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Foreign Affairs - Minutes of EvidenceHC 88
Taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee
on Tuesday 22 January 2013
Richard Ottaway (Chair)
Mr Bob Ainsworth
Mr John Baron
Sir Menzies Campbell
Mr Frank Roy
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Jane Kinninmont, Senior Research Fellow, Chatham House, and Neil Partrick, Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: I welcome members of the public to the first evidence session for the Committee’s inquiry into UK relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. As this is the first session, may I take the opportunity to point something out to the wider public? There has been a considerable amount of press speculation that this is an inquiry into human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. It is not. It is, as set out in our terms of reference, a much wider inquiry, looking at the broad relationship between the United Kingdom and these two countries, how we effectively balance our interest, the extent to which the FCO’s Gulf initiative has met its objective, how we see Saudi Arabia as foreign policy partners, and much more. I hope that those who wish to divert the Committee’s attention will understand that we intend to stick very firmly to our terms of reference.
The first panel today is going to allow the Committee to consider the UK Government’s policies for the Gulf, their interests and relationships in the region generally, and their approach to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in particular. To help us in our deliberations we have Neil Partrick, associate fellow at RUSI, and Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow at Chatham House. I welcome you both. Jane, it is good to see you again. Dr Partrick, this is the first time we have met and I thank you for coming along. Is there anything you would like to say by way of an opening statement? I have a fairly general, gentle first question for you, unless you want to say something.
Neil Partrick: I should obviously keep it brief. I just want to say that there is a sense in the Gulf, and probably around Westminster and Whitehall, that the difficulty of marrying values and interests is, to some extent, partly being overcome. There is a sense in the Gulf that our traditional values are being more strongly asserted, although there is also a sense that they are not applied equally to all countries in the GCC area. They are aware of what I perceive, at least, to be a need on the part of HMG to be aware of a stronger desire for reform. I don’t mean profound, overwhelming change, but at least reform. I hope the Committee can think about what that actually entails in a number of instances in the region.
Alongside that, the Gulf states are very aware of the role that they play in very different British interests: counter-terrorism-al-Qaeda being emphasised by the Prime Minister as supposedly a fairly uniform threat throughout great swathes of Africa at the moment-and, indeed, containing and pressuring Iran.
Marrying those aspects is obviously a very difficult exercise. I would hope we can think about that, and about the difficulty of Gulf leaders, some of whom are quite aged and ailing-and even the younger ones-marrying their traditional coalitions, if you like, with the expectations of a more articulate, wired younger generation and, depending on which country in the region we are talking about, a more assertive political opposition.
So these are difficult waters for the British Government. Having said all that, I hope there is not any sense of panic. In broad terms, HMG is starting to align more closely its interests and values when it thinks about Gulf states rather than the wider Arab region. There are concerns about sustainability in terms of the political economy, particularly of Saudi Arabia, because of 18 million nationals. But let’s not panic: let’s not at the same time think we are facing imminent doom and disaster. Let’s think of the realities and some of the careful nuances as well.
Jane Kinninmont: I would like to start with a note about the sources of funding for my research, just in case there were any conflict of interest concerns. I wanted to highlight that. The Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, where I work, receives some funding from the UK Government for its research. We have also recently worked with the UAE Government on a conference. Some of my other colleagues at Chatham House also from time to time receive funding from the British Government and from Gulf Governments. It is a fairly boring thing to start with but I thought it was worth putting on the table.
Moving on to more substantive issues, I share with Neil the sense that certainly, it is a difficult time for diplomats. You guys also have a difficult job in assessing the complex relations with the Gulf. It has become increasingly hard over the last two years for any country or any movement to sketch out anything that begins to approach a consistent policy towards a Middle East that is increasingly politically diverse. Unfortunately, this is also a time of heightened sensitivity among the Gulf rulers. All the Gulf countries have imprisoned people in the last couple of years for insulting the ruler. They are also extremely sensitive to criticisms from their friends outside. But that said, Britain, as a tried and tested friend of the Gulf, will not be doing its allies any favours if it pretends that everything is fine and that these countries will be totally immune to the pressures that have built up elsewhere.
Diplomats on the ground will face a lot of push-back from Gulf Governments. But that needs to be weighed up against wider British strategic interests, including the credibility of attempts elsewhere in the region to show that the UK supports transitions to more open societies. In the case of Bahrain, it seems interesting that now Britain is probably Bahrain’s closest non-Arab ally. I think there was some self-congratulation about the fact that the crown prince selected the UK for particular praise in his speech at the Manama dialogue and pointedly did not mention the US. There are questions to be asked about whether we could be showing a bit more of a united front with the US, with European partners, when it comes to issues of reform, human rights and political inclusion.
It is also puzzling to see how the relationship has re-emerged so strongly when the relations were tested by the uprising and by the crack-down. Initially Britain was fairly critical of the violent response of the local police forces to the demonstrations. As you will be well aware, a number of defence export licences were withdrawn from companies who wanted to sell arms to Bahrain. But the Bahraini authorities responded strongly in two ways. The first was to push back, including the threat of cancelling defence co-operation with Britain in Bahraini territory. The second was to promise to reform. The Bahrain independent commission of inquiry presented a good opportunity for Britain to embrace what seemed to be a reform process, while also being able to deal with that push-back against some of its defence interests.
Now there is a dilemma, now that that story of reform is beginning to wear thin. When there have been backwards steps, there seems to be little or no response from the British Government. The overall impression that Britain is giving is that it is content to do business as usual, even if there is back-sliding on human rights abuses and even if there is, as there is currently, no process whatsoever of political dialogue designed to deal with any of the root causes of the uprising. I will stop there. I look forward to your questions.
Q2 Chair: May I take you back a bit and ask a very simple question: why is the Gulf important to us?
Jane Kinninmont: The Gulf has been very important to Britain since well before the discovery of oil. It is essential to bear in mind that the trade importance of these countries has very long roots in British history, and we have relationships and friendships that go back deeply into the 19th century. I believe that today, the GCC countries, as a combined market, are the seventh biggest export market for the UK. There are significant exports of both goods and services, and there is also very significant investment from some of the Gulf states, epitomised by the Shard here in London.
The UK sees the Gulf countries as important regional partners in dealing with the wider Arab world. Again, I think that questions have to be asked, because the Gulf countries are not necessarily representative of wider Arab public opinion, and they should not necessarily be our No. 1 go-to partners when trying to decide what is important for a country such as Egypt.
Neil Partrick: First, I should say that I am speaking in an entirely personal capacity, although I am an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. As Jane said, the Gulf has obviously been historically important to us. The role that Saudi Arabia plays in terms of its oil production capacity and its as yet not completely developed gas production capacity is particularly important.
The trouble with that sort of argument is it is a terrible cliché. Saddam Hussein, under enormous pressure from sanctions throughout the 1990s, periodically upset the oil market, but in general terms he was keen to sell his oil, for fairly obvious reasons, and we were rather keen for that oil to get to Jordan. Some of that oil, being a fungible commodity, entered the world market and supplied Americans, among others. All oil producers have to sell their product.
Saudi Arabia is a reasonable, pragmatic player within OPEC-that is perhaps the most important detail in terms of its energy role. It is neither a price hawk nor a price dove, and it is a de facto swing producer in the sense that it can affect the price of oil because of its sheer spare capacity. At least, it is at present. There are enormous questions about that going over the medium term, however, because of the amount of oil consumed domestically.
It is a big market. We have enormous defence sales in the Gulf region. There is intelligence co-operation. Perhaps that is overstated, but if it were withdrawn, it could affect us, particularly as we remain concerned about al-Qaeda and other jihadi concerns. In other areas, Saudi Arabia’s and the other Gulf states’ dynamism could potentially be overstated. On foreign policy, there was a period 10 years ago when there was enormous optimism about the role that Saudi Arabia could play in reinvigorating the peace process. For various reasons that I hope to go into in this session, it was not able to deliver. So the Gulf is important, but let’s not overstate it.
Q3 Chair: If at the end, Dr Partrick, you feel that we have not asked you the right questions to allow you to come back on that point, tell us. The British Government say that they are trying to re-energise their relationship with the Gulf states. How are they doing in the re-energising stakes?
Neil Partrick: Before the last election I was struck by the Conservative Opposition’s concern about giving more attention to a relationship that they felt was neglected. I don’t think the leaders of the GCC states actually did feel neglected, other than on the crucial issue of Iraq, where they felt their advice was somewhat disregarded. That is a fairly important exception to the general argument I am trying to put forward, but I certainly do not think they felt that their opinions were disregarded, or that there was any lack of attention or visits from Labour Government officials.
The Gulf initiative is an attempt to put on a more formal footing the interest that there is across Government Departments in further co-operation, trade, intelligence, defence, etc. with the GCC. That, it seems to me, is welcomed. But I had no sense that they felt in any particular way let down in the late 1990s and the 2000s. This was not in any sense the post-1968 environment, when Britain withdrew east of Suez. I do not think that the UK Government had a lot of catching up to do. But constantly, Gulf states will say that they need to be listened to-on Iraq in the past, and Iran now. It is a crucial relationship in that sense. In terms of containment and wider pressure on Iran, in the last 10 years, under the current and previous Governments, periodically they have felt that they have not always been as closely listened to as they should have been.
Jane Kinninmont: I think I’d agree that there is a fair amount of continuity. The Saudi king’s only state visit to the UK was under the previous Government. I am not sure there has been a drastic step change in the way the coalition Government have treated the Gulf counties.
Q4 Chair: How do the Gulf states see Britain, compared with France, Germany or even the United States? Do we compare favourably, or are we just plain different?
Neil Partrick: The cliché is, "You understand us. You have been around roughly for 150 years" in terms of formal strategic agreements with the ruling families of the small Gulf states, although not with Saudi Arabia. That is historically a more informal relationship in terms of degrees of partnership or even adversity if you think about our defensive concerns about protecting Iraq and Jordan and our small Gulf allies.
In broad terms, the cliché is, "You know the region. You have been around a long time." The Americans are in a sense Johnny-come-latelies. At the same time there is a recognition that our weight is not what it was. Harold Wilson said, "We are a world power, or we are nothing." Two or three years later, he withdrew east of Suez. We need some context. I don’t think, looking at the current Government’s relations with Europe, that they necessarily think we are the bridge, either, between America and Europe.
We are important; they value our role. They hope that we are listened to more closely by the Americans, French and Germans. They like us as interlocutors. It was not that long ago when British ambassadors were more important to the decisions of some rulers in the area than some of their own family members and senior officials, but I don’t think we should get carried away with that role and the difference that we could make.
