Conor Burns MP is the Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Bahrain
This week sees critical political developments in Bahrain, Britain’s oldest ally in the Gulf and in the Arab world. Our approach to foreign policy is all too often both informed and complicated by our past. That is the consequence of Britain’s longstanding role in almost every corner of the world. Naturally, have long standing allies who have stood alongside us when few others were willing.
Bahrain is such a country. First as a British protectorate and since its independence in 1971, Bahrain has evolved into the most liberal and progressive society in the Arab world. It has led the way on women’s rights (women have had the right to vote since the 1920s); freedom of worship (Bahrain is one of the few Gulf countries that is home to a synagogue) and creating a tolerant, diverse community.
Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa family has been Britian’s ally for more than 200 years since they defeated the occupying Persians at the end of the 18th century. The ties that have developed since then led to Bahrain being one of Britain’s most dependable friends in the Middle East and our strategic staging post to India and the Far East. Bahrain reciprocated. During the second world war, it financed six Spitfires.
Today, Bahrain’s fragility and strategic importance come from sitting atop the biggest fault line running across the Middle East – the schism separating the Sunni and Shia spheres of Islam. Although the Al Khalifa are Sunni and Bahrain’s largest island is joined to Saudi Arabia by a causeway, around 60% of the population is Shia and Iran claims Bahrain as its fourteenth province.
This raised the geo-political stakes surrounding the events of February this year, when a peaceful demonstration at Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout was broken up by security forces, during which five protestors were killed. A precipitate withdrawal of police and army then led to the authorities losing control of the streets and a bloodier clampdown and declaration of a state of emergency. Over the course of the demonstrations, 31 people (including four policemen and five Asian ex-pats who had been targeted by a mob) were killed.
Three months on, with the situation more stable, Bahrain’s rulers are gradually putting their faith in reinvigorating the process of political reform. Much was made of the troop deployment by the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), whose primary objectives were to guard key facilities such as oil and gas installations and financial institutions, but half of these (mostly Saudi troops) have now left.
Last Friday, King Hamad launched a national dialogue with the aim of forging a durable consensus on reforming Bahrain’s political institutions. Uniquely in the Arab world, a Royal Commission has also been launched to examine what happened in the streets and repair the damage to Bahrain’s reputation and internal cohesion.
As our own history shows, a liberal order preceded democracy and fully representative institutions by a century or longer. Expecting a small Arab nation in the process to manage the consequences of religious division to do so far more quickly would, more likely than not, lead to disaster and the loss of the tolerance and diversity Bahrain has achieved.
The hard reality is that the choice for Bahrain is not between becoming a model Arab democracy in an instant – one that safeguards the rights of minorities, especially Christians and Jews, on the one hand and the continued rule of the Al Khalifa family on the other. The real choice is between becoming a Shia satellite of Iran, a prospect which might prompt Saudi intervention, or going down the path the King is taking this week. It is at a critical time like this that the support and encouragement of friends can make all the difference. No good will come of marginalising our oldest friend in a region of the world that remains vital to British interests.
The recent events in Bahrain show the enormous challenges for political reform, and a good friend will not shy away from telling difficult truths. It is imperative that we continue to call for judicial transparency and recognition of human rights. Both the Bahraini Government and leaders of the Shia and Sunni communities need to show real leadership in promoting tolerance, to demonstrate a shared commitment to the future of Bahrain, and to work towards the goal of allowing the people of Bahrain to shape their own future.
Bahrain must, of course, understand that Britain has a real expectation of progress on human rights and a determination that Bahrain’s recommitment to reform is genuine. We will criticise when it is necessary and we will encourage when that is positive. We will always be the candid friend. But now is not the time to turn our backs on a country that can play a key role in supporting democracy across the Middle East.