Britain's strange love affair with Bahrain

The British embassy in Bahrain was busy yesterday putting a positive spin on the tiny Gulf kingdom's controversial elections.

One tweet posted in Arabic by the British Foreign Office showed ambassador Iain Lindsay at a polling station, accompanied by the US ambassador, and reported a "good electoral atmosphere". This prompted several derisory comments from opposition supporters. One said "Fuck you, and fuck Mr Ambassador." Another talked about "supporters of dictatorship" with "no principles and no values".

A tweet posted by the Foreign Office in Arabic and by the British embassy in English showed Lindsay with the Italian and French ambassadors at a polling station and reported: "Turnout v good".

The British embassy did at least acknowledge that not everywhere in Bahrain was sweetness and light: "V disappointed by Turnout in Karana, where candidate Explains Intimidation Against Voters & his own car & house Torched."

British MEP Afzal Khan was also in Bahrain tweeting a pro-regime line. He was struck by the number of women voting and the "slick" computer voting system, and reported that the voting period had been extended by two hours "due to huge crowds wt lots of patience &discipline".

When one female candidate's headquarters was set on fire, another female candidate offered use of her own facilities, which Khan hailed as "sisterhood in action".

According to Bahrain's Gulf Daily News, Khan was one of 11 MEPs "visiting Bahrain at the request of outgoing parliament chairman Dr Khalifa Al Dhahrani". In other words, the visit seems to have been organised by the Bahraini government rather than the European Parliament. 

The Gulf Daily News report also quotes a series of platitudinous remarks from Mr Khan: "'It is a citizen's duty to elect the right representatives to power", "The sign of a mature democracy is being able to disagree and not resort to violence," etc.

The effect of all this is to give an air of credibility – and a British stamp of approval – to elections which, if viewed on any reasonably objective basis, are at best flawed and unlikely to move Bahrain forward from its political crisis.

The main opposition group, al-Wefaq, had decided along with several other groups to boycott the polls – mainly on the grounds that the 40-seat parliament has too little power and that electoral districts have been adjusted to favour the Sunni minority (to which the ruling family belong). Even before the latest electoral jiggery-pokery, the system was weighted to deny the opposition a majority in parliament, as an article by Marc Owen Jones explains.

After threatening unspecified punishments for anyone who failed to vote and enlisting support from a Saudi cleric who announced that voting was a "religious and national" duty, the Bahraini government is claiming 51.5% turnout in the parliamentary election and 53.7% in municipal elections which were also held yesterday. The opposition claims turnout was "around 30%".

The British government's long-standing love affair with the Bahraini regime is looking more and more preposterous. The US has also been criticised for being unduly supportive of the Khalifa family's rule but that pales in comparison with the British stance.

In contrast to the British embassy and the Foreign Office, the US embassy's Twitter feed remained totally silent during yesterday's elections. The US State Department has also been reticent. At a press briefing on Monday, a State Department spokesman was asked:

"There are parliamentary elections coming up this weekend, and yet there are reports of a crackdown on women protesters. I’m wondering if this is something that the US has brought up with the kingdom and what their reaction is."

The reply:

"Mm-hmm. I’ll have to look into that and get back to you."

This appears to be the only recent official comment from the US about Bahrain's elections.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 23 November 2014