Countries within the broader Arab world-Turkey and Egypt, for example-are now increasingly seen as the real players when it comes to the Gulf. We shouldn’t overstate what they can do to impact on reform or possibly upset our interests in the region. If there are limits to what they can do, there are definitely limits to what we can.
Jane Kinninmont: British relations in the Gulf are still profoundly affected by the legacy of the colonial period, which ended not so long ago in the Gulf. That has advantages and disadvantages. Because it was an area that was not directly colonised, relations between elites have been more mutually respectful and there are not the same issues of resentment that people might find in other colonies, at least not to the same level.
But of course, there are resentments. For instance, within Gulf ruling families there will often be particular sheikhly families or branches of the family that feel they were disadvantaged by the machinations of British political residents at the times they were in power. Often, those memories are brought up almost as fresh memories that people learn through oral history from their own families.
I think there can also be a tendency among civil society in the Gulf to over-estimate the role that Britain plays, as there is across the whole Middle East a tendency to over-estimate the role the US plays. There is a very big mismatch between the perception of British diplomats, who tend to say that our leverage is limited, there are new actors and it is not the colonial era any more, and the perceptions that exist among many of the people who think that behind the scenes there may still be Brits pulling strings.
Q5 Andrew Rosindell: Could you give us your views on how the Gulf states that are monarchies don’t seem to have been affected by the Arab Spring in quite the same way as other countries that had dictatorships? Do you feel that the system of monarchy has provided stability and prevented the types of revolution that we have seen elsewhere? Or is it just a stop-gap before it also happens in those countries?
Jane Kinninmont: I think this is massively overstated, I have to say. We need to remember that revolutions have not happened in most Arab countries, but nearly all of them have seen significant protests that have centred on similar issues relating to dignity, social justice and so on. There have been massive protests in four out of the six Gulf monarchies.
There have been significant protests in Jordan and Morocco, enough to spur those Governments to promise reforms. We have yet to see the results. The reasons why the uprising in Bahrain did not go further probably have more to do with the very strong external support that was available to its rulers and less to do with an intrinsic legitimacy of monarchy. That said, however, there should be options for monarchies to reform. There are plenty of case studies from elsewhere of monarchs who have been able to keep status, money and the role as Head of State, but give up some of the day-to-day decision-making powers. It is just not clear how much political will there is in the Gulf to follow that kind of route.
Neil Partrick: I think it is broader than that. If you look at countries such as Iraq, Syria and Egypt, there is a strong tradition of the role of the military within politics. That is a lesson learned by the different Gulf states. One of the reasons why we look at high spend on the one hand in the GCC, but actually fairly low numbers of regular recruits within the armed forces is because they have been traditionally very, very fearful of military intervention. In a sense, it is perhaps something about the judgment of monarchies that have created a degree of stability, with Bahrain being a big exception, but it is also about how they have also seen their interests as rulers in terms of keeping other interests out of the game.
The other element, particularly with Saudi Arabia of course, is not just that it is a monarchy, and one that requires a degree of consensus not just within the ruling family, but one that historically-it can be overstated and over-egged-had a partnership with the official clerical class, which has provided a degree of underpinning and legitimacy in historic terms for the Al Saud. That does not mean that every Saudi national feels content about that partnership and does not have criticism of the religious clerics, because they certainly do.
Monarchy is a part of the story. These are not party regimes. Historically, party politics has not played well in the Gulf-for all the fact that some merchants were rather enamoured with Gamal Abdul Nasser, for example, in the ’50s and ’60s. The more traditional system has played a useful role in bringing people outside of a narrow party clique, for example. It is also about policing the military. We should not lose sight of the fact that there have been pressures-Bahrain is the most obvious-and there have been degrees of demonstrations in Oman and even in a very modest sense publicly in Saudi Arabia.
Q6 Andrew Rosindell: Do you think that Britain’s support for democracy within the Middle East has affected the way that the Gulf states view Britain? Do you think that Britain could actually be in a unique position to play a part in helping them to evolve towards more of a democratic system, bearing in mind the history between our country and the Gulf states and, of course, the closeness between the monarchies of those countries and our own monarchy?
Neil Partrick: It means that Britain, given the historic relationship, is listened to, but their judgments ultimately will be about their own national political realities. That is obviously more the case with Saudi Arabia than it is in Bahrain, which, with its financial and security dependence on Saudi Arabia will clearly look to Riyadh as well. Generally speaking, throughout the Gulf, they are making their own national judgments. If we over-egg or over-do it-in Bahrain, we have had, as Jane said, some quite public push-back from sections of the ruling families, some of which are rather more powerful than, for example, the Crown Prince or even the King. We need to be careful how we do it. They will listen to us. We may get more of a special audience than some of our competing European nations, for example, but they will judge it in terms of where their interests lie.
Democratisation, broadly speaking, is not on anyone’s agenda. I do not think that it is clearly on our Prime Minister’s agenda, but we are more overtly asserting political participation. They are aware of that. In the case of Kuwait at least, they have been down this road an awfully long time-as compromised and as difficult as that exercise in participation is in Kuwait. In general terms, with Kuwait being at the far end of openness and Saudi Arabia and perhaps particularly the Emirates being at the lightest end in terms of openness and pluralism and political development, they will make their own judgments in terms of what they see as plausible in terms of their traditional alliances and how they see their security in the region being affected by it.
Jane Kinninmont: I am not sure to what extent we can say that Britain does support democracy in the Middle East, and I think more could be done actually to clarify where democracy fits into our agenda and what the difference is between maybe a preference for democracy and an active support of democratisation, which are obviously different things. But I think that, in the rest of the region, the support for transitions came after the fact in most of the cases, with Libya and Syria being exceptions. Certainly, some of the Gulf countries have been unnerved by what they see as a British readiness to engage with the Muslim Brotherhood in other parts of the region. I think that that plays into certain feelings of insecurity about how reliable Britain is as an ally in the longer term.
Mr Baron: I hear what you say about legitimacy, but it cannot be denied-or perhaps it is just a coincidence-that the Gulf states seem to have got through this period, from their point of view, better than a good number of other countries within the Arab spring. Can I press you a little bit on that? This is a part of the world where status is important. Legitimacy, I do not think, can be marginalised too much for all the reasons we know, but to what extent has economic largesse played a role in all of this? We remember the flash point; the catalyst for the Tunisian uprising, but the Gulf states seem to be in a better position from that point of view. To what extent did that play a role in seeing them through these troubled waters?
Jane Kinninmont: Sure. It is most pronounced in the wealthiest states; both the fact that the state has been able to increase spending and create new jobs and the fact that there is virtually no indigenous working class in any of the Gulf countries except, partially, Bahrain and Oman, contributes to political stability. It is interesting to study the case of Kuwait, which is a very wealthy country, but one that has a particularly highly educated and politically active population and a tradition of political debate. It has been seeing protests; Reuters estimated that the one on the eve of the election on 1 December was 50,000 people-strong, and this is a small country. The protests there are over issues of dignity, corruption, and also very specific political issues about the extent to which the Emir and his family should be able to take decisions versus elected representatives. Political culture is not the same in the other Gulf countries yet, but it could be a sign of things that could be coming in some of the others as well.
Neil Partrick: That is an undoubted point. It is no accident, aside from what we could argue about the majority-minority politics of Bahrain, that Bahrain is clearly one of the poorer members of the GCC; its oil revenue is very much dependent, essentially, on Saudi largesse, and they are not as generous as we might expect.
Oman saw public demonstrations. Again although, potentially it could develop more of its resources, it is not remotely in the same league as Qatar, the Emirates, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. But there is concern in all these countries about how the energy wealth, to the greater or lesser extent that it is possessed in these countries, is used by the leadership. Issues like dignity, which were being expressed on the streets of Tunis and Cairo, are being expressed not necessarily out on the streets but in very public forums-virtual and real-in the Gulf in terms of how that resource is used by ruling families. Issues of corruption are publicly expressed in the Kuwaiti Parliament and are fairly widely discussed, even in Saudi Arabia.
So, even if you are wealthy, there are questions about how you use that wealth. In Saudi Arabia, its wealth, in a sense, is nothing like Qatar’s because it has 18 million nationals as opposed to something like 250,000. In that context, publicly acknowledged unemployment in Saudi Arabia of 25%-that is publicly acknowledged: if you calculate from the recently introduced unemployment benefit, you get a figure of a quarter of the work force-raises some real questions over the medium term if economic largesse is a key prop of legitimacy.
Mr Baron: Related to that very briefly, Dr Partrick, there have been reports suggesting that the oil price has to for ever be ratcheted higher or the balance, if you like, has to be ratcheted higher for some of these Gulf states to maintain that economic largesse, given the economic forecast going forward. To what extent do you subscribe to that view, and do you have any figures in mind?
Neil Partrick: There are no such things as NGOs in Saudi Arabia, so strikingly, an investment bank significantly owned by an important section of the ruling family issued a report recently that was looking at an oil price of some $350 a barrel being necessary by 2030, which is not that far away, to sustain current spending levels.
Q7 Mr Baron: $350 a barrel?
Neil Partrick: Yes-phenomenally high. Nobody expects an oil price to be constantly on an upward trajectory, but the point is that current spending levels, partly in response to fears about the Arab spring, but always significantly high, never efficiently and sensibly marshalled never necessarily sensibly dispersed around the country as they should be. They require an awful lot in terms of traditional expectations. Now they are trying to play and even to some extent substantially alter some of those expectations by putting more pressure on their nationals to think about work in the private sector, but they have an awfully long way to go, and certainly 2030 rears rather more closely, I think, than the projections of a major cultural shift in terms of employment practices.
Q8 Sir Menzies Campbell: Before I ask any questions, I should draw attention to the entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which reveals that I visited Saudi Arabia as a guest of the Government in September 2009.
I want to ask questions about strategic relationships. How would those in Riyadh assess the strategic importance of a relationship with the United Kingdom? Would it to a large extent, or even exclusively, depend on the supply of arms and the commercial arrangements that lie around that?
Neil Partrick: There is no question but that Saudi Arabia looks at the relationship with Britain as important in terms of supply of kit and the training that goes with that. I think that the expectations in the Gulf, increasingly of scenarios where Britain plays a role with its western partners in, to put it crudely, propping up regimes-those days are probably over. That is their expectation. They were starting to think like that, frankly, with the extent of the US draw-down from Iraq, even though they did not actually welcome the Iraq invasion for the most part.
