Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)


Bahrain is an ally, and not merely of convenience; Britain should not reduce Bahrain to a caricature by becoming so focused on its shortcomings that it ignores its virtues.

Britain has no coercive power in Bahrain, but its brand gives it a power of suasion it should not underestimate. This gives the UK an important role to play.

A stable and functioning Bahrain exposes the hollowness of Iranian claims to regional leadership; an unstable Bahrain empowers Iran and destabilises its neighbours.

Bahrain suffers from a ‘split personality’: competing factions are pulling the state in conflicting directions. Consequently, merely applying pressure is likely to do little.

Abandoning Bahrain would permit hardliners to steer it closer to Saudi Arabia and further from any prospect of reform—to the region’s ultimate detriment and Britain’s.

If Bahrain fails to reform, other Gulf monarchies are unlikely to overcome their own inertia. If it succeeds, it will offer its neighbours evidence that the task is not impossible, and so contribute to greater regional stability.


Matthew Willis is a Research Associate in International Security Studies.

Dr Jonathan Eyal is the Director of International Security Studies and has overall responsibility for RUSI’s Qatar office.




1. The relationship with Bahrain is among the most intimate the UK entertains with any Gulf country; it may also be its least well understood, largely because of a perennial failure to grasp the wider strategic implications of the turmoil engulfing the island. This turmoil, a product of longstanding internal dysfunctional pressures, is now doing double damage: it is exposing Bahrain to the effects of the region-wide sectarian malaise long fomented by Iran but lately exacerbated by the war in Syria, and it is further undermining the stability of a region already being rocked by the forces unleashed during the ‘Arab Spring’.

2. The UK has an important role to play in the country. The US is unpopular, and Saudi Arabia is often regarded as part of the problem rather than the solution. Britain, on the other hand, is respected by most Bahrainis and instinctively knows more about the country and region than it often realises; it should not underestimate the value of the cards it holds. It cannot resolve Bahrain’s crisis, but it only needs to continue offering support. King Hamad has the will to find a way out of his country’s current impasse that does not involve renewed repression, and that alone puts Bahrain ahead of almost all its neighbours. If Bahrain gets back on track—by which we mean that the reforms announced last year are finally carried out, however slowly—it will set the other monarchies an example to follow; if it founders, expect to see a domino political effect on other Gulf states.

The Bilateral Relationship is more than Mere Convenience

3. The British-Bahraini relationship goes beyond mere interests, something the ubiquity of the English language in Bahrain encourages. A disproportionate number of the Bahraini elite pass through the British higher education system, where they are acculturated to British attitudes, values and ways of thinking. The same holds in the field of defence instruction and training, which has created a cadre of Bahraini military leaders attuned to British methods and standards. Indeed, many members of the Bahraini royal family, including King Hamad and the eldest son of the crown prince, have attended Sandhurst. King Hamad is also the patron of the Sandhurst Foundation, a charity that supports trainees. The closeness of the royal families provides the countries’ governments with an added channel for diplomatic communication. The Bahrain Society, established in 1971 to help maintain the ties of friendship established between Britons and Bahrainis, is another important link. What all this means is that although there is much about Bahrain that is foreign, the cultural divide one might expect to encounter between political classes is not that wide. There is a tendency among British analysts to assume that these historic links skew or hinder the UK’s relations with Bahrain. We believe that the reality is the opposite: that such links are not confined to just elites or the royal family, and that they are an asset which can be harnessed.

4. The diplomatic and political dimensions of the bilateral relationship act as its anchor. During the protectorate era, from the mid-nineteenth century until 1971, Britain’s role as arbitrator of the treaties with the Gulf sheikhdoms occasionally involved it in Bahrain’s domestic affairs. Since 1971, however, it has consistently treated Bahrain as an independent country to be supported and guided, and its engagement has been at the request of the government or the king. Bahrain has justified Britain’s support by adopting genuinely progressive policies in a range of areas (economics, civil freedoms, gender equality...) and demonstrating the ambition to go further. The resulting bond of trust is not something to be lightly dismissed. Not only is it, from an elementary foreign policy perspective, the root of the UK’s influence in Bahrain, it is also what sets Britain apart from the other Western countries attempting to bring the government and the opposition together.

