British support for the Saudi intervention in Bahrain

An edited extract from Secret Affairs

Saudi Arabia and the utility of intervention

Whitehall’s long-standing special relationship with the theocratic rulers in Riyadh has been enhanced by the new coalition government at a time when evidence continues to emerge on the extent of Saudi funding of terrorism and when the Saudis have taken drastic measures to clamp down on democracy in Arabia. Britain’s alliance with the House of Saud has also taken on new importance with the coalition government’s announcement of deepened relations with the Gulf states. The new government’s Gulf initiative, aiming to enhance trade and investment with countries such as Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, has resulted in a string of meetings with the region’s autocratic rulers and constant apologias for their rejection of democracy, but have been ignored by the mainstream media.

As noted in chapter 18, Saudi Arabia has long been the most significant source of funds for radical Islamic and terrorist causes around the world. A secret cable written by US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in December 2009, revealed in late 2010 by wikileaks, noted that ‘donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide’ and that ‘Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT [Laskhar-e-Toiba], and other terrorist groups, including Hamas, which probably raise millions of dollars annually from Saudi sources’. The cable added that ‘it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority’ and that ‘Riyadh has taken only limited action’ to interrupt the flow of money to terrorist groups which have launched attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Yet not only Saudi Arabia, but also other Gulf states were recognised in the cable as being the source of terrorist funding. The Kuwaiti regime of Emir Sabah al-Sabah ‘has demonstrated a willingness to take action [against terrorist financing] when attacks target Kuwait’, the cable noted, but ‘has been less inclined to take action against Kuwait-based financiers and facilitators plotting attacks outside of Kuwait’. Thus ‘al-Qaida and other groups continue to exploit Kuwait both as a source of funds and as a key transit point’. Donors in the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, ‘have provided financial support to a variety of terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups, including Hamas’. The cable added that ‘the UAE’s role as a growing global financial centre, coupled with weak regulatory oversight, makes it vulnerable to abuse by terrorist financiers and facilitation networks’.

Finally, Qatar ‘has adopted a largely passive approach to cooperating with the US against terrorist financing’ and its overall level of counter-terrorism cooperation with the US ‘is considered the worst in the region’. Terrorist groups were said to exploit Qatar as a fundraising locale and ‘although Qatar’s security services have the capability to deal with direct threats and occasionally have put that capability to use, they have been hesitant to act against known terrorists out of concern for appearing to be aligned with the US and provoking reprisals.’ A US Congressional Research Service report has noted ‘possible support for al-Qaida by some Qatari citizens, including members of Qatar’s large ruling family’.

The states listed in Clinton’s cable are those with which the British coalition government has recently announced a significant deepening of relations. In October 2010, for example, the Queen welcomed the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh al-Thani, to Windsor Castle. During the visit, a joint statement by Cameron and al-Thani noted that Qatar and Britain ‘enjoy a special defence relationship’ underpinned by a Defence Cooperation Arrangement signed in 2006, involving British military training of the Qatari armed forces in Qatar and Britain. It also noted that Qatar has a diverse range of investments in Britain and is a major supplier of energy, providing 11 per cent of Britain’s gas demand. As regards Kuwait, David Cameron announced in February 2011 the creation of a UK-Kuwait Trade and Investment Task Force, a commitment to double trade to $4 billion a year by 2015, and the signature of a memorandum of understanding on trade and technical cooperation. The Kuwait Investment Authority has its overseas headquarters in London and has invested some £150 billion over the last fifty years, the majority of it in Britain. The Gulf states including Saudi Arabia now account for around half of all British arms sales and the government estimates that they will spend around $100 billion on ‘defence and security’ technology over the next five years.

Along with these contacts have come extreme British apologias for the Gulf regimes’ political orientations. Governments which Britain opposes are simply told by Ministers to adopt democracy. When it comes to allied regimes, however, notably those in the Gulf, a large amount of latitude is allowed. A standard formula, as outlined by David Cameron in a speech to the Kuwait National Assembly in February 2011, runs as follows:

‘It is not for me, or for governments outside the region, to pontificate about how each country meets the aspirations of its people. It is not for us to tell you how to do it, or precisely what shape your future should take. There is no single formula for success, and there are many ways to ensure greater, popular participation in Government. We respect your right to take your own decisions, while offering our goodwill and support’.

These words can be expected to be received gratefully by Gulf leaders keen to stave off the threat of democracy. At other times, British ministers have convinced themselves that Kuwait – run by the al-Sabah family since the mid-eighteenth century – is already a democratic society. For example, during his visit in February 2011, Cameron referred in a press conference with the Kuwaiti prime minister to ‘small and democratic countries like Kuwait’. He also mentioned the ‘gradual development of a liberal democratic society that you are overseeing, the vital steps you’re taking on your own journey to democracy’. In fact, although Kuwait allows elections to its National Assembly, real power lies in the hands of the Emir and the prime minister, who is appointed by the Emir and not accountable to parliament, which has extremely limited powers.

