What Does the Victory of Tories Mean to Bahrain? Bahrain Mirror Interviews 3 Prominent British Political Experts

2015-05-19 - 2:06 am

Bahrain Mirror (Exclusive): Britain, the Bahraini regime's key ally, will be under the Conservative party's rule for five more years. The party achieved an unexpected landslide victory in the parliamentary elections that took place in the United Kingdom last Saturday (May 9th 2015). On the same day, Prime Minister David Cameron announced on Twitter that his most significant ministers still hold their old positions, mainly Philip Hammond who continues his role as Foreign Secretary and Michael Fallon as Defense Secretary.

Amidst the historical conflicts that the Middle East is facing, and that has brutally hit Bahrain, the last five years have witnessed remarkable developments in Britain's foreign policy. Despite being accused of isolating itself internationally, Britain's foreign policy towards the Gulf seemed as an attempt to rival the United Sates in the region again, as it declared the return of British military bases in the Gulf, and to Bahrain specifically, after reversing its historical decision to withdraw from East of Suez, made 44 years ago.

Britain obviously sided with the Bahraini regime in its conflict with the majority of the population, calling for a political transition, following the February 14 revolution in 2011. The British stance led by the Conservative party took a very different turn, in contrast to many world powers, especially the US, that at least still acknowledges the existence of an exacerbating conflict in the country.

News reports see that the ambiguity of the British foreign policy threatens its special relationship with the US and that there is a perception in Washington that Britain is a misled state. Reports even say that Washington doubts Cameron, because he doesn't seem to have much interest in foreign policy, and that reassigning Hammond as foreign secretary implies that he is pleased with the foreign policy.

How will Britain's Conservative Party's landslide victory affect the Bahraini situation? What will the future of British foreign policy on the conflicts in the Gulf be, since it has drawn the region's political roadmap, after over 150 years of dominance?

In an attempt to depict the British influence on the Bahraini issue in the coming five years, Bahrain Mirror posed these questions to three of the most prominent British experts specialized in gulf affairs: Jane Kinninmont, well-known senior research fellow at Chatham House, Christopher Davidson, reader of international relations, political science and history at Durham University and author of UK bestseller "After the Sheikhs", and Marc Owen Jones, political analyst and expert on Bahraini affairs, member of Bahrain Watch and PhD candidate at Durham University, studying the history of repression and social control in Bahrain.

The following are Bahrain Mirror's interviews with these three experts:

Bahrain Mirror: Why did the British people choose the Conservative party?

Jane Kinninmont: Voters hardly ever vote on foreign policy. We saw this with the re-election of Tony Blair after the Iraq war: the war was unpopular but the economy was doing well, so they voted him back in. The Conservatives won largely because there are signs of economic recovery. There's also an issue of personal charisma - the Labour leader wasn't personally popular.

Christopher Davidson: Britain's foreign policy was not an election issue in 2015 due to the fragile recovery of the UK's economy and the rise of a 'fake' right wing movement (UKIP) which pushed the British people to fear extreme reactions to issues such as immigration, etc. Most British people accordingly voted for the 'safe option' of the current government.

Marc Owen Jones: I think choosing the Tories is an inherently self-interested position, with little interest in global affairs. Many highlighted how local concerns, and not Foreign Policy, motivated their decisions. Also, many did not think that Labour were offering a viable alternative to the Tories, especially with regard to the British economy.
Bahrain Mirror: Would the situation be different in term of foreign politics towards Bahrain and the Gulf, if the Labour party won the elections?

Kinninmont: The UK would still be allied to the Gulf States, but there would be some differences. The energy and trade relationships probably wouldn't change. Britain has significant trade interests in the Gulf which are likely to be maintained by whichever party is in power. And we saw that British trade with the Gulf rose strongly under the previous Labour government. However, you might see some differences in terms of the emphasis put on military cooperation and on human rights.

Traditionally the Labour Party hasn't had quite such a warm relationship with the Gulf countries. The previous government ensured the UK was already committed to re-opening a small base in Bahrain before the UK elections. But there were criticisms of that decision by MPs from the Labour Party and also from the Liberal Democrats. The British parliament wasn't consulted in advance of the decision, so there are still some hard feelings about that among some of the MPs.

Davidson: If Labour had won the elections with a working majority, it is unlikely that UK policy towards Bahrain or the Gulf would have shifted, as the two main parties in the UK follow approximately the same foreign policy: maximising trade opportunities and trying to second-guess US intentions and preferences in various regions. If, however, Labour had won but without a majority, and required a coalition with a more progressive party - e.g the Scottish SNP, it is likely that the extreme indifference of the party to human rights and ethics in British foreign policy may have been challenged.