The UK Brand: an Asset to be Used Carefully

5. The UK must therefore not abuse its power. British backing can legitimise Bahraini actions; conversely, its withdrawal can delegitimise (at least internationally) in a way which few other foreign nations can accomplish. That is the reason the government resisted calls to speak out against Bahrain’s F1 race in April. The Grand Prix is the product of efforts by Crown Prince Salman to bring a high-profile sports event to the kingdom, and the prince is one of Bahrain’s leading reformers. An expression of British disapproval would have undermined his power and status right when he—and the UK—needed it to counter the influence of hard-liners within the Bahraini government. In the case of the Grand Prix, the UK did well, even if there was no visible pay-off.

6. Whether or not it did so well in condemning the violence in the early weeks of the uprising is harder to say. The strong language used by the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary was not inappropriate, particularly given the events of August 2010, which had already caused the Foreign Office to express itself forcefully (though privately) on Bahrain’s need to respect human rights. But it may also have done more harm than good. Domestically, it failed to appease those who said the government was too indulgent; in Bahrain, meanwhile, it provoked dismay, confusion and a sense of abandonment. It is impossible to make someone see the validity of reasoned arguments at the same time as he is being hung out to dry, so to speak, yet that is exactly what the UK seemed to be doing. Although the episode did it no long-term damage, the UK must appreciate that the stock Bahrain puts in its opinion magnifies the weight of its statements. There is no use crushing Bahrain’s trust when both sides need to work together.

UK Interests in Bahrain: Real but Widely Misconstrued

7. The British government has been criticised for treating Bahrain as an important client whose business is too valuable to lose. Leaving aside the fact the British government actually came down harder on Bahrain than most people acknowledge—there was a sense the UK needed to get the public messaging on Bahrain ‘right’ after fluffing its lines in Tunisia and Egypt—the notion that Britain depends on Bahrain commercially is simply incorrect. The UK derives massive financial benefit from its relations with several of the Gulf States, notably the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but the same is not true of its relations with Bahrain. As an illustration, the agreement BAE Systems signed in May 2012 to supply Saudi Arabia with Hawk trainer jets, worth £1.9 billion unto itself, was almost quadruple the value of all the UK’s exports to Bahrain the previous year. Bahrain’s commercial value to the UK is low.

8. On a related note, the British government’s defence sector exports and continued provision of training to Bahraini security forces have been portrayed as endorsements of Bahrain’s more questionable actions. Most of the exports, however, be they patrol boats, aircraft components, artillery or even sniper rifles, relate not to Bahrain’s internal security but to its external defence. The training courses for Bahraini defence personnel may, for their part, have some applicability to the civil unrest. But there is little doubt that training received from the UK is more likely to promote a measured and discriminating approach to crowd control—something in line with British policing standards—than training received from Saudi Arabia or any number of other providers. Suppressing dissent is not something most countries have problems with; it is doing so in an acceptable manner that poses the challenge, and that is where the UK’s efforts in Bahrain can help.

9. In contrast to the commercial relationship, the defence relationship is crucial to the UK’s pursuit of its national strategic aims. Bahrain welcomes British naval vessels into its waters and port facilities, allows the RAF to use its airfields, and routinely waives the sorts of protocols Britain would have to follow before entering the national territory of certain of its neighbours. Bahrain also supplies the UK with intelligence, in particular though not exclusively in connexion with counter-terrorism. In a sense, the kingdom is a substitute for an aircraft carrier permanently stationed in the Gulf. Without its co-operation, the UK’s strategic flexibility would be curtailed. The assistance Bahrain gives the UK does, therefore, give it a degree of leverage, but one must not jump to the conclusion that British access concerns dominate policy-making. The relationship is much more robust than that.

Implications of Bahrain’s Regional Strategic Significance

10. Bahrain’s strategic importance goes far beyond the national interests of the UK, or indeed of the US. Bahrain affects, and is affected by, the stability of the region. When Bahrain is stable, it is evidence that a slowly liberalising, democratising monarchical model can work in the Gulf. To its neighbours, it offers reassurance that there is an alternative to the traditional rentier state model, that in the face of growing internal pressure to accommodate demands for freedoms, jobs and political enfranchisement, there is a viable ‘middle way’. Never has evidence of that possibility been more valuable than now, as the Arab Spring reverberates throughout the region and the Gulf States struggle to respond. The Bahraini model is from perfect, of course, and its flaws do not need iterating here. But when it is working, Bahrain is among the Gulf’s most functional, modern and stable countries.

