Influential British figures, including former senior UK military officers and the former MI6 controller for the Middle East, have been advising the King of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, during a period when his security forces have severely cracked down on dissent. Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s reigning monarch, also has personal links to Bahrain’s king.
Furthermore, the British government is promoting an array of military programmes supporting Bahrain’s regime and its internal “security”.
The revelations are likely to raise questions about how the UK establishment is propping up a favoured ruling family in the Gulf. They also raise questions about the ethics of public servants using their contacts for personal gain after they leave public office.
King Hamad’s rule
Bahrain under King Hamad – who has been in power since 1999 – has cracked down on the political opposition in the country since a widespread popular uprising threatened the ruling family’s control during the Arab Spring in 2011.
Protesters demanded greater political participation, free and fair elections and an end to corruption and equality for the long-repressed Shia majority in Bahrain. They were met with brutal repression by Bahraini security forces backed by 1,000 UK-trained and equipped Saudi troops.
Since 2011, nearly all prominent human rights defenders and dissidents have been jailed, silenced or forced to move abroad while public protests are officially banned in Manama, the capital.
Although Bahrain holds parliamentary elections for its lower house, an unusual practice in the Gulf region, political power resides firmly in the hands of the king and ruling family. The main opposition party, Al-Wefaq, was dissolved by the regime in 2016 and the country’s only independent newspaper, Al-Wasat, was forcibly closed down the following year.
The United Nations has found the Bahraini government to be violating its obligations in arresting human rights defenders and opposition figures and even suggested that this “may constitute crimes against humanity”.
Torture is reported to be widespread in Bahrain’s prisons especially for the purpose of extracting confessions that are used to sentence people to death. Human rights groups have described prisoners being burned with cigarettes and irons, and given electric shocks, among other forms of torture.
Keeping the regime in power
On 9 March 2011, just five days before the Bahraini security forces began their violent crackdown on protesters, General Sir David Richards, the UK’s chief of the defence staff — the country’s top military officer — was in Manama, holding meetings with Prince Salman, the country’s crown prince who is King Hamad’s oldest son and presumptive heir.
Richards is a former commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan and played a major role in the Libyan war of 2011 as well as being the first officer to receive an operational knighthood since World War Two.
Also at these meetings in Manama were Peter Ricketts, the then prime minister David Cameron’s national security adviser, the British ambassador, the British military attaché, as well as Shaikh Khalifa bin Ahmed al Khalifa, the commander of the Bahrain Defence Force, and other senior Bahraini military officials.
As the unprecedented protests continued on the streets outside, these men “reviewed the friendly relations joining the two countries, especially the cooperation and coordination in military and defence fields and ways of enhancing them”, according to the state news agency. Ricketts himself reassured the news agency of the “the United Kingdom’s longstanding support for Bahrain as a strategic ally”.
Two days after these UK-Bahrain meetings, on 11 March, the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, also visited Manama “to offer American support to the royal family”, the New York Times reported. It later emerged from two diplomatic sources at the UN that Saudi Arabia was given a green light to intervene in Bahrain by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton. She reportedly gave the nod in exchange for a “yes” vote by the Arab League for the no-fly zone over Libya, where the US and Britain were seeking to overthrow the Gaddafi regime.
King Hamad’s crackdown and the Saudi intervention suddenly ended the country’s Arab Spring, as the regime proceeded to detain without charge hundreds of civilians including doctors, lawyers, human rights workers, academics and youth bloggers.
Britain backed the Saudi intervention and had long trained the Saudi Arabian National Guard, the elite branch of its military sent into Bahrain to help put down the protests. The Saudis had entered the country in British-made armoured personnel carriers known as Tacticas, which were manufactured by the British company, BAE Systems.
But General Richards’ relationship with Bahrain did not end after the uprising had been put down. Two years later, in 2013, he retired from UK military service and became an adviser to the king of the country whose regime his government had helped to save.
