Mark Curtis’ piece on British arms exports can be listened to here. (The piece begins at 38:01)

A transcript of the piece is below:

**

 Archive of recent protests in Egypt being put down by the Egyptian military

This is the sound of pro-democracy protesters in Egypt being fired on by the Egyptian military. Hundreds of people have been killed in Egypt since the overthrow of President Mubarak in 2011 and the coup ousting elected President Morsi last July. Yet since 2011 Britain has approved arms exports to Egypt worth 65 million pounds.[1]  Assault rifles, machine guns and military communications equipment have all been licensed.[2] Kaye Stearman works at the Campaign Against the Arms Trade:

Stearman: ‘These are weapons that can be used directly in repression but even if they were weapons that could not used in this way, it’s still wrong, you’re sending a message saying this government is legitimate, this situation is alright, human rights are not being abused. We think there should be a complete arms export embargo on Egypt’.

But British military equipment has been used to crush pro-democracy protests in the Middle East at least three times since 2011.[3] In the Gulf state of Bahrain, scores of UK-made armoured personnel carriers manned by the Saudi Arabian military helped the Bahraini regime suppress protests in 2011. The armoured vehicles, known as Tacticas, were manufactured by BAE Systems, Britain’s largest arms company.[4] The suppression in Bahrain was bloody – 35 people were killed and hundreds detained, with torture widespread.[5]

The Arab Spring in the Middle East has challenged regimes that are undemocratic and which suppress human rights, but whose side has Britain really been on? British arms are exported to many of the world’s worst human rights abusers as a matter of routine. Professor Neil Cooper is an expert on the arms trade at the University of Bradford:

Cooper: This summer, the government released information showing that it had 3,000 extant arms export licences to countries that the Foreign Office listed as countries of concern in terms of human rights abuses, and those 3,000 export licences added up to a total value of about 12 billion pounds[6] so judged in those terms obviously that would appear to represent a significant level of trade with countries that the Foreign Office itself has recognised as countries of concern.’

British arms ending up in the hands of human rights abusers is no coincidence or mistake. Last September, thousands of arms companies gathered in London for a big arms fair. The government invited delegations from 14 authoritarian regimes including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, and 6 countries at war, including Afghanistan and Iraq.[7]

The government says it has rigorous arms export controls in place. Its stated policy is not to allow exports where there is a ‘clear risk’ that they might be used for internal repression.[8] But I dont believe this is the actual government policy. The government allows military-related equipment to go to all 27 countries that it identifies as human rights ‘countries of concern’. There is a clear risk that any of these states could use British equipment for repression.[9]

In 2012, over 7 billion pounds worth of British military-related equipment was exported around the world. All three main political parties strongly support arms exports and none has a policy of banning them to human rights abusers. David Cameron has visited over a dozen countries with arms exports on the agenda.[10]

The royal family also plays a key role. Princes Charles and Andrew have both acted as high level salesmen for British arms exports abroad. For ten years Prince Andrew was Special Representative for Trade, making trips to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.[11]Kaye Stearman of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade:

Stearman: This year we saw the King of Bahrain come to the UK, he was at the Royal Windsor Horse Show, the Queen was on one side of him and sitting on the other was Prince Andrew. It was just cementing this royal relationship, and what made it particularly awful was at this time there was huge repression going on in Bahrain, assisted I have to say by British arms’

The Queen appears to play a key role in promoting arms exports to repressive regimes. The Queen regularly hosts state dinners for the leaders of countries buying British weapons. I have discovered that the head of BAE Systems has been invited to the same state dinners as the leaders of undemocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar on at least 8 occasions since 2007.[12]

But why is it that Britain has such a burgeoning arms trade, including with repressive regimes? The usual answer is that it’s good for the British economy. Paul Everitt is the head of ADS, a trade body representing British military exporters:

Everitt: The sector probably generates something like £22 billion of sales, obviously that employs 100,000 people or more in the UK, in what we would see as high-value, high-tech jobs. The sector is spending something like £3.3 billion on research and development, now clearly that is focused on, if you like, the needs of our customer, but there is quite significant spillover into the rest of the economy.

