Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from Robin Lamb

The Author

I was an Arabist in HM Diplomatic Service from 1971–2007 and served in a number of Arab countries including Saudi Arabia (Jedda, 1979–82; Riyadh, 1985–87) and Bahrain where I was HM Ambassador from 2003–06. I do not have a continuing professional association with either country (although I was involved in establishing a Bahrain British Business Council in 2007) but remain in occasional contact with friends in Bahrain. I am a member of the Bahrain Society. My evidence will focus on Bahrain and aims to set current events in the context of recent history.

Summary of Evidence


(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. I was appointed HM Ambasssador to Bahrain in 2003. At that time, King Hamad had succeeded his father in 1999, lifted the State Security Law, granted an amnesty to opponents of the government, secured wide support in a referendum on a National Charter, introduced a new Constitution (disappointing opponents who had hoped for restoration of the 1973 Constitution) and held an election, in 2002, to the lower House of a new bicameral parliament. Some dissidents returning from overseas had accepted Ministerial portfolios. Critics of the government focused on the need to redress past wrongs and transfer more authority to the new parliament but found little fault in the current state of human rights.

2. Before taking up my post, I asked the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, what he wanted me to achieve in Bahrain. He instructed me to support Bahrain’s continuation as ‘a paradigm of Arab democracy’. The political reform programme, including the upholding of human rights, was clearly, therefore, my priority. But the positive reform story meant that there was little difficulty in reconciling our support for continued development in governance and human rights with our other interests in defence, commerce, energy security, counter-terrorism—and regional issues. Where balance might be required was in how far and how fast we should press the government to move on political, economic and human rights reform. Since the trajectory of Bahraini political development looked to be moving in the right direction and the pace of change so far had been impressive, I judged that the task was to encourage continued progress.

3. I therefore approached support for reform through public endorsement and private discussion, the promotion of parliamentary contacts, endorsement of police reform (from ‘colonial policing’ to community policing, with the advice of UK police advisers and training in UK), sponsored visits in both directions, courses for prospective parliamentary candidates (especially women), contacts with political societies and others. We drew on the support of an FCO programme budget called Engaging with the Islamic World (and the regional coordinator of the programme was based in my Embassy).

4. The key opposition movement, Al Wefaq (which commanded the broadest support among the Shia community), had boycotted the 2002 election. I judged that their self-imposed exclusion from the parliamentary process would hold back progress. The absence of the principal opposition movement devalued parliament and excluded the main demandeur for reform. Concessions to an extra-parliamentary opposition would have diminished the elected parliament. I therefore made this point consistently in occasional meetings with Al Wefaq representatives, suggesting that the prospects for reform, Al Wefaq’s own status and the achievement of its political objectives would be enhanced by its participation in the parliamentary process.

5. I was also concerned that a parliament dominated by MPs representing the Sunni community faced by an extra-parliamentary opposition primarily representing the Shia community would institutionalize inter-communal differences. This concern was strengthened by my four months temporary duty as HM Consul General in Basra over the summer of 2006 (leaving my Deputy Head of Mission as Charge d’Affaires in Bahrain). During the few remaining weeks of my tour in Bahrain after my return from Basra, I urged Bahraini interlocutors on both sides not to let sectarian differences reach the violent pitch they had in Iraq.

6. I was glad, therefore, when Al Wefaq contested the 2006 elections, shortly after my departure at the end of my tour. They won the largest single bloc of seats (hard line members who rejected participation left Al Wefaq to form their own group, Al Haqq). But before long, it became apparent that the reform process had stalled and by the time of the 2010 election, confidence in the parliamentary process and the standing of Al Wefaq with its own constituency had reportedly atrophied. The government had apparently underestimated the importance of continuing reform, not least in order to sustain public support for the process and the parliamentary opposition. Had I remained longer in Bahrain, I would have impressed this upon the government and warned them of the likely radicalization of political opposition if the parliament provided an inadequate forum for building consensus and further reform. I would have urged continued progress on the latter. I believe that my successor did so but without success.

