Tag Archives: Bahrain

Why Gulf Wealth Matters to the UK: David Wearing interview

Why Gulf Wealth Matters to the UK: David Wearing interview
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
9 November 2018

In his new book Dr David Wearing, a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, argues the UK’s relationship with the authoritarian GCC states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) is one of “asymmetric interdependence”: the UK and the Gulf monarchies depend upon each other, but it is the UK that is in the stronger position.

Providing a historical analysis starting from the British Empire’s dominant position in the Gulf, AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain explains how “British power has been an important factor (among others) in the promotion and preservation of monarchical rule in the region”, which, in turn, has assisted the UK maintaining its global power status since the demise of the British Empire.

Ian Sinclair questioned Wearing about the UK’s interest in the region’s energy reserves, its role in the Gulf during the 2011 Arab uprisings and how the relationship between the UK and Gulf may change in the short and long-term.

Ian Sinclair: You argue that the UK’s interest in the Gulf’s vast oil and gas reserves is not about “direct energy supply” to the UK. Can you explain why this is, and what the UK’s interest is really about?

David Wearing: Britain imported a lot of oil from the Middle East during the post-war years, but this tailed off significantly from the 1970s as North Sea oil came on stream. At this point, we import a little more than we export, and only about 3% of our imports come from Saudi Arabia, less from the other Gulf states. However, gas is an important part of the UK’s energy mix, and imports from Qatar comprise about 13% of our gas consumption.

Gulf oil does matter to the UK, but in different ways. First there’s the structural power in the world system that major states gain from control over hydrocarbons – the lifeblood of the industrialised world economy. Those sorts of geopolitical questions are slightly above the pay-grade of post-imperial Britain, but are of real relevance for the global hegemon, the United States, and the UK of course supports and complements US power in the Gulf. A reasonably stable flow of oil out of the Gulf is also important to the world economy (and thus to British capitalism, with its extensive global connections) since price shocks can be hugely disruptive. And Gulf oil remains a major commercial prize for two of the UK’s leading firms, BP and Shell.

But as I argue in the book, what the UK is interested in above all is the wealth that Gulf oil sales generate, and how it can use the connections developed with the Gulf Arab monarchies during the imperial era to attract those “petrodollars” into the British economy and arms industry.

The move to neoliberalism, and the consequent growth of the City of London alongside the decline of manufacturing export industry, has left Britain with a large and growing current account deficit. That’s the deficit between income and outgoings related to trade and investment that the UK has with the rest of the world. Running such a deficit puts downward pressure on your currency, which can be offset in two ways: first, by finding areas of the world where you can run a trade surplus, thus narrowing the overall deficit, and second, by attracting foreign inward investment, by which demand for assets in your own currency “finances” the deficit, and keeps your currency stable.

What I describe in my book is a process whereby, while neoliberalism in the UK was becoming more entrenched, the Gulf states were enjoying a huge windfall from oil prices, starting in the early 2000s and continuing until very recently. Gulf demand for imports of goods and services rocketed, as did the sovereign wealth they had available for investment. So British neoliberal capitalism and Gulf rentier capitalism came to complement each other. The UK provided the goods and services and the investment outlet that the Gulf monarchies required, while the Gulf monarchies provided an export market with which it was possible to build a trade surplus, as well as a source of capital inflows that could help finance the current account deficit.

In addition, about half of UK arms exports go to the Gulf, mainly to Saudi Arabia. Britain’s post-war strategic objective to remain a global military power despite the loss of empire requires it to maintain its own arms industry. Arms exports make that industry more economically viable, especially when we’re talking about the major, sophisticated weapons systems – military jets and the supporting infrastructure – that the UK provides to the Gulf monarchs. Those exports are a very small part of total UK exports worldwide – less than 1% – ad alternative employment could certainly be found for arms industry workers. This is not about economic benefits for the British people but the strategic priorities of the British state.

So “Gulf wealth matters to Britain”, as the book title says, but to a specific neoliberal, militaristic Britain. Gulf wealth could matter a lot less to the UK if we ran our economy differently and reconfigured our foreign relations.