Since the Arab spring and the response of the United States, Britain and others to the changes-Mubarak, for example, was a close ally of Saudi Arabia and a personal friend of King Abdullah, and there has been a perception that he was dismissed partly due to the machinations of western Governments promoting the United States-they are not looking therefore on western allies, and the question was about Britain particularly, as a kind of cavalry waiting to come over the hill. They are hoping, as I think we hope, that not just the money, but the symbolism of the defence sales and the training that goes with them, and the formal defence agreements that have been in place with most of the Gulf states-except Saudi Arabia-since 1990-91, will play a role, but they do not view it as a prop to regime survival in the way that they used to.
Q9 Sir Menzies Campbell: That’s a slightly different nuance, for example, than in the first Gulf war when of course the relationship between the United Kingdom-and other allies-and Saudi Arabia was enormously important. I think it is true to say that Saudi Arabian tanks were first over the start line when it came to the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait.
Perhaps I might ask Ms Kinninmont a question. In addition to that strategic relationship that Dr Partrick has outlined, how strong do you think the intelligence relationship is? Would you consider that question against the now public information that intelligence was supplied in relation to the so-called printer bomb that was found in a cargo aircraft at East Midlands airport? Do you think intelligence is an important part of this or not?
Jane Kinninmont: Intelligence and counter-terrorism co-operation are extremely important. That was obviously cited as one of the reasons for the Serious Fraud Office dropping its investigation into defence industry corruption allegations, but I cannot say very much about how deep those relations are, because they are not transparent to me.
Q10 Sir Menzies Campbell: Just to go back to the dropping of the investigation in relation to allegations against BAE, what impact did the dropping rather than the instigating of the DPP’s investigations have? Was there an immediate, if you like, dividend created as a result of those being dropped?
Jane Kinninmont: It avoided certain worst-case scenarios that were presented by British officials. There might be room for a bit of scepticism about whether counter-terrorism co-operation would really have suffered so badly, given that that seems to be something that is clearly in the national interest of both sides, and not a favour that the Gulf does to us.
We also have to be quite aware that there is a lot of scepticism among intellectuals and economists in the Gulf about corruption and the value of defence deals with western partners. Although, strategically, the availability of arms is obviously important to Governments, when you read the comments of those who are economists or human development experts from the region, they often complain about the fact that, typically, their Governments invest more in expensive arms from the US and the UK than they spend on health care and education for their own people, which is, of course, much closer to the average person’s heart.
Q11 Sir Menzies Campbell: Would al-Yamamah be a particular target for that kind of feeling?
Jane Kinninmont: There was certainly a documentary that al-Jazeera made about it, which was fairly widely publicised at the time, but bear it in mind that in those days Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s own relations were not so good. Although, as a caveat, it was an old deal, done under a different ruler, and King Abdullah has taken steps to make the procurement more transparent from his end, because he has clearly been very aware that corruption eats away at legitimacy.
Q12 Sir Menzies Campbell: If I could move on, and perhaps Dr Partrick you would be good enough to help with this: what other states, apart from the United States, would Saudi Arabia regard as being important from a strategic point of view? You have to some extent answered that question already, but I wonder whether you could revisit it for a moment. I think you suggested that maybe France would not necessarily be in that bracket. What I am really getting at is the conclusion from this, that Saudi Arabia really has very few strategic relationships outwith its own region.
Neil Partrick: The French clearly have a role, and they have opened up a naval base in Abu Dhabi. I know your question was about Saudi Arabia, but broadly speaking-
Sir Menzies Campbell: I have no objection to your widening it.
Neil Partrick: Sure. I mentioned the defence agreements with the five Gulf states, excepting Saudi Arabia, after the 1990-91 Gulf conflict. France, and indeed Russia and China, have also signed defence agreements, and with that comes sales. The traditional sense that the Gulf states have, while looking historically to Britain and then replacing us with the US, of wanting to project themselves in terms of image as well as substance as having a welter of western allies, has not adequately been replaced or competed with by regional strategic allies, to get to the heart of your question. There is a debate to some extent in Saudi Arabia, not a very public one admittedly, that is projecting the idea that we need to look more firmly at the kind of role that we can develop with countries such as Turkey, and even in some scenarios-with a lot of caution at the moment-with Egypt. If you go back 20 years, it was being projected as a Gulf security partner, albeit with some nervousness, by some Gulf states.
There are plenty of other voices in Saudi Arabia who will say that Egypt, in a sense, is part of our problem, or is certainly causing major problems in terms of the Muslim Brotherhood relationship in the UAE, in a neighbouring Gulf state. There are other voices too that are suggesting that we need to think of the kind of future role that Egypt may play in different scenarios, perhaps in the short to medium term, and that Turkey, -in a sense as a bridge, as a member of NATO, but one that has ideological influence including to some extent over sections of the would-be opposition throughout the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia-is a country that we perhaps need to hug a bit harder, rather than necessarily historically keeping it at some competitive distance. These are early days on those debates.
Q13 Sir Menzies Campbell: I wonder, finally, if I might ask you about the Gulf Co-operation Council and about the possibility of closer defence integration. I think it has been a constant refrain for a very long time that the GCC should be more integrated in defence terms. You will remember that it goes back in particular to the period immediately after the first Gulf war, although cynics said that the intention was that Oman should run it and Saudi Arabia should pay for it. Do you think that there is any likelihood of some of these aspirations, which have been around for a long time, actually being realised in concrete defence arrangements among the GCC?
Neil Partrick: Not in substantive terms. Ballistic missile defence is an area that the Americans are particularly keen on, and that is the area where they perhaps push the strongest on GCC integration, because they would be partners in such a development. That would by definition require intelligence sharing, overcoming sensitivities about national sovereignty in the GCC. That is one area, but there has been a lot of discussion about that over a number of years and no progress yet.
In terms of integration within the GCC itself, they recently committed themselves to a joint military command, but that was of their currently limited integrated defence forces, which in real terms have been more symbolic than capable. Defence is the area they talk about the most with the more recent attention to closer GCC integration, but I am not seeing any substantive sense that that is actually going to happen.
Q14 Sir Menzies Campbell: Do you want to add anything to that, Ms Kinninmont?
Jane Kinninmont: I want to add something on the other strategic powers as seen from the Gulf. It is very clear that the pattern of trade is shifting east. Dubai has survived its economic woes partly by reinventing itself as a city that is catering to the emerging middle class from India and China. That is driving where they put their airline routes as well as where they put diplomatic efforts. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia’s first visit after coming to the throne was to Asia. It is clear that that is where the trade logic leads their focus, and of course they might hope that rising powers, notably China, would not lecture them about human rights and democracy. However, at the same time, those rising powers also will not try to bring about a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or indeed in Syria. So I think that honeymoon may be slightly souring as they realise that they will not play quite the role that they want them to play.
Q15 Chair: Dr Partrick, I have a quick question for you on defence sales. British Aerospace said in December that it had been unable to conclude its deal on Typhoon jets with Saudi Arabia. Have you any idea why that is?
Neil Partrick: First, as you know, Chairman, that is the second tranche; the first tranche was successfully sold. My sense is that it relates to a bigger question that is worth thinking about: Saudi decision making. It is, as I think any British business people operating in Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf are aware, a painfully slow process. That has been compounded, because obviously decisions of that nature have to be taken right at the very top, by the issue of the health and age of the most senior leaders. I do not get a sense that it has been tied up with any kind of political posturing or any reconsideration, but I am not close to the detail of it.
Chair: May I say to you both that we have still got a lot of questions that we want to ask you and time is running away, so could you please keep your answers focused?
Q16 Ann Clwyd: What do you think the prospects are for political reform, in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain? Saudi Arabia has a particularly bad record on the human rights fronts and has been heavily criticised for a whole host of human rights allegations against it. Could you give us some of idea of what you think of the prospects of political reform-is it on the cards or isn’t it?
Neil Partrick: Jane knows Bahrain better than I do. I note that the King of Bahrain announced today the prospect of another national dialogue. My sense is that the majority position among the Bahraini Opposition, which in its broadest sense represents more than the Shi’a community-it represents some sections of the minority Sunni community-is that they feel that dialogue is a necessary process, but they feel frustrated that even an initiative coming from the King does not necessarily speak, as I mentioned earlier, to the heart of power in that country, and that security interests, broadly reflecting the situation in Saudi Arabia, will tend to trump the diplomatic expressions that one might hear from, for example, the Bahraini Crown Prince, who has a close relationship with Britain, or, for that matter, the kind of language that one would hear to some extent from the Saudi Foreign Minister about that country’s relations.
In both countries, security priorities are largely seen from a domestic perspective-they are not necessarily seen, despite the rhetoric, in terms of Iranian interventionism, but calculated largely in terms of domestic interests, which tend to trump how they approach the issue of reform. In Saudi Arabia there is no empowered Parliament. There is no tradition of such a process. A fuss was made recently of having the equivalent of 20% female representation in what Saudi Arabia likes to call its Parliament. A respected Saudi commentator, whom I won’t name, but who is widely published and not censored in Saudi Arabia said, "I don’t care if it is women or transvestites, they have no power". Apologies if that sounds disrespectful, but the point is that this is an entirely consultative body. Its voice is listened to with respect.
There is a much bigger issue here, and it is one that is heard at the very top. That is the extent to which the so-called Majlis al-Shura, the consultative assembly, the national consultative body in Saudi Arabia, might be prepared not just to open up to women, but might be allowed to take on more than just consultancy and actually have an input into legislation and possibly even have a partly elected role. That was flirted with before Abdullah came into power in 2005 as an idea. It got pushed back by other members of his family, the sons of whom remain significant.
I am not clear-I have just hinted that it might make a difference-moving on beyond the age and infirmity to some extent of Saudi Arabia’s leaders, whether the new generation, would necessarily make a difference, partly given the monopoly on decision making on the security apparatus. I am not clear whether, if we suddenly moved to a quick succession in Saudi Arabia and down to the next generation, there might be moves seriously to open up that consultative body. That platform of making that consultative body more than consultative-empowered and at least partly elected-is one that attracts increasingly wide support across a number of interesting elites in Saudi Arabia, from genuinely popular and quite conservative by our standards Islamist clerics through to the remnants of the old Nasserite fringe and an awful lot of young bloggers. That is an opinion worth noting, one that I suppose we can gently and diplomatically encourage, but which we have to be very careful about.
Jane Kinninmont: All the Gulf Governments would say that they are committed to a process of gradual reform but it is a convenient word, beloved of elites because it is vague, relativistic and has no deadlines attached. One of the important questions to ask is whether there is willingness among decision makers to share political power. Here the ruling families do not have internal agreement. That is one of the issues that is weakening their decision making. On the human rights front, if anything, political rights for nationals have been reduced in the last two years across the board in the Gulf, with more criminalisation of dissent. This is something where international pressure can make a difference. We have seen it with migrant workers’ rights, where international pressure has led Gulf Governments to take some positive steps.