Now going by the name of Lord Richards of Herstmonceux after being made a life peer in 2014, Richards is currently chair and director of Palliser Associates Ltd, a company he manages with his wife which provides “strategic advice to governments and companies”. One of the company’s clients is the Bahraini king. Palliser was established in August 2013, the month after Richards retired from the army.
Advising the king
Richards also offers support to King Hamad through another company called Equilibrium Global, whose parent company is Equilibrium Gulf Ltd, which was established in December 2013, five months after Richards left the army. Richards is chair and director of Equilibrium Global whose sole client as of early 2019 was reported to be the Bahrain regime.
Richards states that Equilibrium Global provides “geo-strategic advice to governments and companies” using International Advisory Boards which “assist governments in developing defence and security strategies tailored to the threats faced by their countries”.
The company states that its boards are “composed of statesmen and leaders from the world of international politics, industry and commerce, defence and security”. It adds that they include many senior members of the British establishment, including former prime ministers and heads of government, former chiefs of the defence staff, a former governor of the Bank of England, former senior ministers, including a former foreign secretary, the former secretary-general of Nato, CEOs of multinational corporations, former chief police officers, and a former lord chief justice. Equilibrium Global says these members “offer discreet, long-term advice and support on the implementation of ministerial programmes”.
The company’s website does not elaborate on who these dignitaries are or their remuneration for these services. But the former foreign secretary is likely to be Douglas Hurd and the former Nato secretary-general is presumed to be another Briton, Lord (formerly George) Robertson, who recently visited Bahrain’s foreign minister with Lord Richards. Mervyn King is likely to be the named “former governor of the Bank of England” since he sits on Equilibrium Global’s advisory board.
Lord Richards has in recent years paid a string of high-level visits to Bahrain, meeting its foreign minister on at least four occasions – in April 2017, September 2017, October 2018, and, most recently, earlier this month. At one meeting, Richards “praised the key role being played by the Kingdom of Bahrain in underpinning regional peace and stability”, according to the Bahrain News Agency.
It is not known what advice Richards offers Bahrain, or how much money he may be paid. He has claimed in the past that his work for the regime is known to the British ambassador in Manama and the UK Foreign Office and is conducted “with the singular and honourable purpose of seeking to advance and to facilitate the wide-ranging reform programme within Bahrain”.
Lord Richards told us in a written statement: “It would be entirely inappropriate for me to comment on the content of official discussions in which I participated in my capacity as the United Kingdom’s Chief of the Defence Staff.”
He added that: “Your assertion, implied or otherwise, that I somehow abused my position of authority for personal gain is baseless, devoid of merit and objectionable, and is in any event refuted by me.”
Lord Richards’ daughter, Joanna Corlett, was political adviser to prime minister David Cameron at the time of the March 2011 crackdown in Bahrain; it was a position she held for four years from February 2011 until April 2015. Corlett describes her role as being a “key member of the Downing Street Political Office with responsibility for the PM’s political relations including political cabinet, events, ministerial meetings and parliamentary party outreach”.
In May 2011, two months after the crackdown began in Bahrain, Cameron welcomed the country’s crown prince for a photo opportunity on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street, giving the nervous regime much-needed legitimacy.
There is no suggestion that Corlett had any role in or influence over Cameron’s policy towards Bahrain. Her father eventually appointed her as a director of his company, Palliser, in 2018, and her role there is described as a professional adviser.
The royal connection
Lord Richards has a particular connection to Queen Elizabeth II. He was the queen’s aide-de-camp, a personal assistant, from 2008 until 2014. A few weeks after he resigned from this position, he was appointed deputy lieutenant – the monarch’s representative – for the county of Hampshire in southern England.
The queen and other members of the British royal family are close to the King of Bahrain. King Hamad has repeatedly joined the queen at the Royal Box at Ascot racecourse and for each of the past three years she has invited the king to the Royal Windsor Horse Show, which takes place in the private grounds of Windsor Castle, the queen’s weekend home.