Sultan Qaboos of Oman, meanwhile, has been in power since a British coup installed him in 1970, and became the world’s longest serving ruler once Qadafi was overthrown, a fact not advertised by Whitehall. Qaboos’ regime, a major British ally, was described as ‘enlightened and effective’ by then International Development Minister Alan Duncan in October 2010. In reality, Oman is an absolute monarchy with almost all power concentrated in the hands of the Sultan, who serves as chief of state and head of government, supreme commander of the armed forces, prime minister, and minister of defence, foreign affairs and finance, in addition to personally appointing all other ministers.

But Saudi Arabia remains the biggest prize for British patronage and is by far Britain’s largest export market outside the OECD, while the UK is world’s second largest foreign investor in the country. A further Freedom of Information Act request by the author, this time asking the Foreign Office for its assessment of terrorist funding emanating from Saudi Arabia, was met with the response that such ‘disclosure of information is likely to prejudice relations between the UK and Saudi Arabia’. Whitehall’s knowledge of Saudi sponsorship of terrorism can be taken for granted, however. The real concern was described by Foreign Office Minister Lord Howell, who told an audience in Riyadh that ‘Saudi Arabia is the heart of world oil production that underpins global markets’, located in ‘a region which contains the planet’s largest oil reserves’. Thus, in the words of the Foreign Office website, ‘Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom have long been close allies, and the breadth and depth of Britain’s relationship with the Kingdom continues to increase’.

The website adds that the two countries have ‘a shared interest in ensuring regional stability’. ‘Stability’ here is understood as ongoing British/Saudi opposition to democracy in the region and the long-standing British backing – documented in previous chapters – of Saudi Arabia’s role of superpower on the Arabian peninsula to ward off threats to continued feudal rule. One case in point is the Saudi intervention in Yemen in November 2009, when its air force bombarded the north-western Yemeni region of Sa’dah to counter the Shia Houthi insurgent group; the action was undertaken in support of Yemeni government forces which had earlier launched a military offensive against the Houthis called ‘scorched earth’. The Saudis used British-supplied Tornado fighter-bombers, damaging or destroying civilian buildings such as market places, mosques, petrol stations, small businesses, a primary school, a power plant, a health centre and dozens of houses and residential buildings. Amnesty International commented that the Saudis ‘carried out indiscriminate attacks and other violations of international humanitarian law’ that resulted in hundreds and possibly thousands of civilian deaths.

But the Saudi role as regional policeman and counter to democracy is principally evidenced in its intervention in Bahrain in March 2011. Then, 1,000 Saudi troops with armoured support crossed the narrow causeway into Bahrain in support of the Bahraini King’s call to help put down pro-democracy demonstrations. Beginning in mid-February, thousands of Bahrainis had set up a camp city at the Pearl Roundabout in the capital, Manama, mirroring the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. They had, however, more limited demands than their Egyptian counterparts, calling for greater political participation essentially under a constitutional monarchy, a legitimate parliament, free and fair elections, an end to corruption and equality for the long-repressed Shia majority in Bahrain.

The Saudi intervention in Bahrain was backed by Britain at the same time as ministers were claiming, with regard to their campaign in Libya, that ‘it is for the people of Libya to choose their own government’. Moreover, it is likely that the British gave the Saudis and Bahrainis a green light for the intervention. Only five days before, on 9 March, as protests were growing in the country, David Cameron’s National Security Adviser, Peter Ricketts, and Chief of Defence Staff General David Richards, met King Hamid al-Khalifa in Bahrain. ‘Ricketts paid tribute to Bahrain’s major and remarkable strides on the path of reform and modernization thanks to the royal reform project initiated by HM the King’, one Bahraini news report noted. The British meeting was followed by one by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, on 11 March. Evidence has also emerged from two diplomatic sources at the UN that the Saudis were given a green light to intervene in Bahrain by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in exchange for a ‘yes’ vote by the Arab League for the no-fly zone over Libya.

Saudi forces entered Bahrain in a convoy of British-made armoured personnel carriers known as Tacticas, which were manufactured by the British company, BAE Systems. Saudi Arabia’s National Guard, trained by Britain since 1964 to ensure the defence of the House of Saud, was part of the Saudi force and British training in internal security over many years would no doubt have helped develop tactics to suppress the popular uprising in Bahrain. Other British-supplied equipment available to the Bahrainis included tear gas and crowd control ammunition, equipment for the use of aircraft cannons, assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles and sub-machine guns, all of which had been supplied in 2010.

