Britain's special relationship with Bahrain

Bahrain's leaders have been swift to congratulate David Cameron on his election victory in Britain. As soon as the results became known, King Hamad, his uncle Khalifa (the world's longest serving prime minister – 43 years in office) and the crown prince all dispatched cables "hailing historic relations binding Bahrain and Britain" and hoping to "further enhance them".

A few days later, King Hamad followed up his cable with a phone call to Cameron and, according to a tweet from Cameron, they both "agreed to build on almost 200 years of strong UK-Bahrain relations".

Bahrain's relations with Britain are a lot warmer than they are with the United States. The latest illustration of this came when King Hamad absented himself from the Obama-GCC meeting at Camp David to hobnob with Queen Elizabeth at the Royal Windsor Horse Show.

It's a relationship that the British establishment also goes to extraordinary lengths to protect. Two years ago, Marc Owen Jones, a postgraduate researcher at Durham University and an activist in Bahrain Watch, made a freedom of information request for a Foreign Office document dated 1977 which records a meeting between Brigadier Ian Henderson, the British head of Bahrain's Special Branch at the time, and David Tatham, a Foreign Office official.

Henderson, who died two years ago, was known as the "Butcher of Bahrain" for his role in the detention and torture of thousands of anti-regime activists, so information about his activities there is clearly a matter of public interest.

In Britain, classified documents of this kind are normally released to the public after 30 years but the secrecy period for this particular document had been extended to 58 years. In response to Jones's request, the Foreign Office agreed to release parts of the document but with other parts blacked out.

The released part is as follows:

"I met Brigadier Ian Henderson the Head of the Bahrain Special Branch, at a recent Home Office Conference on security equipment […] I asked the Brigadier about his plans and how he saw the future. 

"Brigadier Henderson said he hoped to leave Bahrain within six months, but there were problems. He believed that if he went the Commander of Police, Mr Bell, and the nine British Special Branch officers (I had no idea there were so many) would also leave. His personal relations with the ruler and other responsible Bahrainis would be soured however tactfully he gave his notice. 

"He thought the effect on the efficiency of the security apparatus generally would be severe. At present he and Mr Bell were trying hard to keep up standards but a general sloppiness was creeping in. [SECTION REDACTED] 

"What surprised me in our conversation was the gloomy view he took of the ability of the Al Khalifa to survive. [SECTION REDACTED] They were moving into lucrative areas of business and squeezing out established merchants [SECTION REDACTED]"

A reproduction of the document, with the blacked-out passages, can be viewed here.

Not content with this, Jones resorted to legal action through the Information Rights Tribunal and he described the hearing (which took place last March) in a blog post:

"Although we were expecting to give evidence first, the FCO [Foreign Office] were quite insistent that Edward Oakden, a senior diplomat and witness, should go first. This was because he had appointments in the evening ... 

"Oakden’s evidence was brief, and mostly consisted him of evading questions by saying ‘I shall refer to that in the secret portion of the trial’. (I should perhaps add that the FCO and the judges had a private session in which the redacted contents could be revealed – of course neither we nor the public were entitled to attend). 

"After the secret session the FCO and their barrister were quite clear on one thing, that whatever was in the document would not address my general and specific concerns about British complicity in Human Rights abuses in Bahrain, nor would it shed light on Henderson’s actions in Kenya’ [during the Mau Mau rebellion]. However, they also stressed that release of the information would DEFINITELY damage the relationship between Britain and Bahrain."

Jones's blog post goes on to speculate about the possible content of the redacted passages. 

Incidentally, Oakden, who was recently appointed as Britain's ambassador in Jordan, also appeared as a witness last month in another freedom of information case, resisting the release of documents about British arms deals with Saudi Arabia.

According to the Financial Times, he told that tribunal: “I am confident that releasing these documents would cause serious harm to our relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” though he later conceded under questioning that he had not read one of the documents in question.

The FT's report continues:

Mr Oakden said that maintaining the UK government’s relationship with “a few senior [Saudi] princes” in whose hands, along with the king’s, power is concentrated, “is vital to the achievement of our national security interests, particularly counter-terrorism”. He said a Saudi tip had helped the authorities to find a “printer bomb” aboard a US-bound aircraft at East Midlands airport in 2010.

He also cited the decision taken by Tony Blair’s government in 2006 to cancel an SFO investigation into alleged corruption in BAE Systems’ £43bn al-Yamamah fighter jet deal with Saudi Arabia on national security grounds.

However, when asked ... whether the UK would expect Saudi Arabia to respect that “the exposure of crime and corruption is considered a good thing in this country”, Mr Oakden replied: “Yes.”

In the case of the Bahrain document, the tribunal has now decided that some parts of the redacted passages can be revealed, though not all of them, because full disclosure would "have an adverse effect on relations between the UK and Bahrain". 

The Foreign Office is considering an appeal against this decision but if it does not appeal the additional parts will be made public on May 30. 
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 18 May 2015