On Wednesday 15th August, the Bahraini opposition exiled in London celebrated, at a media briefing, the country becoming independent from Britain on 14th August 1971. The Al-Khalifa regime inside Bahrain does not celebrate this day. It prefers to celebrate 16th December as the day of ascension to the throne of the first post-independence monarch – making Bahrain’s independence synonymous with the Al Khalifa dynasty. But for the democratic opposition independence is worth celebrating even though it remains incomplete while Bahrainis lack the elementary freedoms that make independence effective.
The British state has a long history of involvement in Bahrain. Britain first recognised the Al Khalifa as Bahrain’s legitimate rulers in 1820. Since that time, successive British governments maintained close relationships with the same family. This allowed them to use Bahrain’s geographic position and harbours to help maintain the British Empire in India, and other Asian colonies. After independence, Britain continued to play a role in Bahrain’s affairs, including training security forces used against the population. Four years ago, the King offered to fund a naval base for the return of British armed and naval forces, an offer taken up by the Tory government. So much for independence.
Global Britain as US tool
The re-establishment of a naval base appears to be an anachronism, given the extensive debates in British foreign policy circles that took place after Indian independence, and particularly around ending the military presence “East of Suez” up to 1971. Its significance cannot be understood by reference to previous policy in the region, only by reference to current British foreign policy.
In February and March this year the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) issued two documents around the theme of “Global Britain”. These were memorandums explaining the strategic rationale behind current government policy. In the first of these documents, “Government written evidence to International Relations Committee”, we read: “As regards bilateral and regional relationships, our alliance with the United States remains our top priority and cornerstone of what we wish to achieve in the world”.
Of course, there will not be a document in the US administration that registers its alliance with Britain in such foundational terms. But the obvious imbalance in this is not a source of embarrassment for the British government. On the contrary, they stamp their adulation into a counterfeit of history: “…our most vital bilateral partnership for over a century, the most significant and history defining international partnership”. This ignores the fact that the US and Britain were rivals for world domination for the first part of the twentieth century. In 1914 British imperialism and allies went to war with Germany and allies, whilst the US stood aside until 1917, having benefitted from its rivals exhaustion. Further, the US ruling class remained outside the struggle between Britain and the fascist powers from 1939-1941, only directly engaging after Japanese militarism’s attack at Pearl Harbour. But nostalgia is a live element in Conservative foreign policy, so sanitising “the special relationship” comes naturally.
But nostalgia is not the only subjective force at work here. The use of the word “cornerstone” is revealing. This, conscious or not, is taken from the New Testament of the Bible. There the stone that the builder chooses is called the “cornerstone” – a metaphor for the Saviour. Conservative and foreign policy establishment thinking is so attached to the US alliance that only damnation awaits those who dispense with it.
The threat against China
The document makes clear what the significance of the new naval base is here: “…UK stands together with the United States in facing resurgent Russia and new forms of threats across the world, as well as the implications of an increasingly assertive China”. The British government has also negotiated an agreement with Sultan Qaboos of Oman to use the harbour facilities at Duqm port for the new British aircraft carriers. Taken together these bases strategic location are evidently favourable for confronting an allegedly “increasingly assertive China”, in line with the US pivot against China.
There is no need for these facilities for operations by Britain in the Middle East, the base in Cyprus meeting that need. The base is linking Britain to US attempts to confront China in the South China Sea. Defence Minister, Gavin Willimson has highlighted this by the offer to send frigates there.
In this, it is clear that the Tory government operates with an unrealistic estimate of Britain’s international influence. According to the document: “We remain key players in the Middle East”, a statement unsupported by any reference to any recent diplomatic achievements in the region. An effort is made to pretend that in 2017 Britain successfully fought ISIS in alliance with the US. Firing off a few missiles does not compare to the contributions and sacrifices made on the ground by regional forces in Iraq and Syria.
But the ambition remains: “Our long term objective is to see the Middle East return to stability … Central to this will be maintaining strong relationships with stable countries in the region, particularly in the Gulf … The Gulf collectively is a larger market for the UK than either China or India. We are supporting the Saudi Vision 2030 and other Gulf reform programmes”.