IS: During the 2010-11 ‘Arab Spring’ there were significant pro-democracy protests in the Gulf, most notably in Bahrain. What was the UK’s response to these events?

DW: Notwithstanding the nominal “concerns” expressed by Whitehall about state abuses during the anti-democratic crackdown, the UK effectively took up the PR line of the Bahraini government: that the violence was down to sectarian divisions, that any abuses were regrettable mistakes, and that “reform” was now underway – led by the regime – to resolve matters. In reality, the uprising was broad based and democratic, the abuses were the predictable response of an authoritarian regime to the threat of democracy, and the “reforms” were designed to whitewash the regime’s international image and consolidate its position after that threat had been substantively extinguished. British arms sales increased during this period, and strategic military ties deepened considerably, in what was a visible vote of confidence in continued monarchical rule.

This was entirely consistent with the preceding two centuries of Britain’s involvement in the region. The Gulf was originally brought under the control of the British Empire as part of a wider buffer zone around the Indian subcontinent. Local rulers were given British protection, and through the crucial decades of state formation and development, especially as the oil revenues came in, the UK and increasingly the US played a decisive role in entrenching monarchical rule and building up the body and muscle of the coercive apparatus that blocked any prospect of socio-political change (despite the brave efforts of many of the region’s people).

In light of this, one can only attribute the common association of democracy with especially “Western values”, and the belief that authoritarianism springs from the region’s “culture”, to a refusal to look at the history, together with a deeply ingrained set of basically racist assumptions that frame many people’s understanding of our relationship with this part of the world.

IS: How might the economic and political responses needed to combat climate change alter the UK’s relationship with the Gulf?

DW: It’s increasingly understood that global decarbonisation is now a matter of urgency. Fundamentally, the majority of the world’s oil has to stay in the ground. Most Gulf oil goes to East Asia, and China in particular is making massive efforts to decarbonise. The oil-dependent Gulf monarchies could well be sitting on stranded assets, which means the petrodollars helping to prop up British neoliberalism and post-imperial militarism could soon begin to dry up. The UK needs to adapt to these realities.

IS: In the short-term, arguably the best chance for making significant and lasting positive change to the UK’s relationship with the Gulf monarchies is electing a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government. How difficult would it be for a newly elected Labour government to shift the UK’s relationship with the GCC?

DW: As indicated above, these relationships are contingent, not inescapable. The Labour leadership’s aim of demilitarising UK foreign policy and transitioning away from neoliberalism fit well with – and would be decisive in making possible – a major rethink of UK relations with the Gulf Arab monarchs. The fact that it is achievable, however, does not mean that it wouldn’t be a challenge.

There are interests within the Labour Party committed to Britain maintaining a major arms industry, and its status as a military power. The 2017 manifesto was clearly a compromise between those interests and the Corbyn leadership. Sustaining that compromise results in the current line that Britain can compensate for ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia by selling an equivalent value of arms elsewhere. The reality is that alternative markets simply do not exist. Ending arms sales to the Gulf will undoubtedly impact on the UK arms industry and thus the UK’s ability to maintain its status as a military power. Corbyn and his allies will likely be fine with that, especially if they (correctly) believe that alternative jobs for arms industry workers could be created as part of the proposed industrial strategy. But they will be forced to stop triangulating on this issue area, and to take on and defeat the party right. If they frame that battle around what’s happening in Yemen they could mobilise the support of the mass membership and probably win.

On the wider economic dimensions, an export-oriented industrial strategy would over time obviate the need for petrodollar inflows to finance the current account deficit, but in the short and medium term that need might remain. The Saudis would have the option of retaliating against any cessation of UK arms supplies by pulling some of their investments, and Labour should at least be war-gaming such a scenario in advance of taking office. I suspect that, in their current position of weakness, especially after the Khashoggi murder, it’s doubtful that the Saudis would want to further alienate the Western allies upon whom they depend by taking such an aggressive action. I also suspect that a major programme of public investment under a Labour government would attract a good deal of foreign capital, which may well offset any withdrawal of Saudi and Gulf capital. But again, these are challenges that Labour would have to think through and prepare for.

