Tag Archives: FCO

What’s British imperialism up to in Oman?

What’s British imperialism up to in Oman?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 January 2019

In his new book AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain, Dr David Wearing observes: “British power has been an important factor (among others) in the promotion and preservation of monarchical rule” in the Arabian Gulf.

With the Morning Star’s Phil Miller recently writing a couple of exposes of the UK’s military involvement in Oman it is worth taking time to explore the British government’s wider relationship with the so-called “sleepy sultanate” in more detail.

Since signing an “assistance” treaty with Oman in 1798 — its first in the region — Britain has played the role of imperial overseer to the country. British historian Mark Curtis notes the “extremely repressive” regime of Sultan Said bin Taimur from 1932-70 “was in effect run by the British.”

Britons served as commanders of the armed forces, ministers for financial affairs, foreign affairs and petroleum affairs, as well as the director of intelligence, Curtis notes in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World.

However, with the country in the midst of civil war, by 1970 the Sultan had come to be seen as an unreliable and weak leader by the British, who helped to overthrow him in a palace coup.

For his troubles he was settled in the Dorchester Hotel back in London, where he died two years later. His own son, the modernising Qaboos, was installed in his place, and 49 years later he still rules Oman, making him the longest-serving ruler in the Arab world.

As this longevity suggests, Oman is an absolute monarchy, in which “nearly all power remains with the monarch,” according to University of Exeter’s Dr Marc Valeri, an expert on Oman.

Qaboos “concurrently holds the positions of prime minister, commander in chief of the armed forces, chairman of the central bank, and minister of defence, foreign affairs, and finance,” Valeri notes in a 2015 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report.

Political parties are banned and press freedom is severely curtailed.

With Qaboos presenting Oman as an oasis of stability in a volatile region, one intellectual provided important context when interviewed by Valeri in 2012: “Omanis were not silent by choice … rather they were silenced by the regime. The Omani population was very quiet because of repression and fear: ‘Don’t talk about politics: you will be taken behind the sun’!”

As this quote intimates, the relationship between ruler and ruled has started to shift in recent years, with more Omanis publicly criticising their government.

In 2010 an online petition was submitted to Qaboos pushing for “widespread reforms, such as a new constitution that would lead to a parliamentary monarchy,” Valeri writes.

Inspired by the Arab Spring protests rocking the rest of the Arab world, in early 2011 (largely peaceful) demonstrations occurred in several cities in Oman.

Though the protesters’ key demands centred on improved job opportunities, increased wages and an end to rampant corruption, there were also calls for political reform, including giving more power to the elected Consultative Council, increased independence for the judiciary and a free and open media.

Smaller in size than in many other Arab nations, the demonstrations in Oman nevertheless forced significant, though limited, concessions from the regime, such as an increase in the minimum wage, the creation of 50,000 jobs, the firing of several ministers and a small increase in the powers of the Consultative Council.

However, along with the carrot, Qaboos also made good use of the stick, with Valeri noting: “Several hundred protesters, journalists, and human rights activists were arrested all over the country.”

After 2011 the repression increased, Valeri noted in 2015. “Oman’s overly broad laws restrict the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association,” Human Rights Watch summarises on its website today.

“The authorities target peaceful activists, pro-reform bloggers, and government critics using short-term arrests and detentions and other forms of harassment.”

The British government, so keen to highlight human rights abuses carried out by governments in “enemy” states such as Libya and Syria, has, as far as I can tell, been completely silent about the protests and government crackdown in Oman.

How do I know? After a fruitless search of its website, I asked the Foreign Office and Commonwealth (FCO) press office to confirm whether the British government has made any public statements since 2010 about human rights in Oman.

It has been unable to point to any such statement, claiming there are too many statements to search through to know.

This silence is unsurprising, when one considers Britain’s deep geostrategic and economic interests in maintaining the status quo in Oman: along with Iran, Oman is situated beside “the world’s most important chokepoint for oil, the Strait of Hormuz, which is the conduit for about 40 per cent of the crude [oil] traded internationally,” Bloomberg recently reported.

Britain has recently announced the opening of two new military bases in Oman — the Duqm Port complex and a “joint training base,” the latter announced by Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson in November.

With the latter able to accommodate submarines and Britain’s new aircraft carriers, the bases are part of a broader military engagement with the Gulf, allowing Britain to more effectively project military power in the resource-rich region.

For example, during the 2001 US and British-led invasion of Afghanistan, Oman “provided crucial logistics and base facilities for British forces,” Curtis explains.

