beginning. Despite winning up to 45 percent of the vote in the October 2010 parliamentary election, the Shiite opposition group Al-Wefaq was only granted five out of 300 delegates (1.67 percent). This was consistent with the overall composition of the dialogue, in which delegates representing all Bahraini opposition societies only constituted 11.67 percent of the total. The remaining participants overwhelmingly favored keeping the regime in its current shape. Core opposition demands for redrawing electoral boundaries for greater proportional representation and creating an elected government were simply not on the agenda. Nor was any discussion permitted of the nature or extent of the ruling family’s power.

13. Al-Wefaq withdrew from the National Dialogue halfway through, on 18 July 2011, with critics calling into question its own judgment to participate. The dialogue continued, and concluded with a series of recommendations, including one that the Prime Minister (rather than the King) would appoint the government. As the long-serving Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa (in office since 1971) represents one of the key obstacles to reform, this recommendation hardly constituted a political concession. Nor did the dialogue come to an agreement over the electoral boundaries, another major opposition grievance. Far from drawing a line under the unrest, the flawed process reinforced existing divisions and demonstrated very clearly that critical issues of political contention are simply not up for debate.

14. The National Dialogue partially overlapped with the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). King Hamad established the BICI on 29 June 2011 to “enquire into the incidents” in February and March and their consequences. Its chair was Egyptian Professor Cherif Bassiouni, who earlier led the U.N. Security Council commission that investigated war crimes in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The BICI also included a UN Human Rights Committee member (Sir Nigel Rodley) and a former International Criminal Court judge (Philippe Kirsch) among their number.

15. The BICI report was published on 23 November 2011 with a blistering attack by its Chairman on the conduct of the Bahraini government and security services. In a televised speech in front of King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, Cherif Bassiouni stated that the Bahraini authorities had used torture and excessive force during its crackdown on pro-democracy protesters earlier this year. He pinpointed a culture of non-accountability among the security services operating during the state of emergency imposed between March and June, and accused unnamed officials of disobeying laws designed to safeguard human rights. Further, he stated that the BICI believed that many of the protests did not fall outside the participatory rights of citizens, and that it had not found evidence of any link to Iranian involvement.

16. In response, the King pledged to create a task force to implement the BICI recommendations, which included a national reconciliation strategy and a further commission to investigate the more than 45 deaths during the uprising since February 2011. Admitting shortcomings by government ministries, he suggested the report offered a new starting-point for Bahrain in its long process of recovery, and called for national unity. The King also pledged that civilians would no longer be tried in military courts and promised to replace officials found to be responsible for human rights abuses.

17. However, a report published in November 2012 by the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), entitled ‘One Year Later: Assessing Bahrain’s Implementation of the BICI Report,’ concluded that “the Government of Bahrain has fully implemented three of the BICI Report’s 26 recommendations. Two other recommendations were impossible for us to properly evaluate due to a lack of available information, and 15 recommendations have only been partially implemented. Finally, the government has made no meaningful progress toward six of the recommendations, which are precisely the most important steps that need to be taken—accountability for officials responsible for torture and severe human rights violations, the release of political prisoners, prevention of sectarian incitement, and the relaxation of censorship and controls on free expression.” (p.1)

18. It is within this context that the 30 October 2012 ban of all public demonstrations and rallies must be viewed. Tensions in Bahrain have continued to escalate in the absence of meaningful or credible reform initiatives either from the government or the opposition. Continuous announcements of impending reforms have failed to translate into significant action to redress the abuses of power and responsibility identified in the BICI report. Crown Prince Salman—previously the spearhead of Bahrain’s reforming elite—remains sidelined by internal struggles for influence within the ruling family. A flight to the extremes has occurred among both loyalist and opposition groups as advocates of compromise and consensus become outflanked by radical elements and advocates of violence over engagement.

19. The challenge for the government is partially also one of overcoming memories of the previous cycle of repression (during the 1994–99 uprising) followed by partial promises of reform (2001–10). The longer the old elite remains untouched by high-level calls to account for the abuses of power over the past twenty-one months, the harder it will be to convince sceptics of the government’s good faith this time around. Thus far, little in the 2011 National Dialogue, the BICI Report and its aftermath, and the continuing repression of opposition activity, suggests any room for optimism that a negotiated settlement may be found.