11. By belying the schism on which Iran’s pretensions are based, Bahrain’s considerable success also countervails Iran’s attempts to cast itself as the leader of an oppressed people. A strong and functioning Bahrain offers a firmer—and, in the eyes of the Shia world, more credible—rejection of the Iranian agenda than anything London or Washington can come up with. It thus has the potential to export stability regionally. Unfortunately, and this is the case at present, an unstable Bahrain does the opposite, validating Iran’s claims and putting neighbouring countries on edge. The most obvious example is Saudi Arabia, where the persistent unrest in the Eastern Province waxes and wanes in parallel with the situation in Bahrain.

12. Bahrain is also ‘importing’ instability from Iran. Though the Bassiouni Report did not turn up evidence of direct Iranian meddling, there can be no questioning the Islamic Republic’s efforts to destabilise Bahrain using state-sponsored media propaganda. That propaganda, internet-, radio- and TV-borne, amplifies Bahrain’s civil strife by vilifying the government and the security forces, exaggerating casualty figures, fabricating outrages against Shias and generally inciting sectarian hatred. By siding with the Bahraini opposition, Iran’s media in fact discredit societies like Al-Wifaq by exposing them to attacks from Bahraini pro-government media outlets which accuse them of ‘sedition’ and Iranian sympathies. The Iranian media’s wider practices have been deemed obnoxious enough to warrant the suspension of TV and radio broadcasting permits in France, the US and the UK. Iran is by no means the cause of the strife in Bahrain, but by sowing confusion and exacerbating the distrust that already exists, it is making an already-trying situation more intractable.

13. The conflict in Syria, which is drawing leading countries of the Gulf and Middle East into a sectarian proxy war, is a further strain. The conflict’s confessional dimension is becoming harder to ignore. For those in Bahrain who feel a part of a persecuted transnational Shia community—the kind Iran speaks of, Gulf governments’ support for the rebels is liable to fuel the sense of domestic victimisation.

Britain’s Advantages vis-à-vis the United States and Saudi Arabia

14. Britain, on its own, is not going to resolve the Syrian civil war or the crisis in Bahrain, but it is probably better-positioned than the US to play a part in Bahrain. Comparative newcomers to the Gulf, the Americans are seen both as lacking Britain’s regional knowledge and as being untrustworthy. The notion that Washington is out to redraw the boundaries of the Arab world for its own gain has strong currency at the highest levels. Controversy surrounding the current US ambassador, Thomas Krajeski, has undermined the Bahrainis’ trust further, and Krajeski is now deemed unable to do his job—ie speak to members of the opposition—without being accused of ‘interference’. Flag-burnings and protests outside the US embassy show that the antipathy towards Washington is deepening.

15. British disengagement from Bahrain would loosen the ties that have kept it from drifting further into Saudi Arabia’s sphere. The Bahraini-Saudi merger—an undertaking mooted for the May 2012 GCC summit but happily shelved—is the most recent illustration of a trend fuelled by Bahrain’s economic reliance on its neighbour. Although most Bahrainis aspire to a society more closely resembling Britain’s than Saudi Arabia’s and leading Bahraini officials share those aspirations, there are also elements in the country’s upper echelons that would happily steer it in Saudi’s direction. The future Britain represents is one whose appeal these elements cannot hope to match, but were Britain to remove itself, they would not have to. That said, Britain’s power must not be exaggerated; it lacks the leverage to challenge Saudi Arabia directly, as does the US.

A Way Forward for UK Policy

16. The UK must not abandon Bahrain—a wayward ally, but an ally nonetheless. It is the lone country in the Gulf that has openly admitted its shortcomings, announced its intention to address them, and adopted a roadmap—the Bassiouni Report—for doing so. In a Gulf context, that report is a truly exceptional document. Granted, it is only a small map and the end of the road is quickly reached: its recommendations relate to the acute problems exposed by the unrest in 2011 and not to the chronic ones that generated it; nevertheless, as an agenda for change whose recommendations provide verifiable markers of progress, it is unique in the region. (Incidentally, Bahrain is in this regard well ahead of Egypt and Libya, where it is unclear what the government believes, where it is going or who will take it there.)

17. What is more, the government has accepted the Report’s recommendations and vowed to implement them. This statement of intent gives the UK the leverage it needs to sustain its pressure on Bahrain without overstepping the bounds either of reasonable foreign policy or of friendship. In areas in which the Bahraini government has made progress, its efforts should be recognised and applauded. That in no way precludes the UK from demanding proof that the formal reforms translate into genuine change. Nor does it prevent it from making an issue of Bahrain’s failure to tackle other parts of the plan.