We have the US whistleblower Edward Snowden to thank for revealing another reason for Britain’s enduring interest in Oman — files he leaked in 2013 show Britain has a secret network of three spy bases in Oman which tap into the undersea fibreoptic cables passing through the Strait of Hormuz.

These intelligence facilities “intercept and process vast quantities of emails, telephone calls and web traffic,” information which is “then shared with the National Security Agency in the United States,” Curtis explained in a 2016 article for the Huffington Post.

There is concern amongst the Omani population about their government’s close relationship to Britain and the US.

Valeri refers to “online writers and protesters who openly criticised the ruler’s practices” such as “his proximity to British and US interests” being “quickly arrested and condemned to jail” after the 2011 protests.

Indeed, Britain is directly involved in the repression of domestic opposition in Oman.

“British police officers have trained members of Oman’s Special Forces, police and military in ‘public order’ tactics since 2014 as part of a controversial $1.2m security and justice project,” the Middle East Eye reported in 2017.

It turns out the Police Service of Northern Ireland has been instructing the Omani authorities in “how to deal with strikes and stifle protests under a Foreign Office-funded project.”

Having fled Oman in 2013 after being repeatedly arrested, Omani human rights campaigner Khalfan al-Badwawi told the Middle East Eye “Britain’s military relationship with Oman” is “a major obstacle to human rights campaigners in Oman because of the military and intelligence support from London that props up the Sultan’s dictatorship.”

Nabhan Alhanshi, who fled Oman in 2012 and is now the director of an organisation looking at human rights in his home country, concurs.

“We in the Omani Centre for Human Rights believe that the British negligence of the human rights situations in Oman encourages the Omani government to commit more violations,” he told me.

With the mainstream media unwilling to report on this issue, the left in Britain has a key role to play in highlighting Britain’s forgotten friendship with the autocracy in Oman.

Like the anti-war movement did in Iraq and Afghanistan, progressives need to make concrete links of with pro-democracy activists and organisations in Oman and the rest of the Gulf monarchies.

With the British government’s support for Qaboos’s dictatorial rule as strong as ever, this population-to-population solidarity is one way Britons can help to build the more democratic, free and equal Oman that many Omanis have been working towards for so long.

Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter at @IanJSinclair.

The original Fake News? The BBC and the Information Research Department

The original Fake News? The BBC and the Information Research Department
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
9 January 2019

Last month Ritula Shah presented a BBC World Service discussion programme titled Is ‘Fake News’ A Threat To Democracy? Predictably the debate focused on Russian attempts to influence Western populations and political systems.

Asked whether the US has been involved in similar activities, Dr Kathleen Bailey, a senior figure in the US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the 1980s, was dismissive: “We [the US] certainly do not have a budget, bureaucracy or intellectual commitment to doing that kind of thing.”

Carl Miller, the Research Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, also played down the West’s activities: “I think Western countries do do less of this as a kind of tool of foreign policy than autocracies”.

“Read real journalism” – presumably BBC journalism – was one of the guest’s suggestions for countering Fake News.

Putting this self-serving and self-congratulatory narrative to one side, it is worth considering the BBC’s, and particularly the BBC World Service’s, own relationship to the British government’s own propaganda.

“Directly funded by government [the Foreign Office], rather than the licence fee” the World Service is “deeply embedded in the foreign policy, security and intelligence apparatus of the British state”, Dr Tom Mills notes in his must-read 2016 book The BBC: Myth of a Public Service.

In particular, the BBC had a very close relationship to the Information Research Department [IRD] – “a Foreign Office propaganda outfit which sought especially to foster anti-communist sentiments on the left”, explains Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University.

Set up in 1948, the IRD “was one of the largest and best-funded sections of the Foreign Office until it was discreetly shut down in 1977 on the orders of [then Foreign Secretary] David Owen”, investigative journalist Ian Cobain reported in the Guardian in July 2018. A 1963 Foreign Office review of IRD sets out the work of the covert unit: “The primary aim is unattributable propaganda through IRD outlets – eg in the press, the political parties… and a number of societies”.

Focusing on the Soviet Union and its supposed influence around the world, “IRD material poured into the BBC and was directed to news desks, talks writers and different specialist correspondents”, according to Paul Lashmar and James Oliver in Britain’s Secret Propaganda War, their 1998 history of the clandestine organisation. The programming of the BBC’s Overseas Service [which would change its name to the World Service in 1965] “was developed in close consultation with the Foreign Office and its information departments”, they highlight.

