The first hearing session of the UK Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee Inquiry into British policy with Saudi Arabia took place today with evidence from two former ambassadors to Bahrain. Robin Lamb, Ambassador 2003-2006 and Sir Roger Tomkys, Ambassador 1981-1984, gave evidence along side Jane Kinninmont from Chatham House and Dr. Neil Patrick from the Royal United Services Institute.
(Watch the session here)
The committee itself consists of 11 members from the 3 major political parties, with all but one attending the hearing. Those present included Sir. Menzies Campbell MP, former Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ann Clwyd MP who has been a long standing supporter of reform in Bahrain, Rory Stewart MP an expert in middle eastern affairs and others
The inquiry, announced in October 2012, is mandated to study British policy with regards to the two Gulf States, whether its interests are being met and more generally what kind of a role it is playing. At the start of the hearing the Chair of the Committee, Richard Ottaway MP, outlined that this was not an inquiry into human rights abuses in these countries but very specifically UK policy.
With that in mind the first two individuals to answer questions were Ms. Kinninmont and Dr. Patrick, to look at UK’s role in the Gulf more generally, as well as specific to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain with Ms. Kinninmont focusing more on Bahrain whilst Dr. Patrick answered predominantly on Saudi.
In their opening remarks both highlighted the complexities of British policy in the Gulf in balancing interests, moral values and security concerns. Ms Kinninmont argued it is a difficult time for UK diplomats, but also a time of “heightened sensitivities amongst Gulf rulers”, citing the examples of many who have been imprisoned for criticizing monarchs.
She said that Britain is not doing itself any favours if it pretends that all is fine in the Gulf and there are no pressures from below for change. Ms. Kinninmont mentioned the recent speech of the Crown Prince at the Manama Dialogue in which he chose to thank Britain over the US that UK is indeed Bahrain’s closest ally. She said that Britain was prepared to be critical of Bahrain during the first days of the crackdown in February and March 2011, but has since maintained the same level of strong relations, describing this as “puzzling” since the crackdown has continued since then.
Ms. Kinninmont said that Bahrain has responded in two ways to criticism from the UK, neither of which could be said to be positive. The first was to make threats about cancelling defence cooperation with Britain and the other has been to promise reforms. With this she mentioned the BICI as a positive step, although now Britain is finding itself “in a dilemma as the story of reform is wearing thin.” Ms. Kinninmont was suggesting that whilst Bahrain has promised to deliver on reforms, little has been done, leaving UK in a difficult position with regards to this.
She concluded her opening remarks by saying Britain is giving the impression that it is willing to do business as usual with Bahrain.
A strong theme of the questions from the MP’s was to what extent the UK can actually have leverage over Bahrain to reform. Dr. Patrick was keen to stress that the strength UK has over Bahrain should not be “overestimated” arguing that there are “limits to what we can do”.
Although Dr. Patrick downplayed the ability UK has to influence events he also noted that the opposition are looking to the UK for support and therefore the UK should “do more of the same” in as much as it engages with all sides.
Ms. Kinninmont showed similar sentiments although she later on argued that pressure on Bahrain not to ban the mainstream opposition party was evidence of the ability of the international community having power to influence events in Bahrain.
She also went on to say that there is no scenario in which UK statements over Bahrain should be purely symbolic, in response to a question from Rory Stewart MP. He was questioning over whether there was any evidence that UK pressure to reform has ever worked, with Ms. Kinninmont answering that the UK cannot tell Bahrain what it should look like, but at the same time the UK needs to ensure it is not assisting with repression.
Ms Kinninmont did, however, argue that UK needs to be less sensitive to the push back from the Bahrain Government where there is the need to be critical. She gave the example of the Ambassador to Bahrain justifying the stripping of citizens by reportedly saying that this was something the UK does and Bahrain is entitled to do. She said this gives little confidence to the people, adding that there is a younger generation in Bahrain who are less and less seeing UK as a force for good with regards to Bahrain.
She also suggested that power-sharing is an area that can be a start for moving the country forwards, with the mainstream opposition supporting the notion of a constitutional monarchy, with an elected Government.
An area which saw full agreement from all 4 of those giving evidence was on the question of Iran They were all asked if Iran was influencing events in Bahrain with all claiming that the Governments of both Saudi and Bahrain have over exaggerated it, with there being no real evidence.
Dr. Patrick said the rhetoric from the opposition is “inclusive and nationalistic” and that it seems to be genuine and if Iran ever had influence it is now all gone.
This was echoed later by Robin Lamb by saying it is more likely that Bahrain’s Shiites look towards Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq than the clergy in Iran. Sir Roger Tomkys agreed saying there has always been a tendency to blame Iran for everything in the Gulf, but there is little evidence to support those claims.
The two former ambassadors discussed their periods in Bahrain and were asked how well they engaged with the opposition. Sir Roger pointed out that it was
not possible for him to have an active relationship with the opposition during the 80’s as the announced opposition was exiled out of the country. Mr. Lamb said he did meet with opposition members and noted that he had come under attack from some loyalist MP’s for meeting with Al Wefaq.
There was discussion about the relationship between Saudi and Bahrain with most agreeing that the two are heavily linked and the Saudis are deeply concerned about allowing reform inside Bahrain. However Sir Roger did say that there is the space for some slower reforms to take place that could have the backing from Saudi Arabia.
There was little major controversy in this opening session with each individual refusing to go too far one way or another.
Jane Kinninmont suggested there was scope for Britain to exert more influence over Bahrain and that the UK should be stronger in not fearing the backlash from Bahrain to criticism.
Dr. Neil Patrick was less positive about the ability of Britain to influence events in Bahrain expressing that there should be no drastic change in policy towards Bahrain.
Sir Roger Tomkys was clear that Bahrain needs to be stable going into the future and he believes that can only be achieved through sustaining the current Royal Family. However he added that does not mean the UK does not have a strong interest in reform and change and that should be furthered “by any means we can”.
Robin Lamb expressed similar ideas saying there was scope for the opposition and the Government to work out a solution, with dialogue being “the safest way forward.”
The session seemed to express that overall there was the real interest of Britain to see changes in the Gulf but what that should look like should be for the people of those countries to decide.