21st April 2012
I write to you as British former expatriate in Bahrain, requesting that you urgently reconsider British policy on Bahrain, which I am convinced is deeply misguided and counter to Britain’s long-term interest in the Arabic-speaking region.
Yesterday you said “Bahrain is not Syria, there is a process of reform under way and this government backs that reform and wants to help promote that reform.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17789082
I have spent a large part of my career in the Arabic-speaking world, have advanced Arabic language skills and area knowledge, and worked in Bahrain 2007-2011 in education reform as part of the Crown Prince of Bahrain’s “Bahrain 2030” vision.
I was an eye-witness to the 2011 uprising, and submitted substantial evidence to the BICI. I left Bahrain when it became clear that the human rights situation there rendered ethical professional practice impossible. I can therefore offer an insider’s insight into what “reform” in Bahrain really means.
In 2010 I witnessed the way in which the Crown Prince’s reform agenda was systematically undermined when hardline elements close to the Prime Minister of Bahrain marginalised the Crown Prince in what amounted to a palace coup.
Real reforms that had held out the promise of the kinds of real change in policies and practices that Bahrainis deserve were replaced a simulacrum of reform consisting of little more than PR, paperwork, legalistic box-checking and a procedural maze.
Bahraini reformers who had been part of the reform process were fired and sometimes jailed, to be replaced by outside “expertise” whose prime loyalty was to the fulfillment of their short-term contracts.
My experience in Bahrain taught me that reform of the education system was meaningless unless it is preceded by more fundamental reforms: political legitimacy and representation, democratisation, the desectrianisation of the police, armed forces and the professions, the promotion of civil and open society, institutional transparency and accountability, and equality of opportunity.
It is these basic reforms that people are protesting for and dying for in Bahrain today. Until these reforms take place, attempts to reform the police and the judiciary will fail for the same reasons that education reform failed in Bahrain during 2010.
British policy on Bahrain should be aimed at ensuring that the fundamental political reforms needed to ensure stability in Bahrain take place in as smooth and bloodless a way as possible.
By pretending that it is possible to tweak the existing system with a bit of legal reform here and a touch of police reform there, Britain is strengthening the hand of hardline elements within the regime who have set their face against compromise.
As for your comparison with Syria, let me remind you that Assad, when cornered, has also held out the promise of “reform”. The recent sham elections in Syria are an example of this.
Similarly, Mubarak and Gaddhafi both promised “reform” and “dialogue” once it was clear that their number was up. Britain quite rightly dismissed as propaganda Assad, Gaddhafi and Mubarak’s desperate playing of the “reform” card. Yet the Al Khalifa regime’s claims to reform are taken seriously. I’m sure there are people in Russia who take the Syrian elections seriously.
The Bahrain crisis is not as bloody as Syria’s civil war. However, adjusted as a percentage of population the number of deaths in Bahrain at present are comparable to those that took place in Syria prior to the Syrian conflict entering its military-on-military phase in late 2011.
By giving credence to a set of reforms that frankly are not happening, Britain is acting as an enabler to the polarisation of Bahraini society that could yet plunge the country into a Syria-like bloodbath.
Britain should get tough with the Bahrain regime, making it clear that British support for Bahrain is contingent on the regime engaging immediately with the opposition to bring about a new, ethical and sustainable political settlement along the lines of a genuine constitutional monarchy. This process should take place under UN supervision.
Anything less will make the situation worse for Bahrain and ultimately for Britain’s long-term interest and influence in the region.
Dr. Mike Diboll,
CC. William Hague, Alistair Burt, Nicholas Soames, Iain Lindsay