The Telegraph: Britain’s decision to open a major naval base in Bahrain despite concerns over the country’s human rights record has been met with protests by opposition groups and human rights activists.
Hundreds of protesters were filmed marching through the town of Sitra, a Shia opposition stronghold, calling for the removal of the British ambassador, Iain Lindsay, after the decision was announced.
Activists said Bahrain’s decision to largely fund the base was a “reward” for Britain’s recent silence over the jailing of opponents to the Sunni monarchy.
International groups also objected to the decision. “As Bahrain pursues brutal crackdown, what better time for UK to build military base there?” said Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch’s executive director.
The decision to reopen Britain’s first permanent base “East of Suez” since the drawdown of Empire was announced by Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, on the sidelines of the Manama Dialogue, a conference organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, on Saturday.
He said Britain would have to take up a greater role in helping Middle East states remain stable as the United States “pivoted” towards the Asia-Pacific region. Britain pulled its military out of the Gulf in 1971, a decision that the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, said led to 40 years of “short-termist” thinking about its policy in the Middle East.
The base at Port Mina Salman, which will be expanded to be a permanent facility for Britain’s Royal Navy, including its new aircraft carriers, will be largely funded by Bahrain.
The monarchy in 2011 violently repressed a pro-democracy opposition movement led by the country’s Shia majority, and continues to jail human rights campaigners. It accuses them of supporting terrorism and being backed by Iran, but Zainab al-Khawaja, the daughter of a Shia activist serving a life sentence for his part in the 2011 uprising, was handed a three-year jail term only on Thursday for ripping up a picture of King Hamad.
The protest in Sitra on Saturday night was broken up by police firing tear gas, but there were no reported injuries.
Video showed a line of men and women - segregated - marching through the streets holding Bahraini flags and a photograph of Mr Lindsay with a gag over his mouth saying: “Shut up Iain Lindsay”.
The British ambassador to Bahrain at the time of the uprising, James Bowden, fell foul of government supporters for meeting opposition leaders. Mr Lindsay has been vilified by those same opposition groups for his perceived support for the government.
Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, who is currently on bail for posting “offensive tweets”, said Mr Lindsay’s statements sounded as if they came from the government itself.
He contrasted Britain’s role with that of the United States, which also maintains a major base for its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain but which has been overtly critical of the country’s rulers, including over the jailing of Ms Khawaja.
In a major diplomatic rift, the authorities ordered the US’s assistant secretary of state for human rights, Tom Malinowski, to leave the country in July after he met the leader of the opposition Wefaq party.
“We have been struggling for many years and the British government has always taken the side of the oppressive regime and all the dictators in the Gulf region,” Mr Rajab said.
The House of Commons foreign affairs select committee criticised Britain’s attitude to Bahrain in a report last month. “We see little or no evidence that Bahrain has made enough progress in implementing political reform and safeguarding human rights, and we believe that the FCO should have bitten the bullet and designated Bahrain as a country of concern,” it concluded.
However, senior officials in Bahrain pointed to last month’s election, which recorded a voter turn-out of 52 per cent despite an opposition boycott. One official close to the Crown Prince claimed to The Telegraph that increasing number of Shia were supporting the “reform process” which he was overseeing.