7. When protests began in Bahrain in early 2011, therefore, the government was left with a weakened parliamentary institution and a parliamentary opposition unwilling or (more likely) unable to control the street. If the reform process had progressed after 2006, it could have been otherwise. In tennis terms, this was an unforced error on the part of the government.

8. There are a number of reasons why it may have made this mistake. In introducing reform, King Hamad had to balance a number of competing domestic and regional forces against his apparent conviction, formed during the 1990s when he was heir apparent, that repression provided no long-term solution to Bahrain’s systemic internal divisions. His solution was a managed transition to a constitutional monarchy. Some members of his own family were opposed to this and Bahrain’s Sunni community are largely content with the status quo in Bahrain and support the Al Khalifa. Indeed, the current situation in Bahrain is not so much a confrontation between King and people as one between the government and the large Sunni minority on the one hand and a Shia majority on the other. King Hamad also had to be careful not to get too far out ahead of the rest of the Arab Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia (a point wrongly dismissed at the time by my Shia interlocutors).

9. Bahrain is directly dependent on Saudi Arabia for the largest part of its oil revenues (from the shared offshore Abu Safah oilfield), for crude feedstock for its export refinery and for over 90% of the foreign visitors who support its hotel and tourist industry. The relationship with Saudi Arabia is vital to Bahrain’s financial services sector (which generates around 25% of GDP) and Saudi Arabia is a significant shareholder in some of Bahrain’s key non-oil industries, such as Aluminium Bahrain (ALBA), Gulf Aluminium Rolling Mill Company (GARMCO), the Arab Ship Repair Yard (ASRY) and Gulf Petrochemicals Industries Company (GPIC). Saudi Arabia is also the key guarantor of Bahraini sovereignty. Although I doubt that the Saudi government micro-manages Bahraini policy, the Bahraini authorities will be finely attuned to Saudi concerns (not least contagion from Bahrain to Saudi Arabia’s own Shia community in the Eastern Province—but perhaps also if Bahrain diverges too far from more traditional systems of government in other GCC states) and highly responsive to any expression of Saudi dissatisfaction.

10. The entry of a (principally Saudi) Peninsula Shield force across the Causeway on 14 March 2011 was interpreted as a signal variously to the Iranians and to the US of the end of Saudi tolerance of political unrest in Bahrain. But whatever else it may have been (and the force took no direct part in internal security operations), it marked the abrupt (and at least temporary) end of the Al Khalifa’s attempts to retrieve the situation through negotiation. It seems likely that the advocates in the family of a tough security and political approach took control of policy.

11. Whatever the cause of the interruption of reform and then of a negotiated solution to the confrontation of early 2011, the result has been a radicalization of Bahrain’s politics and deep polarization of its society. Political dissent has been criminalized and opposition has been expressed through escalating and indiscriminate street violence posing a threat to the security and safety of all sections of the population (including members of the Shia community).

12. The establishment and report of the Bahrain Independent Committee of Inquiry (BICI) and the government’s acceptance at the UN Human Rights Council in September 2012 of most recommendations of the Universal Periodic Review suggest that the government still includes members who see the need to balance hardline policy. It is to be hoped that their influence will be restored (and accompanied by fuller implementation of the BICI recommendations) but if it is, the challenges they will face will have been exacerbated by a long period of confrontation. It will be an uphill task to win back lost trust and rebuild a political process to which a divided opposition—and loyalists outraged by opposition violence—can subscribe. The authorities must start by distinguishing between political critics and the violent perpetrators of direct action if a political process and dialogue are to replace the current politics of confrontation. The opposition have reciprocal responsibilities and their recent Declaration of Principles of Non-violence is a welcome step.

(II) The extent to which the FCO’s Gulf Initiative has met its objective of improving relations with the Gulf States more generally and establishing the UK as a “key strategic partner” in the region as a whole

13. Until 1971, the UK was the key strategic partner. Today, the UK’s ability to project power is much reduced. Only the US has the military, political, financial and diplomatic muscle to guarantee the security of the Gulf states. That said the UK can, when invited, demonstrate engagement through the temporary deployment of aircraft or a ship to supplement our diplomatic and assets.