But government and companies have a habit of exaggerating the figures.[13] I asked Professor Cooper about the supposed economic benefits of arms exports:

Cooper: Well, obviously at a company level, and in terms of the economic benefits for particular places where defence companies are located, clearly for those places where you’ve got significant defence companies with significant numbers of jobs, then the economic benefits in that particular locale can be quite important. But looked at from a macro-economic perspective, the benefits are not massively significant. UK defence sector jobs account for about less than half per cent of the overall workforce. UK defence exports account for about less than 2 per cent of overall British exports.

So if economics doesn’t fully explain why British governments are so keen on arms exports, what does? The sad truth is that Britain sells arms to repressive regimes in the Middle East, and elsewhere, mainly because it supports them. It wants to keep them in power, and often prefers them to democratic movements which may not support Western policies. This is not simply my view. It is what policy makers have expressed in private government planning files, which are declassified after 30 years. British arms exports have for decades helped favoured regimes maintain ‘internal security’, meaning repression. Our arms exports often go hand in hand with military training. Britain has not only sold Saudi Arabia 4 billion pounds worth of military equipment in the past five years[14], for 40 years Britain has trained the Saudi Arabian National Guard, the internal force that protects the Saudi ruling family.

It grieves me to hear the British media parrot the government’s line that it supports democracy in the Middle East. Where are the radio and TV programmes exposing Whitehall’s special relationship with repressive regimes? There is virtual silence on Britain’s alliance with, say, Saudi Arabia or, to give another example, Oman, which has the world’s longest serving ruler, who took control in a 1970 coup staged by Britain and who still wields absolute power. British arms sales and training to these regimes helps keep them in power but also gives them international legitimacy.

An opinion poll just commissioned by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, conducted by Populus, reveals that 58 per cent of the public are against arms exports to countries with a poor human rights record. Only 14 per cent believe this is acceptable.[15] Kaye Stearman:

 Stearman: What we’ve noticed is this shift in opinion. It’s not that we’ve got more people around who are pacifists or unpatriotic, it’s just that they do not want to see the UK selling arms to governments that are undemocratic, authoritarian, dictatorial. They want to see us having a much more ethical outlook, an ethical foreign policy.


[1] This is since 2011. http://www.caat.org.uk/resources/countries/egypt/. In November 2013, the British government quietly announced the resumption of exports of British military equipment, some of which had been suspended. FCO news release, 3 November 2013, http://allafrica.com/stories/201311051314.html?aa_source=nwsltr-europeandafrica-en.

[2] and components for combat helicopters. http://www.caat.org.uk/resources/countries/egypt/

[3]In August 2013, the Egyptian military used Sea King helicopters against Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Cairo. Military components for these helicopters were supplied from Britain. 19 August 2013, http://www.itv.com/news/update/2013-08-16/fears-british-built-helicopters-used-in-cairo-operations/. In Libya in 2011, armoured personnel carriers sold to the Qadhafi regime helped quell pro-democracy demonstrations there. 21 February 2011,  http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/feb/21/uk-firm-defends-libya-military-sales

[4] http://www.caat.org.uk/press/press-release.php?url=20130314prs

[5] Ian Black, ‘Bahrain urged to deliver human rights reforms as King visits London’, Guardian, 12 December 2011

[6] For confirmation of those figures, see 19 September 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/senior-cabinet-ministers-accused-of-profoundly-misleading-claims-about-britains-arms-export-industry-8827620.html

[7] http://www.caat.org.uk/issues/arms-fairs/dsei/delegations/?utm_source=emailcampaign358&utm_medium=phpList&utm_content=HTMLemail&utm_campaign=After+the+arms+fair

[8] “The UK operates one of the most rigorous arms export control regimes in the world, and has been at the forefront of implementing tough international trade controls, including most recently on exports to Egypt. We do not grant export licences where there is a clear risk that goods might be used for internal repression.” 19 September 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/senior-cabinet-ministers-accused-of-profoundly-misleading-claims-about-britains-arms-export-industry-8827620.html

[9]“Once military goods are sent abroad, the exporter has no control of how, when or where they will be used.”19 September 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/senior-cabinet-ministers-accused-of-profoundly-misleading-claims-about-britains-arms-export-industry-8827620.html

[10] For example, India, in July 2010; Egypt and Kuwait in February 2011; Saudi Arabia in January 2012; Indonesia, Japan, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore in April 2012; Brazil in September 2012; and Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Abu Dhabi in November 2012. 18 February  2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/feb/18/britains-arms-trade-making-killing?INTCMP=SRCH. Much of Britain’s arms promotion is paid for by us, the taxpayer. For example, a government arms sales unit, called the UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation, has 130 staff helping British arms companies export their equipment. http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/bae_and_the_uk_a_failing_merger