During the 2019 visit, the two monarchs jointly honoured the winners of a “military show jumping championship”, celebrating the Bahrain Defence Force’s “military sport team”.
The two monarchs have gifted each other horses from their respective stables; the king provided two to the queen in 2013 while she gave him a horse in return in 2017. The queen’s gift was made less than a month after Amnesty International said the country had retreated from promised reforms and had “dramatically” escalated a clampdown on political dissent over the past year.
The Crown Prince of Bahrain, Prince Salman, was invited to the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April 2011 – one month after the crackdown began, at a time when hundreds languished in prison. He pulled out hours before he was due to fly to London amid protests in the UK by human rights activists.
The queen’s sons, Prince Andrew and Prince Charles, also help to cement British relations with Bahrain.
Prince Andrew visited King Hamad and Prince Salman in Manama this March and in 2018 – again accompanied by Prince Salman – inspected Bahrain’s Royal Guard, the body which protects the royal family, at the opening of the UK’s new naval base in Bahrain.
Two years earlier, it was his older brother, Charles, who inaugurated the naval facility. During this visit, in November 2016, campaigners accused Charles of participating in a public relations exercise aimed at hiding Bahrain’s poor human rights record. One week later, the regime charged leading opposition politician Ebrahim Sharif for “inciting hatred against the regime,” after he spoke to the Associated Press about Prince Charles’ visit.
The charges against Sharif were later dropped but he was rearrested the following year for posting tweets critical of the regime. Then, in 2019, Sharif was given a six-month jail sentence for tweeting about the Sudanese president. The Bahrain Penal Code prohibits “publicly insulting a foreign country… or its leader”.
Prince Charles’ deputy private secretary, Simon Martin, became the UK’s ambassador to Bahrain in 2015, serving in that role until earlier this year. King Hamad recently conferred on Martin the first-class Order of Bahrain, known as the Wisam Al-Bahrain, “in recognition of his tremendous efforts and role in bolstering the fruitful cooperation”.
Our friends in the Middle East
One of Lord Richards’ original co-directors when he established his company Equilibrium Gulf in 2013, was Geoffrey Tantum, a former MI6 controller for the Middle East. Tantum worked for British intelligence until 1995 and then set up a company called Gulf Consultancy Services. He has said previously that his consultancy firm “advises big companies on Middle East affairs”.
Tantum has, since retiring from MI6, acted as a consultant and adviser to the King of Bahrain. In 2018, he said: “It has been an honour and a privilege to be an adviser to his Majesty the King for over 20 years.” As with Lord Richards, it is not known what advice Tantum has provided the king nor what remuneration he may have received.
Tantum has been fêted by both the King of Bahrain and the Queen of England.
In June 2018, he was awarded a knighthood by the queen “for his outstanding service and contributions in the development of relations between Bahrain and the United Kingdom for over 20 years”. The following month, Bahrain’s ambassador to the UK, Shaikh Fawaz bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, held a dinner banquet “in honour of His Majesty King Hamad’s adviser Sir Geoffrey Tantum for his role in reinforcing Bahraini-UK relations”. The banquet was attended by his old business partner, Lord Richards as well as foreign minister Sir Alan Duncan, among others.
It can also be revealed that Tantum, although having left MI6 over 20 years ago, remains in touch with the Ministry of Defence. Government data shows that he had two meetings with a senior MoD official in 2015 and 2017. The meetings were with Lieutenant-General Tom Beckett, the UK’s then Defence Senior Advisor Middle East. It is not known if Tantum still has a relationship with MI6.
But Tantum continues to move in high circles in Bahrain and the UK. In July 2019, he was one of the guests at a reception of the Conservative Middle East Council in London attended by then prime minister Theresa May and Bahrain’s ambassador, Shaikh Fawaz.
