British MPs 'appalled' over Bahrain base

Twelve British MPs have signed a parliamentary motion criticising the government's decision to establish a "permanent" naval base in Bahrain. The motion says:

"This House is appalled that Britain has signed an agreement with the government of Bahrain to establish a permanent military base at Port Mina Salman in Bahrain; believes that this announcement will be deeply upsetting to all those who have suffered human rights abuses by the government of Bahrain and its officials, and will serve to send a message that the UK Government is not interested in justice, rule of law and reconciliation in Bahrain; notes the protests in Bahrain since the announcement was made; believes that the increased British military presence is likely to exacerbate tensions in the region; and calls on the UK Government to play a much more constructive role in Bahrain to help end, and ensure appropriate redress for, serious human rights violations, and to encourage meaningful dialogue leading to substantive political reform."

So far, eight Labour MPs have signed, plus one each from the Liberal Democrats, the Irish SDLP, the Welsh Plaid Cymru and the Green Party. It's unlikely, however, that the motion will be allocated parliamentary time for a debate.

In Bahrain, the announcement about the base has given opposition activists one more thing to protest about. Writing for The Telegraph from Manama, Richard Spencer says:

"Hundreds of protesters were filmed marching through the town of Sitra, a Shia opposition stronghold, calling for the removal of the British ambassador, Iain Lindsay, after the decision was announced.

"Activists said Bahrain’s decision to largely fund the base was a 'reward' for Britain’s recent silence over the jailing of opponents to the Sunni monarchy."

If the reports of Bahraini funding are correct, this will probably neutralise any British objections on grounds of cost, but the establishment of the base can also be interpreted as a sign of British support for the embattled Khalifa family who rule Bahrain.

The announcement came less than two weeks after Bahrain held controversial elections which were boycotted by the main opposition party and several others, and just a day after Zainab al-Khawaja, a prominent Bahraini dissident, was sentenced to three years in jail

It also came after a report last month by the British parliament's foreign affairs committee criticised the government's stance on Bahrain. It said:

"We see little or no evidence that Bahrain has made enough progress in implementing political reform and safeguarding human rights, and we believe that the FCO [the British Foreign Office] should have bitten the bullet and designated Bahrain as a country of concern."

There has been no debate about the base in the British parliament, even though it marks a significant step in developing a new British "east of Suez" military policy. 

Under Article 37 (2) of Bahrain's constitution it also appears that the base will be illegal without specific legislation. That should not be too difficult to do, given the tame nature of Bahrain's parliament, but it hasn't happened yet.

Considering the repression in Bahrain, the British government's relations with the regime are astonishingly cosy.

Last summer, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism obtained the seating plan for a fund-raising dinner organised by the British Conservative Party. 

One of the more prominent tables was sponsored at an estimated cost of £12,000 by Paddy Gillford (the Earl of Clanwilliam), who represents the government of Bahrain, according to the Guardian. Philip Hammond – then defence secretary and now foreign secretary – was one of those seated at this table.

The Guardian's report continued:

"Many other public relations staff were hosted on other tables, including a partner at Bell Pottinger, a communications and lobbying firm, which represents Bahrain's economic development board. She was placed on the same table as justice secretary Chris Grayling.

"There is no suggestion that any representatives from these public relations companies discussed their clients or tried to influence policy at the event. But their proximity to senior government figures will raise questions about disclosure rules surrounding meetings with ministers.

"If lobbyists or PR representatives meet ministers on a one-to-one basis or in their offices, the ministers have to declare those meetings. When a minister attends a reception or other large event in their official capacity this has to be disclosed, but there is no requirement to list individuals met on these occasions. The disclosure rules do not extend to party fundraising events or conferences."

At the time, Hammond had also just returned from an "operational visit" to Bahrain. 

The Guardian's report adds: "Gillford was asked whether he represented Bahrain's interests at the event, or discussed any issues affecting any of his firm's clients. He declined to comment."
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 10 December 2014