[11] 14 March 2013, http://www.caat.org.uk/press/press-release.php?url=20130314prs. The Duke of Kent, the other Prince Edward, spent over 25 years as Vice-Chair of British Trade International, making over one hundred overseas visits, some supporting arms sales. (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/kaye-stearman/a-jubilee-bonus-end-the-r_b_1556118.html)

[12] refers to chair or chief executive of BAE Systems. State dinners information available at: http://www.royal.gov.uk/LatestNewsandDiary/CourtCircular/Todaysevents.aspx

[13] David Cameron has said that 300,000 jobs depend on the arms industry but many analysts dispute that figure. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, British taxpayers actually subsidise arms export jobs to the tune of around £700 million per year (12 Nov 2012, http://www.caat.org.uk/press/press-release.php?url=20121112prs), mainly through taxpayer support to research and development. (http://www.caat.org.uk/issues/jobs-economy/subsidies/). Spending taxpayers’ money on arms may be worse at creating commercial spin-offs than supporting other economic activities. (http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/bae_and_the_uk_a_failing_merger)

[14] 2008-12. 20 May 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/20/uk-approved-arms-exports-saudi-arabia

[15] The question was: “Is the UK is justified in selling military equipment to governments that have a poor human rights record”. 14 per cent agreed; 58 per cent  disagreed, 20% did not agree or disagree and 8% said don’t know. Eg, a poll held in early 2011 showed 77% of responders saying that the UK should not have been selling weapons to the Gaddafi regime.


 

Mark Curtis narrates a piece on British arms exports to repressive regimes on the Today Programme, 2 January. This is part of a programme guest-edited by the singer PJ Harvey. The piece includes interviews with Campaign Against the Arms Trade and others.

The full running order for PJ Harvey’s Today programme, airing January 2nd from 6am to 9am GMT on BBC Radio 4 is as follows:

PJ Harvey spoken piece explaining her choice of contributors to the programme.

Mark Curtis: ‘Arming Repression’, followed by ‘Ladies of the World’ song recording by Flight of the Conchords.

Denis Halliday: ‘The U.N. Security Council – Dump The Wolves’.

Clive Stafford Smith: ‘Is the N.H.S. the best thing about Britain?’

Bruce Springsteen ’57 Channels And Nothin’ On’.

John Pilger: ‘Is the media now just another word for control?’

Dr. Rowan Williams: ‘Thought for the Day’ in the form of one of his poems.

Charles Simic poem, ‘Austerities’ read by Ralph Fiennes.

Giles Duley: ‘Behind The Faces Of War: the realities for injured servicemen’, followed by Joan Baez, ‘Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya’.

Phil Shiner and Ian Cobain: ‘How Britain taught the world to torture’, followed by ‘They Fight For Peace’, a poem by Shaker Aamer, read by Ralph Fiennes.

Julian Assange’s ‘Thought for the Day’ followed by Woody Guthrie song lyric ‘Ticky Tock’ read by Ralph Fiennes.

Weather/Business/Sport Sections

Weather Section – Tom Waits ‘Strange Weather’ acoustic demo version.

Business Section – John Rees: ‘How the city of London rules the world’, followed by the poem ‘London’ by William Blake, read by Ralph Fiennes.

Sport Section – Dave Zirin: ‘The effects of money and vested interests on sport’.


Willie Morris, Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, to Michael Stewart, Foreign Secretary, ‘British policy towards Saudi Arabia’, 16 April 69 (National Archives, FCO 8 / 1181)

‘Valuable as this export market [ie Saudi Arabia] is, it is of less importance to us than Saudi Arabia’s role in the preservation of our wider politico-economic interests in the Middle East… King Feisal’s hostility to communism is as crude and obsessive as the anti-westernism in some other Arab states: but it is solidly based on a sound sense of where Saudi Arabian interests lie – which happens to be where our own lie. The Saudi stand gives encouragement to other Arab governments, and elements within other Arab countries, who wish to resist the extension of Soviet and other anti-western influences… A collapse of the Saudi regime, whether followed by the substitution of some form of revolutionary government or disintegration of the Saudi kingdom, could therefore cause damage far wider than to our commercial interests here. It would leave other non-revolutionary regimes – eg, Jordan, Libya and Kuwait – dangerously exposed… There would be a serious danger of the trouble spreading to other oil producing countries… From this.. it appears that our interests would be best served by: (a) the survival of the present regime for at least the next few years; (b) internal reform and some liberalisation to give it a better chance of survival, and to make external policies more effective and more appealing; (c ) some reinsurance for us against possible change; (d) the continuation of Saudi Arabia’s present general external policies and a more cooperative policy on the Gulf; (e) anything which improves our commercial opportunities in the Saudi market’.

