Britain to set up new naval base in repressive kingdom
By Brian Whitaker
Britain announced yesterday that it is to build a new naval base in Bahrain, in what Sky News describes as "a landmark deal". The BBC notes that this will be Britain's first permanent military base in the Middle East since it formally withdrew from the region in 1971.
Commenting on the deal, defence secretary Michael Fallon said: "This new base is a permanent expansion of the Royal Navy's footprint and will enable Britain to send more and larger ships to reinforce stability in the Gulf ... We will now be based again in the Gulf for the long term."
Britain currently has four mine-hunter warships based at Mina Salman in Bahrain and the facilities there will be expanded to "provide a forward operating base, with a place to plan, store equipment for naval operations, and accommodate personnel".
The announcement came less than two weeks after Bahrain held controversial elections which were boycotted by the main opposition party and several others, and just a day after Zainab al-Khawaja, a prominent Bahraini dissident, was sentenced to three years in jail for tearing up a picture of the king.
It also came after a report last month by the British parliament's foreign affairs committee criticised the government's stance on Bahrain. It said:
"We see little or no evidence that Bahrain has made enough progress in implementing political reform and safeguarding human rights, and we believe that the FCO [the British Foreign Office] should have bitten the bullet and designated Bahrain as a country of concern."
Negotiations over the military base may help to explain the British government's enthusiasm for the recent elections in Bahrain. On election day, both the Foreign Office in London and the British embassy in Bahrain, together with a British MEP invited by the Bahraini government, used social media to put a positive spin on the polls.
Opposition parties boycotted the elections on the grounds that Bahrain's parliament has too little power and electoral boundaries had been gerrymandered to the regime's advantage.
Bahrain is ruled by the Khalifa family who belong to the Sunni minority (most Bahrainis are Shia Muslims). Since independence, the kingdom has had only one prime minister – the present king's uncle – who has been in office for 43 years and is the world's longest-serving prime minister.
In 2011, when large-scale protests erupted, other Arab Gulf states – led by Saudi Arabia – sent troops to prop up Bahrain's autocratic monarchy and the main protest camp on Pearl Roundabout was cleared by force. The regime has since promised reforms but has been slow to deliver amid reports of disagreements within the ruling family about how to proceed.
Among western powers, Britain has the cosiest relationship with Bahrain – partly for historical reasons since the kingdom is a former British protectorate – and Britain has been heavily involved over the years in "helping" with its internal security. This included placing Ian Henderson, a notorious Scottish-born colonel who became known as the "Butcher of Bahrain", at the head of the kingdom's secret police.
In 2010, Bahrain demanded the removal of Britain's ambassador, Jamie Bowden, accusing him of "interfering in the country's internal affairs" after he met members of the opposition al-Wefaq party. Britain duly shuffled Bowden off to Oman and replaced him with Iain Lindsay who is regarded as little more than a PR man for the regime.
Although the American Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, since the 2011 uprising the US has been more critical and circumspect than Britain in its dealings with the regime. Last July, Bahrain ordered Tom Malinowski, the US assistant secretary of state for human rights, to cut short a visit on the grounds that he had violated "conventional diplomatic norms" by meeting the leader of the Wefaq opposition party. The US responded by suspending some of its arms sales and this week Malinowski was finally allowed to return.
Malinowski has since been making more conciliatory (if ambivalent) noises, saying "There has been progress but there's still a ways to go, and I think the election showed both sides of that."
Last year Bahrain also launched a campaign against the American ambassador, Thomas Krajeski, on the grounds that he had held "repeated meetings with instigators of sedition" but the US – unlike Britain – did not cave in to this pressure and Krajeski is still in his post.
Bahrain's anger seems to have been partly motivated by a State Department report which said the most serious human rights problems in Bahrain included "citizens' inability to change their government peacefully; arrest and detention of protesters on vague charges, in some cases leading to their torture in detention".
The future of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain has also been called into question by some senior American figures, including Dennis Blair, a former chief of the US Pacific Command. In an article published last year, Blair wrote:
"The Fifth Fleet headquarters should be moved back on board a flagship, as it was until 1993. This is an expensive proposition at a time when the defense budget is being reduced, but it is necessary. Permanent basing in a repressive Bahrain undermines our support for reform and is vulnerable if instability continues."
Violating freedom of speech
The sentencing of Zainab al-Khawaja this week for tearing up the king's picture is just one example of the regime's repressive behaviour – often over very trivial matters. The case is an obvious violation of Bahrain's commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Politicial Rights (ICCPR).
As the UN Human Rights Committee has made clear in the past, the right to criticise and even insult a head of state is an essential part of the right to free expression:
"In circumstances of public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions, the value placed by the Covenant upon uninhibited expression is particularly high. Thus, the mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties ... Moreover, all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition."
However, this is not the first time that Bahrain has run into trouble with the UN over its flouting of the Covenant in connection with Ms Khawaja.
A move in the wrong direction
Establishing a "permanent" British military presence in Bahrain is plainly a move in the wrong direction, with little regard for Britain's long-term interests. Defence secretary Fallon says it will "reinforce stability in the Gulf" – which it may well do in the short term – but it will also make things worse when the floodgates eventually burst.
It ties Britain yet more closely to the Gulf's autocratic regimes which are holding out against political change while also fomenting sectarian conflict in their efforts to cling on to power.
And it's foolish to talk of a permanent base in Bahrain – and spend money on it – when nobody can say with any certainty who will be ruling the country 10 or 20 years from now.