Following the intervention, Amnesty International noted that ‘the Bahraini government launched a clearly planned and orchestrated crackdown using excessive force to suppress protests calling for political change and reform’, while ‘security forces used shotguns, rubber bullets, tear gas and, in some cases, live ammunition, sometimes at very close range, and in circumstances where the use of weapons… could not be justified’. Over 600 civilians were detained without charge in unknown conditions, including doctors, lawyers, human rights workers, academics and youth bloggers. At the same time, some 2,000 Shia workers who stayed away from work during the unrest were sacked without any unemployment insurance while teachers and students were expelled from schools and universities. Two months after the intervention, Amnesty was still documenting the government’s ‘relentless crackdown on human rights’, as emergency powers were used to arrest people without judicial warrant and detain incommunicado protesters and political activists, while some detainees had been tortured or ill-treated following arrest. Amnesty also noted ‘suspicions that the whole of the majority Shia population of Bahrain is being punished for the February-March protests’.

British acquiescence in the intervention was entirely predictable given that the coalition government had announced its intention to back the Bahraini regime soon after it won the election in May 2010. ‘We began, from our first day in office, a major, long-term effort to intensify Britain’s links with the countries of the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf – in diplomacy, trade, education, health and civil society – as part of a distinctive British policy towards the region’, William Hague said later, in February 2011; he added that ‘I reaffirmed last week to leaders in Bahrain and the UAE that we are committed to intensifying our engagement on foreign policy.’ In July 2010, the King of Bahrain visited David Cameron at Number 10 Downing Street and the two leaders ‘agreed to expand existing co-operation between their countries across the board including on culture, education, defence and security, trade and investment and foreign policy’. Five months later, in December 2010, the Foreign Secretary welcomed the Crown Prince of Bahrain to London, ‘underlining the coalition government’s commitment to building its relationship with Bahrain’, the Foreign Office stated. The latter’s report of the meeting added that Hague ‘noted concerns raised ahead of the elections, regarding implementation of the electoral law and allegations of restrictions on campaigning, and welcomed the positive response of the Bahraini Government and their assurances that they would continue progress on political reform’.

In the early hours of 17 February 2011, the Bahraini police moved into the Pearl Roundabout area of Manama to clear the encampment of protesters and in a brutal crackdown left five dead and over 200 injured. Foreign Secretary Hague said that he conveyed the ‘concern’ of the British government to Bahrain and ‘urge[d] all sides to avoid violence and the police to exercise restraint’ while praising the regime for recent ‘important political reforms’ and ‘the long friendship between Bahrain and the UK’. On the same day, the British government announced it was reviewing its ‘recent licensing decisions’ concerning military exports to Bahrain. Two days after the Saudi intervention in March the Prime Minister’s website stated that David Cameron personally telephoned the King of Bahrain calling on him to end the violent suppression of street protests and to ‘respect the right to peaceful protest and respond to the legitimate concerns of the Bahraini people’. Yet British policy explained by William Hague was decidedly more conciliatory. Hague told the Foreign Affairs Committee that he spoke to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud on 14 March and that:

‘He assured me that these [Saudi forces in Bahrain] were for the defence of installations and the external defence of Bahrain, while it would be the Bahraini forces and police that tried to restore order in their own country. So that is where we are on Saudi Arabia.’

Hague added that he had been assured by Bahraini Foreign Minister, Sheikh Khalid al-Khalifa, that the Bahraini government ‘remained absolutely determined to continue that process of dialogue’ and repeated the mantra that ‘there are casualties on both sides’. Other statements by Hague did condemn the Bahraini use of force but were always qualified by urging restraint on ‘all sides’ or praise for the regime’s supposed offer of dialogue with opposition groups.

Faced with massive international criticism of his government’s brutal crushing of protest, the King of Bahrain instituted a commission of enquiry into the events of February and March. Released in November 2011, the report concluded that the security forces had used ‘excessive force’ and had tortured detainees and killed 35 people. In early December, however, David Cameron once again met King al-Khalifa in Downing Street. According to the prime minister’s office, Cameron ‘emphasised the importance of strengthening respect for human rights in Bahrain’ and ‘urged the King to deliver swiftly on the commitments he has made to implement the recommendations from the Inquiry’. At the same time, however, ‘the leaders also discussed how they could boost trade co-operation between the two countries and the opportunities for British business to invest in Bahrain, particularly in the infrastructure sector’. While Cameron was hosting al-Khalifa, hundreds of people wrongfully detained or convicted following unfair trials were still languishing in Bahraini jails while those dismissed from the posts had received no signs of being reinstated.