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UK must better explain approach Saudi Arabia and Bahrain relations

22 November 2013

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 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.

UK's reputation

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.

Bahrain's reputation

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.

Chair's Comments

Rt Hon Richard Ottaway MP, Chairman of the Committee 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.”

Further information

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