Maintaining stability in the region, with “stable countries” practically means basing policy on the continued strength of the royal dictatorships in the Gulf. “Instability” here means popular movements against autocratic rulers – movements which cannot be relied upon to deliver finances, oil and gas resources, and military bases on terms favourable to imperialism.
Bahrain’s regime – stability through torture
Further, how are “reform programmes” to be supported if the decisive question is stability? Such programmes have to be effectively changing nothing of the essential state structure, and intra-state relations. This is certainly the case for Saudi Vision 2030, and certainly the case for the “reforms” inside Bahrain. The latter point is amply illustrated in the July publication of the FCO of its annual “Human Rights and Democracy report from FCO to Parliament”. The section on Bahrain begins: “There continued to be a mixed picture on human rights in Bahrain in 2017”.
The term “mixed picture” has been used in these reports on previous occasions, illustrating how the issue is actually routinized in the FCO. More importantly, the term suggests some sort of uneasy balance between bad and good features.
Not hard to find, the report does highlight some of the “bad” features. These include, the resumption of executions after a seven year pause; the removal of Bahraini nationality from opponents of the regime; the suspension of the newspaper Al Wasat; the two year prison sentence handed down to prominent oppositionist Nabeel Rajab for a tweet opposing the Yemen war; and the reintroduction of military courts for trials of civilians. The FCO could have equally highlighted the imprisonment of Shia clerics; the siege imposed upon the people of Daraz; the outlawing of all opposition parties; the general use of torture.
So much for the “bad”. The “good” is terribly thin, consisting of apparently inconsequential little changes to sundry state bodies. The highlight of which is undoubtedly this reference to the Bahrain National Institute of Human Rights which has “taken steps to ensure that all Bahrainis can report alleged human rights violations and abuses, including through a newly widely advertised hotline”. The credulousness of the FCO in reporting this is a function of the conventional hypocrisy that binds it to pretend a reform process is underway whilst a terrible repression ensues. This hotline, if it ever existed, and if it was ever used, would ask only two questions of the caller – “Who are you?” and “Where are you calling from?”
Irrationality of Tory policy
The British government’s support for repression in Bahrain is rooted in the same policy that allows it to support the Saudi dictatorship’s war upon the Yemeni people. These are “stable” regimes which are pro-US, and hence essential allies. That such a policy is short sighted, as well as morally unprincipled, is easy to illustrate.
As referred to above, currently Britain has a greater trading market with the Gulf countries than with China. Estimates for the population of the six Gulf monarchies and the Yemen republic for 2016/17 give a combined population of around 81 million. China has a population of 1.3 billion, and possesses the most dynamic economy in the world following the 1978 reforms. Yet, current British policy is to spend hundreds of millions of pounds upon aircraft carriers to be based in the Gulf in order to be a junior partner in the US conflict with China.
In a microcosm, the Conservatives policy on Bahrain is a condemnation of their whole foreign policy strategy. An incoming Labour government will need to break from a fossilised framework, and recognise that linking to a single, no-longer hegemonic power is a recipe for irrelevance and catastrophe. Only by recognising the multi-polar character of today’s world will Labour be able to promote the peace and freedom it supports for the Middle East.
Struggle of small nations
The celebration of Bahrain’s independence is also an occasion to celebrate the struggle of this small nation for freedom. For over fifty years the people have mobilised against the autocracy. Despite terrible repression the mobilisations continue today. Surrounded by Bahraini activists who have all been imprisoned, tortured and rendered stateless, it was an occasion to think of the significance of the struggles of smaller nations. Our lives are dominated by the actions of the “great nations”, but as Lenin wrote they are “only great as bullies”. So let us celebrate the struggles of the smaller nations. For surely the struggles of the peoples of Palestine, Cuba, Ireland and Bahrain are a powerful inspiration and hope in the cause of our common humanity.
The above article was initially published by Stop the War Coalition here.