Prince Andrew – the Ringo Starr of the Queen's children – flew to Bahrain this week. He wasn't there to golf or to walk around with the head of state blasting geese out of the sky, like he did recently in Kazakhstan. No, he was there for a business and diplomacy festival organised by the British embassy in the capital city of Manama. Which sounds boring until I tell you that Prince Andrew was there to help sell rich Arabs killer jets.
The royal is the star guest at “GREAT British Week” (their emphasis, not ours), a series of tech shows and swanky receptions to celebrate one of Britain’s oldest and least savoury alliances. The week’s events are the latest push in the Coalition’s campaign to promote British business in the dictatorships of the Arabian Peninsula. Mini and Rolls-Royce are involved, and consumer brands like Mothercare and the Body Shop, among others, are sponsoring a gala dinner to celebrate ties between Britain and the Al Khalifa clan – Bahrain's ruling royal family – that go back nearly 200 years. But it’s not just harmless baby clothes and make-up that we’re selling to Bahrain.
“The historical link is about security,” said Ala’a Shehabi, a Bahraini writer and activist. “It’s about logistical support to the Bahraini security services. All the stuff that the Bahraini regime needs to be a strong security state, the British are there.”
So it’s no surprise that GREAT British week coincides with Bahrain International Airshow, where the star attraction is the Typhoon fighter jet. Britain’s biggest arms dealer, BAE Systems, has been trying to sell Bahrain a batch of the jets since last August. A similar sale to the nearby United Arab Emirates fell through last year, so the British are taking no chances this time: both the Duke of York and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond are planning to attend the air show.
In an attempt to justify Hammond's presence, a UK Trade & Investement spokesman said he was there to reflect the importance of the UK’s ongoing defence relationship with Bahrain and to support the “modernisation” of the Bahraini Armed Forces. UKTI’s been doing a pretty effective job of helping Bahrain modernise its armed forces in recent years, against a background of ongoing repression. Back in 2010, months before an Arab Spring-inspired sit-in in downtown Manama made headlines around the world, British arms companies were quietly cashing in on the regime’s campaign to quell street protests. The demos had been triggered by the arrest and torture of 25 opposition figures in the run-up to parliamentary elections.
That year, British companies sold some £8.8 million worth of weaponry to the country, three times the previous year’s sales. The included CS gas, stun grenades and riot control gear. They also offered training – just a month before the sit-in began at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, a branch of UKTI known as the Defence & Security Organisation sent a delegation to the country to train the security services in riot control equipment.
The crushing of the Pearl Roundabout protest in February 2011 marked a major escalation in Bahrain’s political crisis. According to a report commissioned by King Hamad himself, security forces made excessive use of the kinds of weaponry – particularly tear gas – that British companies had sold to Manama just months before. Physicians for Human Rights said the authorities had weaponised tear gas canisters by firing them directly at protesters’ heads and upper bodies, resulting in dozens of deaths and horrific injuries.
The authorities then launched a campaign of arbitrary arrests, shooting protesters with birdshot, systematic torture, imprisonment without trial and collective punishment of whole villages with clouds of tear gas. Security forces have killed dozens of protesters and bystanders, including women, children and the elderly, policies which are still ongoing. Britain did little to pressure Manama to ease off.
In case you thought this campaign had slowed down or stopped and it was time to forgive and forget, on the 11th of January a Bahraini court sentenced a football player to ten years in prison for burning down a police station. The player, Hakeem Al Oraibi, was playing in a televised match at the time of the alleged attack.
Another recent case of alleged torture by the Bahraini state involves the photographer who took the photos accompanying this story. Ahmad Fardan was arrested at his home on the 26th of December, 2013. He was brought before the prosecution on New Year's Day, who ordered his detention for 45 days on a charge of “intending to participate in gatherings”. Amnesty International alleges he was tortured inside prison.
“Although the British government suspended exports of weapons to Bahrain in February 2011 at the peak of the crackdown, they resumed issuing problematic licenses soon afterwards,” said John Horne of Bahrain Watch. “In April 2011, they issued export licenses for body armour and training hand grenades, small arms ammunition and so on.”
By the end of 2011, British arms sales to Bahrain had hit £13.3 million. Sales have continued apace ever since, despite an ongoing crackdown. The UK government insists this is all kosher.
“The UK has the most stringent export license policy in the world and each request for an export license is considered on a case-by-case basis,” Adam Thomas, a spokesman for UKTI, told me.
But even the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs committee recommended in November that if Bahrain’s human rights record did not substantially improve by this January, the FCO should designate it a country of concern. This week the FCO refused to comment on whether this was on the cards.
But the British government has done nothing to hide its campaign to promote British business in the Gulf. Our ambassador to Manama, Iain Lindsay, boasted in March last year that British companies stood to gain £1 billion if they won just five big building projects in Bahrain. He wrote in a blog post the following month that, “His Majesty King Hamad and his government have stated that they want to see more British companies winning business in Bahrain. Prime Minister David Cameron told His Majesty that was ‘music to his ears’.”
Sarah Waldron of Campaign Against the Arms Trade says talks on the Eurofighter sale gives the Bahraini government breathing space.
“Ever since the coalition government came in they’ve been trying to sell Eurofighters to various countries. The longer a buyer expresses interest in it and drags out negotiations, the longer the UK government will keep quiet on human rights issues.”
But most people in the Bahraini opposition, many of them political refugees in London, are convinced the UK doesn’t want a solution to the political crisis in Bahrain. I asked Ali Abdulemam, the godfather of Bahrain’s opposition blogging community who fled the country in 2013 after two years in hiding, what he thought.
“If the British wanted to do something to stop human rights abuses, the Bahrainis couldn’t refuse them,” he told me when we met in a cafe on London’s Edgeware Road. “But the UK wants things to stay as they are. The British government talks about human rights violations, but not about the demands of the people.”
Follow Paul on Twitter: @Paul_A_Raymond
More from Bahrain: