Prince Andrew hosted the King of Bahrain at the Royal Windsor Horse Show today in a further sign of his steadfast commitment to the repressive Gulf state.
King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa arrived in London amid growing controversy as violence continues back home, and his son Prince Nasser bin Hamed Al Khalifa, who captains the Bahraini team at Windsor, faces a court challenge to immunity from prosecution over torture claims.
The Duke of York had been due to attend a Bahrain promotional event earlier in the day at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster but cancelled due a clash in his schedule. Anti-arms campaigners called on the Royal Family to stop advocating business with the “oppressive” regime and said Prince Andrew’s cancellation was the first sign the Royal Family’s support for Bahrain was on the wane.
The Independent understands, however, that the King was not expected to attend the This is Bahrain conference, which the organisers said received no financial support or sponsorship from the Bahrain government, and that he was being received by the Duke of York, the Queen and other members of the Royal Family at Windsor.
A Royal official said: “[Prince Andrew] has already committed to attend an economic event at Bloomberg and regrettably it wasn’t possible to attend both events. The Duke is, however, a long-standing supporter of the UK’s bilateral relationship with Bahrain as evidenced by his hosting of the King at Windsor.”
Prince Nasser faces a legal challenge in London to strip him of immunity from prosecution over allegations that he was implicated in the alleged torture of protesters during an uprising against the ruling family at the height of the Arab spring in 2011. The Bahraini government strongly denies the claims. A spokesman for the Bahrani prince has “categorically denied any involvement” of the prince in any alleged torture.
Bahranis joined the anti-arms campaigners outside the QEII centre to protest against the country’s poor human rights record and demanded the Government also sever all ties with the island.
Maryam Al-Khawaja, 26, from the Bahrain Center Of Human Rights, told The Independent: “The British public and those who are invited to attend to this conference need to have a clear understanding that we are far from the image that the Bahrain government gives on these occasions. Nothing is back to normal.”
Ala’a Shelabi, co-funder of Bahrain Watch, said: “This kind of conference is just one of the massive PR campaigns that the government has been employing over the past three years. The government has moved the battle ground to here in the UK.”
Sam Walton, 28, a member of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), donned an Andrew mask and tried to get into the QEII centre but was quickly escorted off the premises by a security guard. He said: “Bahrain is trying to white-wash their reputation. Their human rights record is worse than a joke. The real problem is that Britain is still arming them. We are currently trying to flog them Eurofighter Typhoons. Today is the first time the Royal Family has waned in their support for Bahrain by Prince Andrew not showing up. I would like to think it is the Royal Family growing a conscience and deciding to stop selling arms to any takers around the world.”
Andrew Smith, also from (CAAT), said: “Every time the Government sells weapons and every time the Royal Family meets the Bahraini government we are not just giving them military support, we are giving them political support. It legitimises an oppressive and illegitimate regime.”
A string of human rights groups including Human Rights Watch have criticised Bahrain's human rights record. The state brutally suppressed protesters during its version of the Arab Spring in 2011 and there have been widespread reports of Bahrani protesters being jailed and tortured having demanded democratic rights for the Shia majority, an estimated 60 per cent of Bahraini citizens, from the Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy.
During a visit to Bahrain last month Prince Andrew praised what is happening in the country as “a source of hope for many people in the world and a source of pride for Bahrainis”. He used to visit often as a special representative for trade and investment.