The major misconception I’ve found when discussing my book in public and in the media is that the Gulf monarchs have decisive power over the UK and that there’s nothing policymakers can do about the relationship. That isn’t true. Recalibrating and disentangling these relationships is certainly possible. It won’t be easy, but the coming changes resulting from global warming make this challenge an inescapable one.

Book review: AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain by David Wearing

Book review: AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain by David Wearing
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 October 2018

Considering the region’s importance to the UK, it’s surprising to discover this essential and deeply impressive book is the first comprehensive study of the UK’s relationship with the authoritarian states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Taking a broadly Marxist perspective – the Middle East scholars Gilbert Achcar and Adam Hanieh are thanked for their guidance in the acknowledgements – David Wearing sets out how Britain has played an important role “in the promotion and preservation of monarchical rule in the region”, which, in turn, has helped the UK to maintain its global power status since the demise of the British Empire.

Turning to the primary reason for Western interference in the region, Wearing, a Teaching Fellow at in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, notes “The UK’s current interest in Gulf oil and gas is less about direct energy supply and more about strategic, geopolitical and commercial interests”. He takes a similarly wide-angle analysis of the billions of pounds worth of weapons the UK sells to the GCC, arguing the arms trades are of key strategic value to British military power rather than simply about commercial profit. In addition, British arms sales have “enable[d] autocratic governments to stay in power”, Professor Eugene Rogan, the Director of the Middle East Centre at Oxford University told the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, with many of the weapons “used against their own people”.

For example, Saudi Arabian soldiers rode into Bahrain to help crush the 2011 popular uprising in Tactica Armoured Personnel Carriers manufactured by BAE Systems in Newcastle Upon Tyne. “Even the police dogs we have are trained up by a British company called Top Dog”, the Bahraini activist Ala’a Shehabi told me in 2015.

Wearing also does a public service by devoting a section of the book to the ongoing Saudi-led, UK and US-backed assault on Yemen – the biggest humanitarian crisis on the planet today, according to the United Nations. With the war energising Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, according to a UN panel of experts, Wearing contends the ongoing slaughter is a good illustration of “the strength of the British state’s commitment to support the Saudi kingdom even in the face of considerable pressure and criticism”.

Carefully written and well referenced, Wearing writes in a very controlled academic style which is accessible to the general reader. He ends with some brief comments about an alternative UK foreign policy: abandon attempts to project power on the international stage, restrict the military posture to one of self-defence, and transfer the arms industry’s highly-skilled workforce to the growing renewable energy sector.

Though Wearing doesn’t mention it, the best chance of achieving these much-needed changes in the near future is almost certainly a Corbyn-led Labour government. If implemented these unprecedented shifts would, of course, transform our relationship with the Gulf autocracies, giving civil society activists and the people of the GCC a fighting chance of winning significant democratic change in their own nations.

Using the Establishment to Skewer the Establishment: UK Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Using the Establishment to Skewer the Establishment: UK Foreign Policy in the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 July 2017

In May 2017 the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations published a report titled The Middle East: Time for New Realism. The group who compiled the report include ex-foreign policy advisers to William Hague and Gordon Brown, former Labour Defence Secretary Lord Reid and Lord Hannay, the UK Ambassador to the United Nations from 1990-95.

Some people on the left are dismissive of establishment sources. This is a shame because they can be very useful, so are worth reading carefully if one has the time. For example, the 116-page report contains original testimony from high level policymakers, giving a rare insight into elite thinking. US dissident Noam Chomsky has a similar view of the business press, arguing “it is useful to read what the ruling class tells its people… they tend to be more honest, because they are talking to people they don’t have to worry about, and to people who need to know the truth so that they can go out and make decisions”. Select committees also attract some of the best experts on the topic under consideration. As a consequence, reports such as this are considered trustworthy and credible by many, especially the establishment itself, so are useful to cite to back up one’s argument in any debate.

The report starts by noting “The UK has critical interests in the region, both economic and security”. With the stability of the oil and gas markets having a direct impact on global economic prosperity, it explains “the interest for the UK in Middle East energy remains in securing stability of global oil supplies through the Gulf and securing its own liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies.” Stewart Williams, Vice-President of the energy consultancy group Wood Mackenzie, explains that over half of the UK’s gas is now imported, of which around a third comes from Qatar.