In the same month, Tantum also attended the annual ceremony of the Bahrain-UK parliamentary group and the Bahrain Society, at the Bahrain Embassy in London, together with the UK’s foreign minister for the Middle East, Andrew Murrison.
But Richards and Tantum are not the only former senior British military and intelligence officials who have been advising King Hamad.
Another is Field Marshall Peter Inge, now Baron Inge, who was one of Lord Richards’ predecessors as the head of the British military.
After retiring from the army in 1997 as chief of the defence staff, Inge became an adviser to the King of Bahrain in 2004. His last register of interests in 2016, before leaving the House of Lords, confirmed that he remained an “adviser” to the king and government. Neither the nature of Baron Inge’s advice nor the remuneration he has received for his service are publicly known.
This former British military chief was, therefore, acting as a paid adviser to the King of Bahrain during and after its crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2011.
When the protests erupted, Inge was also a member of the advisory board and shareholder in the private military corporation, Aegis Defence Services, which is believed to have then had an office in Bahrain. Inge was previously an adviser to arms corporation BAE Systems.
In fact, several figures linked to Britain’s support for Bahrain have interests in arms corporations profiting from the country’s military purchases.
Peter, now Lord, Ricketts, who attended meetings in Bahrain as David Cameron’s national security adviser in 2011, is currently a “strategic adviser” to the CEO of Lockheed Martin UK, the British-based arm of a giant military corporation with long-standing interests in Bahrain. Lord Ricketts told us in a written statement:
“My employment with Lockheed Martin was approved in advance by the UK Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. I have never had any involvement with the company’s activities in Bahrain”.
In 2018, Crown Prince Salman attended a reception in Manama organised by Lockheed Martin “commemorating 30 years of partnership with Bahrain’s Defence Force”. Earlier that year, Bahrain had awarded Lockheed Martin a $1.1-billion contract to produce F-16 fighter jets for the Bahrain air force.
In addition to Richards, Tantum and Inge, another individual close to the Bahraini king is Rupert Goodman, the director of Lord Richards’ company, Equilibrium Global.
Goodman, an Eton and Cambridge graduate, founded and chairs an organisation called FIRST, which describes itself as enhancing relations between business and governments and “seeks to create business opportunities at the strategic level”.
Goodman is extremely positive about King Hamad and UK-Bahraini relations. He has published three books on the subject in the last three years: Bahrain: Celebrating 200 Years Together; Britain and Bahrain: A Celebration of Friendship; and Two Decades of Leadership: His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
At the 2019 Royal Windsor Horse Show, Goodman personally presented King Hamad with a special edition of his book about the king, Two Decades of Leadership. At the same event two years earlier, Goodman’s book marking the bicentenary of UK-Bahraini relations was officially launched and presented to the Queen of England and the King of Bahrain.
The royal connections do not end there. Goodman’s organisation, FIRST, was awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in 2010 and 2013 on the recommendation of the prime minister.
The friendship society
A further aspect of the British establishment’s support of Bahrain comes through the Bahrain Society, a UK-based organisation whose patron is King Hamad. Its chair is yet another former British military officer, Brigadier Peter Sincock.
Sincock and his wife Ginnie were described by the British ambassador to Bahrain in 2013 as “old friends of Bahrain and the royal family here”. Retiring from the army in 1992, Sincock was previously the British defence attaché resident in Saudi Arabia and was accredited to Bahrain between 1988 and 1991.
Sincock has personally worked alongside King Hamad. He said in a 2016 speech in Manama that on his arrival in Bahrain in 1968 his job was to “advise rulers up and down the Gulf on the formation of their own armed forces prior to the British withdrawal from the region in 1971”. In this work, Sincock stated: “I worked closely with the then Crown Prince, now King Hamad, and had much to do with the formation [of] the embryo Bahrain Defence Force”.