Jones: I do not think there would have been significant difference. The Strategic Security and Defence Review wanted by Labour may have made some superficial recommendations with regards to the Gulf, but it is hard to see it significantly changing. Indeed, Miliband wanted to reject 'small-minded isolationism', suggesting the status quo with regards to Bahrain would have been maintained.

Bahrain Mirror: What will the Scottish National Party's influence be on Britain's foreign policy?

Kinninmont: The SNP is more left wing than any of the major English parties and has called for the UK government to recognize an independent Palestine state. They raise human rights concerns about British foreign policy and also have a positive attitude towards refugees. They would like to have a foreign policy more like a Scandinavian country. They won't necessarily have much direct influence over foreign policy but they represent an important voice in the House of Commons.

Davidson: The SNP, along with several other increasingly successful parties across Europe are starting to push back against the neoliberal, postcolonial western policies and attitudes.

Jones: I think in opposition it is easy to appear in favour of Human Rights violations, yet the SNP understand the struggles faced by smaller nations against a larger power, and so in principle would perhaps be more sympathetic. However, their impact on UK foreign policy is likely to be marginal.

Bahrain Mirror: How can we understand British foreign policy in light of the return of the military base to Bahrain?

Kinninmont: The new base in Bahrain is actually very small scale. It is really about making a symbolic commitment to long term defense cooperation with the Gulf. The UK government is aware that many people in the Gulf think they are just looking for trade and economic benefits like arms sales. So the UK wants to show a longer term commitment to the Gulf countries. That is not just about defence, it's about economic and political cooperation, and even investing time and resources in areas like prison reform and police reform in Bahrain.

My personal view, however, is that the current approach is problematic. Unfortunately the fact that Sheikh Ali Salman of Al Wefaq was arrested so soon after the base was announced made many Bahrainis blame the UK. Actually, this move by the Bahraini government was not in the UK's interest. The UK needs to be reaching out to the people of the Gulf countries and making it clear that it supports a more secure future for these nations, not just their rulers. They are making some efforts to do that, for instance by supporting the reforms I mention, and also through programmes like the John Smith Memorial Trust Fellowships or the work of the British Council. But they also need to put the security of citizens at the centre of their thinking on security co-operation.

Davidson: The British policy on the Gulf, which was likely conceived almost 10 years ago, at a time prior to the Credit Crunch and the Arab Spring, identified the UK's advantage, due to historical and cultural ties, over other competitors such as France and the US, in lucrative oil and weapons markets in the Gulf. It can sometimes take several years for foreign policies to change and 'move with the times.' It's also a mistake to view this as a Conservative party, as the Labour Party, if they had won power in 2010 would have followed exactly the same policies. The UK Gulf policy is better viewed as an inter-ministerial initiative in which other government departments such as Defence and Trade/Industry have been able to inform and dictate foreign policy.

Jones: The Tories are a party concerned heavily with big business, and the UK's economic interests abroad. The possibility of arms deals with Bahrain and Saudi will heavily influence any decisions they make, and take priority of human rights considerations. The review of Britain's relationship with Bahrain and Saudi that took place under the last coalition government highlighted the fact that despite HR violations by the Bahrain government, business continues as usual.

Bahrain Mirror: Why is Britain more excited about supporting GCC states than the US?

Kinninmont: There are various reasons. Probably the most important are trade and history. The US doesn't have much trade with the GCC apart from buying oil. Whereas the UK sees the GCC as one of its top seven export markets. The GCC will become more important to the UK economy over time, whereas it could become less important to the US economy.

Then there are the historical and personal ties. The personal relationships between the Gulf States and the UK are much closer, especially at an elite level. The fact that half of the Gulf rulers went to Sandhurst does matter. The elites in the two countries see each other as friends.

Thirdly, I think that decision makers in the US are more likely to think that monarchical rule is probably not going to last a very long time in the modem world.

Fourthly, based on all these interests, they have a different strategic vision for the Gulf when they think about international defense and security. The US wants to reduce its footprint in the Gulf, and the Middle East in general, after having a huge presence there for years. The UK sees this as an opportunity to expand its role in the Gulf and assumes it will be involved in further military interventions in the Middle East and in Africa in the years to come.

Here we also need to mention France, as France also sees an opportunity to expand its role in the Gulf because of the perception that the US is less interested. France could also potentially use bases in the Gulf for interventions in conflicts in francophone West Africa in future. Overall, though, it is not yet clear if this emerging difference between the US and the UK is a long term difference, or simply a difference of approach between Cameron and Obama.

