The scrapping of a planned deal between the University of Edinburgh and the Bahrain Ministry of Education following a vigorous protest campaign against it is a game changer. It should now be clear to all other UK universities, indeed universities the world over who follow an ethical internationalisation policy, that links with the Bahrain regime are unacceptable and inappropriate until real reform and progress on human rights and academic freedom has been made which is measurable and verifiable by third parties external to Bahrain.
The Bahrain regime has a history of using links with high profile international organisations as a kind of PR, endorsing and legitimising the regime. In the course of my work on eeducation reform in Bahrain 2007-2011 I have repeatedly seen the regime attempt to gain accreditation for reform initiatives that only really existed on paper. The regime coveted the ephemera of international links, logos on headed notepaper, accreditation certificates, awards presentations and ‘academic’ conferences that were really run by PR firms, while hoping that behind the scenes everything could carry on unchanged as before. This approach to international reform consultancy is breathtaking in its cynicism, since the underlying assumption is that at the end of the day all international institutions are really interested in is a fat cheque from the regime.
Against this background, the University of Edinburgh has made absolutely the right decision in cancelling the proposed agreement. Other UK higher education institutions surely must now follow suit, with Bahrain becoming a pariah state for UK universities until it is clear that fundamental reform has taken place there. Either UK HEIs will have to admit that they follow different ethical standards to those of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland’s ancient and venerable university ranked 20th in the world, or they will have to enter into an unwinnable PR war trying to argue that the Bahrain regime isn’t so bad after all, something that would utterly destroy the ethical reputation of any HEI that attempted to do so.
On 9th January the Bahrain News agency announced an agreement between the University of Edinburgh and the Bahrain Ministry of Education. The aim of this agreement was, according to the BNA “to create a network of scientific research in the Kingdom of Bahrain, that links the scientific research institutions of higher education in Business and Industry.”
When challenged by the Bahrain Justice and Development Movement, a spokesperson for the UoE defended the agreement, insisting that the University was working with “the Higher Education sector” in Bahrain, not the regime. I wrote a detailed rebuttal of this, with links to supporting evidence demonstrating the Bahrain MoE’s well-documented involvement in oppression, human rights abuses, and the suppression of academic freedom.
My rebuttal formed the basis of a letter which I sent in hard-copy, addressed to Professor Timothy O’Shea, Principal of the UoE, and Mr. Peter McColl, Rector-elect of the University. The letter was also CC-ed to: Bryan Martin and David Griffiths, the two UoE employees mentioned in the BNA’s announcement; Matthew McPhereson, President of UoE Students Association; Alex Salmond, First Minister of the Scottish Parliament, Alistair Burt, UK Middle East Minister; William Hague, UK Foreign Secretary; Iain Lindsey, HM Ambassador to Bahrain; John McLellan, Editor of The Scotsman newspaper, and; “Dr.” Majid Al Noaimi, Bahrain’s Minister of Education. I also posted the letter on my Facebook page, and a copy of it was posted on the BJDM website.
Rector-elect Peter McColl e-mailed me on 26th January, saying “I share your concerns, and understand that the University has now ceased the activities you highlight. If this is not the case, please do let me know and I will pursue the matter further.” EUSA President Matthew McPherson wrote a handwritten letter to me on 27th January stating “The student body at Edinburgh shares your concerns, and I am glad the University has decided to withdraw the agreement in question. Your letter helped provide guidance and insight, and I am pleased you took the time to write it.” The Higher Education Chronicle announced the scrapping of the University of Edinburgh-Bahrain deal on 27th January.
Not only should the UoE decision undermine any further deals between UK HEIs and the Bahrain regime, it should also bring into question other professional consultancy that the UK is offering Bahrain. Following his pre-Christmas visit to Bahrain, UK Middle East Minister Alistair Burt released a video message on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website offering “British expertise” to the regime in a bid to forward reform. Within days it was announced that John Yates — the former Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police who was forced to resign in the wake of the News Corporation phone-hacking scandal — was being hired by the regime to reform the Interior Ministry ‘Police’.
On 4th January the Bahrain News Agency also announced that Sir Daniel Bethlehem QC, former principal Legal Adviser to the FCO, and Sir Jeffrey Jowell QC, Emeritus Professor of Public Law at University College London, have been hired “to assist the Government of Bahrain in pushing through the recommendations on human rights featuring in the final report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry….” I’m curious as to why Messers Bethlehem and Jowell have put themselves in a position where they can be associated with the disgraced John Yates. In the light of the University of Edinburgh decision, and of Cherif Bassiouni’s recent statement that the regime’s response to the BICI report was “a whitewash”, I’ll be writing to UCL, and to Bethlehem and Jowell to ask them to reconsider their involvement with Bahrain.
In the meantime, I’m concerned that the proximity of the Yates, Bethlehem and Jowell, and UoE announcements suggests a behind the scenes consultancy initiative co-ordinated by the UK FCO. If this is the case, I’m further concerned that the UoE was given misleading information by the FCO regarding the true state of affairs in Bahrain. Fortunately, the UoE was able to reconsider its position in the light of more accurate information, but not until time and money were wasted, and potential damage done to its ethical reputation. I’ll also be writing to Alistair Burt asking for clarification on what was said to the UoE, by whom, and when….