Q17 Ann Clwyd: What do you think the dangers are of doing nothing or doing little, for instance the radicalisation of the Opposition if they are continually frustrated?
Jane Kinninmont: There is a worry of growing anti-western sentiment at both ends of the political spectrum, certainly among the Opposition. Even in the traditionally pro-western Opposition there is a rising frustration with what is basically seen as British support for the regime and only very mild occasional protestations about human rights concerns. At the same time, hard-liners within the ruling establishment have been promoting a quite alarmingly anti-western conspiracy-based narrative, particularly directed at the US-probably not a great idea in the long term when your country hosts the main US naval base in the Gulf. But there have been allegations also that Britain is part of a grand nefarious conspiracy against Bahrain. There will, of course, be people on the Sunni pro-Government side of the political spectrum who believe these things-not a sensible approach.
Neil Partrick: The mainstream of the Bahraini Opposition still look to Britain, interestingly, and do not despair of us having some influence. As I think Jane said earlier, they are in danger of overstating the influence we have. Saudi Arabian opposition- and I mentioned it is wide and broad-is already radical. It encompasses elements that would take a hard-line view in terms of Islamic jurisprudence and would be very cautious about the traditionally deep relationship of Saudi Arabia with Britain. It encompasses elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, that we see in power elsewhere in the region, and it encompasses degrees of nationalist opinion-to a degree, a secular variant. So opinion is already quite radical. We will probably not see in Saudi Arabia- if there was, and I do not predict it-a significant change in its politics to becoming an easy and comfortable partner. So it is already radical. I do not think whether we act or not will necessarily radicalise it one way or the other.
Q18 Ann Clwyd: You sounded a bit sceptical earlier about the ability of the Saudi leadership to hand over to the next generation. Do you see some resistance there?
Neil Partrick: No, I think the resistance-the problem, if you like-is their ability to forge a united position on doing so. There are some significant signs that it is being thought about. There have been some recent personnel changes-not least the Interior Minister-that suggest it is happening to a degree. But there is no overall programme and consensus about doing so. Ironically, this is partly about the age of the people who would have to make the decision. It is partly also about having an agreement among the key members of that second generation.
Q19 Mr Ainsworth: Saudi Arabia is seen as a mysterious and extremely conservative country. There are those in Saudi Arabia who would tell you-and constantly do-that King Abdullah has been a reforming King. Does he deserve that reputation?
Neil Partrick: He does, relative to a number of his half-brothers, one or two of whom have passed on since, who were also affecting decision making in his early years as King. Overwhelmingly, we are talking about reform in terms of atmosphere and interventions of a more benign kind in the legal process. We are talking about the symbolism of the National Dialogue. Almost by definition in Saudi Arabia’s case, we are not talking about institutional reform. Saudi Arabia does not have institutions in a sense that we would recognise. It has a problem, perhaps like we do, in terms of having clear precedent. Precedent, in our system, is what we take to be the basis of a constitution. Saudi Arabia has what it presents as a constitution, but it does not have a system of rules that actually dictate how politics works. That happens more by the style and manner of the key decision makers, and the atmosphere that they allow, or do not allow, in terms of debate.
So the atmosphere has improved under King Abdullah, and some of the symbolism has been useful, in terms of women’s representation in a consultative body. But that representation could easily be changed by another royal decree or, more likely, the degrees of advance that have been made in terms of a dialogue, and the symbolism of that, or women’s representation in the consultative assembly, will simply be frozen and will not be built upon. All of that, as I say, is not about institutional change. It is about an atmosphere, a flavour, which is pushed at the boundaries, if you like. It has also been knocked back. For example, when the idea was raised of making the consultative body at least partly elected, it was pushed back and has not been raised at the very top since.
Q20 Mr Ainsworth: May I throw the challenge back at you? At the start, you said we have articulated our desire for reform, but maybe the Committee, during this investigation, needs to think about what it means by reform. What do you see as a possibility? You said-I am thinking about Saudi Arabia in particular-that the Opposition is already radicalised. You did not give any indication that the Opposition is in any way more liberal minded than the regime as it exists. Some of the things you said would indicate the reverse. What do you think should be our desire for reform?
Neil Partrick: I am afraid that it is probably more of the same. The UK position used to be good governance in terms of the Gulf. That was the mantra. It is still the mantra, but it is now accompanied by a stronger emphasis, as I read it, on political participation and the rule of law. That seems to me to be the area we need to push at. If significant figures in Bahrain will be disrespectful towards us, then quite clearly significant figures in a more important country, Saudi Arabia, will be more than disrespectful towards us if we push too strongly. There is a limit to how much we can push. We would hope for a more open political process. We would hope that the degree of debate that Saudis are having about an elected and, to some extent, empowered legislative body might be the area in which there is some movement. We would hope that, but it is not necessarily going to be the case. But that is perhaps the best hope, because bodies such as that, currently only consultative, do have the virtue, even only symbolically perhaps at this stage, of tying in different parts of the country and different groups within society.
Worst-case scenarios-you have seen this in some ex-American officials’ position papers recently, perhaps-talk about kingdom break-up and so on. Indeed, elements close to the Bush Administration less than 10 years ago were even apparently flirting with the idea, which was taken therefore by the Saudis as policy. Those scenarios, although I do not predict them, are things that are not in our interests. Pushing at degrees of potential for reform is in our interest. That does not mean it will happen, and we have to be very careful about the way in which we go about it.
Jane Kinninmont: Usually, you are not going to get a perfect liberal, open-minded opposition emerging in conditions where people are not allowed to organise politically. This is clearly one of the terrible problems, at the extreme end, that is being had in Syria. We do need to be culturally respectful and we need to be very clear that we are not asking countries to impose specific British models, but that Britain would encourage Gulf countries to give their own people the space that they need to debate their political future. That space is being closed down in every single one of the Gulf countries.
Q21 Rory Stewart: I just want to push you a final time on this. You seem to have a model of state transformation whereby the way to achieve good governance, political participation and the rule of law is through Britain pushing. What makes you think that that is a sensible model of political transformation? What evidence do you have for that in the Middle East? Is that how it worked in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria or Iran? Where does this actually work?
Jane Kinninmont: It is certainly not the model that I am advocating. When I mentioned Britain’s call, I was speaking about Britain suggesting to its friends, with whom it speaks regularly about political issues in the region, that they allow their own people the space to debate their political futures. It should not be up to Britain to decide what the political systems are of these countries or who rules them, but currently Britain’s relations do seem to be very skewed towards relations with the ruling families, towards defence, security and policing and military support to those-
Q22 Rory Stewart: That’s what Britain is doing, but do you have a concrete historical example of something like this working-of this strategy working? Where in the Middle East can you point to an example where a country like Britain changing its policy in the way that you suggest has actually resulted in the kinds of things that you are talking about?
Jane Kinninmont: Britain, of course, was always very influential in the way that the Gulf countries developed their own political models through the 19th and 20th centuries.
Q23 Rory Stewart: Just to clarify, where have political participation, the rule of law and good governance been achieved in the Middle East in the last 30 years through the actions of western Governments doing the kinds of things that you are talking about? It seems to me that political transformation does not happen like that. It happens, generally, through something akin to revolution, not through the gentle pressure of foreign Governments. Neil?
Neil Partrick: I am very hesitant, as I think I have suggested, about Britain overplaying its hand and the need, in my view, to reach out as diplomatically as it can to a broad swathe of opposition. That does not mean it should necessarily be hectoring Governments-I don’t think Jane is suggesting this-about major reform. We might perhaps push at certain ideas. We should show that we are concerned about the arrests of people from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, for example, not just certain types. But we can’t necessarily hope to change what Governments actually do.
When they do make changes-Morocco is an interesting example out of the region we are discussing today. It was partly a response to public pressure, but also a sense of playing within the rules, if you like-unwritten-of what that political system was able to accommodate. Jordan is now pushing slightly at something similar, which it started pushing at in the late 1980s, but a history of accommodating, to some extent, in Jordan the Muslim Brotherhood allows it to think about going in that direction. It won’t be a judgment it makes because the UK Government encourages it or discourages it.
I think we have a responsibility to try to marry our interests and our values, but we cannot necessarily hope to change what domestic, largely sovereign Governments will do in terms of judging their own best interests.
Q24 Rory Stewart: To conclude, it sounds like you are saying that we should do this. We should do it largely symbolically, because it is a good thing to do, morally or ethically.
Neil Partrick: I think it is in our interests.
Q25 Rory Stewart: It would be in our interests if we believed that it had a concrete impact on the ground. The major drivers of reform in Jordan have not been the policies of any international Government putting pressure on it; it has been the people of Jordan.
Neil Partrick: That is indeed what I said.
Q26 Rory Stewart: So, a shift in British Government policy towards pushing political participation, governance and the rule of law might have a symbolic value-it might make Britain feel good-but I have not seen any evidence from your responses that there is any credible reason to think that it significantly increases the likelihood of good governance, political participation or the rule of law in the country concerned.
Neil Partrick: Yes, Mr Stewart, I was not disagreeing with you. My point was that it is in our interests not just in terms of feeling better but in terms of emergent elements within the opposition who may increasingly influence the politics of that country, short of revolution. It is in our interests to be seen, as far as we can diplomatically, to be engaging with the concerns of a broad spectrum of political interest throughout the Gulf, and elsewhere in the Arab world. It is in the interests of our image-it is a symbol-but it also affects our influence and it may affect future relations with actors within that political system who may have greater weight as time goes by. Indeed, the opposition in Jordan, Morocco and elsewhere, under degrees of constitutional monarchy, are emerging as more powerful forces. I am not saying that we can hope to direct what goes on. What I am saying is that that will be a sovereign judgment of leaders on the ground in terms of where their interests lie.
Jane Kinninmont: There is no scenario in which Britain is not involved and is making only symbolic statements. We need to look very closely at whether British Government institutions and British private individuals are, in fact, helping to create an architecture of smarter repression in the region. I don’t think that we can characterise this as just standing back and saying things; there is quite a deep involvement. There are cases in Bahrain where one can point to British and American advice having a positive impact-for instance, in the Government’s decision not to ban the largest political movement in 2011. In other cases, we have not taken such strong positions, but I think you can point to cases where there is an impact, but that impact is not by any means always on the side of good governance or popular participation.
Q27 Mr Ainsworth: Why is Bahrain so important to the United Kingdom? Dr Partrick, earlier you talked about the heart of power. If the heart of power in Bahrain is not the King, where is it?
