UK ‘interference’ in Gulf human rights angers Saudi, Bahrain

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have objected strongly to criticism from British Members of Parliament who accuse the David Cameron government of failing to promote human rights in key Gulf allies.

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LONDON // Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have objected strongly to criticism from British Members of Parliament who accuse the David Cameron government of failing to promote human rights in key Gulf allies.

A report published on Wednesday by parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee criticised the British government for its reaction to unrest in Bahrain last year, and is the latest in a series of moves by back bench MPs seeking a review of relations with Gulf states.

"Given the Bahraini authorities' brutal repression of demonstrators in February and March 2011, we believe that Bahrain should have been designated as a country of concern in the [Foreign and Commonwealth Office's] 2011 report on human rights and democracy," the report stated.

It went on to accuse the government of hypocrisy for failing to encourage a boycott of the Bahrain Grand Prix while enforcing a boycott of the group stages in this year's football European Championship in Ukraine over human-rights issues.

Bahrain has rejected the report, saying the British government made the right choice in leaving the decision up to Formula One organisers.

"One could find fault in every nation that hosts the event," said a spokesperson for the Information Affairs Authority in Manama. "We firmly believe that sports should remain separate from politics and obviously the FIA felt the same way.

The report follows another critical report by UK politicians in July on weapons sales to the Gulf and the announcement last month that the Foreign Affairs Committee was launching an inquiry into relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, including "how the UK can encourage democratic and liberalising reforms" in those countries.

That triggered an angry response from Saudi Arabia, who told the BBC it was "insulted" by the inquiry. Saudi officials said they were now "re-evaluating their country's historic relations with Britain."

"Saudi Arabia's relations with the [Gulf Cooperation Council] is an internal matter ... and we will not tolerate or accept any foreign interference in the workings of the GCC," Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf Al Saud, the Saudi ambassador in London, told the BBC this week.

The Foreign Affairs Committee, which consists of 11 members from across the political spectrum, does not dictate UK policy but scrutinises the work of the government and makes recommendations.

Saudi Arabia's reaction to the inquiry was met with bemusement from at least one member of the committee.

"It was a very prickly reaction - I was surprised by how vehement it was," said Mike Gapes. "Either they have misunderstood the role of the committee or there is some other agenda I don't know about.

"We're not picking on the Saudis. Last year, following the Arab Spring, we decided to have inquiries into Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, and now think it's appropriate to look at other parts of the Arab world. Since our closest relationship is with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, we felt it is important to concentrate on those countries."

But experts agree that the British government will struggle to maintain its rhetoric on human rights as pressure mounts from back bench MPs.

"The [committee] will have a lot of awkward questions for the UK government and its partners in the region. It will be a major embarrassment," said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow specialising in the Gulf at the London School of Economics.

"The British government is in a lose-lose situation because it is under a great deal of pressure to make declarations about human rights but then fails to act on them. Its long history with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain mean it is loath to intervene too directly."

The British foreign office was quick to reassert this week that "Saudi Arabia is a key strategic partner in the region and one of the closest friends and allies".

Saudi Arabia has more than US$6 billion (Dh22bn) of annual trade with the UK and is the leading buyer of its weapons, with a current $7.2bn order for Typhoon aircraft from Britain's BAE Systems.

It is also considered a crucial partner in containing Iran's regional ambitions and in supporting global counter-terrorism operations. But the Arab Spring has altered the calculus for many British politicians.

Another parliamentary report, from the Arms Control Committee in July, was damning of British weapons sales to countries that might use them to suppress unrest.

The UK revoked 44 licences for the export of arms to Bahrain when protests broke out there in February 2011, but the committee argued that this was already too late.

"The Government's stated policy is to refuse arms export licences 'which might be used to facilitate internal repression' and not merely to await internal repression becoming patently clear," the committee said in its report.

"After the initial shock of the Arab Spring and the muddling through over Libya, parliament appears to see this as the time to take stock and reflect how this changes British foreign policy and values," said Mr Ulrichsen.

"But the government may put pressure on the committee to limit its criticism. Saudi Arabia knows the balance of power between an oil-rich Gulf and a resource-poor Europe and can tell Britain that it must engage on its terms or not at all."