Sincock has not been sympathetic to the pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain. He told a parliamentary enquiry a year after the 2011 crackdown that “the rioting which broke out in early 2011 was I believe a direct result of Bahraini extremists seizing on the problems of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt”. He added, “Undoubtedly the security forces did not always act with sufficient restraint but the number of deaths and injury were far fewer than had occurred elsewhere and many of those deaths were of security forces members”.
Sincock concluded, “There is no doubt that were the present governmental system to fall every single person in the country would be worse off”.
Brigadier Sincock told us in a written statement: “I stand by what I said… However, I would be grateful if you would make it clear that I was speaking then (as now) as a private individual and not as chairman of the Bahrain Society which is entirely a non-political organisation”.
In a further sign of the close contacts between this network of individuals supporting the Bahraini regime, in 2017 Sincock’s Bahrain Society launched Rupert Goodman’s book, Celebrating 200 Years Together, with Bahrain’s ambassador to the UK, Shaikh Fawaz.
The following year, Sincock attended a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Bahrain Defence Force at the Army and Navy Club in London, alongside Lord Richards and Sir Glenn Torpy, BAE Systems senior military adviser, and retired air chief marshal of the RAF.
The British and Western establishment have a forum where supporters of the Bahrain regime meet and talk – the so-called Manama Dialogue, a high-level annual conference on international affairs held in the country’s capital since 2004. The event is organised by the London-based foreign affairs think-tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
The IISS is often cited in the media as “independent”. Its largest funders include arms corporations BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, in addition to the British army, the UK and other governments.
The IISS’s Middle East office is in Bahrain and its establishment in 2010 was funded by the Bahraini regime, according to files uncovered in 2016. It was also discovered that Bahrain was paying for the Manama Dialogue event, and that around a third of IISS’ total income in the previous five years derived from the regime. A memorandum of understanding between the IISS and Bahrain explicitly stated that this funding arrangement be kept secret.
While the agreement stressed the “independence” of the think tank, it also stated that “the IISS will have contact with the offices” of King Hamad and “will continue to work closely with the minister of foreign affairs and other Bahraini government ministers”.
Lord Richards was a senior adviser to the IISS during 2013-18 and Lord Robertson sits on its advisory council. The former MI6 officer, Geoffrey Tantum’s contact at the MOD, Lieutenant-General, now Sir Tom Beckett, is currently the executive director of IISS–Middle East and “plays a leading role in organising the annual IISS Manama Dialogue”.
It is not known how much these individuals are paid for these services.
The 2018 meeting of the Manama Dialogue saw speeches by US defence secretary James Mattis and the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman, among others. Then foreign secretary Boris Johnson spoke at the 2016 event while defence secretary Gavin Williamson gave a speech the following year, alongside former CIA director David Petraeus.
Base for military intervention
Britain has formally supported the Al Khalifa dynasty since recognising its rule over Bahrain in 1820 and has long backed the ruling family’s control over the country. Today, it is British military interests that are paramount.
Bahrain hosts the UK’s first new major naval base east of the Suez Canal since 1971, known as HMS Jufair. Agreed in 2014, the base, at Mina Salman port in Manama, began operations in 2018 and “will be the hub of the Royal Navy’s operations in the Gulf, Red Sea and Indian Ocean”, the UK government states.
The base will house “the needs of any British warship operating in the region” including the two new aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. It will also accommodate up to 550 British military personnel and supporting civilians.
HMS Jufair’s significance is highlighted by the fact that it will be the second busiest centre of operations for the Royal Navy after Portsmouth on the south coast of England. Britain’s current operations in the Gulf, ostensibly to deter Iran, are organised out of Bahrain, enabling the government to permanently assign a British warship, HMS Montrose, to the Gulf.
A sign of the UK’s reliance on Bahrain for its power projection capability was signalled in September 2019 by the newly appointed British ambassador to Bahrain, Roddy Drummond. Commenting on the strong military cooperation between the two kingdoms he told reporters that British military objectives in the region “depend on the support from the Kingdom of Bahrain”.
