My 25th January Letter to the FCO

This is my 25th January letter to a Mr. Layfield at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Gulf Team. He wrote in response to a letter from my wife in the discrepancy between the FCO’s line on Syria, and that on Bahrain.

This was a bit of a turn up for the books, since nobody at the FCO has ever dignified me with a reply to the several letters I’ve sent to them on Bahrain. Even my local MP, Nicholas Soames, who is President of the Conservative Middle East Council, doesn’t reply. So I took the opportunity to reply to their response to her. Below is my letter, to-date, there’s no response from them:

From Dr. Mike Diboll

CCed: Alistair Burt, Miranda Diboll, William Hague, Iain Lindsey, Nicholas Soames

Dear Mr. Layfield,

I’m writing in response to your response to my wife’s recent letter on Bahrain. I too have written to the British politicians and diplomats responsible for the UK government’s Bahrain policy, but for some reason I have never received a personal response.

I note with great concern that despite the intensification of violence subsequent to the publication of the BICI report, Bahrain is not on an FCO list of 26 countries about which they have human rights concerns.

You say “unlike the current Syrian regime the Bahraini authorities have shown willingness to address many of the demonstrators’ concerns”. I am proficient in Arabic, and have followed the uprisings in the Arabic-speaking world in detail. In Libya, Egypt, and Syria the regimes called for “dialogue” or “reconciliation”, stressing their willingness to “reform” when it suited them to do so. Rightly, the FCO treated such statements with the contempt they deserve. I’m not entirely sure why the FCO attach more weight to the proclamations of the current Bahrain regime.

Certainly, the idea that the regime has in anyway substantially addressed the concerns of the majority of Bahrainis would be news to Bahrain’s opposition political societies, who issued a joint statement last week outlining their core demands that are still a very long way from being addressed.

As subsequent comments by Professor Bassiouni and Sir Nigel Rodley show, the BICI report should be seen as the initiation of a process, not the process itself. Thus, the 24th January 2012 report of the International Mission to Bahrain entitled “Justice Denied in Bahrain: Freedom of Expression and Assembly Curtailed” concludes:

From [our] meeting with [Bahrain Human Rights Minister] Fatima Al Balooshi following the report, it is clear that the government of Bahrain views the report as the end of the discussion of the country’s crackdown on protestors, not the beginning of a dialogue concerning both the events that took place and the reasons for the protest…Nearly two months after the presentation of the report, not much has changed on the ground in Bahrain….” (p. 26)

While a great strength of the BICI report is the forensic (and unexpected) detail in which it covers death, detention and torture, a weakness is the vagueness and purely procedural nature of many of its recommendations. Reflecting this, the responses to-date of the Bahrain government to the report have been almost entirely procedural, the forming of committees “to look into”, &ct. For example, there has been no attempt to hold any senior figures accountable for the abuses BICI details.

You state that Bahrain is a “key ally of the UK” and that the “close relationship” between the two states allows “frank discussions” between “friends”. I’m not quite sure what formal alliance exists between the UK and Bahrain. As for the UK and Bahrain being “friends”, who exactly are you friends with? I challenge anyone at the British Embassy in Bahrain to visit the villages of Bahrain and conduct a vox pop to discover just how “friendly” many ordinary Bahrainis are towards the UK as a result of the current UK Bahrain policy.

In a situation where there is a serious crisis of political legitimacy and representation, is it not prudent for the UK to ensure it is “friends” with as wide a section of Bahraini society as possible? In October 2011, Jane Kinninmont, Senior Gulf Region Research Fellow at Chatham House, wrote an essay entitled “Bahrain: Unresolved Divisions” for the Conservative Middle East Council’s briefing “The Arab Spring: Implications for British Foreign Policy”. In it she observes:

While the UK is placing more emphasis on its relations with ’the people’ in Egypt and Tunisia, for instance through civil society outreach and Arab Partnership initiatives, in the Gulf there is scant engagement with civil society and a greater focus on engaging with ruling families, large state enterprises and commercial elites. (p. 32)

Crucially, she recommends:

[The UK] should support the reformists within Bahrain’s government but not to the extent of over-praising initiatives that there is little real confidence in. Britain tends to focus on ’strong private messaging’, but a mismatch between private and public messages can send the wrong signals to ordinary members of the public who are not privy to the nuances of diplomacy. (p. 35)

This is precisely the danger of current UK policy towards Bahrain. Multiply the number of uprising-related deaths in Bahrain by the difference in population between Bahrain and Syria, and perhaps you will see the level of state-directed violence in Bahrain in a more disturbing light. This is the perception of ordinary Bahrainis in the villages. In a highly fluid and unpredictable situation, Britain should take care that it’s Bahrain policy is even-handed and transparent, and it should further be mindful of the dangers of its “Arab Spring” policy being perceived in the wider MENA region.

I have worked in public sector reform in Bahrain 2007-2011, and am only too aware that there is a strong tendency within the Bahrain government to use overseas connections as PR while leaving the underlying realities unchanged. There is also a tendency to view high-level overseas links as an endorsement of Bahrain government policy. Lastly, there is the fact that the ruling family is sharply divided within itself, so much so that it is perhaps more accurate to talk of rival loci of power than a unified entity “the Bahrain government”.

A credible “middle ground” in Bahrain is crumbling, and both loyalists and the opposition are beginning to gravitate towards extreme voices. In these circumstances, I strongly believe that Britain should review its policies towards Bahrain. It should be very wary indeed of deploying any sort of “British expertise” in Bahrain until there has been substantial and externally verification of progress on reform and reconciliation.

As options run out for a viable middle ground, diplomatic pressure assumes a new importance as an enabler of moderate, sustainable, constructive change. A British foreign policy that is more critical of the Bahrain government and which makes it clear, publicly, to all Bahrainis, that constructive engagement is absolutely dependent on real, verifiable progress towards reform would be deeply helpful.

Sincerely,

Dr. Mike Diboll (University of Bahrain 2007-2011)
XX XXXXXXXX    XXXXXXXX XXXXXXXX,  XXXX Sussex

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