British Engagement—Formal and Informal

20. British policy toward Bahrain highlights the difficult and conflicting issues at stake; moreover, the historic and continuing close ties between Bahrain and the United Kingdom mean that engagement is filtered through informal channels as well as formal mechanisms of state-to-state coordination. The result has been a muddled and inconsistent policy that severely undermines British declaratory support for human rights as expressed by the Foreign Secretary in his keynote 15 September 2010 speech on ‘Britain’s Values in a Networked World.’

21. Yet, amid the ongoing unrest in Bahrain and intensifying criticism of the regime by international NGOs and the United Nations, British interests in the country have multiplied over the past year.

22. In December 2011, the appointment of former Metropolitan Police commissioner John Yates as adviser on police reform rekindled unhappy memories of Belgrave and Henderson. Although his contract was originally meant to last only until April 2012, he remains in place, and he accompanied the Minister of Interior on a visit to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in June. Yates has also emerged as a stout defender of the regime in the UK media through interviews and articles in which he dismisses the unrest as ‘vandalism’ devoid of political significance (Daily Telegraph, 12 February 2012).

23. Bahrain’s troubled year has also presented opportunities to expand British commercial and trading interests. A recent parliamentary report on arms export control revealed that 97 export licenses currently exist for sales to Bahrain, ranging from small arms and sniper rifles to silencers and gun sighting equipment (Committees on Arms Export Controls, First Joint Report, July 2012).

24. In addition, a British company (Olton) has provided the intelligence-gathering software to monitor social media and spy on activists, while multiple British-based consultants and PR companies have been appointed to present a polished image of the regime to the world.

25. While not illegal in any way, it should be noted that aspects of such ‘informal’ or private involvement with the Bahraini government complicates the ‘official’ British narrative in Bahrain, especially when set against prior instances of similar British support in the past.

26. It is difficult not to conclude that the British government’s policy has continued to prioritise a ‘business as usual’ approach to secure lucrative contracts, especially in the security sector, while keeping judiciously quiet about the continuing human rights abuses.

27. At a time of economic austerity and relentless cost-cutting at home, such a mercantilist approach may make commercial and even strategic sense; moreover, as tensions with Iran escalate, so does the strategic value of Bahrain to the British and American posture in the Gulf.

28. This provides succour to hard-liners within the regime who oppose far-reaching reforms, even if some of them, most notably the Minister of Defence, have suggested (bizarrely) that the uprising was ‘by all means a conspiracy involving Iran with the support of the United States.’ In the same interview with Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram on 6 July 2011, Khalifa bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa added that ‘More important than talking about the differences between the U.S. and Iran’ are ‘their shared interests in various matters that take aim at the Arab welfare.’

Britain, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia

29. In the absence of a game-changing shift in US and British security posture in the Gulf, further engagement with Bahrain will continue, as it will with the other Gulf States, to be defined by strategic and commercial interest. Yet, Saudi Arabia’s political, economic, and security influence over Bahrain also means that policy engagement toward Bahrain must be viewed against the backdrop of British interests in Saudi Arabia (however defined).

30. Bahrain has long had an agreement with Saudi Arabia to share the revenues from the offshore Abu Safa oilfield, without which Bahraini oil production would be negligible. The resulting revenues provide 70% of Bahrain’s total oil and gas earnings, but as the field is operated by Saudi Aramco, Bahrain is vulnerable to Saudi pressure that has, in the past, resulted in temporary reductions in revenue transfer as a means of expressing Saudi displeasure at particular Bahraini policies—a case in point being Saudi anger at Bahrain’s 2006 Free Trade Agreement with the US. This gives Saudi Arabia considerable political (and economic) influence over Bahrain, while the Saudi and Emirati military incursion into Bahrain in March 2011 provides a high degree of influence over security policy, too.