The region’s energy resources have long been a central geopolitical interest of the West, with the US State Department noting at the end of the Second World War that Saudi Arabia’s oil supplies were “a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”

“British commercial interests in the region are sizeable”, the report continues, noting trade in goods and services between the UK and the Middle East amounts to approximately £18.9 billion, with the Gulf states accounting for around £16 billion of this. “Above all, the Middle East dominates the UK defence export market and is the largest regional importer of British defence services and equipment”, the select committee says.

Neil Crompton, Director of Middle East and North Africa at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), notes these security and commercial interests “draw us towards more engagement” with the region.  This euphemistic description is clarified later in the report when Hayder al-Khoei, a Visiting Fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations, explains the UK “gives almost unconditional support” to its Gulf Arab allies. And we have no bigger Gulf Arab ally than the theocratic monarchy Saudi Arabia, who the UK has been supporting in its bombing of Yemen “in every practical way short of engaging in combat”, according to the UK foreign secretary in 2015. The report notes that in January 2016 a United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen estimated that 60 percent of civilian deaths and injuries in Yemen were caused by air-launched explosive weapons, with “air strikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law”, including refugee camps, weddings, residential areas, medical facilities, schools, mosques, markets and food storage warehouses.

“The UN has warned that Yemen is on the brink of a famine, with children paying the heaviest price”, the report notes. As of 6 July 1,600 Yemenis had died from cholera, according to UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.

Invited to give evidence to the select committee, the group Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain maintains the UK’s support for the Saudi-led bombing has “likely extended the conflict and deepened UK complicity in a humanitarian catastrophe”. Moreover, the report goes on to note “The conflict in Yemen has jeopardised UK development work in the region”, with the Department for International Development forced to suspend its development programme in the country.

Discussing broader developments since the 2011 uprisings, Dr Christopher Davidson, Reader in Middle East Politics at Durham University, notes that the UK has supported counter-revolutionary forces in Egypt and Bahrain. The UK’s “supposed support of democracy… would be strongly challenged by many people” in the region, he argues. Antoun Issa from the Middle East Institute builds on Davidson’s testimony, explaining that a “large source of anti-Americanism (and anti-UK sentiment as an extension) stems from a region-wide perception that Western powers underwrite the regional autocratic order”.

Turning to the future, the selection committee believe that post-Brexit the UK government will seek “to deepen its security and trade relations with the Gulf states” with “the UK’s dependence on arms exports… likely to increase”. Worryingly, Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House think-tank, explains that Gulf nations will see that the “UK needs new friends or renewed relationships with old friends” and consider British policy to be “more malleable and susceptible to influence”.

It gets worse. In a section titled Dilemma of Democracy Promotion the report argues “In the long term, in a more pacific context, the aim would be to actively encourage more democracy; but that is not the situation we find ourselves in. The priority is now to encourage efforts at stabilising the region.” There is that word again – “stability”. In a recently compiled list of Common Terms Used by the Elite to Mislead the Public British historian Mark Curtis argues the actual meaning of “stability” is “repression by Western-backed governments.” The report shows that Curtis is right on the money, when it explains the UK’s support for “the stability offered by hereditary family rulers” in the Gulf means it has “undergirded a system of authoritarianism.”

The dire ramifications of this shameful policy are inadvertently made clear by Neil Crompton from the FCO. The “underlying causes” of the Arab spring, including “the sense of economic disempowerment” among young people “have not really been addressed by any of the governments in the region”, he notes. So, contrary to the mainstream media’s framing of the West being interested in promoting democracy in the Middle East, a careful reading of the House of Lords report highlights a far more uncomfortable reality: that UK’s foreign policy plays a role in stifling popular movements that are trying to throw off the shackles of their authoritarian and unelected rulers.

