Dining with despots

Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa recently secured an invite to Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee luncheon.

According to the Daily Mail, the Queen invited King Hamad because it “would have been very rude to have left anyone off of the list.” Of course, the Queen would not want to suffer the embarrassment of singling out one despot, so she’s invited them all.

Bahrain’s government has been working overtime to revamp their public image after last year’s brutal crackdown on popular protests left a rather inconvenient stain on its international reputation. While paying lip service to human rights and reform, unfulfilled promises have only brewed tension in what have now become almost daily face-offs between disillusioned protesters and security forces.

It seems that the tiny kingdom does not have time to answer popular demands for reforms, after all, there are air shows to organise and a Grand Prix to hold. The United Kingdom said they would push Bahrain to implement recommendations made by the Bahrain Independent Commission for Inquiry (BICI) last November. In light of the country’s deteriorating situation, a friendly invitation to lunch only sends the wrong message, and shows an unwillingness to push where it actually counts.

The royal family is no stranger to controversial invitations. Bahrain’s Crown Prince declined an invitation to the royal wedding last year, and only months before the start of Syria’s violent unrest, a lavish dinner held by the Queen was attended by none other than the father-in-law of the country’s murderous dictator, Bashar Al-Assad.

The Bahraini King’s invitation was not an oversight — the guests at state events are cleared with the Foreign Office, as MP Denis Macshane pointed out yesterday. Invitations to state events only damage the credibility of Ministerial promises to place pressure on repressive regimes.

Bahrain’s violent suppression of protests sparked by last year’s Arab Spring was met with international outrage. Before an external body could step in, King Hamad commissioned the Bahrain Independent Commission for Inquiry to investigate whether or not human rights were violated in the months following the crackdown. The commission was met with scepticism from activists within the country. Still, evidence was gathered and the final report was released in November last year.

The report confirmed many of the violations documented by local activists during the crackdown. At a ceremony held at his palace, King Hamad expressed a commitment to implementing the committee’s recommendations, and called the report a “historic opportunity for Bahrain to deal with matters that are both serious and urgent”. In the months following the report’s release, committees were formed and international experts brought in, including disgraced assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, John Yates. The Bahraini government also enlisted Miami Chief of Police John Timoney to train security forces. Despite the government’s readiness to celebrate its commitment to transparency and human rights, the months following the report’s release have only shown a deteriorating situation. Well-known activist Abdulhadi Alkhawaja is currently serving a life sentence for his role in protests last year. He has been on hunger strike for over 60 days, and family members fear that he is close to dying. Calls for his release have been ignored, and instead, the government seems to be more concerned with ensuring that the controversial Formula One race go ahead as planned.

The aim here is clear: A slick new Bahrain that only looks like it values human rights in order to repair profitable international relationships.