Bahrain: a tale of two ambassadors

When a Gulf regime needs to state in public that relations with its most important ally are "robust and strong", we can be pretty sure that something is amiss. Thus, Bahrain's insistence that all is well between Washington and Manama comes amid increasing friction between the two countries..

Last month, when the US State Department issued its annual country-by-country report on human rights, Bahrain's foreign ministry expressed "dissatisfaction" with the section on Bahrain, saying that it lacked "objectivity and impartiality" and overlooked "Bahrain’s progress in maintaining and promoting human rights issues".

On Sunday, the Bahraini cabinet gave official backing to a parliamentary move "to put an end to the interference of US ambassador Thomas Krajeski in Bahrain’s internal affairs".

According to AFP, the proposal also aims at putting an end to “his repeated meetings with instigators of sedition” – a government term for protesters who frequently clash with police. AFP continues:

"However, 'the diplomatic measures Bahrain will take do not include dismissing the envoy,' [government spokesperson Samira] Rajab said, adding that Manama 'will commit to international agreements in dealing with the US ambassador'.”

Reuters adds:

"It was not immediately clear whether the lawmakers' complaint about the ambassador was related to a specific incident. But western diplomats in the Gulf normally try to meet as many different political opinion-makers as possible as part of their jobs."

The move against Ambassador Krajeski is reminiscent of a campaign in 2010 which succeeded in ousting the British ambassador at the time, Jamie Bowden, who was also accused of "interfering in the country's internal affairs". Bowden came under fire after meeting members of the opposition Wefaq party.

In another development, the US is now seeking talks with Bahrain about alleged breaches of the US-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement. This follows a report from the US Labor Department last December which said Bahrain's government had "directly engaged in discrimination on the basis of political opinion and/or religion in the public sector" and had also "failed to sanction such discriminatory practices by private sector employers".

This is further evidence of what Justin Gengler on the Bahraini Politics blog describes as a growing diplomatic divide – "not simply a rift between the United States and Bahrain, but perhaps more importantly a growing disconnect in policy between Bahrain's two historical patrons themselves, i.e. the US and Britain". Gengler continues: 

One might recall that in his surprise December 2012 call for renewed political talks at the Manama Dialogue, Crown Prince Salman singled out Great Britain for its support for Bahrain, telling the long-time colonial master, "You stood head and shoulders above the rest." The United States, by contrast, was not mentioned at all, an exclusion described in the media as a "snub" and taken to signal Bahrain's displeasure with the US's relative willingness to pressure its ally toward meaningful reform.

Iain Lindsay, who replaced the ill-fated Jamie Bowden as Britain's ambassador to Bahrain in 2011, is the kind of diplomat the regime loves. He has no previous experience of the Middle East, apart from a brief spell as a temporary visa officer in Qatar 30 years ago, and seems to have been taken in by the talk of reform.

In March, Lindsay gave an interview to the Gulf Daily News ("The Voice of Bahrain") which appeared to be an almost unqualified endorsement of Bahrain's repressive government, backing up the regime on all its key propaganda points.

Last week, to "mark" World Press Freedom Day, the British embassy invited Bahrainis to outline "their views on the freedom of expression in Bahrain". This resulted in two thoroughly inappropriate articles being posted on the Foreign Office website. 

One, by Anwar Abdulrahman, editor of Akhbar al-Khaleej newspaper, who argued that political freedom " has been largely misunderstood, and even hijacked by the most unworthy, non-productive members of society". A second article, by an anonymous group called "Citizens for Bahrain", talked about limiting freedom of expression.

Sheikh Nasser, the controversial son of the king of Bahrain, is expected in Britain this week for the Royal Windsor Horse Show. The Bahraini government is organising an "international endurance horse ride" which will take place on Sunday, "on the sidelines" of the show.

Sheikh Nasser is president of the Bahrain Olympic Committee and chairman of the kingdom's Supreme Council for Youth and Sports. There were calls to ban him from the London Olympic last year because of torture allegations (which he denies) but he did attend the opening ceremony.

According to the official Bahraini news agency ...

"Shaikh Nasser emphasised that Bahrain’s taking part in this prestigious festival comes in compliance with the directives of His Majesty King Hamad to extend the kingdom’s active presence in international sporting events.

"Shaikh Nasser added that the decision was also to highlight Bahrain’s development achievement in different areas, especially in sports, affirming that Bahrain has made a significant step in preparing for its participation in the festival.

"The Supreme Council chairman noted that the Bahraini delegation will look to make the most of their presence in the UK during the four-day festival, by promoting Bahrain as one of the countries that featured a quantum leap in different areas."

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 8 May 2013