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House of Commons: UK right to maintain strong relationship with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, but must work harder to explain its approach at home and abroad


House of Commons- Foreign Affairs Committee

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain remain key partners for the UK but relations are complicated by the differences between our societies and the pressing need for reform in the Gulf. In reality, the UK is getting the balance of its interests and values broadly right in the region, but it is failing to explain its approach to the public, according to a report published today by the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Given the growing role of other important partners for the Gulf, the UK’s influence in the region should not be over-estimated or taken for granted. The UK will need to work harder in the future to maintain its influence and secure its interests.

The report says the Government has rightly emphasised the historic warm relations between the UK government and the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. But there is worrying evidence that this warmth is not shared by the public in Saudi Arabia and the UK, and that the UK’s reputation in Bahrain has also suffered since 2011. The Government must make its public profile and reputation a more central part of its work in the Gulf and ensure that constructive relationships are built with a wide cross section of society if it is to remain a principal partner in the future.                                                    

The Government must consider how it can best support much-needed economic and political reforms, and how it can explain its policies and point to specific achievements when speaking to the public at home and in the Gulf. In Saudi Arabia, the Government must convert its promising steps so far in providing assistance on legal and judicial reform into solid and reportable programmes. In Bahrain, it must work to secure access for NGOs and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, and press more strongly for swifter implementation of reforms.

The report recognises that Saudi Arabia’s role as a key buyer for the UK defence industry is controversial. But it finds that, with other competitors in the market, there is little to suggest that ending defence sales from the UK would have any positive effect, and might actually reduce the UK’s leverage and its ability to provide training programmes.

The aggressive way in which the Bahraini security forces handled events in 2011 has deeply damaged Bahrain’s reputation. The recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) were sensible and the Bahraini government’s failure fully to implement them is inexplicable. The Government must press Bahrain to move forward urgently with reform, and if no greater progress is seen, it should designate Bahrain a Country of Concern in its next human rights report.

Committee Chairman Rt Hon Richard Ottaway MP said:

The UK’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain require a sensitive and nuanced approach, taking into account our long history of relations and shared interests, as well as the differences between our societies. The Government is correct to focus on what is constructive and achievable by working with the leadership in both states, but it cannot simply ignore the charges of hypocrisy and criticism levelled against the UK. The FCO must find new ways to explain the UK’s approach, to highlight its successes, and to present a more coherent strategy of engagement with these important allies.”

“The Committee heard powerful accounts of very differing experiences in Bahrain, from across the political and social spectrum. We are deeply saddened by the impression of a society that is becoming increasingly polarised.  It is not our place to adjudicate on the events of 2011 or how they should be resolved: it is a matter for the Bahrainis. However, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry recommendations were accepted by all sides and the UK Government must continue to press for urgent progress on the implementation of these reforms, as well as encourage dialogue and reconciliation.”

“Although there are undeniably many serious human rights concerns in these states, there is also some cause to be optimistic about reform. King Abdullah has made significant progress on reforms in Saudi Arabia, particularly on women’s rights. Although this starts from a very low base, progress should be recognised and encouraged. In Bahrain, the Crown Prince is doing valuable work in promoting reform and reconciliation, and the UK is right to support his efforts. Nonetheless, the Government must be vigilant in monitoring progress in both states and be prepared to respond robustly where reforms stall or are reversed.”


Committee Membership is as follows:

Rt Hon Richard Ottaway (Chair) (Croydon South), Conservative; Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay), Conservative; Rt Hon Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife), Liberal Democrat; Rt Hon Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley), Labour; Mike Gapes (Ilford South), Labour; Mark Hendrick (Preston), Labour; Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock), Labour; Andrew Rosindell (Romford), Conservative; Mr Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw), Labour; Rt Hon Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling), Conservative; Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border), Conservative

Specific Committee Information:  Tel: 020 7219 6105; email: FAC@parliament.uk

Media Information:  Alex Paterson: patersona@parliament.uk; 020 7219 1589 or 07917 488488

Committee Website:  www.parliament.uk/facom 

Watch committees and parliamentary debates online:  www.parliamentlive.tv 


Excerpts from the Report:

UK support for action by NGOs and International Organisations

212.  In addition to bilateral dialogue and pressure, the UK has also supported international action in the United Nations, for example. In its written submission, Human Rights Watch emphasised the importance of these mechanisms and recommended that the UK:

Should take a strong and consistent position on rights abuses in these countries in dedicated forums like the UN Human Rights Council. It should press all of these countries to allow regular and unfettered access to UN special mechanisms (rapporteurs, for example) and international human rights organisations.[403

The UK participated in Bahrain's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council in 2012 and made recommendations for further reforms by Bahrain. However, in April 2013 Bahrain postponed a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. The visit, which had been postponed once before, was seen as an important part of the reforms and improvements Bahrain had committed to make as part of its UPR. The Special Rapporteur, Juan Mendez, criticised the decision by the Bahraini authorities, stating:

This is the second time that my visit has been postponed, at very short notice. It is effectively a cancellation as no alternative dates were proposed nor is there a future road map to discuss.[404

A spokesperson in the FCO told the BBC that the decision was "disappointing", and said then FCO minister Alistair Burt, had raised the issue with the Bahraini government "stressing the importance we and the international community place on the visit".[405]

213.  We recommend that the Government make securing an invitation to the UN Special Rapporteur on torture a priority in its next Joint Working Group with the Bahraini authorities.

214.  The UK is right to be understanding of Bahrain's dilemmas. For its region, prior to the protests it was liberal and reforming, and there is not an easy answer to its internal political issues. However, many of Bahrain's problems are of its Government's own making. The UK must press with greater urgency and force for Bahrain to implement the BICI reforms, engage seriously in dialogue and welcome UN mechanisms in order to re-establish good faith in its intentions. If there is no significant progress by the start of 2014, the Government should designate Bahrain as a 'country of concern' in its Human Rights Report.



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