Neil Partrick: Well, it is a contentious issue. The King clearly has leverage, at the risk of being facetious. The usual clichés are that it is the uncle of the King, the man who has been Prime Minister since Bahrain’s independence. There is a security apparatus, which involves the head of the Bahraini defence forces, his brother, who runs the very important job in all these countries of heading up the Royal Court. Those two brothers overlap not just in familial terms but, it seems, in particularly conservative takes, on Bahrain’s national interest. That is not the sole heart of power. Clearly, the King has influence, the Crown Prince has a degree of influence, and the Prime Minister is there, but the two brothers also have weight as well. The danger is that we might also be susceptible to a good cop, bad cop routine. We are in danger of misleading ourselves if we think: if only the Crown Prince had power, things would be fundamentally different. I suspect that that is not true. How much do you allow political openness? Is it to the extent that your own role in that future political scenario becomes questioned? We might like a neat constitutional arrangement for the monarchies of that area, but that might not be how the politics goes.
So, why does Bahrain matter in terms of those machinations, or just generally? It is an historic relationship-it used to house our naval forces. We effectively transferred it to the United States. Therefore, it is a useful apparatus, if you like, and part of the wider involvement of states in Gulf security, of which we are a part, so in that sense, it matters.
Q28 Mr Ainsworth: You hear in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain that the source of a lot of the difficulties is Iran-deliberate outreach by Iran. To what extent is that justified?
Neil Partrick: I think it is greatly exaggerated. It has a bit more plausibility in Bahrain perhaps, but in both the Bahraini case and the Saudi Eastern Province, the oil-rich Gulf province, where you have a significant Shi’a population, but by no means the majority, historically, in the context of being shunned and of being not allowed a way in politically, those communities looked to the then more influential post-revolutionary Iran. Some senior respectable figures in the mainstream Shi’a opposition of Saudi Arabia, for example, lived in Iran; some live in Syria and some, of course, lived in London.
In that sense, things have moved on. In the past 10 years, Bahrain has revitalised the political process, which, until the last two years, appeared to be bringing on the mainstream of Shi’a opposition. Nearly 20 years ago, Saudi Arabia initiated a dialogue which brought a number of those Saudi dissidents, some of whom were based in Iran, back. Many of them, in both countries, genuinely look to a new kind of nationalism, which is inclusive. That is the rhetoric, but I think it is genuine. If Iran were remotely having any residual influence on the Shi’a street in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia before the Arab Spring-and that’s a very big if-I think that has all but gone now. Its own response, just before the Arab Spring, to its own emergent opposition movement underscored that shift. The recent memory that many Bahraini Shi’a, under 45 years of age, and Saudi Shi’a have is of Iran and repression, in the same way that others may have looked at the Shah in previous times.
Iran’s influence is greatly overstated. It has sleeper cells, it has capacity-it has that outside of the Gulf in certain scenarios-but I don’t think it is directing the politics among the Shi’a communities of those countries.
Q29 Mr Ainsworth: Do you think that the potential for a new nationalism is there, though? Surely the majority of people in Bahrain think it is a straightforward problem, and that’s why it’s as sharp as it is. There is a Sunni minority in power at the moment, and the alternative is that the Shi’a majority take power. You seem to think that it’s not as black and white as that, and that there are alternative routes forward.
Neil Partrick: No, I think, in broad terms, it is as black and white as that, although there are some Sunnis who are part of that opposition, and who would support majority politics in Bahrain. There is no question about that. In an emergent situation, which is very hard to conceive of, that was stripped of the rule of the al-Khalifa, you might then ask what that Bahraini Government would have to do to look for friends. Out of desperation, it might look to Shi’a-led Iraq and Iran. That is perhaps an unlikely scenario right now, but in broad terms, it is majority-minority politics. I would agree with that; therefore all the more reason, I think, to see it as a Bahraini problem necessarily, rather than one that Iran, very much an outsider in that situation, can interfere with.
It is more complex in Saudi Arabia, because the Shi’a are, at most, 10% of the national population, but they are articulating an inclusive nationalism. They look to such things as the atmosphere of the National Dialogue to somehow embody those aspirations which Abdullah started, but they do not see concrete institutional reform. Similarly, there are many Sunnis, Islamists of a conservative hue, as I mentioned, and those of more liberal persuasion who also look to a more inclusive nationalism. They think that reform of the role of the royal family is part of that, but I think that is much less up the debating order in Saudi Arabia than it is in Bahrain.
Jane Kinninmont: There are a lot of options for power sharing. I think if you did have a full-scale revolution in Bahrain, you could get a worrying zero-sum outcome. Bahraini Sunni supporters of the Government were very frightened that if there was a radical change of Government, they would not have a place. They look to post-Saddam Iraq with fear. In reality, the mainstream Opposition in Bahrain is calling for more elected representation under a constitutional monarchy. Unfortunately, Bahraini officials tend to see the idea of having an elected cabinet, let alone an elected Prime Minister, as profoundly radical, but some kind of power sharing would probably be the sustainable solution.
Chair: I am going to Mike Gapes and the last group of questions. I would be grateful, as we are running a bit behind schedule, if you kept the answers brief.
Q30 Mike Gapes: First, on Saudi Arabia, to what extent are the UK and Saudi foreign policy goals compatible and complementary?
Neil Partrick: In broad terms, they are compatible and complementary. One of the greatest concerns that the UK Government has in terms of its security and strategic interests in the region is the role of Iran and the prospect of a domestic uranium enrichment capacity related to a possible nuclear weapons aspiration. That is obviously shared in Saudi Arabia and, to a greater or lesser extent, up and down the Gulf. In fact, there are occasionally concerns that we are not strong enough in our commitment to preventing Iran from becoming a possible nuclear weapons state.
The two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is something that Saudi Arabia very much shares a desire for, and arguably has done some legwork going back 30 years in trying to advance.
I say "in broad terms" because one sees British diplomats actively involved in shaping international policy in Iran and trying to play a role to cajole the partners in terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but Saudi Arabia, in terms of foreign policy capacity, is a greatly overstated player. I mentioned that over 30 years the Saudis have taken initiatives, but they do not engage their diplomats in actively politicking, and they obviously cannot engage directly and publicly with Israel, and they have decided that Iran in many senses should be ring-fenced in terms of senior diplomatic engagement of the kind that was going on just five or six years ago. They won’t, as you know, substantively engage with Iraq either-a not unrelated issue.
Part of this is about judgment but it is also about capacity. They do not have a significant policy-making capacity, so even under a younger leadership there are still problems about willingness to advance policy and follow it up. "We are a country famous for our non-follow-ups," was a statement made to me by a former adviser to a number of Saudi princes. We share a lot of broad aspirations-they are more conservative, certainly, on the Iran side-but it is very hard to look to Saudi Arabia as an active partner in dealing with some of those questions.
Jane Kinninmont: I largely share the view that there is a big overlap in interests but not always shared motivations. With Iran, there are ethnic and sectarian components of the Saudi policy that are not shared by Britain.
Q31 Mike Gapes: Can I follow up with a brief question on that? How is the Qatari diplomatic hyperactivity-you certainly could not say they are not active-viewed by the Saudis? Do they regard it as a threat or just an irritant?
Neil Partrick: I think it is more of an irritant, and of course they also recognise-perhaps with a degree of Schadenfreude-that the Arab Spring means that they have in a sense, as Saudi Arabia would see it, shown their cards and decided to side more actively with the Muslim Brotherhood, which makes them difficult as a perceived neutral player. They began this process in some ways in trying to mediate in Lebanon. It is hard to imagine that the Qataris could ever play a role like that again.
Q32 Mike Gapes: Can I turn, finally, to Bahrain? Has our Government got its position on what is happening in Bahrain correct, or should we be doing more either in public or in private to try to get a possible solution of the kind that you touched on earlier?
Jane Kinninmont: My view is that Britain has probably been too sensitive to the push-back that has come from the Bahraini Government, and probably too mild in what it has said, especially in public. An example is the recent stripping of citizenship from 31 dissidents-a practice that has been seen before in Bahrain. The British ambassador was quoted in a local newspaper as saying, "Britain also does this, and it is Bahrain’s sovereign right." It seems they slightly spun what he said. Apparently, he had said that Britain will strip citizenship from people it regards as a security threat if they are dual nationals, but it has been the official position of the UK that Bahrain is within its rights arbitrarily to deprive people of citizenship even if those people become stateless. There seems to me a very strong argument that when that list includes people from the most popular Opposition group, this is not exactly what we could call a confidence-building measure with a political dialogue that Britain says it backs. Yet it seems we could not be outspoken even about that issue.
Q33 Mike Gapes: Does that mean that we are perceived by the majority of people in Bahrain, and therefore the political Opposition, as being too sympathetic to the regime? Yet at the same time the regime regards us as too critical?
Jane Kinninmont: Yes.
Neil Partrick: It is an almost impossible path to try to tread. My sense is that the mainstream Opposition in Bahrain still invests possibly too much hope in us. The knock-back we have received in the past, though perhaps predictable, has even included criticism of a former ambassador, and has seen Foreign Office officials delayed, symbolically perhaps, at the airport for quite a considerable time. This perhaps has an impact on our influence when we want to be listened to. So it is a careful road we have to walk. The mainstay of the Bahraini Opposition is still interested in us playing a role, so perhaps we can somehow, awkwardly, navigate that middle way.
Jane Kinninmont: I think there is a generational change there; the younger generation of opposition gives far less credence to the idea that Britain might possibly be a force for upholding human rights, let alone the "d" word.
Q34 Mike Gapes: So what should we do?
Neil Partrick: Not overstate what we can do. We have to recognise that we are a middle-ranking power. We are not close to the heart of European decision making. We cannot be that transatlantic bridge. We are respected historically, but we also need to catch up with younger opinion. As I mentioned, as far as we can, we need to reach out to opposition voices because they come in all shapes and sizes throughout the Gulf, but somehow-and this is a very difficult exercise, particularly in a country such as Saudi Arabia-doing that without wholly alienating those making decisions. That is a very difficult process. I suspect that what it really means is more of the same of the kind we are doing already.
Jane Kinninmont: And we can work with others and work more closely with the US and European partners on Bahrain, rather than, for instance, not signing up to the Swiss-sponsored human rights resolution at the UN last summer. We can also work with other GCC countries. Britain is also an important interlocutor between the different GCC countries. Kuwait and Qatar offered to mediate in Bahrain in 2011, but were rebuffed. There certainly is disquiet in other GCC states about the simmering unrest there and we could help to facilitate a dialogue initiative that could have backing from the other important neighbours.
