Warm words for Bahrain from British ambassador

Today's edition of the Gulf Daily News ("The Voice of Bahrain") contains no fewer than six stories based on an interview with Britain's skydiving ambassador, Iain Lindsay.

In the form it is reported, the interview appears to be an almost unqualified endorsement of Bahrain's repressive government, backing up the regime on all its key propaganda points.

It starts with a huge headline on Page 1:


Here, ambassador Lindsay says there is "increasing evidence" of Iran "providing support to people here [in Bahrain] who are bent on violence". He doesn't say what the evidence is, and the paper says he declined to elaborate.

Allegations of Iranian links have often been used by the Bahraini authorities to smear protesters and opposition groups.

The interview continues on Page 4, accompanied by pictures of "armed thugs" and "remains of an explosive device":

Time to condemn violence

Lindsay talks at some length about violence and the need for "all leaders" to condemn it, but there's no mention of the countless thousands of peaceful protesters who have taken to the streets during the last couple of years – or their grievances.

The ambassador also seems extraordinarily naive about prospects for the current political dialogue which is generally regarded as little more than an attempt by the government to appear to be doing something:

"There are people in the country who are opposed to dialogue, who see it as a sideshow or irrelevant. We disagree with that and I think the whole of the international community would disagree with that."

On Page 5, the ambassador takes a swipe at Human Rights Watch for saying there has been "no progress on key reform promises" in Bahrain:

Human Rights Watch criticised

Lindsay is quoted as saying that HRW's statement about the lack of progress is "deeply unhelpful, condescending and patronising", and he continues:

"I find their comments about the political dialogue deeply unhelpful. I think it has taken a lot of courage and a lot of effort to get people for the first time in two years to sit around a table to talk about dialogue."

He does acknowledge "concerns on human rights issues" in Bahrain but adds: "I think we need to take a balanced picture."

Embassy sets up special unit to help Bahrain

In another item on Page 5, Lindsay talks about cooperation between Britain and Bahrain, saying "the tempo of the bilateral relationship really has moved up a couple of gears" and "we want to look at our defence relationship going ahead – not just for the next 18 or 24 months".

Key meetings

Members of a British parliamentary inquiry into relations with Bahrain are due to visit the kingdom shortly – a move which has been greeted by the Bahraini authorities with "enthusiasm", according to ambassador Lindsay:

"I cannot fault the Bahraini authorities here for the co-operation we have had in relation to the visit and indeed the enthusiasm to engage with the inquiry since it was first announced."

Finally, we get down to the nitty-gritty: there are lucrative contracts for British companies at stake:

£1bn windfall for British companies

"We are doing a lot of work to try to encourage more British companies to look at the real opportunities that exist here," Lindsay is quoted as saying.

"By our calculation, if you were to take the five biggest capital projects that are in the pipeline for Bahrain – whether it be infrastructure or major investments being made by companies like Alba and Bapco – on the basis of historical evidence, British companies should be able to pick up at least £1bn worth of business here over the next five to 10 years and that's just from these major projects.

"That's on the basis that they would get their traditional share of major contracts."

If this collection of news items is really a fair and accurate reflection of the ambassador's interview, then it's deeply worrying. The overall message, apparently, is that Britain will be fully supportive (so long as it gets its "traditional share" contracts), that it's happy to give Bahrain the credit for whatever half-hearted "reforms" the king may decide to make and is not greatly concerned about human rights abuses.

Of course, it's possible that this was not ambassador Lindsay's message at all. As I've pointed out before, the Bahraini media have a long and disreputable record of deliberately misrepresenting what people say, in order to make it appear they are supporting the government's policies. 

If that is what happened here, we can expect the ambassador to send a letter of complaint to the Gulf Daily News, with a copy posted on the embassy's website, within a day or two.

If, on the other hand, it turns out to be an accurate report questions will have to be asked about the ambassador himself – and whether he is up to the job.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 25 March 2013