Willie Morris, Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, ‘Saudi Arabia, 1971′, 28 April 71, (National Archives, FCO 8 / 1733)

‘Our narrow commercial interests are of lesser importance than the politico-strategico-economic interest to us of Saudi Arabia as a major supplier of oil to the West, owner of the largest reserves of any country outside the United States and a major factor in the stability of the whole Gulf oil-producing area. To a degree, the stability of Saudi Arabia and that of the Gulf states are interdependent. The Saud regime would be threatened by radical regimes in the Gulf states; the present regimes in these states could hardly be expected to survive a revolution in Saudi Arabia. Libya is a fearful example. We can hope that when change comes in Saudi Arabia, it will be less unpalatable and we can in a limited way reinsure against it by extending non-political contacts outside the regime and the surrounding establishment. But we should work on the assumption that, however unsatisfactory, this is the best regime in Saudi Arabia we have, or can count on getting. There is little or nothing we can do to improve it, so we must make the best of what it is. It is in our interests that it should survive for a few more years’.

 


 

‘Future of the UK in world affairs: Note of a meeting held in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 5 December 1957′

‘What are our essential interests overseas? The following suggestions (not in any order of prioritiy) were made: (i) maintenance of our position as a world power, (ii) the strength of sterling, (iii) ensuring continued United States participation in world affairs, (iv) the importance of our trade, (v) safeguarding our oil interests’.

National Archives, T234/768


Report for the World Development Movement (May 2013)

This briefing, based on research commissioned by the World Development Movement, outlines the role played by British companies in controversial energy projects in developing countries. It shows the nexus of interests, and revolving door, between these companies and former and current civil servants and Ministers. Many British companies currently promoting dirty energy projects are managed or advised by former British officials. Furthermore, senior executives in these companies serve on government-linked advisory boards which shape the UK’s financial and trade policies. The nexus goes to the heart of government. Several Cabinet ministers have past or present links to the energy or finance companies under analysis.

To read the report, click here


Report for War on Want (December 2012)

This report shows that hundreds of millions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money is being used to promote projects designed to benefit some of the world’s richest agribusiness corporations and to extend their control over the global food system. DFID is at the centre of an intricate nexus of corporations and donor-sponsored institutions seeking to maximise private profit from agriculture. Personal connections play a vital role, and there is a significant ‘revolving door’ of staff between DFID and agribusiness corporations, with the personal links going beyond DFID to the heart of the UK government and its economic policy. In addition, this report reveals DFID’s involvement in a network of private enterprises and investment fund managers incorporated in the secrecy jurisdiction of Mauritius.

To read the report go to Curtis Research website


An edited extract from Secret Affairs


Saudi Arabia and the utility of intervention

Whitehall’s long-standing special relationship with the theocratic rulers in Riyadh has been enhanced by the new coalition government at a time when evidence continues to emerge on the extent of Saudi funding of terrorism and when the Saudis have taken drastic measures to clamp down on democracy in Arabia. Britain’s alliance with the House of Saud has also taken on new importance with the coalition government’s announcement of deepened relations with the Gulf states. The new government’s Gulf initiative, aiming to enhance trade and investment with countries such as Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, has resulted in a string of meetings with the region’s autocratic rulers and constant apologias for their rejection of democracy, but have been ignored by the mainstream media.

