Philip Hammond's Bahrain Boosterism Is Appallingly Misjudged

05/06/2016 16:57

At the beginning of last year the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond assured the House of Commons that the small but strategically significant Gulf state of Bahrain, though racked by several years' of rolling social unrest and subject to wave after wave of arrests and unfair trials, was "a country which is travelling in the right direction."

It was making "significant reform", he said. Indeed, a new £15 million Royal Naval base, announced a month earlier, was apparently an important feature in this rosier picture. With British "Type 45 destroyer" warships and aircraft carriers set to be stationed at the new base, it was all part of the "expansion of Britain's footprint" in the Gulf and "just one example of a growing partnership with Gulf partners to tackle shared strategic and regional threats."

Reform, well-directed movement, partnership - this is a familiar vocabulary on Bahrain from Mr Hammond. Earlier this week he was back in Manama and was similarly upbeat. Having met the king, Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, and Bahrain's Minister of Foreign Affairs Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Hammond felt able to tweet "Welcome commitment to continuing reforms."

More reforms. Except ... well, on the very same day that Mr Hammond was praising all these Bahraini reforms a court in Manama was jailing Sheikh 'Ali Salman, the leader of the country's main opposition party. He got nine years, with an earlier four-year jail sentence supplemented by a further half-decade by the Court of Appeal. Salman's supposed offence had been to "publicly insult" the country's Interior Ministry and "publicly incite others to disobey the law" (in reality he'd merely criticised the government in his speeches). His trial was unfair and he now languishes in jail alongside others from Bahrain's chopped-down opposition parties, themselves just a fraction of the country's ever-growing band of prisoners of conscience.

True, Mr Hammond did tweet about the unfortunate Sheikh 'Ali Salman, but even here the Foreign Secretary found a positive angle: "Raised Sheikh Ali Salman sentence in #Bahrain today. Understand there is a further stage in the legal process - will follow case closely." A further stage - all could still be well. (Incidentally, since when did ministers start thinking that dashing of a few tweets like this was in any way a sufficient public response to significant matters such as these?).

Anyway, either our Foreign Secretary is the eternal optimist or there's something going on here. It all looks like a well-established pattern: scripted ("commitment to continuing reforms"), and even boosted by hands-on British lobbying (British officials have, according to BuzzFeed News and others, personally pressed United Nations experts to accept that things in Bahrain are better than commonly assumed). On the other side, Bahrain of course has been doing its own lobbying and politicking. It's well known for its heavy spending on public relations advice (of questionable quality) from big-name PR companies, and even the flashy Bahrain Grand Prix has been co-opted into the country's - failing - efforts to polish up its heavily-tarnished image.

But like those chunky F1 racing tyres, it's all spin. In reality the Bahraini authorities are pursuing something close to a judicial vendetta against critics of the government. Scores of people have been jailed (many for lengthy periods) after unfair, politically-motivated trials, and some of the most prominent critics have faced overlapping criminal cases, being shuttled back into court to face new charges as soon as they've finished an earlier jail term. Meanwhile, protests are totally banned in Manama, political gatherings outside the capital are often met with police tear gas and beatings, and many of those arrested by the security forces reporting being tortured, including in the country's notorious Jaw Prison.

Bahrain's authorities are acting as if they want to rid themselves of any and all opposition. More than 200 people have also had their nationality stripped, leaving some of them state-less, while the well-known government critic Nabeel Rajab is subject to a travel ban after getting out of jail last year.

Mr Rajab's case is doubly interesting. He's still facing a further prison sentence (of up to ten years) for "insulting a statutory body" and "disseminating false rumours in time of war." The latter relates to his criticism of Bahrain's involvement in the incredibly destructive conflict in Yemen. Bahrain is part of the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition waging a reckless and highly indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen, and thousands of Yemeni civilians have been killed and injured. Indeed one of the purposes of Philip Hammond's recent visit to Bahrain and other Gulf countries was to discuss the Yemen conflict (he went to Saudi Arabia as well).

With thousands of civilians dead or maimed from a barrage of Saudi coalition bombs, Mr Hammond might perhaps have had something to say about this as part of his Gulf tour, and indeed he did. Sort of:

"The crisis in Yemen will be high on my agenda during discussions in the Gulf. Allowing the state to collapse is simply not an option. Britain is continuing to work together with all parties to support a comprehensive political solution to the conflict."

Just days after Amnesty revealed that the Saudi military coalition in Yemen had been using British-made cluster munitions (a fact that Mr Hammond and other ministers have sought to dispute, including with erroneous accounts of whether Saudi Arabia has used cluster bombs made by any country), you could say that this is the Foreign Secretary once again rather desperately accentuating the positive.

As I say, when it comes to the Gulf and failing to notice Britain's "partner" countries carrying out systematic human rights abuse, Mr Hammond does a lot of this kind of thing.

On Saudi Arabia he's constantly seeking (and apparently accepting) "assurances" that nothing is amiss in Yemen. On Bahrain he's not only swallowing the Bahraini authorities' spin, he and other UK officials are adding to it.

As those under the cosh in Bahrain will tell you, Philip Hammond's Bahrain boosterism is deeply unhelpful and appallingly misjudged.