The UK government has even stated that its new base provides “maritime security for Bahrain”. It is unclear if this entails a formal military commitment to defending the country.
Bolstering the regime
What is clear is that Britain is promoting a dizzying array of programmes to bolster Bahrain’s internal “security” and defend the ruling family.
The UK has for years trained dozens of Bahraini military leaders, including senior members of the royal family, notably at the Sandhurst military academy. This training continued after the 2011 crackdown.
King Hamad is himself a Sandhurst graduate and in 2012 donated £3-million to the military academy. He is also the patron of the Sandhurst Trust, a charity for serving and retired army officers, to which he has in the past donated £140,000. Prince Charles awarded King Hamad the “Sandhurst Overseas Medal” in 2016.
The Bahrain Defence Force, whose senior officers the UK routinely trains, is “not a national army but rather the army of the Sunni Muslim state”, Zoltan Barany of the US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, has written. He adds that, “Bahrain’s military is the servant of the absolute monarchy” and is “charged with protecting a Sunni ruling family and Sunni political and business elite”.
The context is that the ruling Sunnis are in a minority in Bahrain, with the Shia community estimated at between 53% and 62% of the population.
But the full extent of British training has not been revealed. The UK government refused to answer a parliamentary question in 2017 asking if it assists the Bahrain National Security Agency, replying that, “It is a long-standing policy of successive British governments not to comment on intelligence matters”.
It is clear, however, that UK training involves techniques which might be useful in countering protests. Instruction of Bahrain’s police has included the use of water cannon, dog handling and public order tactics. Elite groups such as the Royal Marines have instructed their Bahraini counterparts in the use of sniper rifles, other small arms and close protection.
Relationships with these institutions are often sealed by arms exports. The UK government has licensed more than £100-million worth of arms to the Bahraini regime since 2011. The exports include assault and sniper rifles, tear gas and riot control agents, and small arms ammunition.
British arms exports rose substantially after the 2011 crackdown. From 2011 to 2015, the UK did deals with Bahrain worth £45-million, compared to £6-million worth in the three years before 2011.
The British government also approves exports of “telecommunications interception equipment” for the Bahraini authorities while they have been conducting surveillance of activists and opponents, including in the UK, since at least the mid-2000s as part of the clampdown on all dissent.
In January 2017, Bahrain carried out executions of three men accused of killing two police officers. The human rights organisation Reprieve noted that these executions were based on forced confessions given under torture, adding that “Britain has spent £5 million assisting the system that made these executions possible” by training police officers, prosecutors and torture investigators.
The Royal Guard
British training of the Royal Guard is especially controversial. Its commander is the king’s fourth son, Prince Nasser bin Hamad – another Sandhurst graduate. He has led the Royal Guard since June 2011 and been dubbed the “torture prince” by dissidents for allegedly taking part in the torture of activists who participated in the 2011 uprising. He once tweeted: “If it was up to me, I’d give them all life [in prison].”
As the head of Bahrain’s Olympic Committee, Prince Nasser created a special commission to “identify and punish” more than 150 sporting professionals who took part in the 2011 protests, according to a US human rights group.
Prince Nasser also has access to the highest levels of the UK military.
Last month, Prince Nasser received Britain’s defence senior adviser to the Middle East, Sir John Lorimer, in Manama. In March 2018 he visited the Ministry of Defence in London and was welcomed by assistant chief of the general staff Rupert Jones and met the UK chief of defence staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach.
The Royal Guard’s Rapid Intervention Force, which constitutes Bahrain’s special forces, is another unit of the Bahraini military with which British forces have close relations.
In 2014, its commander, Major Shaikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the fifth son of King Hamad and another Sandhurst graduate, opened the “Al Khalifa Hall” at St Athan British military base in Wales. The celebration was attended by Britain’s Parachute Regiment commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Edd Sandy and senior military personnel. Shaikh Khalid “underlined the importance of such visits in bolstering ties in the field of military and supporting the Royal Guard Special Force technically”.