As noted in chapter 18, Saudi Arabia has long been the most significant source of funds for radical Islamic and terrorist causes around the world. A secret cable written by US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in December 2009, revealed in late 2010 by wikileaks, noted that ‘donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide’ and that ‘Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT [Laskhar-e-Toiba], and other terrorist groups, including Hamas, which probably raise millions of dollars annually from Saudi sources’. The cable added that ‘it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority’ and that ‘Riyadh has taken only limited action’ to interrupt the flow of money to terrorist groups which have launched attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Yet not only Saudi Arabia, but also other Gulf states were recognised in the cable as being the source of terrorist funding. The Kuwaiti regime of Emir Sabah al-Sabah ‘has demonstrated a willingness to take action [against terrorist financing] when attacks target Kuwait’, the cable noted, but ‘has been less inclined to take action against Kuwait-based financiers and facilitators plotting attacks outside of Kuwait’. Thus ‘al-Qaida and other groups continue to exploit Kuwait both as a source of funds and as a key transit point’. Donors in the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, ‘have provided financial support to a variety of terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups, including Hamas’. The cable added that ‘the UAE’s role as a growing global financial centre, coupled with weak regulatory oversight, makes it vulnerable to abuse by terrorist financiers and facilitation networks’.

Finally, Qatar ‘has adopted a largely passive approach to cooperating with the US against terrorist financing’ and its overall level of counter-terrorism cooperation with the US ‘is considered the worst in the region’. Terrorist groups were said to exploit Qatar as a fundraising locale and ‘although Qatar’s security services have the capability to deal with direct threats and occasionally have put that capability to use, they have been hesitant to act against known terrorists out of concern for appearing to be aligned with the US and provoking reprisals.’ A US Congressional Research Service report has noted ‘possible support for al-Qaida by some Qatari citizens, including members of Qatar’s large ruling family’.

The states listed in Clinton’s cable are those with which the British coalition government has recently announced a significant deepening of relations. In October 2010, for example, the Queen welcomed the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh al-Thani, to Windsor Castle. During the visit, a joint statement by Cameron and al-Thani noted that Qatar and Britain ‘enjoy a special defence relationship’ underpinned by a Defence Cooperation Arrangement signed in 2006, involving British military training of the Qatari armed forces in Qatar and Britain. It also noted that Qatar has a diverse range of investments in Britain and is a major supplier of energy, providing 11 per cent of Britain’s gas demand. As regards Kuwait, David Cameron announced in February 2011 the creation of a UK-Kuwait Trade and Investment Task Force, a commitment to double trade to $4 billion a year by 2015, and the signature of a memorandum of understanding on trade and technical cooperation. The Kuwait Investment Authority has its overseas headquarters in London and has invested some £150 billion over the last fifty years, the majority of it in Britain. The Gulf states including Saudi Arabia now account for around half of all British arms sales and the government estimates that they will spend around $100 billion on ‘defence and security’ technology over the next five years.

Along with these contacts have come extreme British apologias for the Gulf regimes’ political orientations. Governments which Britain opposes are simply told by Ministers to adopt democracy. When it comes to allied regimes, however, notably those in the Gulf, a large amount of latitude is allowed. A standard formula, as outlined by David Cameron in a speech to the Kuwait National Assembly in February 2011, runs as follows:

‘It is not for me, or for governments outside the region, to pontificate about how each country meets the aspirations of its people. It is not for us to tell you how to do it, or precisely what shape your future    should take. There is no single formula for success, and there are many ways to ensure greater, popular participation in Government. We respect your right to take your own decisions, while offering our goodwill and support’.

These words can be expected to be received gratefully by Gulf leaders keen to stave off the threat of democracy. At other times, British ministers have convinced themselves that Kuwait – run by the al-Sabah family since the mid-eighteenth century – is already a democratic society. For example, during his visit in February 2011, Cameron referred in a press conference with the Kuwaiti prime minister to ‘small and democratic countries like Kuwait’. He also mentioned the ‘gradual development of a liberal democratic society that you are overseeing, the vital steps you’re taking on your own journey to democracy’. In fact, although Kuwait allows elections to its National Assembly, real power lies in the hands of the Emir and the prime minister, who is appointed by the Emir and not accountable to parliament, which has extremely limited powers.

Sultan Qaboos of Oman, meanwhile, has been in power since a British coup installed him in 1970, and became the world’s longest serving ruler once Qadafi was overthrown, a fact not advertised by Whitehall. Qaboos’ regime, a major British ally, was described as ‘enlightened and effective’ by then International Development Minister Alan Duncan in October 2010. In reality, Oman is an absolute monarchy with almost all power concentrated in the hands of the Sultan, who serves as chief of state and head of government, supreme commander of the armed forces, prime minister, and minister of defence, foreign affairs and finance, in addition to personally appointing all other ministers.