14. Gulf countries are generally familiar with the UK and respect (if they do not always wish to embrace) the way we do things. At times, the fact that we are not the US superpower, with all the baggage and attitudes that brings, has worked to our advantage. But the FCO’s careful best efforts can be blown off course in an instant by regional events or reaction to manifestations of the UK’s transparent and democratic society. This happened in 1980, when I was a junior officer in the British Embassy in Jedda and the bilateral relationship was temporarily derailed by the ‘Death of a Princess’ TV programme.

(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

15. Bahrain has been an helpful partner to the UK in the recent past by providing a staging post for air communications to Afghanistan and Iraq (although the Bahraini Prime Minister was privately highly critical of Coalition action against Iraq in 2003 and complained later that his contrary advice had not been considered). Bahraini Special Forces have served in Afghanistan.

16. Bahrain sees Iran as a threat because of historic Iranian claims to the island (occasionally resurrected by Iranian speakers), its suspicion that Iran aims to dominate the Gulf and a conviction, genuine or manufactured to legitimize action against domestic Shia opposition, that Iran provides material support to the Bahraini opposition. Bahrain supports international action to confront Iran’s development of nuclear weapons (it has also been concerned at the risks attendant on Iran’s development of civil nuclear power because of its own vulnerability to a nuclear accident, sited as it is south of Iran along the axis of the prevailing wind).

17. Bahrain is a loyal member (and beneficiary) of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and in wider fora will vote in accordance with positions agreed with GCC partners. It is highly unlikely to depart from this position at the Arab League—or at the UN, including when we lobby the Bahraini authorities to vote on an issue in a way that diverges from the GCC lead. But GCC and Arab League policy towards Syria is as critical of the Assad regime as that of the UK (if more inclined to intervention). Any UK policy in the Middle East is likely to fare better when it is consistent with the policy of its Arab partners (cf action in Libya); the converse is also true (cf criticism of Western policy towards the Arab/Israel dispute and allegations of double standards by proponents of a single narrative approach to international affairs)

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

18. Western response to the “Arab Spring” caused concern in Saudi Arabia over a perceived deficit in Western loyalty to friendly regimes following the removal of Egyptian President Mubarak. Saudi Arabia will be sensitive to any indication that UK policy demonstrates a similar lack of commitment to our relationship with itself or Bahrain.

19. Our commerce, counter-terrorism, defence, energy security and regional policy interests with both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are significant. The Bahraini government’s response to the escalation of the country’s internal political divisions has complicated balancing these interests with upholding British values. But this is an issue which affects our policy with many countries around the world and in a nation highly dependent on international trade, the government has a responsibility to uphold our national values without damaging our material interests. These objectives need not be mutually exclusive if our diplomacy, as an external actor, works to build consensus through influence (which it must therefore retain, with both communities).

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

20. The UK does not have the power to effect improvements and must not behave as if it does; but it can try to use influence (born of the UK’s international position, local history and domestic example) as long as it recognizes its limits. It can best deploy this influence with decision makers by maintaining and strengthening a positive relationship with both countries across a range of shared interests (the state of the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia will be a factor in the extent of UK influence in Bahrain) and by using positive reinforcement of the importance of progress in public1 and rational argument and debate in private. It should work with others of a like mind, not least the US & EU but also in the region, particularly in the GCC, and within Bahrain.

21. With partners, it needs to convince decision makers on both sides and their constituencies that, as many in the Bahraini ruling family and civil society already appreciate, Bahrain’s systemic internal divisions cannot be resolved through security and economic policy—or confrontational opposition—alone. There has to be a political process, involving genuine dialogue with (and by) opposition leaders able to influence disaffected members of the population. A dialogue cannot start before the authorities distinguish between street violence, for which resort to the police and courts is appropriate; and political dissent and opposition for which it is not.