The BBC “were seemingly quite content to be directed by the FO [Foreign Office] as to how to deal with Middle Eastern personalities, and enquired whether it was desirable for them ‘to deal in a more or less bare-fisted manner with any of the leading statesmen (or their principle spokesmen)’”, notes Simon Collier in his 2013 PhD thesis on IRD and UK foreign policy. Infamously, the BBC played a key role in the US-UK assisted overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister in 1953, with the signal for the coup to begin arranged with the BBC. That day the corporation begun its Persian language news broadcast not with the usual “it is now midnight in London”, but instead with “it is now exactly midnight”, reveals historian Mark Curtis in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World.

When it came to nuclear war, the BBC was similarly careful about what was broadcast, effectively banning the dramatised documentary film War Game in 1965 (even though they had originally commissioned it). Discussing the film’s depiction of a nuclear attack on the UK, the Chairman of the BBC wrote to the Cabinet Secretary arguing that the “showing of the film on television might well have a significant effect on public attitudes towards the policy of the nuclear deterrent.”

Though formally concerned with foreign influence, IRD also took a close interest in UK domestic politics, including in the Northern Ireland conflict, aswell as carrying out campaigns against people they suspected were Communists and trade unionists. For example, writing in the Guardian last year Cobain reported “senior figures in Harold Wilson’s Labour government plotted to use a secret Foreign Office propaganda unit [IRD] to smear a number of leftwing trade union leaders”, including Jack Jones, the General-Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. In the same report Cobain highlights a letter the BBC Director General wrote to IRD in 1974 asking for a briefing on “subversives” working in broadcasting. This, it seems likely, was a complement to the wider political vetting the BBC undertook, with the help of MI5, between the 1930s and 1985. Communists and members of the Socialist Worker’s Party and Militant Tendency were barred from key positions at the BBC, or denied promotion if they were already working for the corporation, according to a memo from 1984, with an image reassembling a Christmas tree added to the personnel files of individuals under suspicion.

It is important to understand the relationship between the BBC and IRD and the wider British state was kept deliberately vague, a quintessential British fudge of formal and informal connections and influence. “Many of the executives of the BBC had gone to the same public schools, and inevitably Oxbridge, with their Foreign Office colleagues”, note Lashmar and Oliver. “Both were part of the establishment, attending the same gentleman’s clubs and having an implicit understanding of what constituted the national interest.”

Cutting through this fog, Mills provides a concise summary: “During the Cold War period the BBC was… distributing propaganda material in close cooperation with the British state”. However, he is keen to highlight that though “there is a temptation to view all this as merely a feature of the Cold War… there is no good reason to think that there is not still significant collusion”.

He quotes Dr Emma Briant, who notes in her 2015 book Propaganda and Counter-Terrorism the BBC Director General receives direct briefings from the UK intelligence services “on the right line to take on whether something is in the national and operational interest to broadcast.”

Indeed, out of all the UK broadcasters’ coverage of the Iraq War, the BBC was revealed to by the most sympathetic to the government, according to a 2003 study led by Professor Justin Lewis from Cardiff University’s School of Journalism. Defending the BBC’s reporting in a letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2003, then BBC Director General Greg Dyke noted he had “set up a committee… which insisted that we had to find a balanced audience for programmes like Question Time at a time when it was very hard to find supporters of the war willing to come on.” The same committee “when faced with a massive bias against the war among phone-in callers, decided to increase the number of phone lines so that pro-war listeners had a better chance of getting through and getting onto the programmes”, Dyke explained. This “was done in an attempt to ensure our coverage was balanced”, Dyke wrote, apparently with a straight face.

Moreover, academic studies on issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict and the financial crisis shows the BBC has tended to reflect “the ideas and interests of elite groups, and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives”, to quote Mills on the BBC’s overall journalistic output.

Turning to contemporary politics, in 2016 Sir Michael Lyons, the former Chair of the BBC Trust, raised concerns about the corporation’s coverage of new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn “I can understand why people are worried about whether some of the most senior editorial voices in the BBC have lost their impartiality on this”, he noted.

As is often the case, a careful reading of establishment sources can provide illumination about what is really going on. Concerned about the government proposed cuts to the World Service, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee highlighted the propaganda role of the BBC in 2014: “We believe that it would not be in the interests of the UK for the BBC to lose sight of the priorities of the FCO, which relies upon the World Service as an instrument of ‘soft power’.”

Fake News indeed.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

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.