The sixth and final session of the Foreign Affair’s Committee’s on the UK’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain was held today.
The first witness in this session was Dr Andrew Murrison MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Security Strategy. He was questioned as to the morality of the UK-Saudi Arabian relationship in relation to the fact that Saudi Arabia ranks as one of the top countries for concern regarding human rights violations. Asked if defence sales were being used as a bargaining chip, Dr Murrison replied that they were not and that they made up an important part of British-Saudi Arabian defence arrangements.
He was further asked if the UK has investigated the use of British equipment in suppressing Bahraini protests, to which he said that he had been “happy ot ifnd” that the BICI report “exonerated” the Peninsula Shield for, to which British arms had been sold to, from the human rights violations committed in Bahrain.
It was raised in the session that the Bahraini foreign minister has visited the UK in 2012 to sign a new British-Bahraini defence cooperation accord. Dr Murrison was asked to comment on the accord and its details, but refused to on the basis that he was not prepared to and that it would be an infringement of the confidentiality under which it was signed. In his closing statements, Dr Murrison affirmed that “Human rights runs through the very fabric of what we do.”
The second witness to be heard was Alistair Burt MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, alongside Jon Davies, Director, North Africa and Gulf and Sarah Macintosh, Director, Defence and International Security, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Alistair Burt assured the committee, as Murrison had, that “Human rights are at the heart of our foreign policy.” Asked whether the Foreign & Commonwealth Office had got the balance between their commitment to human rights and their commitment to security and economic interests right, Alistair Burt argued that they were doing their best but that opinion on how balanced the UK Government is changes in the subjective opinions of others.
He argued that the British Government respects the traditions and way things are done in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, but that they also would not stand by as torture and human rights infringements are committed. He raised as an example the private and public admonishments of violence against protesters made to Bahrain in 2011, and used this public session as an example where he would not shy away from admitting the problems with Bahrain and its respect for human rights.
The committee also heard Burt’s statements regarding British embassies’ language skills – they have been behind the curve in Arab countries in recent years, but are being improved – and the visa system – it is constantly being refined so that Saudis and other Gulf nationalities can more easily visit the UK and contribute as students and business people.
On the subject of counter terrorism in Saudi Arabia, Burt was asked how the UK handles human rights violations in this area. He stated that they do make enquiries about the sources of information to see if testimonials had been gained through illegal means (torture or otherwise), but that he is not in a position to personally know how the enquiries are carried through, as he is “not personally involved” in counter terrorism issues.
Regarding human rights violations, Alistair Burt made it clear that “Saudi Arabia is a country of concern” but that Bahrain is not, as the government there is seeking a peaceful dialogue with the opposition. “If the UK wanted to pull punches on Saudi Arabia,” he told the committee, “it would not be a country of concern”.
One member of the committee raised the issue that the close British relationship with Iran, and the refusal to allow that country to be part of the solution to Syria’s crisis due to its current role as a cause of its problem, hampers the peace process in that country. Alistair Burt stated that he didn’t think that this relationship was “causing issues”.
On Bahrain, Alistair Burt stated that the UK is “committed on assisting Bahrain in implementing the BICI recommendations.” Asked why Britain doesn’t take a harder stance against the Bahraini government to generate motivation for reforms, he said that “I don’t think we help the relationship” with threats.
Committee member Sir John Stanley repeatedly pressed Alistair Burt regarding the role of British military weapons in the suppression of British activists. He pointed out that the GCC Peninsula Shield force, to whom British military vehicles were sold to, defended key instalments across Bahrain, thus allowing the Bahraini military and police forces to spend their energy aggressively attacking peaceful protesters and torturing them. Burt acknowledged the point Sir Stanley was making but called the link “tenuous”. He further suggested that the problems which led to the human rights violations of 2011, which he did not deny happened, were there before the Peninsula Shield entered the country and that the violations would have likely happened without the Shield’s involvement.
Regarding Iran, Alistair Burt stated that he thinks Iran could pose a “serious threat” to Bahrain. He rejected the idea that they instigated the protest movements of February 2011 and criticised those who would blame Iran for all of Bahrain’s internal problems. However he did acknowledge that Iran did have its hands in Bahrain, that it was attempting to take advantage of the situation there, and that it is further subversive element that is not helping the dialogue between state and opposition.
One committee member asked whether the National Dialogue in Bahrain had broken down, to which Burt stated that the process has been “stop-and-start” but had not come to a stop. He commended it as a thing unique to Bahrain in the Gulf.