(VI) The long-term trends and scenarios in the region for which the FCO should prepare, and the extent to which it is doing so

22. Some trends have become familiar, such as the political role of Islam, the youth of Gulf Arab populations, the implications of higher educational attainment and access to modern communications technology and the pressure on all but a few oil exporting states (Abu Dhabi and Qatar) of maintaining traditional fiscal policies and state services in the face of growing populations and increased domestic demand for energy. These factors have stimulated a requirement for job creation, economic diversification and more and better education. A generational shift has been bringing in younger leaders in several Arab countries (eg Egypt) and is in prospect in Saudi Arabia. Gulf governments, businesses and investors are increasingly looking eastwards for opportunity and supply, away from their traditional markets in Europe and the US. We will have to work even harder to compete successfully for their business and respect for our policies. It would be a pleasant surprise if Scottish independence did not undermine our prospects of success.

23. All these trends are familiar to the FCO and will influence current strategy and policy. The FCO also needs to consider other scenarios which may—or may not—develop. If it has not yet done so, it should consider the implications for US regional policy of a redirection of US priorities away from MENA to the Far East, the development of US energy self-sufficiency by 20202 and increasing domestic energy consumption by Gulf producers, reducing the share of Gulf oil available for export and the revenues they will therefore earn for domestic expenditure and imports of goods and services (these factors should reinforce the importance of economic diversification noted above). If these prospects are borne out, they could impact on the amount of attention the US will give to the region and have implications for the extent of US engagement to balance its commitment to Israel’s security.

(VII) The extent to which the FCO has the resources, personnel and capacities required for effective policy in the region

24. I take part in periodic meetings at the FCO chaired by the Director Middle East & North Africa and attended by a number of former Ambassadors to the region. We discuss issues and policy but not personnel. I also know a number of current Heads of Mission and I respect their abilities as I do those of the Director, his Deputy, other senior officers dealing with Arab countries and the Research Analysts who support them. We are fortunate to have able people in the Service.

25. The FCO as a whole has been under resource pressure for many years and I am not currently in a position to know how far that has eroded its ability to deliver the goods. In general terms, a judgement as to whether the FCO has the resources it needs should take account of its global responsibilities (vital to a country dependent on international trade, maintaining Permanent Membership of the UNSC and delivering on Government determination to play a significant role in international events), range of functions (political, commercial, consular, management etc) and effectiveness. As one of the smaller Departments of State (the major expense for which is its personnel), it has less room for manoeuvre before it reaches a level of expenditure at which effectiveness can no longer be assured. A percentage reduction in budget will therefore have a larger impact on its capability than the same reduction to a larger budget.

26. Many considerations will affect resource decisions and allocations. I will mention two concerns. Firstly, there will be a temptation to cut junior posts (and “push down the level of responsibility”) to prioritise expenditure. This could turn out to be a false economy because it will impact on the future effectiveness of senior officers if they have not had the opportunity to build experience. This implies that it should be recognized that some jobs will have a training element in their purpose.

27. The second issue is the long-running argument about the importance of Arabic-speaking officers in Middle East posts. It is true that Ministers and senior officials in many Arab countries now speak English and that bilateral business can often be conducted in English. However, this ability is not universal and is less likely to be found outside the capital and in Ministries or other walks of life which do not have regular international dealings. Even where Arab officials are fluent in English, they will often prefer to have documents in Arabic (if only for speed of assimilation). Moreover, learning a language also helps cultivate an understanding of how other peoples think. As an Arabist, I have always found Arab interlocutors warm when they know I speak Arabic. It shows an interest in them and their culture which an exclusively English speaking officer will find harder to match. In a profession where influence and other soft power tools are the only ones at a diplomat’s disposal, this matters.

18 November 2012

1 The Foreign Secretary’s statement after his meeting with the Crown Prince of Bahrain on 11 October 2012 is a good example

2 file:///Users/robinlamb/Documents/MENA/iea13nov12.webarchive

Prepared 19th November 2013