Chair: Thank you both very much indeed. The hour and 20 minutes has gone very quickly. Thanks for your very lucid and accurate answers.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Sir Roger Tomkys, former British Ambassador to Bahrain (1981-1984), President of the British Society for Middle East Studies (1994-2000) and Chairman of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce (2004-2010), and Robin Lamb, former British Ambassador to Bahrain (2003-2006) and current Director General at the Libyan British Business Council, gave evidence.
Q35 Chair: We move to our second panel in today’s session. The panel will focus on the UK’s long and evolving bilateral relationship with Bahrain, as well as the UK Government’s response to the recent protests and instability in Bahrain. Our two witnesses are Sir Roger Tomkys, who is former ambassador to Bahrain, and Robin Lamb, also a former ambassador to Bahrain, whom I welcome back, having given evidence to us on the Arab Spring.
Having said that the session is about Bahrain, can I start with a general question, looking far more at the diplomatic side, as the two of you have been past ambassadors. Do you think the Foreign Office gives the Gulf enough priority?
Sir Roger Tomkys: As I have said in my statement, my perspective is rather a long one. I left the Foreign Office 20 years ago.
Q36 Chair: But you have very much remained in touch over the years.
Sir Roger Tomkys: I remain in touch to a degree-in touch with the region, rather than with the Foreign Office. I do not see any sign that it has disregarded the Gulf. There have been changes over these years which have meant that the attention paid by Government, not just the Foreign Office, to the Middle East has declined in comparison with attention paid to Europe, for example. There were reorganisations in the Foreign Office which decided that functional issues should take priority and that the old geographical compartments were less important. Regional expertise was not important compared with technical skills in economic negotiation or the environment, or whatever. But no, I have no reason to suppose the Gulf has been downgraded unwisely.
Robin Lamb: Going back to the 1971 withdrawal, famously Sheikh Zayed did feel then that we had done wrong and that he was neglected in the following years. I think that perception survived into the next generation in the Emirates, at least. My own experience in the Gulf goes back quite a long way, but professionally it involved periods in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s twice and in Kuwait twice and in Oman once and, of course, in Bahrain latterly. I was also deputy head of the Middle East department.
We did not reduce our interest in the Gulf. Perhaps the appearance of people’s interest declined, and there was a perception from Sheikh Zayed that it had done so. However, a great deal of attention never wavered because of the importance of the Gulf as a source of most of the oil in international trade and investment. We have mentioned other investments in London by the Qataris recently. The Kuwait Investment Office has been situated in London for decades, so the question of personal relationships and so on was very important. The difficulty we have always had in persuading people in the region-in any region probably-of our interest, is finding Ministers who have time to go and visit, and also sometimes finding the time to receive people who come to London. It can be as simple as that, that they will feel there is a degree of neglect.
Chair: We have a Minister about to spend almost a week in Bahrain.
Robin Lamb: It can happen, and it’s great when it does.
Q37 Mr Roy: How do you characterise the relationship between the United Kingdom and Bahrain, and how do you think it is different since you were ambassadors?
Robin Lamb: First, I should say that I am very grateful for the invitation to give evidence here. I hope I made it clear that I am doing so with a historical perspective. I have not been a frequent visitor to Bahrain since I left at the end of my tour, so I do not want to set myself up as an expert on exactly what is happening on the ground at the moment.
If you look at our relationship with Bahrain, as has already been mentioned by Jane and by Dr Partrick, we were the influential or decisive power in the Gulf until 1971. Our relationship was very influential up until that time. Following our withdrawal, that has declined, and there was a period when the Gulf countries thought that we were neglecting them.
From a slightly different perspective, when I arrived in Kuwait for the second time in 2001, it was very apparent to me from a business perspective that group CEOs and so on were flying over the Gulf on their way to the Far East. This was noticed, too, in Gulf companies, as well as in Governments: we were no longer paying as much attention to the Gulf as an economic partner, perhaps because, they felt, we had got too used to them or we were just chasing the new, shiny ball further away.
This changed: I was in Kuwait in 2001, then in 2003 moved to Bahrain, and from 2001 to 2006 I could see a return of the CEOs to the Gulf. They were coming to see Gulf states because they had rediscovered the advantages of doing business in the Gulf and what it had to offer. In recent times, again from a business perspective, there has clearly been a pivot towards the Far East, not only in US policy but in the Gulf as well. Their interest in investment and trade is moving eastwards, so we are going to have to work harder to keep our position in the Gulf.
Sir Roger Tomkys: When I arrived in Bahrain in 1981, it was only 10 years after independence. It was a very different place from what it is now, and under the King’s father, Sheikh Isa, it remained different. The British ambassador was quite uniquely privileged in access and was confided in to a remarkable degree by Sheikh Isa-I think to a greater degree than probably anywhere else in the Gulf except, just possibly, Oman. With the arrival of King Hamad, this changed very considerably. It was probably a conscious decision on his part that his father was seen to be too close to the British. His own relations with us were very good. In my time there was a Royal Marine detachment there helping to train the Bahrain forces; this was very much an initiative of King Hamad, who was then the Crown Prince. Relations were fine, but they were not exclusive in the way that they had been, and that process has, I think, continued.
I would hazard a guess that, on issues that are not Bahrain issues but regional ones, they would regard us as important now mostly to the degree to which we are or are not privileged interlocutors with the Americans, who might have some influence with them. On Bahrain, it goes a good deal further than that, but my Bahraini friends-not necessarily of the family or the Government-are slightly looking back on an old friendship rather than an active component of their day-to-day lives. That may just be my position.
Robin Lamb: Can I add a gloss to that? There was an important watershed in the relationship when the Labour Government came in under Mr Blair. There was a feeling in Bahrain at that stage that the late Mr Fatchett, who was Minister of State, had gone and read them the Riot Act on human rights-that is how they saw it-and this impacted, I know, on the British ambassador at the time and the way he was regarded in Bahrain. The echoes of this continued when I succeeded his successor. His successor had a lot of rebuilding to do in the relationship at that sort of level. To a degree, I was a beneficiary of that, so we had a pretty good relationship, but I think that one of the differences between Sheikh Isa and Hamad is that Hamad had a much stronger view of the future role as a constitutional monarch, which included a greater amount of distance than Sheikh Isa usually allowed to his own people and to expatriates. That perhaps colours his approach, and will therefore have impacted on our access to him as well.
Q38 Mr Roy: Does that mean that diplomats are given an easier life if a Minister does not come across and put across a Government policy towards Bahrain?
Robin Lamb: People in the region do not like public criticism. You can discuss privately at length. That is not the problem, but shaming and embarrassing them in public goes down like a lead balloon. You can certainly come as a Minister and put forward policies, and I am sure they do. It is not just in Bahrain or Saudi, but very much across the Middle East. It is private debate, and public courtesy.
Q39 Mark Hendrick: You both served as ambassador to Bahrain more than two decades apart. Can I ask you both to compare and contrast what you saw and what you see now as the UK’s main strategic interest in Bahrain?
Sir Roger Tomkys: At this moment, looking at the Arab Spring, developments in the Middle East and the situation in Bahrain now in the light of the Arab Spring, for my part I think that our greatest interest there is the continuing stability and prosperity of Bahrain because, if it fails, there would be a knock-on effect with the intervention of Saudi Arabia, and consequences that would hard to predict, but very unattractive.
That is not to say that we do not have a strong interest in reform and improvement of the system of government in Bahrain, as I believe does the majority of the population in Bahrain of all kinds on all sides. We should further that by such means as we can, which are not on the whole public means. That will, in turn, further our very considerable interests of an economic kind, not just defence sales. There is a British community of some 10,000 there with strong links to the City of London and a friendly Government with whom we have worked very closely in the past to our mutual advantage.
Robin Lamb: I agree. Of course, there are the obvious interests given that we are part of the global economic community. The Gulf, as an oil producer, is very important. The Gulf as a whole, not just Bahrain-Bahrain least of all in a sense, in terms of sovereign wealth funds-is hugely important in its ability to decide on investment flows. Oil money and such things have always been important in the Gulf, and of the Gulf to us in trade as an adjunct of that. I was there in rather a benign period of reform. I was fortunate in that respect, and that is reflected in my written evidence. There are things that we can and did do, which-looking at the questions you asked Dr Partrick and Jane Kinninmont-are to a degree a matter of encouraging those in the society, in a community, who want to make change, but not doing it in such a way as to destabilise the country as a whole.
When I was there, we provided training to people in Parliament, had parliamentary contacts and made that sort of effort, in addition to encouraging, and saying we were encouraging, the reform that was then under way. There was a lot of private discussion, of course, and that is something that I hope will return. One of the things that I noticed in the FCO evidence-and this may well be explained by the more unstable time we have had since the Arab Spring, as it was called-is that it does not mention any such projects and programmes. Their impact may well be marginal. However, when you are doing a project that is focused on the individual, and that individual has a potential role, they can be more significant than they may appear at first.
Q40 Mark Hendrick: You mentioned Derek Fatchett, when he was over in Bahrain. How do you both think the UK is perceived nowadays by Bahrain? You mentioned earlier that pre-1971 we were seen as eminent in our influence. How are we perceived nowadays? How do you think things are moving? Are they moving away from us or in our favour? You mentioned many CEOs going through Bahrain. Has that had an influence on their perception of us?
Robin Lamb: There is an issue of perceptions but also of responses. If you look at the way that the Bahrainis see us, clearly we are no longer the pre-eminent power, nor indeed is the States now perhaps the first guarantor of their sovereignty. That is Saudi Arabia, but Saudi Arabia probably does not want to deliver that entirely, vis-à-vis Iran, without the American umbrella. Those are all more important because you are talking about independence and sovereignty. We do not have the strength to guarantee that.
Having said that, I think there is still a regard in many areas for what we stand for and the advice we can give. What we stand for is, of course, a delicate flower. As has been suggested, unless we stand for it, it wilts. It is important to stand up for our values, but not at the expense of the underlying interests that we have and the long-term stability of these countries. It is certainly true that the power within Bahrain, for example, is not in the sole remit of the King. It is an over-simplification that many fall into, trying to criticise him for doing things or not doing things. He has always had to face-any Government in Bahrain have to face-a complex collection of influences and impacts on decision making, from the neighbourhood, their own family, their population, the expectations of other rulers and, above all, what they know that the Saudis will or will not tolerate.
This is complex and I do assume that it is a part of the explanation of the excellent reforms that the King did introduce. They didn’t go as far as many people wanted, but it was a process. He said to me at one stage, "I don’t understand why people don’t understand that what I am working on is a managed transition to democracy."
