Marc is Head of Policy at the Conservative Middle East Council.
The 200th anniversary of the British-Bahraini relationship passed remarkably quietly last year. Yet it’s a relationship that binds us together in this age of global extremism, and is vital to our national security. Why the silence?
Perhaps it’s because, in recent years, our relationship with the Kingdom has been put under considerable strain.
In February 2011, Bahrain was struck by a wave of demonstrations demanding socio-economic and political reform. The Bahraini government dispatched security forces to quell the protests, which led to thousands of arrests, hundreds of injuries and dozens of deaths.
There was quite rightly a global outcry, and Britain voiced serious concern as these events unfolded. We immediately revoked 44 licences for the export of arms to Bahrain.
But Britain had two choices going forwards at this point. To walk away from actions it didn’t approve of or to help a small nation, concerned for its very future existence, reform for the sake of its security and liberty for its population.
Britain chose to stand by Bahrain, offer constructive advice, and encourage the Kingdom to stand up and make changes. That was the rational thing to do.
Global relationships between nations are built on trust and history. To be taken seriously in foreign policy terms, you have to choose who your friends are and work constructively over time to support and foster change together. In the case of Bahrain, our relationship is one that’s steeped in history. That matters.
Bahrain – at the time a hub of a lucrative pearling trade in the Gulf – signed a Treaty of Friendship with Britain in 1816, and then in 1920 Britain signed a General Maritime Treaty with the Al-Khalifa family – thereby officially recognising the Al-Khalifa as the legitimate rulers of Bahrain.
Following the discovery of oil in Bahrain in 1932, the Al-Khalifa’s were able to steer a course of rapid modernisation that was a beacon for other countries in the region to follow well into the 1970s and ’80s.
Throughout this time, Britain sustained a close friendship with Bahrain. The Royal Navy established a base at the port of Mina Salman in 1935, and maintained a presence in Bahrain after it attained independence in 1971. RAF tornadoes that played a critical role in the liberation of Kuwait in 1991 took off from the Kingdom.
I was recently in Bahrain and found it impossible not to be struck by the huge sense of warmth and affection Bahrainis feel for the historic relationship they share with Britain.
In July 2011, Bahrain responded to the waves of criticism it received, by taking the constructive decision to commission an independent inquiry (BICI) to look at abuses committed during the protests – the first time that any government in the region had set up an international investigation into allegations of state abuse – and recommend legal and policy changes in the Kingdom.
The inquiry found the authorities to be severely at fault – confirming the use of excessive force and torture by Bahraini officials – and reforms were proposed.
Over the last six years, many of the BICI proposals have been enacted, with the Kingdom taking important steps to reform its police force, prison service, and judicial and political systems.
A new police code of conduct, for example, has been introduced based on international best practice. Constitutional amendments have given the Council of Representatives – the lower house of the Bahraini National Assembly – increased authority and strengthened their supervisory role over the work of the Cabinet – the chief executive body appointed by the King.
Britain has provided a package of technical assistance focused on strengthening human rights and the rule of law in Bahrain.
While there is some way to go and Bahrain is far from perfect, the impact of the changes being made can undoubtedly be felt on the streets of the Kingdom. Violence is reportedly now at its lowest level in years, so the trajectory seems positive.
During my stay in Bahrain, I was able to visit a synagogue, a Hindu temple and a mosque (where Sunni and Shia were praying side by side), which is quite remarkable. There are few places in the Arab world where such religious plurality can be seen.
I spent an afternoon in Manama Souq, in the warren of streets behind Bab Al Bahrain, where we saw hundreds of ordinary people – shopkeepers, business men and women – going about their lives with energy and vitality. The area felt at peace and is clearly moving forwards.
While it is safe to say that the turnaround so far in Bahrain has been impressive, it would be foolish to take the Kingdom’s progress for granted. In the meetings I had, it was clear that the Bahraini perception now is that Iran is the biggest threat to peace and stability in the Kingdom and wider Gulf region.
There is growing alarm amongst officials that the Islamic Republic is providing protection and financial backing for terrorists plotting attacks in the Kingdom.
The concerns over security are very real. Just last month, the main oil pipeline in Bahrain was attacked, causing a serious fire near the site of the explosion in Buri, a small town about ten miles from the capital Manama. Bahrain suspects that Iran was behind the attack.
Over the last four years, Iran seems to have taken an increasingly aggressive attitude towards exporting its revolution.
While the scale of its activity is a question of debate, there is material evidence to suggest that Tehran is backing attempts by Houthi rebels in Yemen to seize control of the country from the democratically-elected government, and is moving to secure a land corridor to the Mediterranean in Lebanon – there are Iranian revolutionary guards on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, demonstrated on Thursday (by displaying recovered missile debris) Tehran’s link to the ballistic missile attack that came close to hitting Riyadh’s airport last month.
Britain is well-positioned to support Bahrain’s security in the Gulf. As a symbol of our long-term commitment to the Kingdom, HMS Juffair – the first permanent British naval facility in the Middle East since 1971 – was opened in November, giving us the capability to send larger ships to the region and work more closely with Bahrain’s defence forces.
More energy, however, needs to be put in to directly address the question of Iran’s part in instigating instability in the region.
European powers have been frantically trying to save the nuclear deal in recent months. This is probably the right thing to do for the simple reason that if nothing else, it delays Tehran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by 10 to 15 years and will give us a degree of oversight of its nuclear activities after that.
But little is being done to devise a plan to push back against Iran’s subversive regional activity. This is despite this being recognised as a serious problem. Britain has an opportunity to lead from the front, and to achieve this we should work with Bahrain, and continue to support its positive trajectory towards reform.