Tormented by Britain: Life at the Receiving End of UK Foreign Policy

Tormented by Britain: Life at the Receiving End of UK Foreign Policy
by Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
24 April 2015

In February 2011 large scale protests inspired by the Arab Spring erupted against the Bahraini government, an ally of the United States and United Kingdom. Rooted in the country’s majority Shi’a population and propelled by socio-economic inequality and perceived government corruption, the protestors initially pushed for political reform and escalated soon thereafter to demands for regime change. Headed by the ruling Al Khalifa family, the Bahraini government has forcefully cracked down on the demonstrations, killing and injuring hundreds of people and arresting thousands.

Ian Sinclair asked Dr. Ala’a Shehabi, founder of the research and advocacy organisation Bahrain Watch, about the ongoing struggle between the opposition and the government, the November 2014 national elections in Bahrain and the role of the UK.

In January 2015, UK foreign secretary Philip Hammond MP praised Bahrain’s human rights record. Bahrain, he said, ‘is a country which is travelling in the right direction’ and ‘making significant reform’. What is the current human rights situation in Bahrain? Is the Bahraini government’s crackdown on peaceful protest continuing?

To understand the current human rights predicament in Bahrain is to understand the public advice that a British think-tank, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), gave in a parliamentary select committee investigation: ‘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’.

Shortly after foreign secretary Philip Hammond made the statement above, the Bahraini regime revoked the citizenship of 72 Bahrainis, the majority of whom were peaceful dissidents, rendering them stateless, and imprisoned one of the region’s most ardent human rights activists, Nabeel Rajab, for his critical tweets. Virtually every political leader of the major opposition groups in the country is behind bars. However, the population of political prisoners come from a wide spectrum of backgrounds including doctors, unionists, photographers, academics and clerics, as well as swathes of youths that comprise the 3000+ prison population today. A new report from Amnesty International, entitled ‘Behind the Rhetoric: Human rights abuses in Bahrain continue unabated’, details the most recent examples of egregious abuses in a country that Hammond praises ad nauseam.

The 200-year old relationship between the UK and Bahrain has withstood the test time of time, weathering cycles of popular uprisings over the past century and participating where necessary in their suppression. The two governments are inseparable, the relationship unquestionable, resilient and unconditional. Over the past financial year alone, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has directed more than £1.2 million towards its Bahraini allies. Effectively, British taxpayers’ money has been used to enable a police state to continuously upgrade its sophisticated and modern system of coercion and social control, a system that utilises the services of British and American security consultants like John Timoney and John Yates and highly sophisticated British-made surveillance technology like FinFisher. You can read about the wide spectrum of military, logistical and legal support that the Bahraini regime receives from the United Kingdom here.

In realpolitik terms, British interests are so intertwined with those of the Bahraini ruling family that the problem of human rights abuses has been cited by the British government as reason for policy continuity, in the form of yet more security consultants, mediators, legal support, and even military assistance and arms sales in the name of ‘reform’ and ‘the rule of law’ that always seem to entrench rather than alter the reality that Bahrainis have to live with. So far from the Bahraini regime’s repression causing any tension in relations with Britain, business between the two states is booming, and indeed new investment opportunities have been created.

Last month, Bahrain’s main central prison was tear-gassed by police forces trying to quash a prison riot and credible reports of injuries amongst prisoners due to torture continue to emerge. The UK’s HM Inspectorate of Prisons has been supposedly assisting ‘reforming’ the Bahraini prison system since at least 2013, yet during this period, reports of torture, abuse and miscarriages of justice have persisted unabated. Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch notes that ‘Bahrain’s problem is not a dysfunctional justice system, but rather a highly functional injustice system’. The unarmed opposition has been effectively throttled, unable to freely mobilise in ever more restricted spaces. Protests are outright banned in the majority of the country. The internet is monitored and censored. It is a stifling situation, in which a highly visible police state exerts heavy-handed and conspicuous control over a small territory and a small population.

But the state has failed to silence voices of dissent and stop the protests. The latest iteration of protests, now in their fifth year, has been the longest standing of the Arab uprisings and the most peaceful. With nearly 100 people killed directly by security forces, this is also the most bloody confrontation in modern Bahraini history. Back to RUSI’s advice: the ‘suppression of dissent’ has not been successful and, despite the UK’s help, it has not been done in a particularly ‘acceptable’ manner either.