I think his intentions are good; I know the Crown Prince’s intentions are good. They don’t have the ability to deliver without the set of other powerful forces within and around the country, but I still think they are a very good bet. Where we stand up for certain values, I think it is beneficial for people in that position that they feel they are not alone in the world, even if we cannot deliver the results that we would like to see, and maybe they would, too.
Sir Roger Tomkys: Could I add a point? I am not quite sure whether the question was about the attitude to HMG or to Britain and the British. As far as Britain and the British are concerned, they are old friends, an awful lot of them have got property here or come here on holidays, and I think there is a good easy relationship.
As far as HMG is concerned, there is a clear bifurcation between the Opposition, who think that HMG should be lecturing publicly the Government on what it ought to be doing, and the Government, who think we should be more supportive of them. There was a question in the earlier session about attitudes to Mubarak and his departure, and how that was seen in the Gulf. I feel pretty sure that the Bahraini Government and the family, and perhaps quite a lot of ordinary Bahrainis, would have been quite shocked by the speed with which, having been on remarkably good terms with Mubarak, right or wrong, for about 20 years, as soon as mass, fairly violent demonstrations saw him off, we discovered that he had been a rotten thing for a very long time and we should have done something else about it. The Opposition will certainly have taken from that encouragement to think that that is the way to go. The Government will certainly think, as I rather do, that Cairo and Tahrir square are not the Pearl roundabout. What worked, and had good reason to work, in Cairo, is totally different from the situation in Bahrain, and we should make clear that that was not the outcome we were looking for.
Q41 Mark Hendrick: Sir Roger, you mentioned earlier that if some sort of Arab Spring scenario emerged in Bahrain, you felt that the Saudis would intervene. That would not necessarily be to protect Bahraini sovereignty, but because what was happening was perhaps against the interests of Saudi Arabia.
Sir Roger Tomkys: It would be to prevent a knock-on effect, or a modelling for what ought to happen in similar circumstances in the eastern province, where the oil is. I have no doubt that they would come in to pre-empt for that reason.
Q42 Mark Hendrick: And would you therefore say that, given the fair-weather friend attitude that Britain and the United States showed to Egypt post the Arab Spring, there is perhaps a worry in Saudi Arabia that a similar attitude would prevail should uprisings start in Bahrain?
Sir Roger Tomkys: I think the Saudis, whom I do not know as well as I know many other Arabs, are sufficiently inward-looking that they believe what happens in Saudi Arabia will be determined by what they do. They don’t much care what we do or say in that respect.
Q43 Mark Hendrick: Do you want to come in on that, Robin?
Robin Lamb: I agree.
Q44 Mark Hendrick: In that respect, then, do you think that the UK’s relationship with Bahrain has any impact whatever on our relationship with not only Saudi Arabia but other Gulf states?
Sir Roger Tomkys: Potentially negatively, although again, I say that with my reservation that I am not a Saudi expert. At one stage a very senior member of the Saudi royal family approached me and tried to-let me say it: it was Prince Turki bin Faisal. He was concerned with what was happening in Iraq after our invasion, because, he said, "We accept that it is going to be a Shi’a-dominated Government, but it should be Arab Shi’a, not the creatures of Tehran"-their overall preoccupation. He asked whether he could get up a Saudi group to have access to the Prime Minister to explain this. I think he wanted that because we were likely to have influence with the American Government if anybody did. In that sort of way, I think that they attach importance to us.
Robin Lamb: I think that that has always been one aspect of the way they see our importance. It has been one of the arguments about the importance of our relationship with the EU, for example, as well, so it is absolutely so. Our relationship with the US does have a bearing on the extent of influence we can deploy elsewhere.
Q45 Mark Hendrick: Do you think that a possible British withdrawal from the European Union would further decrease our influence, then?
Robin Lamb: The point made by President Obama was that he feels that it would. Therefore, with the United States, I take it, there are various factors that could reduce our influence globally. That is one, but no doubt so is Scottish independence.
Chair: Both subjects that we are looking at.
Q46 Rory Stewart: Given the relationship with Saudi Arabia, could you help us to understand the extent to which it is sensible to see Bahrain as a fully independent sovereign state? What are the limits to Bahrain’s power? Is it not increasingly a satellite of Saudi Arabia?
Sir Roger Tomkys: Let us take "increasingly" first. Yes, I think it must be. The building of the causeway made it economically and socially more dependent upon Saudi Arabia. It also meant there was more social pressure on Bahrain to abandon the westernising and rather shockingly liberal-in relation to women and drink and everything else-practices that went on there and the agreeable lifestyle that was possible. So that has been eroded and is under pressure. The difficulties of the Bahraini regime in the face of the Arab Spring brought the dangers of upheaval much more closely to Saudi notice, and I believe that the Saudis have made it quite clear that they do not intend to let radical change take place.
Also, the GCC undertook to put in an awful lot of money-$1 billion a year for 10 years-to each of Bahrain and Oman to help economic development. It has not come yet, but that would increase dependence again.
One of my concerns about the disturbances in Bahrain over the last two years is that already it has had a pretty strong negative impact on Bahrain’s key economic role and how it earns its money as a relatively agreeable place in which Arab and western expatriates can live and operate through the Gulf in an uncontentious way. That has been eroded, because you do not like burning tyres or the sense of security force oppression.
So Bahrain has become weaker and less able to provide jobs for its working class, because, as we have heard earlier, it is the one Gulf state that has a working class made up of its own nationals, and because they are predominantly the "disadvantaged" Shi’a majority, this matters. This is what stability is about. It is about ensuring that there is economic activity of a viable kind. That has been eroded, and that makes Bahrain all the more dependent upon Saudi support.
Robin Lamb: May I interject? Before the Arab Spring and during the years that I was there, I had an opportunity to see how that relationship was conducted. To a degree there were similarities in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, too. The Kuwaitis explained it to me directly. They said that they know what the Saudis want. The Saudis do not tell them. They want to follow an independent policy, but they will need to take account of what Saudi preferences are. Certainly that was true in Bahrain as well. I never felt that the Saudis were sending day-by-day instructions on what the Bahrainis should or should not do.
Having said that, the Saudi ambassador, who was the most senior ambassador-well, perhaps he rivalled the American ambassador in Bahrain, but I should say the Saudi was the more important-and I used to meet regularly over lunch at least once a month and observe quite a few of the other Saudi visitors coming to Bahrain.
In terms of the power thing, there was an example where Bahrain got it wrong, which was in 2004 when they signed an FTA with the United States. The Saudis had been making it clear in statements beforehand that they did not want them to do that. They went ahead and did it anyway. There was a penalty and the Saudis cut off some additional oil income that they had been providing. They said that it was no longer required by Bahrain. So there was a penalty and Bahrain will have learnt from that experience. In terms of what has happened since, their sensitivity to Saudi wishes at least would have become stronger, put it that way. I have no evidence for this, but I also assume that those in the royal family who are arguing for a stronger, less amenable internal domestic policy may well have felt that their arm was strengthened by Saudi attitudes and, perhaps, by the arrival of the peninsula shield force.
Q47 Mr Roy: You spoke earlier about the "excellent reforms" in Bahrain, but do you accept that those reforms do not satisfy the Shi’a majority at this point in time?
Robin Lamb: There is more than a forum in Bahrain; there is a Parliament. That is one of the reforms that the King brought in. What it was was that it did not have as much power.
Mr Roy: I said "excellent reforms".
Robin Lamb: I beg your pardon. When you said reforms, I thought that you said forums. I am sorry.
Q48 Mr Roy: You said there were "excellent reforms", but would you accept that they do not go far enough to answer the problems of the majority of the population?
Robin Lamb: Yes. When they were raised, pre-11 April, we were always assured that there was a process, there was no going back and so on and so forth. That was certainly the line that the King took privately with me as well, that this is a process. As I have said, in introducing these reforms he has always had to take the views of others around him into account: within the family, in Saudi Arabia and in the other Gulf states. The Kuwait example is not seen in the Gulf as a very encouraging example to follow: a unicameral Parliament, and one that is constantly frustrated, on the very sound developmental objectives of Government decision makers in the economic field, for example. Many Gulf Governments have looked at that over a long time and said that they did not want to go down that path, so the King introduced a bicameral Parliament with an elected lower House and an appointed upper House-that sounds a bit familiar.
A question was the balance of authority between the two Houses of Parliament; before 2011, the balance of power was with the upper House, in that, when they came together, the casting vote was by the Speaker of the upper House. They have now reversed that so that it is now in the hands of the Speaker of the lower House. The question is whether the Speaker is an entirely independent operator or not, but that is the detail. There are certainly higher expectations from the Opposition that that process should have travelled more quickly. They would like to have seen it delivered immediately, of course, but they are one of the forces at play here.
May I quickly correct one statement I made in my written evidence in paragraph 11?
Q49 Chair: Please do.
Robin Lamb: I think that I over-dramatised it. I said: "Political dissent has been criminalized and opposition has been expressed through escalating and indiscriminate street violence". There are honourable exceptions to that: Al-Wefaq had a lot of peaceful demonstrations, so it is not all violent. At the same time, I do not think that any of the Al-Wefaq leaders are in prison, so it is not quite so stark. Perhaps I over-dramatised it when writing my written evidence, and I apologise for that.
Sir Roger Tomkys: Could I just add, on reform, that I do not think that even on the Government side anyone has suggested that reform is accomplished, or should be enough to satisfy. I do not think that anyone is holding that position.
Q50 Mr Roy: Can I take us on slightly and ask how much credence you give to claims that Iran is having a malign influence in Bahrain?
Sir Roger Tomkys: My experience over the years is that Iran always gets blamed for starting any trouble that occurs in Bahrain. I think that that is very rarely true. On the other hand, whenever trouble has started in Bahrain, I think that Iran always makes the most of it and does everything that it can to stir it up; I have no reason to suppose that that is not the case.
There are stories going around about a negotiating process, when the Crown Prince was leading it: the Opposition were more or less content that they had got a deal, but they went out of the room to make a telephone call, which was of course traced to Tehran, and they came back in and said, "No deal." I have no idea whether that is true, any more than I know whether all the various stories about the arms in the Salmaniya hospital and so forth are true. It is not possible to judge the accuracy of all the stories one hears, but Tehran makes the most of any opportunity, if only because they must see the whole region as a conflict between themselves and Saudi Arabia, almost to the same degree that Saudi Arabia sees everything there through the perspective of their struggle with Iran.
Robin Lamb: I would agree with that. The basic problem in Bahrain is indigenous, but the extent to which the Iranians are complicit is hard to tell. I think Dr Partrick referred to the Shi’a relationship with Iran, but most Bahraini Shi’a, to my understanding, regard Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq as their marja-their ultimate authority. Rather like a lot of the Iraqi Shi’a, they are Arab first and Shi’a second.
