As the British government often repeats its stated aims of post-Brexit “global Britain” as a “force for good” and champion of human rights, the UK’s complicity in severe humanitarian violations across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) undermines this facade.
A group of members of parliament (MP) sent a letter to the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office in June, urging it to secure the safety of three detained human rights activists: Saudi Arabian women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul, United Arab Emirates activist Ahmed Mansoor, and Bahraini activist Abd Aljalil Al-Singace. All three were harshly imprisoned after campaigning for change within these countries, with whom Britain is closely allied and therefore maintains considerable leverage.
Britain has sold over 75 million pounds worth of wiretaps, spyware, and other telecommunications interception equipment to spy on dissidents.
Yet over the last five years, Britain has in fact sold over 75 million pounds (about US$ 98 million) worth of wiretaps, spyware, and other telecommunications interception equipment to spy on dissidents, to over 17 countries considered “not free” by the NGO Freedom House, reported The Independent in July. Among them are Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, without any proper risk assessments, despite the sales violating the UK’s own licensing laws.
The UK seeks to maintain close ties with these regimes that it once controlled through trucial states under the British Empire, to maintain geopolitical influence in the region, even if it means overlooking their human rights abuses.
This is a historic element of Britain’s approach to the Gulf region. Renowned British Prime Minister Winston Churchill warmed to the Saudi Wahhabis – despite acknowledging their repressive nature in a parliamentary speech in 1921 – during his tenure as Secretary of State for the Colonies. He even later wrote his “admiration for [King Abdulaziz bin Saud] was deep, because of his unfailing loyalty to [Britain].”
David Wearing argues in his book “Anglo Arabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain” that while Britain still desires to benefit from the Gulf’s abundant natural resources, it also seeks to maintain these links as a form of neo-imperial power projection in the Middle East, despite Britain’s decline as a global power.
Complicity in Repression
A central partner for the UK’s regional influence is Bahrain, which gained independence from Britain in August 1971. This continued cooperation became clear with the appointment of notorious ex-British superintendent Ian Henderson as the head of Bahrain’s Secret Police. Known as the “butcher of Bahrain,” Henderson oversaw the detention and torture of thousands of anti-government activists.
“My wrists were shackled to my ankles and they suspended me upside down from a pole,” said one victim, Yaser al-Sayegh. “They then beat me on my legs and feet and face with iron bars and rubber hoses.”
The 2011 Arab Spring movement increased scrutiny over Britain’s ties to Bahrain, particularly once protests erupted in the Gulf state, leading to a government crackdown.
The 2011 Arab Spring movement increased scrutiny over Britain’s ties to Bahrain, particularly once protests erupted in the Gulf state, leading to a government crackdown after which repression soared. The British and Saudi-backed monarchy outlawed opposition politics, crushed independent media, and treated even mild regime critics harshly.
As Mark Curtis and Matt Kennard observed in Declassified UK: “Britain backed the Saudi intervention and had long trained the Saudi Arabian National Guard, the elite branch of its military sent into Bahrain to help put down the protests. The Saudis had entered the country in British-made armored personnel carriers known as Tacticas, which were manufactured by the British company, BAE Systems.”
As Bahrain launched its crackdown, a spokesperson for Britain’s National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), which specializes in overseas security forces training, said British police have helped to train the Bahrainis in “effective search techniques, tackling cyber-crime, dealing with forensics, and evidence gathering,” adding “respect for human rights and diversity underpins all NPIA’s training and support for overseas police forces.”
Curtis and Kennard also revealed that former senior UK military officers and the former MI6 controller for the Middle East have been advising Bahrain’s King. Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s reigning monarch, also has personal links to Bahrain’s monarchy.
In a revealing slip, UK Ambassador to Bahrain Roddy Drummond said in September 2019 that British military objectives in the region “depend on the support from the Kingdom of Bahrain.” Therefore, Britain often tries to portray the country positively, to defend its ties with the Bahraini monarchy.
“Despite the rapid deterioration of the human rights situation in Bahrain, including a dramatic increase in the use of the death penalty, the UK government continues to bend over backwards to defend their reform efforts in Bahrain,” Sayed Ahmed al Wadaei, Director of Advocacy for Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), told Inside Arabia.
“Not only has £6.5 million in UK taxpayer funding failed to curb Bahrain’s excesses, the UK government’s persistent cheerleading has provided fertile propaganda for the regime to present a veneer of reform while intensifying internal repression,” he added.
“Britain keeps a large and secretive military training team in Saudi Arabia.”
While Bahrain is a crucial partner for Britain’s Middle Eastern influence, it supports other repressive regimes. The British Daily Telegraph reported that “Britain keeps a large and secretive military training team in Saudi Arabia, where British personnel advise and teach the kingdom’s forces in areas including crowd control.”
Moreover, the NPIA has trained the UAE’s domestic forces. Britain has also granted licenses of communication and network surveillance equipment and software to the UAE, though repression there has also soared since 2011, as prominent activists like Ahmed Mansour languish in jail with heavy sentences after peacefully calling for reforms.
Dubious Concerns for Human Rights
“The British government is often pushed to take a tougher stance on Bahrain and the abuses of its other Gulf allies. However, Britain repeatedly defends its supports for them, presenting them as reformist regimes,” Clive Baldwin, Senior Legal Advisor at Human Rights Watch, told Inside Arabia.
“While Britain, for instance, quite rightly addresses China’s abuses in Hong Kong, its ignoring of and complicity in its allies’ violations abuses shows a clear double standard over its stated concerns for human rights,” added Baldwin.
In June, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also praised the UAE as “true friends” and “valued partners,” again showing reticence to acknowledge its crackdown on civil society. Critics therefore highlight Britain’s tolerance of human rights abuses in countries where it seeks to retain geopolitical influence.
“In return for maintaining this tired charade, the UK government has reaped a state-of-the-art naval facility in Bahrain and a permanent base from which to project its post-Brexit ambitions into the Arab Gulf,” said al Wadaei.
“The UK government has reaped a state-of-the-art naval facility in Bahrain and a permanent base from which to project its post-Brexit ambitions into the Arab Gulf.”
“Boris Johnson has never hidden his imperial fantasies about the UK’s future role in the region and his government has made clear that torture and summary executions are but merely inconvenient obstacles to realizing this vision,” al Wadaei added.
With Brexit looming, Britain has become even softer on human rights abuses in the Gulf, as a loss of EU trade may make it more dependent on ties with these regimes over other countries. It could potentially prejudice any trade ties should it employ stronger criticism.
In a post-Brexit era, Clive Baldwin said “the UK needs to be promoting human rights not facilitating repression. It should not be funding, training, or assisting security forces. It risks becoming complicit, particularly given where this support may be used in abuses.”
Baldwin added that “rather than its positive words, [the UK] should deliver support for human rights activists. It must push countries to be more open and transparent on their policies.”