But Saudi Arabia remains the biggest prize for British patronage and is by far Britain’s largest export market outside the OECD, while the UK is world’s second largest foreign investor in the country. A further Freedom of Information Act request by the author, this time asking the Foreign Office for its assessment of terrorist funding emanating from Saudi Arabia, was met with the response that such ‘disclosure of information is likely to prejudice relations between the UK and Saudi Arabia’. Whitehall’s knowledge of Saudi sponsorship of terrorism can be taken for granted, however. The real concern was described by Foreign Office Minister Lord Howell, who told an audience in Riyadh that ‘Saudi Arabia is the heart of world oil production that underpins global markets’, located in ‘a region which contains the planet’s largest oil reserves’. Thus, in the words of the Foreign Office website, ‘Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom have long been close allies, and the breadth and depth of Britain’s relationship with the Kingdom continues to increase’.

The website adds that the two countries have ‘a shared interest in ensuring regional stability’. ‘Stability’ here is understood as ongoing British/Saudi opposition to democracy in the region and the long-standing British backing – documented in previous chapters – of Saudi Arabia’s role of superpower on the Arabian peninsula to ward off threats to continued feudal rule. One case in point is the Saudi intervention in Yemen in November 2009, when its air force bombarded the north-western Yemeni region of Sa’dah to counter the Shia Houthi insurgent group; the action was undertaken in support of Yemeni government forces which had earlier launched a military offensive against the Houthis called ‘scorched earth’. The Saudis used British-supplied Tornado fighter-bombers, damaging or destroying civilian buildings such as market places, mosques, petrol stations, small businesses, a primary school, a power plant, a health centre and dozens of houses and residential buildings. Amnesty International commented that the Saudis ‘carried out indiscriminate attacks and other violations of international humanitarian law’ that resulted in hundreds and possibly thousands of civilian deaths.

But the Saudi role as regional policeman and counter to democracy is principally evidenced in its intervention in Bahrain in March 2011. Then, 1,000 Saudi troops with armoured support crossed the narrow causeway into Bahrain in support of the Bahraini King’s call to help put down pro-democracy demonstrations. Beginning in mid-February, thousands of Bahrainis had set up a camp city at the Pearl Roundabout in the capital, Manama, mirroring the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. They had, however, more limited demands than their Egyptian counterparts, calling for greater political participation essentially under a constitutional monarchy, a legitimate parliament, free and fair elections, an end to corruption and equality for the long-repressed Shia majority in Bahrain.

The Saudi intervention in Bahrain was backed by Britain at the same time as ministers were claiming, with regard to their campaign in Libya, that ‘it is for the people of Libya to choose their own government’. Moreover, it is likely that the British gave the Saudis and Bahrainis a green light for the intervention. Only five days before, on 9 March, as protests were growing in the country, David Cameron’s National Security Adviser, Peter Ricketts, and Chief of Defence Staff General David Richards, met King Hamid al-Khalifa in Bahrain. ‘Ricketts paid tribute to Bahrain’s major and remarkable strides on the path of reform and modernization thanks to the royal reform project initiated by HM the King’, one Bahraini news report noted. The British meeting was followed by one by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, on 11 March. Evidence has also emerged from two diplomatic sources at the UN that the Saudis were given a green light to intervene in Bahrain by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in exchange for a ‘yes’ vote by the Arab League for the no-fly zone over Libya.

Saudi forces entered Bahrain in a convoy of British-made armoured personnel carriers known as Tacticas, which were manufactured by the British company, BAE Systems. Saudi Arabia’s National Guard, trained by Britain since 1964 to ensure the defence of the House of Saud, was part of the Saudi force and British training in internal security over many years would no doubt have helped develop tactics to suppress the popular uprising in Bahrain. Other British-supplied equipment available to the Bahrainis included tear gas and crowd control ammunition, equipment for the use of aircraft cannons, assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles and sub-machine guns, all of which had been supplied in 2010.

