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Saudi Arabia has said it is “insulted” by the announcement of a UK Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into the UK’s relationship with the Gulf states, in particular Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In a veiled threat to key trade deals, the country warned that it may “re-evaluate their country’s historic relations” with the UK in response. The inquiry has asked for responses on “how the UK can encourage democratic and liberalising reforms in Saudi Arabia”.
This probe was first announced unofficially by Ann Clwyd MP at an Index on Censorship Bahrain briefing in early September. Attending the briefing on human rights abuses and stalled efforts of reform was Maryam al-Khawaja, Acting President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR). Highlighting censorship and human rights abuses in her country, al-Khawaja said “the UK is to Bahrain what Russia is to Syria”.
In the briefing she pointed out that:
The UK government has made countless pledges to push on Bahrain to implement supposed reforms, but has yet to push forcefully on its partner where it counts…the country continues to perpetuate flagrant human rights violations.
The UK Foreign Office (FCO) regularly refers to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as “close friends”, “key allies” and “valuable trade partners”. Just yesterday as the inquiry furore was made public the FCO said: “Saudi Arabia is a key strategic partner in the region and one of the closest friends and allies”.
Clearly it is politically expedient to ignore the way Saudi Arabia ruthlessly constricts the freedom of its female population, censors much criticism of the ruling authorities and regularly breaks international human rights law in the way it treats its citizens. Bahrain, another ally, breaks up peaceful protests with teargas, birdshot and police brutality, locking up its citizens for such dreadful crimes as tweeting and “insulting the King”.
Throughout the recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, the UK government openly supported protests and revolutions that toppled dictators in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. However when the Bahraini people gathered at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama to voice their discontent they were met with a brutal crackdown by the Bahraini authorities aided by Saudi forces. Despite promises of reform this crackdown continues complete with numerous injured protesters, political prisoners, and claims of torture.
And the punishment by the UK government to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain? The UK signs a defence agreement with the Gulf Kingdom to “bolster Bahrain’s security with regards to its regional standing, as well as its internal stability” and remains silent on the issue of human rights abuses in the country.
Index calls upon the UK Foreign Office to live up to its international commitments on human rights and to put real and adequate pressure on Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to reform.
Index and the BCHR both welcome the announcement of this week’s inquiry and plan to submit evidence.
Annette Fisher is international programmes manager at Index