I, too, am never surprised when the Iranians exploit advantages. Senior mullahs and others have occasionally in speeches spoken as if they still have territorial claims to Bahrain, which of course upsets the Bahrainis, but I think it is very much more likely to be in terms of Iran’s public projection than in terms of any real support for the Opposition. I will read from a secret US cable, courtesy of WikiLeaks, which says, "Bahraini government officials sometimes privately tell U.S. official visitors that some Shi’a oppositionists are backed by Iran. Each time this claim is raised, we ask the GoB"-the Government of Bahrain-"to share its evidence. To date, we have seen no convincing evidence of Iranian weapons or government money here since at least the mid-1990s."
Q51 Chair: What is the date of that?
Robin Lamb: It is 2008. It is secret, because any evidence would have been intelligence, rather than anything else. I do not remember being shown anything to support those allegations.
Q52 Chair: That is on WikiLeaks?
Robin Lamb: It is on WikiLeaks, yes.
Q53 Mr Ainsworth: Looking at the prospects for peaceful progress in Bahrain, first, from your perspectives, how do you weight it? Secondly, how much of the potential for that is contained within Bahrain, and how much is externalised and part of this regional struggle? You have both indicated how, even if Iran is not involved or there is no evidence of Iranian involvement, then it is often the cheerleader for difficulties, and Saudi Arabia is increasingly influential with the ruling party. What are the prospects and to what degree are they masters of that within their own borders?
Sir Roger Tomkys: I don’t know how the opposition overall can be categorised between refuseniks, rejectionists and people who genuinely want to find a working relationship under at least constitutional monarchy of the Al-Khalifa. We could contribute if we did not give them the impression that we were just waiting for another Mubarak moment, to say, "Goodbye, we never liked the monarchy after all," but if they are an effective majority, that would strengthen the hand of those on the Government side who would move toward them. I do not think that they would get to a permanently stable position at all quickly.
Saudi Arabia under Abdullah, and possibly afterwards, is moving in a glacially slow way toward a more normally acceptable society, if I can make that judgment, and will tolerate some movement in Bahrain, as long as it does not frighten the horses; but if it threatened overthrow, it would brought to an abrupt end. I do think that there is a real possibility there, and the position of the Opposition-whether that is really what they want and whether they will be patient-is probably the clue. I hope very much that they are, not because of a conviction that that is an ideal form of government, but because unless this can be reached, I do not see an economic or social future for Bahrain at all, because I do not think that they will be able, under a Saudi thumb, to continue to fulfil their normal role. That is my hope: I think there is a chance and that we can make a minor contribution to it.
Robin Lamb: I would endorse that. I do believe in the good faith of the King in this and in that of the Crown Prince; they are still there and still have an opportunity to engage in a debate. I believe also that there are members of the Opposition who are also looking at dialogue as the way forward. Both sides have been polarised by these last months’ experiences, including by the fears aroused among many Sunni Bahrainis, who used to be politically quiescent and now are rather more virulently anti-opposition, so unfortunately there has been a negative effect. When people are alarmed by something, they, perhaps understandably, tend to react against it.
However, there is a tendency on the part of both sides, including the Opposition, continually to complain, understandably perhaps, about what they resent in either way, but I hope that they will actually get beyond that, at least privately, and start talking and building confidence between them. I share the view that that is not only the safest way forward for Bahrain, but also the one that will ensure long-term stability for the benefit of their people, as well as for the rest of us. I hope that that is something that will go ahead.
It is noticeable that many of the names most prominent in opposition are long-term rejectionists. Many of the names are very familiar and they were rejectionist during the more benign times when I was in Bahrain. They are probably irredeemable in that respect and will never find anything satisfactory until they get 100%, but they need to find in Bahrain people on both sides who are willing to work on the 50%, and I think there are people there willing to do so. We should encourage that privately and with due humility as to the expectation of how effective we are. For example, I spent many of my years trying to encourage al-Wefaq-the main party and the moderate oppositionists that I am talking about-to take part in the electoral process, because I thought that was in their best interests. Things changed slightly after 2006, and the fact that they did take part in the election in 2006 I have always attributed much more to the advice of Ayatollah Sistani than to mine. This is an area where others around the region can have an impact and could influence opinion in the Opposition, and that is something that we need to look at as well. We need to talk to those people, if they will talk to us, about how they can influence a peaceful resolution and dialogue of the political differences in Bahrain
Q54 Mr Ainsworth: How should we exercise that small amount of influence? Mr Lamb, you talked about the need in the whole region for private dialogue and public courtesy. Is that still the rule of the day?
Robin Lamb: I think it still works. You can use rational argument.-Excuse me for saying so, but politics is not always entirely about rational decision making-
Q55 Mr Ainsworth: You are talking to politicians, you know.
Robin Lamb: I wouldn’t care to be personal. Let’s depersonalise this.
Even those sorts of politicians are susceptible to a degree of logic and rational debate and argument. After all, that is what we try to do in our society, except we are in a position where we are more tolerant of that being in public and are less likely to take offence when it is in public. In private, yes, I think we need to keep talking, keep explaining and keep arguing in favour of a particular course, because that is consistent with not only our values but how we see the best outcome.
Q56 Mr Ainsworth: Maybe sometimes we go too far, but it is enormously difficult when you see things happening not to respond, and not to do so publicly.
Sir Roger Tomkys: Of course, in this context, I would like to respond publicly and I would like the Government to say, "We believe that the Al-Khalifa are necessary in Bahrain, and we look to them and the Opposition to negotiate for decent government that is properly representative of all the people of Bahrain under the Al-Khalifa."
Q57 Mr Ainsworth: You see no other route to a peaceful future?
Sir Roger Tomkys: Not given the place Bahrain finds itself, between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Robin Lamb: Roger has already made the point. I do think that discussions with Saudis about what is happening in Bahrain are just as important. If they can accept a sort of middle ground as well, their ability to influence that would be greater than ours. There is room for discussion there, too.
Q58 Mr Ainsworth: Before the present round of difficulties, you were both, at different periods, representing Her Majesty’s Government there. Were you allowed and encouraged, and did you in your roles then, talk to all streams of opinion within Bahrain? Was that impossible?
Sir Roger Tomkys: In my time, in the early ’80s, no it was not, because anyone who had declared himself in opposition was outside the country and not able to live there; they were in London and elsewhere. Over the next two decades, things changed a great deal, particularly after King Hamad took over, in the direction of a society in which organised opposition and political parties became possible for the first time.
Robin Lamb: Indeed. I regarded it as necessary to talk to everybody. When I presented my credentials to King Hamad, he said, slightly delphically, "You can speak to anybody you like in Bahrain." I took that as his word, and it only went wrong once. It must have been bound up with a particular political issue at the time, I suspect, but there was one time when there was a campaign against me for speaking to Al-Wefaq, and the parliament went so far as to pass a resolution criticising me for violating the Geneva convention, but as I was holding no prisoners of war, and I felt fairly comfortable.
Q59 Rory Stewart: I am going to be very disciplined and stop in exactly five minutes, but I am going to fire a lot of questions at you in five minutes.
First, Sir Roger, how many UK-based staff did you have in your political section?
Sir Roger Tomkys: Myself and two others, supported by two secretaries. Pre-computer age, we had secretaries.
Q60 Rory Stewart: So there was an HMA and a DHM and then there were essentially two second secretaries political, or second and third secretaries political?
Sir Roger Tomkys: A first secretary and a second secretary.
Q61 Rory Stewart: Okay, very good. Robin?
Robin Lamb: Ditto, really: DHM, first secretary, second secretary, plus support staff, plus local staff.
Q62 Rory Stewart: Sir Roger, any idea of what the situation would have been pre-1971 in terms of political offices on the ground?
Sir Roger Tomkys: Pre-1971, there would have been a political residency, which ran all our affairs in the Gulf from Bahrain, and then a separate office which was the agency. I guess that the agency staff would have been pretty much the same size as the embassy staff that I took over. The residency would have been much bigger, quite apart from the frigate that used to go up and down the Gulf.
Q63 Rory Stewart: During your time, how many UK ambassadors in Middle Eastern posts do you think spoke fluent Arabic, or the equivalent of extensive Arabic?
Sir Roger Tomkys: With the reservation that no Arabist is completely fluent-there are gradations of all these things-it was at that time very much the exception that there should be an ambassador in an Arab-speaking post who had not been through the MECAS process of 18 months. When I was ambassador in Syria, the Lebanon could be an exception: it could be treated as Francophone, and sometimes was.
Robin Lamb: I think, again, there may be some erosion, but most of us spoke Arabic in the Gulf. I think that may have diminished since.
Q64 Rory Stewart: Do you feel that the core competency framework of management systems, which determines promotion on the basis of management competency, and no longer is allowed to take into account for promotion to SMS language ability or deep country expertise, is an improvement in the Foreign Office personnel system?
Sir Roger Tomkys: There are two answers. First, I think that downgrading linguistic competence is a terrible mistake. There is still a lot of the world which is only partially accessible if you do not speak the language. Secondly, when Robin’s father was in the Gulf, and when I first emerged from MECAS myself and did not go to the Gulf, you had to do all your business in Arabic-I did, in Benghazi in the ’60’s-because the people you were dealing with did not have a second language; hardly anywhere in the Arab world did. Incidentally, we had quasi-colonial and military responsibilities as well, which put you in at the deep end whether you liked it or not. Now, however, they all have doctorates in engineering from Birmingham university, and the chances are that most British ambassadors rarely conduct hard business in Arabic. They do know what is going on around them, they read the press, they hear what people say, and they know what is being chatted, but they do not do any business in Arabic.
Robin Lamb: The only time I had to do business consistently in Arabic was in Basra, when the only person who spoke English was the head of the Southern Oil Company, whom I dealt with. Otherwise, yes, you can do a lot of business in English, but that diminishes, so in a country like Egypt, for example, if I went away from the capital to look at other, southern provinces, as I did, then I had to speak Arabic. Apart from the ability to do business, there are other issues as well. If you do speak Arabic, even those who speak English warm to you. It is not just because of communication; that may be an element, but I think it is mainly that you have shown enough interest in them to study their language. Also, I do think that when you study a language, you begin to understand a bit more about how people think and operate-to a degree, they reflect on each other. So I am a great fan of including linguistic ability in the criteria.
Rory Stewart: I promised five minutes: five minutes is up. Back to you, Chair.
Chair: And it is exactly five minutes. Sir Roger, Robin, thank you very much indeed. It has been a really helpful session and has left us much better informed.