Following the intervention, Amnesty International noted that ‘the Bahraini government launched a clearly planned and orchestrated crackdown using excessive force to suppress protests calling for political change and reform’, while ‘security forces used shotguns, rubber bullets, tear gas and, in some cases, live ammunition, sometimes at very close range, and in circumstances where the use of weapons… could not be justified’. Over 600 civilians were detained without charge in unknown conditions, including doctors, lawyers, human rights workers, academics and youth bloggers. At the same time, some 2,000 Shia workers who stayed away from work during the unrest were sacked without any unemployment insurance while teachers and students were expelled from schools and universities. Two months after the intervention, Amnesty was still documenting the government’s ‘relentless crackdown on human rights’, as emergency powers were used to arrest people without judicial warrant and detain incommunicado protesters and political activists, while some detainees had been tortured or ill-treated following arrest. Amnesty also noted ‘suspicions that the whole of the majority Shia population of Bahrain is being punished for the February-March protests’.

British acquiescence in the intervention was entirely predictable given that the coalition government had announced its intention to back the Bahraini regime soon after it won the election in May 2010. ‘We began, from our first day in office, a major, long-term effort to intensify Britain’s links with the countries of the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf – in diplomacy, trade, education, health and civil society – as part of a distinctive British policy towards the region’, William Hague said later, in February 2011; he added that ‘I reaffirmed last week to leaders in Bahrain and the UAE that we are committed to intensifying our engagement on foreign policy.’ In July 2010, the King of Bahrain visited David Cameron at Number 10 Downing Street and the two leaders ‘agreed to expand existing co-operation between their countries across the board including on culture, education, defence and security, trade and investment and foreign policy’. Five months later, in December 2010, the Foreign Secretary welcomed the Crown Prince of Bahrain to London, ‘underlining the coalition government’s commitment to building its relationship with Bahrain’, the Foreign Office stated. The latter’s report of the meeting added that Hague ‘noted concerns raised ahead of the elections, regarding implementation of the electoral law and allegations of restrictions on campaigning, and welcomed the positive response of the Bahraini Government and their assurances that they would continue progress on political reform’.

In the early hours of 17 February 2011, the Bahraini police moved into the Pearl Roundabout area of Manama to clear the encampment of protesters and in a brutal crackdown left five dead and over 200 injured. Foreign Secretary Hague said that he conveyed the ‘concern’ of the British government to Bahrain and ‘urge[d] all sides to avoid violence and the police to exercise restraint’ while praising the regime for recent ‘important political reforms’ and ‘the long friendship between Bahrain and the UK’. On the same day, the British government announced it was reviewing its ‘recent licensing decisions’ concerning military exports to Bahrain. Two days after the Saudi intervention in March the Prime Minister’s website stated that David Cameron personally telephoned the King of Bahrain calling on him to end the violent suppression of street protests and to ‘respect the right to peaceful protest and respond to the legitimate concerns of the Bahraini people’. Yet British policy explained by William Hague was decidedly more conciliatory. Hague told the Foreign Affairs Committee that he spoke to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud on 14 March and that:

‘He assured me that these [Saudi forces in Bahrain] were for the defence of installations     and the external defence of Bahrain, while it would be the Bahraini forces and police that     tried to restore order in their own country. So that is where we are on Saudi Arabia.’

Hague added that he had been assured by Bahraini Foreign Minister, Sheikh Khalid al-Khalifa, that the Bahraini government ‘remained absolutely determined to continue that process of dialogue’ and repeated the mantra that ‘there are casualties on both sides’. Other statements by Hague did condemn the Bahraini use of force but were always qualified by urging restraint on ‘all sides’ or praise for the regime’s supposed offer of dialogue with opposition groups.

Faced with massive international criticism of his government’s brutal crushing of protest, the King of Bahrain instituted a commission of enquiry into the events of February and March. Released in November 2011, the report concluded that the security forces had used ‘excessive force’ and had tortured detainees and killed 35 people. In early December, however, David Cameron once again met King al-Khalifa in Downing Street. According to the prime minister’s office, Cameron ‘emphasised the importance of strengthening respect for human rights in Bahrain’ and ‘urged the King to deliver swiftly on the commitments he has made to implement the recommendations from the Inquiry’. At the same time, however, ‘the leaders also discussed how they could boost trade co-operation between the two countries and the opportunities for British business to invest in Bahrain, particularly in the infrastructure sector’. While Cameron was hosting al-Khalifa, hundreds of people wrongfully detained or convicted following unfair trials were still languishing in Bahraini jails while those dismissed from the posts had received no signs of being reinstated.




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