Bahrain’s Rapid Intervention Force began taking part in the devastating war in Yemen in 2015, sending around 300 of its troops to fight. Yet criticising the Yemen war in Bahrain, prosecuted mainly by Manama’s intimate ally and neighbour, Saudi Arabia, is highly dangerous. It was simply tweeting critically about the war that landed Nabeel Rajab, the country’s most prominent political prisoner, in jail, first in 2015 then again in 2016.
In 2018, Rajab was sentenced to five years in jail for his tweets on the grounds that these constituted “spreading false rumours in time of war” and “insulting public authorities”, a ruling universally condemned by human rights organisations.
The British government has made its support for the regime unequivocal in recent years.
Foreign minister Lord Ahmad says that “Bahrain is a partner and we have many strategic interests”. The recent British ambassador to Bahrain, Simon Martin, has referred to “our extraordinary relationship with the Kingdom of Bahrain and its people”.
Martin’s predecessor, Iain Lindsay, similarly highlighted “the UK as Bahrain’s strategic partner of choice”.
The government is seeking to intensify relations with Bahrain still further after the UK leaves the European Union. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab wrote in August to Bahrain’s ambassador to the UK, noting that “while the United Kingdom values its relations with Bahrain, it seeks to strengthen them in the upcoming period, especially after Brexit”.
Government support for the Bahraini regime and its countering of the opposition has even been noticed by the BBC. Reporting on the boycott of elections by the opposition party, Al-Wefaq, in 2016, the BBC noted that the British embassy had “all but shunned the group”. It added, “The UK Foreign Office in particular has communicated bluntly that the opposition made its own bed by refusing to participate within the existing political framework, however flawed, and now will have to sleep in it.”
The British government consistently defends its pro-regime stance by arguing that, “We regularly raise human rights with the government of Bahrain, at senior levels, both in private and public.” It says it continues to “encourage the government of Bahrain to deliver on its international and domestic human rights commitments”.
However, the government’s praise for the country’s domestic political “reform” programme has been widely criticised.
Sayed Alwadaei, advocacy director of the UK based human rights organisation, Bahrain Institute for Rights and Development, says, “The ‘reform agenda’ is a misleading term and Westminster’s support for reform in Bahrain has done nothing to recognise the legitimate democratic demands of Bahraini citizens or improve the country’s appalling human rights record.” He adds that this agenda “provides a convenient whitewash for the Bahraini regime to rehabilitate their image abroad”.
Amnesty International similarly describes the institutions set up in Bahrain with UK support as being “seriously flawed and widely seen as PR exercises”. It has accused the British government of being “utterly disingenuous” in pretending it is delivering substantial human rights reform in Bahrain.
The British government’s latest annual report on human rights makes much of Bahrain’s supposed “progress in and commitment to the democratic process”, and fails to mention torture or the extent of political repression.
It does state that the UK government “raised concerns” in 2018 about Nabeel Rajab’s five-year prison sentence for posting critical tweets. It also claims the British government raised concerns over a life sentence handed down to Sheikh Ali Salman, the former secretary-general of the proscribed Al-Wefaq opposition party, for allegedly spying for Qatar. This was a verdict which Amnesty International described as “a travesty of justice that demonstrates the Bahraini authorities’ relentless and unlawful efforts to silence any form of dissent”.
Britain is even helping Bahrain at the United Nations. In 2017, the UK government refused to back a joint UN statement criticising Bahrain over its deteriorating human rights record, including over torture. The government explained that the statement did not “recognise some of the genuine progress Bahrain has made”.
A year earlier, it was revealed that Britain had waged a behind-the-scenes public relations offensive aimed at neutering UN criticism of Bahrain for its human rights record. Another draft statement was substantially watered down after lobbying by the UK and Saudi Arabia, with London seeking to convince other states “that things were improving in Bahrain.”