18. The United Nations Human Rights Council’s 176 recommendations for reform, contained in its review of Bahrain’s human rights record since 2008, could serve as a second and complementary roadmap. Bahrain accepted 158 of the Council’s recommendations in September. Its progress in implementing them should be monitored alongside its progress on the Bassiouni Report.

Iran: A Nuisance that can only be Mitigated

19. As long as the Bahraini government views Iran as an immediate threat, it will be loath to abandon its security-oriented approach to the crisis. Unhelpful measures, such as the recent banning of demonstrations, will continue to be deemed necessary to restoring a climate conducive to negotiations. Those in the government resistant to political compromise and favouring the current socio-economic order will take advantage of the need for security to entrench their sectarian discourse, exaggerate the threat posed by dissenters and continue casting even moderate Shias as Iranian fifth-columnists. Opposition hardliners will take their cue from the establishment and up the ante (the early-November bombings in Manama being just the latest in a spate of terrorist attacks) inviting further retaliation from the government.

20. Since Iran is not going to go away, however, British efforts should be devoted to persuading the Bahraini government to take the initiative. There is no credible Iranian threat to Bahraini territory, nor does Iran have a sizeable constituency in Bahrain. Its bark is far worse than its bite. There is, however, a real risk that the longer the impasse lasts, the more receptive Bahraini Shia will become to assistance that Iran may proffer—not because of Iran’s attractive power but out of sheer anger and desperation. A change of strategy is Bahrain’s best defence against Iran.

Policy Recommendations

21. The first step Britain should advocate is a toning down of the government’s sectarian rhetoric. The next should be to call Al-Wifaq’s bluff by putting enough on the table that it cannot refuse to make a counter-offer. The government needs a negotiating partner, but sitting back and waiting is simply not enough. Al-Wifaq’s leaders recognise they erred last summer in walking away from the Crown Prince and will not wish to repeat the mistake. In return, the government could demand of Al-Wifaq that it clarify its loyalties and objectives. The longer the government waits, the more complex the domestic political arena will become; already, Sunni groups are beginning to organise themselves and demand to be taken into account.

22. Bahrain refuses to involve external mediators in any negotiation process. It also affirms, however, that it is determined to be open and transparent about proceedings. The UK might therefore propose not that outside moderators be invited in, but that a panel of outside observers be assembled to witness the negotiations, precisely as a way of guaranteeing the good faith of the participants. The government and opposition might each be entitled to select three of their choice, and the six would monitor proceedings on camera, away from the talks themselves.

23. As observed earlier, Britain’s clout lies in its ability to legitimise and delegitimise. The government may wish to consider whether it can husband this resource more effectively. It might, for instance, make senior ministers less accessible than usual when Bahraini officials known to be obstructive request a meeting. It might also limit its own ministers’ visits to those officials it views as making a positive contributing to resolving the crisis. Discreet support offered by the British royal family to King Hamad, and the opportunity for further private dialogue, might not be amiss either. A co-ordination of British strategy with the US, Germany and other friends of Bahrain could assist the progressives in easing certain hardliners out of the way.

24. Finally, Saudi Arabia must be induced to co-operate. That may not be as difficult as it seems. Continued unrest in Bahrain does it no good, and there is a point at which the advantages of immediate stability outweigh the longer-term disadvantages. Saudi Arabia will naturally have reservations about the extent of any concessions the Bahraini government may be tempted to make to the opposition, but that stage is still far off. For the time being, the Saudi government is likely to favour measures that contribute to its own peace of mind.


25. British policy must be made in a post-Arab Spring context: without reform, the region is almost certain to experience intensifying unrest in the coming years. The Gulf monarchies realise that the status quo has changed, but have yet to overcome their own inertia. Paradoxically, despite its shortcomings, Bahrain is furthest ahead. It is already mired in a process likely to repeat itself in Saudi and Kuwait (and which may have begun in Oman), but its relatively liberal society and progressive government are more resilient than its neighbours’ and its government acknowledges the need for change. Now is not the time for the UK to let go, but rather to redouble its efforts to help Bahrain pull through. The process will be slow, but provided it is also steady, it will be less destabilising than one that goes too quickly. If Bahrain succeeds in extricating itself from the morass, it will be stabler and a model to the region. If it does not, it will without doubt be among the first to be overtaken by the next regional crisis.

21 November 2012

Prepared 19th November 2013