Davidson: Unlike the US, Britain is not a superpower with global interests, so it must fight for regional influence wherever it can. For historical and cultural reasons it sees some competitive advantage in selling arms, and establishing trade ties in the GCC. The US, by comparison, views the GCC as one of many components in a vast, ever-changing spectrum of global actors and entities.

Jones: I don't know if Britain is more excited than the US in particular, although they do come across as more desperate. Britain's involvement in Bahrain has traditionally been deeper, and as such, is open to more public scrutiny. While there have been rumours of an American retreat, their base has remained there throughout, highlighting a continued, albeit muted, enthusiasm for support of the Al Khalifa.

Bahrain Mirror: Is there still much space for the Bahraini opposition to directly work and cooperate with the British Government?

Kinninmont: Bahrain's opposition societies, especially Al Wefaq, are well known internationally. Although the opposition has many criticisms of Bahrain's parliament, the experience of being in parliament has added to Al Wefaq's international credibility, as governments know that Al Wefaq has previously been in parliament, that it won more votes than anyone else, and that it worked on a variety of national economic and legal issues. Al Wefaq's peaceful approach is also an important element in its international credibility.

Davidson: The Bahraini opposition should continue to engage with the UK government, but its focus should be on parliamentary committees and members rather than inert and unresponsive ministries. The ministries may also pass information about the opposition members they meet to the Bahraini government, which they continue to regard as an ally.

Jones: The Bahrain opposition must keep the pressure up. While the hope of impacting government policy directly may be difficult, getting publicity for Britain's toxic relationship with Bahrain may help motivate and turn public opinion against parties that support regimes accused of HR violations

Bahrain Mirror: Could the conservative government seriously contribute to finding a political solution in Bahrain?

Kinninmont: The UK government has consistently supported dialogue. However I am not sure they will be placing pressure on the different groups in Bahrain to resume dialogue in the next few months. They were disappointed to see that the pre-election dialogue efforts failed to reach any agreement. Also, the UK and other international governments thought the opposition should have entered the elections, although I understand many of their domestic supporters did not think so. So I don't see them placing a lot of pressure on the authorities to resume dialogue in the short term.

As for political compromise, the UK is more focused on legal and institutional reform rather than democratic reform. Ultimately democratic changes need to come from inside rather than through external pressure.

Davidson: The UK government will not be able to forge a new policy on Bahrain until the US changes its position. Britain will only change its policies and attitudes towards to Bahrain following a shift in US priorities in the region, especially relating to its burgeoning opportunities in Iran's vast and largely unexploited markets. As a 'grand prize' for US-based companies, relations with Iran will be increasingly safeguarded by the White House, with relatively minor problems such as Bahrain being eventually marginalized.

Jones: You cannot rule anything out, although now the situation in Bahrain receives less attention, there is less pressure on the conservatives to look like they are affecting change.

Bahrain Mirror: What imprint will the Conservative party leave on Britain's history in Bahrain?

Kinninmont: It seems the opposition is becoming much more critical of the UK government, as they perceive it as siding almost entirely with the Bahraini ruling establishment. There is a long history of opposition criticism of the UK, and of course in the 1950s and 1960s there was a strong anti-imperialist element to the Arab nationalist and leftist opposition movements - as seen in the uprising of 1956. However, in recent years it seemed the opposition was more hopeful that the UK and the US would support meaningful political reform, and some argued that the UK had a track record of opposing human rights abuses in Bahrain, going back to the era of Major Daly in the 1920s. Now that view is changing again.

I should note that there has been quite a lot of criticism in the UK media and in the parliament with regards to Britain's policy on Bahrain in particular and the Gulf in general. Compared to the time of the 1990s uprising, there is now much more public awareness about Bahrain and the political issues that it faces. But unfortunately at the present time, there is also a lot of pessimism about the prospects for democracy in the Middle East and many people in the West now see the region through the prism of sectarian conflict.

Davidson: The current official UK position on Bahrain is greatly harming the UK's future relations with the Bahraini people and indeed across the whole Gulf region. It's also arguable that the UK's close relationship with the Al-Khalifa family is attracting Arab-wide distrust and vilification. A number of Egyptian colleagues and friends of mine have told me that Bahrain - which was previously almost unheard of in Egypt - is increasingly regarded as a symbol of British neo-imperial designs.

Jones: The relationship seems as solid as ever, and Britain seem to wholeheartedly recognize the legitimacy of the ruling Al Khalifa family, mainly on pragmatic, and non-ethical considerations.


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