In November 2014, Bahrain held parliamentary elections, which the main opposition groupings in Bahrain, including the largest, al-Wafeq, boycotted. The UK ambassador to Bahrain ‘welcomed’ the elections, noting that turnout was ‘encouraging’. What’s your take on the elections and the UK ambassador’s response?

The UK ambassador’s response is consistent with Britain’s policy of unshakeable support for the ruling family. The elections, essentially a liberal façade for an illiberal authoritarian state, were naturally celebrated and praised by the British, even when a majority boycotted them (the government claims 52 percent turnout, though no internationally independent monitors were allowed to oversee the vote) and they failed international standards of free and fair elections. Bahrain Watch documented the structural flaws in the electoral process and its consequent inability to produce any political change.

As punishment for this boycott, the ‘tolerated’ opposition—registered political groups that are negotiating and dialoguing with the regime, of whom President Obama said in 2011, ‘you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail’—have been effectively obliterated. The head of the main political society, al-Wefaq, was arrested and faces serious charges. All its rallies have been banned.

There is a massive PR drive by the regime to burnish its image, and the British ambassador frequently volunteers his services. Here he is sky-diving at the 2012 Bahrain Air Show. We at Bahrain Watch try to track and document a small sample of the PR contracts that have been made between the West and the Bahraini regime since 2011, amounting to more than £50 million.

Elections are only as important as the political change they are able to effect. In our case that is virtually zero, given the structural imbalance in the separation of powers (judicial, legislative, executive), a disempowered parliament, the gerrymandering of voting districts, and the lack of equal citizenship rights. The country is run by royal decree with the decorative features of a parliamentary democracy. The British ambassador applauds elections in which various forms of political coercion and harassment were used against those who boycotted, and thus is complicit in denying Bahrainis’ right to self-determination.

In December 2014 the UK announced it would be establishing a military base in Bahrain—‘the first permanent military base in the Middle East since it formally withdrew from the region in 1971’, according to the BBC. What effect do you think this news will have on Bahraini politics?

Bahrain has a special place in the heart of the British establishment. ‘We’re back’, read the headline in the Economist magazine when the new British base was announced last December. In fact, the British never really left Bahrain, even after ‘independence’. There is a revolving door of police officers, British private secretaries and former ambassadors that shift between positions in the Bahraini government. The island already hosts an American base and a GCC military base. Its political and economic sovereignty has effectively been forfeited in order to maintain the regime’s survival. In October 2012, while street protests and the police crackdown were raging, the Bahraini government agreed a UK-Bahrain Defence Cooperation Accord. A 2013 British parliamentary committee stated,

We are disappointed that the [British] Government has provided so little detail to Parliament and this Committee on its most recent defence accord with Bahrain. It was predictable that Bahrain would consider it a public signal of support and, if the Government did not mean it to send this message, it would have been more sensible to have immediately released information about the Accord and the UK’s reasons for agreeing it at this time.

We remain in the dark.

Since the 2012 Accord, Bahraini protests have taken a markedly anti-British tone. Activists have sought to highlight the paradox of having a partner like Bahrain in the anti-ISIS coalition, when it has itself nurtured a sectarian pretext for its suppression of dissidents, who it has portrayed as a Shi’ite fifth column loyal to Iran. When human rights activist Nabeel Rajab tweeted that Bahrain’s security forces have served as an ‘ideological incubator’ for extremists, many of whom have gone on to join ISIS and several of whom have been killed or carried out suicide attacks, he was jailed and put on trial. As evidence he has provided samples of the books printed and distributed by the Bahrain Defence Force.

The Bahraini regime, which has already purchased nearly £70 million in arms from the UK, will be paying for the construction of the new British base. Ironically, when the Sheikhs offered to pay the British to keep their bases in the Gulf after their withdrawal in the 1970s, ‘they were brutally and gratuitously shot down by [British Defence Secretary Denis] Healey, who in a television interview retorted “that he was not ‘sort of a white slaver for Arab shaiks’”. British soldiers should not become ‘mercenaries for people who like to have British troops around”’, Healey said.

What explains the UK’s on-going support for the Bahraini government?