31. The Saudi incursion into Bahrain stems from acknowledgement that it has the most to lose from prolonged or major instability in its eastern neighbour. From an ideological perspective, the ruling Al-Saud family in Riyadh has demonstrated twice—first during the 1990s uprising and then again in 2011—that it is prepared to use force if necessary to support a fellow ruling dynasty in the Gulf.

32. The ideological damage to ruling families throughout the Gulf, were one of their number to be forced into major concessions to popular opinion, still less ousted from power, is magnified in Saudi Arabia’s case. This arises from the fact that Bahrain lies offshore the coast of its oil-rich Eastern Province with its large Shiite minority. Like their Bahraini counterparts, Shiites in Saudi Arabia have long complained of systematic discrimination and marginalisation at the hands of state authorities. Deep frustration at the politics of uneven development caused a week of major unrest in 1979 centred on the oasis town of Qatif.

33. Worryingly for Saudi officials, Qatif has again been at the epicentre of persistent anti-government protests over the past two years, replete with declarations of support from Saudi Shiites for their Bahraini brethren. As in Bahrain, the unrest has been met with force, leading to more than ten deaths and the arrest of a leading Saudi Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr.

34. Companies and governments wishing to maintain close relationships with neighbouring Saudi Arabia are unlikely to want to jeopardise these far more valuable ties by making a stand over Bahrain, given the degree of Saudi political and economic influence over the country. Indeed, the visceral Saudi reaction to the announcement of the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry reinforces the point that policy toward Bahrain now is interlinked to Saudi engagement.

35. Companies perceived to be British already have been targeted for retaliation by Gulf governments angered at alleged British support for opposition and human rights activists—notably the decision by Abu Dhabi to drop BP from the shortlist for the renewal of the oilfield concession it has part-held since 1939, supposedly in response to BBC Arabic providing ‘negative’ coverage of the security crackdown in the UAE in 2012.

36. There is no hiding place in the modern networked world. Social networking and online media tools such as YouTube and Twitter represent powerful new methods of holding government, corporations, and individuals to account. These platforms already have been utilised both by Bahraini government loyalists and opposition figures to highlight perceived inconsistencies in British policy. Yet, Britain’s complex historical relationship with Bahrain places officials in a ‘lose-lose’ situation. On the one hand, the long record of British support for the ruling Al-Khalifa family exposes policy-makers to Bahraini government anger when British policy is seen to be critical and less than fully supportive; on the other hand, the opposition juxtaposes continuing British engagement with the government against declaratory statements of British support for Arab Spring movements elsewhere in the region, notably in Libya and Syria, as well as the eventual acquiescence to peaceful regime change in Tunisia and Egypt.

37. Thus, despite the potential for leverage accorded to US and British policy-makers by virtue of their security partnership and historic ties, little evidence exists that officials actually are willing to exercise it. Instead, Bahrain has become a symbol of the double-standards of Western policy toward the Arab uprisings, where the withdrawal of support for dictatorial regimes in Libya and Syria stands in contrast to the enabling of autocratic rulers in the Gulf.

38. A report published by Amnesty International to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the BICI report (‘Bahrain: Reform Shelved, Repression Unleashed’, November 2012) made the important point that ‘The legacy of the BICI Report is fading fast, increasingly overshadowed by ongoing impunity for torture, the jailing of activists, and the ban on all protests. In the face of what increasingly appears to be a defunct reform process, those who have championed Bahrain’s record on reform must be increasingly forced to challenge the charade’ (p.36).

39. This poses a profound set of questions for the Parliamentary inquiry as well as for British policy-makers regarding continuing engagement with a government that does not appear to have a credible plan of reform and one in which hard-liners consistently have gained influence at the expense of moderate figures in the twenty-one months since February 2011.


British policy to Bahrain and to Saudi Arabia must not lose sight of human rights considerations even as strategic and commercial interests loom large.

Policy-makers should be more forceful about tying future engagement to meaningful progress on upholding universal values in general, and to insisting upon mechanisms of accountability and reparation for victims of abuse since February 2011 in particular.

The discrepancy between the Bahraini government’s claims of substantial progress on reforms and the reports of international agencies need to be examined as a matter of urgency.

21 December 2012

Prepared 21st November 2013