Prince Andrew, Duke of York, Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, King of Bahrain and Queen Elizabeth II in the Royal Box at this year's Windsor Horse Show.
The Gulf Sheikhs were out in force last week in the UK, as the King of Bahrain and the Emir of Dubai joined the Queen for the Royal Windsor Horse Show. In fact, it was a bit of a love-in between the intermarried al-Maktoum family of Dubai and the Bahraini al-Khalifas, as the sons of both rulers came joint first in the race they'd paid to organize. “We wanted to make both fathers happy – His Majesty King Hamad and my father-in-law, His Highness Mohammed Bin Rashid – by crossing the line together,” said Prince Nasser al-Khalifa. Less heart-warming for the royal visitors would have been this week's news that Prince Nasser could soon lose his immunity to prosecution for torture in the UK. There are allegations that he led violent interrogations of protesters during the 2011 uprising, though a spokesman for the Bahraini prince has “categorically denied" his involvement.
As the government of Bahrain tightens its grip on power at home, it remains mystified as to why the bad international press continues, and is determined to set the record straight. It generally does this by spending a shitload of money on PR. A recent ally in this popularity battle has come in the form of Prince Andrew; a man viewed by royal observers and Foreign Office functionaries as the Queen's most stupid son, or “HBH” (His Buffoon Highness), on account of his embarrassing sycophancy towards Arab sheikhs. (One thank-you letter to his Bahraini hosts famously included the line, “my little plane parked next to your stunning jet”.) He used to be an informal trade representative, using his royal connections to flog arms to his friends in the Gulf for BAE Systems. He quit that post controversially in 2011, but has continued to visit Bahrain.
HBH was due to be the keynote speaker last Friday at the "This is Bahrain" conference. It was organized by an association of mostly ex-pat Brits in the country, many of whom have received Bahraini citizenship after displaying steadfast loyalty to the regime. (Though the conference's organizer, Betsy Mathieson, insisted that they received no money from the Bahraini government for the event.) I decided to go along to this conference to see what it was like, what kind of people would be there, and how successful this attempt to promote Bahrain as a land of tolerance full of smiling, happy, definitely-not-being-tortured people would be.
Sadly, on the morning of the event, it was revealed that Prince Andrew had decided to pull out – after a lot of negative press coverage, Maryam Al-Khawaja, acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), speculated that it simply would have been "too embarrassing" for the Duke. Not that the attendees of the event would have known there was anything wrong with Bahrain at all. The whole event seemed designed to ram home the message that the kingdom is a place of tolerance and diversity, though I didn’t get the impression that many skeptics had been invited along. It's true that Bahrain has always been known as a relatively liberal outpost in the Gulf, but loudly reiterating this claim while torture allegations continually surface seems like shouting "Nothing to see here!" while waving a Bahraini flag and moving the fancy rug to hide the bloodstains.
Civil society in Bahrain is mostly either government affiliated and state supported, or anti-government and suppressed. The BCHR had its NGO license revoked by the government in 2004 but has continued to operate since, many of its members going into exile or behind bars. The group's current president, Nabeel Rajab, has been in prison for two years for calling on people to protest, and should finally be released in the next week.
I found Rori Donaghy, a journalist with the news website Middle East Eye, interviewing the event’s organizer, Betsy Mathieson. “First of all, I'm a peace activist," she said, after I'd butted my way into their conversation. "If you look at my Twitter account, that's what I am... We've got nothing to do with politics, we don't want to be dragged into it,” she insisted, seeming to contradict herself. I asked Betsy what specific reforms she would like to see in Bahrain. "There's one thing that will give everybody the confidence to move forward, and that's peace." This line of argument seemed to put the burden of blame solely on the opposition.
Brigadier Sincock, head of the Bahrain Society in the UK and a rather quaint relic of a disappeared empire, decided to chime in at this point to complain about the protesters outside the building. He called them "extremists" and claimed that they aren't interested in listening to how much reform has been achieved. The reforms are probably scant consolation to the growing number of Bahraini political refugees who have fled to London after being tortured and imprisoned for protesting.
This was a recurring theme at the event – that the pro-government side had been open, wanted dialogue and was blameless, whereas the opposition wasn't listening, perhaps because they were all in league with Iran, and all this talk of human rights was just some big cover story.
Sincock continued, "I don't believe all the business of the torture, which I have to admit when I was there 40 years ago, there was some, but not now. Well, beyond the individual policeman who might punch somebody in the backside in a cell, but there is no systematic torture."
How can you be sure?
"Well, the Ombudsman, for a start. We the British have sent people to the Ministry of Interior over quite a long period now, and I've spoken to some of them – including an ex no. 2 in Scotland Yard – and he has told me that there is no systematic torture at all." Well, I guess it must be true then.
Betsy continued to regurgitate all the best government sanctioned excuses for Bahrain's awful human rights record: "People say, 'Oh, protesters died,' but do you know how many policemen died?"
How many, I asked?
"Oh, I wouldn't like to give a figure, but many more than protesters," piped up Sincock.
How many protesters have died, Brigadier?
"I don't know the figures," he said, "it's no use."
The BCHR puts the civilian death toll at 95, and the number of police casualties at around 15, though an accurate total is hard to find. Just to round off, the Brigadier then informed me that, “Those people outside are being paid by Iran to be here today.”
On to the backslapping speeches, where various government-affiliated representatives produced further irrefutable evidence of Bahrain’s status as a land of peace and tolerance, such as, “All people enjoy freedom of thought and belief, there is no discrimination of any kind.” A loyalist Shia cleric gave a speech in which he said that the uprising had been “planned by the colonialist circle through social media”.
Betsy was really getting up on her political soapbox now, despite previously asserting that she was non-political and had been dragged into it. She dismissed opposition claims of human rights abuses, claiming instead that it was the opposition who were violating human rights by creating economic and social disruption that had a negative impact on the economy: “Yes, there are human rights abuses every day, and you people are the ones who are committing them,” she informed the opposition, who weren't allowed in.
In their absence, one of the contributors from the floor asked a question in which he described the opposition as, “a disease, and they need to be cured”. Another Western ex-pat complained that the continuing uprising was denting the economic climate, concluding that, “We have a stable currency and a passport we can go anywhere with. What more freedom could we want?” Presumably if they'd been let in, the protesters outside might have put in a word for freedom of expression.
As the conference was ending, I put it to Betsy that she had been disingenuous in saying she wanted real dialogue with opposition activists. She had insisted to the audience that she had invited those protesters outside to come in and see the event and discuss their political differences. “We exclude no one here,” she had said. However, the security had been briefed to not allow anybody who looked like they were an activist inside the event. “That was their decision, not mine,” she said, because the protesters posed a security threat.
It didn't make me all that hopeful that a meaningful dialogue between the two parties is coming any time soon.
Follow John Lubbock on Twitter