Next year, we will endure year-long celebrations of the bicentenary of UK-British relations. For most of this time—1816 to 1971—Bahrain was officially a British protectorate. In this era, the British effectively crystallised the political order and the Al Khalifa tribe’s hold on power, thwarting invaders, replacing rulers and assisting in repression of periodic uprisings—in effect stalling what could have become one of the few early democratisers in the Middle East. If the formal protectorate has now ended, British concern for Bahraini rulers’ well-being persists. Thus, in December 2014 Foreign Secretary Hammond assured the Al Khalifa ruling family that, ‘Your security is our security; your prosperity is our prosperity; your stability is our stability’.

Of course, this praise is publicly reciprocated by the faithful ally. In 2013, the Bahraini King Hamad said,

On Britain’s withdrawal from the gulf—a unilateral decision—which my father said: ‘Why? No one asked you to go!’ In fact, for all practical and strategic purposes, the British presence has not changed and it remains such that we believe we shall never be without it.

His son, the Crown Prince, declared that he would be ‘personally eternally grateful’ for its role in Bahrain.

The principle factors are therefore historical continuity, privilege, and invitation, but to these we must add economic interests. Bahrain is now the pinnacle of a toxic combination of raging neoliberalism driven by Gulf, in particular Saudi, capital accumulation (in the form of massive real estate investment projects and financial aid package) and Western imperialism. We have three military bases, a British base, a GCC military base and of course, the US Fifth fleet. What could possibly shake a regime that has become so fortified with Western and Gulf support?

What should UK citizens concerned about the situation in Bahrain do?

Like many others, I have come to the slow realization of the sheer extent of British involvement in repression. I face things like British-manufactured spyware sent to my email by the Bahraini government. British ‘consultants in London and Manama [i.e. the capital of Bahrain] are paid millions to be the designated legal defence team of the regime, or to organize prestige events like Bahrain Air Show (based on the Farnborough Air Show) and international security conferences by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. In the UK, the Bahraini King still gets the red carpet rolled out and enjoys tea and horses at Windsor every year.

By the way, those Saudi tanks that you saw rolling into Bahrain on 14 March, 2011 were British. Even the police dogs we have are trained up by a British company called Top Dog.

Tony Blair, who never met a dodgy dictator he didn’t like, visited Manama earlier this year and again last week. I once had a meeting about the planned Grand Prix in Bahrain with Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, who told me to stop hammering on about democracy, amongst many other outrageous comments that I have not gone on the record with. It isn’t so much business as usual as more business than usual.

Transnational solidarity is an important part of every struggle, and struggles are themselves stronger when they are part of a wider global movement. Citizens of Western countries whose governments have intervened destructively in foreign countries must interrogate this behaviour and challenge it. In the UK, this would mean initiating and supporting initiatives that question the FCO’s role in Bahrain and the British media’s failure to cover a conflict in which the government is siding with a rogue state against its people, using British taxpayers’ money.

There are endless things people can do. Previous actions range from stopping arms shipments and exposing the ‘dark arts’ of PR companies for the regime to exposing UK assets belonging to the Bahrain ruling family. Others have taken legal action to lift the immunity of torturers, and to try to force the FCO to release secret documents from the 1970s that may demonstrate British complicity in Bahrain’s human rights abuses.

The British elections are coming up. Much work needs to be done to pressure the new government to change course.

The Liberal Media vs. Reality: The West’s promotion of democracy in the Middle East

The Liberal Media vs. Reality: The West’s promotion of democracy in the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
19 January 2015

One of my favourite quotes about Western foreign policy comes from British historian Mark Curtis:

“The ideological system promotes one key concept that underpins everything else – the idea of Britain’s basic benevolence. Mainstream reporting and analysis usually actively promotes, or at least does not challenge, the idea that Britain promotes high principles – democracy, peace, human rights and development – in its foreign policy. Criticism of foreign policies is certainly possible, and normal, but within narrow limits which show ‘exceptions’ to or ‘mistakes’ in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence.” (Mark Curtis, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, Vintage, 2003, p. 380)

Take these recent examples from the liberal media assuming the West’s basic benevolence:

  • Jonathan Steele, The Guardian, 23 October 2011: “The neocons’ grand plan to use the 2003 invasion to turn the country [Iraq] into a secure pro-western democracy and a garrison for US bases that could put pressure on Syria and Iran lies in tatters. Their hopes of making Iraq a democratic model for the Middle East have been tipped on their head.”
  • Presenter John Humphrys talking about the British 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, BBC Today Programme, October 2012: “If a country has sent its young men to another country to die, to restore – create democracy, you’d expect, well you’d expect a bit of gratitude, wouldn’t you?”
  • Professor David Runciman, Guardian Review, 8 November 2013: “The wars fought after 2001 in Afghanistan and Iraq were designed to combat terrorism and to spread the merits of democracy.”
  • Peter Baker, New York Times, 24 February 2014: “For Mr. Bush, the focus on spreading democracy preceded his decision to invade Iraq, but it was inextricably linked to the war after the failure to find the unconventional weapons that had been the primary public justification. The goal of establishing a democratic beachhead in the Middle East began driving the occupation, but it became tarnished among many overseas because of its association with the war.”
  • Editorial, The Guardian, 3 September 2014: “In the Middle East, the rise of a new jihadist movement burst upon the western nations who had once aspired to democratically reshape the region like a thunder storm.”

Compare these statements with the recent blog post on The Guardian website by Richard Norton-Taylor and Ewen MacAskill titled ‘Saudi Arabia and Bahrain: UK arms sales trump human rights’. Noting the planned British base in Bahrain and large-scale weapons sales to Saudi Arabia – both of whom have violently put down pro-democracy and human rights protests – the authors note “Britain has made it clear that arms sales and military and security considerations must take priority over human rights, even torture.”

Noam Chomsky has long been making similar statements. For example in 2011 he noted “Both Bush and Obama are terrified of the Arab spring. And there is a very sensible reason for that. They don’t want democracies in the Arab world. If Arab public opinion had any influence on policy, the US and Britain had been tossed out of the Middle East. That’s why they are terrified of democracies in the region.”

Chomsky is frequently derided by liberal commentators, but his broad argument is backed up by Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House: “It is presented as though the invasion of Iraq was motivated largely or entirely by an altruistic desire to share democracy. This is asserted despite the long history of Anglo-American great-power involvement in the Middle East, which has, for the most part, not involved an effort to democratize the region. Rather, the general trend has been to either support authoritarian rulers who were already in place, or to participate in the active consolidation of authoritarian rule, including strong military and intelligence cooperation, as long as these rulers have been seen as supporting Western interests more than popularly elected governments would.”

David Wearing, a PhD student at the School of African and Oriental Studies, concurs: “Over the last ten years of debate, this bipartisan assumption has persisted in both countries: that Britain and America, long-time supporters of some of the region’s worst autocrats, including Saddam Hussein, genuinely sought to bring democracy to Iraq.” In reality, Wearing notes “What the Bush and Blair administrations wanted for Iraq was a hollowed-out democracy where the elected government was subservient to a huge US military and diplomatic presence, where the shape of the economy had been decided for them in advance by the occupiers, and where management of the nation’s key natural resource was largely in the hands of foreign multinationals.”

UK public opinion seems to be broadly in line with Chomsky, Kinninmont and Wearing. In January 2003 a YouGov /ITN poll found just 5 percent of respondents thought the US and UK were invading Iraq “to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq” (30 percent of respondents thought the invasion was “to secure and control oil supplies from the Middle East”). Similarly, an October 2003 Gallup poll of Baghdad residents found just one percent of respondents believed that “a desire to establish democracy” was the reason for the US-UK invasion (43 percent said the invasion’s principal objective was Iraq’s oil reserves). In terms of wider Middle East opinion, a 2012 Pew poll discovered “majorities or pluralities in six predominantly Muslim countries see Washington as an obstacle to their democratic aspirations”.

To summarise: the basic facts, a significant section of expert opinion and public opinion both in the UK and Middle East all run counter to the liberal media’s belief in the basic benevolence of Western Government. So, does this overwhelming evidence mean the liberal media will change its tune when it comes to assuming the West promotes high principles like democracy and human rights in its foreign policy? Does it heck…