Building a British naval base in Bahrain is a 'symbolic choice' – for no clear reason

World View: The authoritarian kingdom where doctors are tortured is a strange place for this £15m investment

The British decision to spend £15m establishing a naval base at Mina Salman Port in Bahrain is being presented as a "symbolic" deal to increase stability in the region, guard against unnamed threats and strengthen Britain's partnership with the states of the Gulf.

The agreement will identify Britain as an old colonial power strongly supporting the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain that mercilessly crushed demands for democracy and civil rights from the island's Shia majority during the Arab Spring in 2011. Even by the standards of the time, repression was excessive. Shia mosques and holy places were bulldozed. Doctors at the main hospital in Bahrain that treated injured protesters were tortured by being forced to stand without sleep for days on end. Other prisoners were told that unless they sang the praises of the king their interrogators would urinate into their mouths.

At the heart of the crisis convulsing this part of the Middle East is a struggle between Sunni and Shia, and Britain has openly taken the side of the former. It may not necessarily be a good long-term investment. The total population of states bordering on the Gulf is about 145 million of whom at least 110 million are Shia. It is a mistake to think that the Shia in the rest of the Middle East do not notice or care what happens to their co-religionists in Bahrain. The Islamic State (Isis) fighters have become the shock troops of the Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria but their extremism and international isolation may lead to a defeat for the Sunni in both countries.

There is no question about Bahrain's toxic human rights record. An independent inquiry in 2011 catalogued abuses and, despite promises of reform, torture and mistreatment continue. Last year even the United States State Department, normally cautious when it comes to highlighting the failings of the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, said that the abuses in Bahrain included "citizens' inability to change their government peacefully; arrest and detention of protesters on vague charges, in some cases leading to their torture in detention; and lack of due process in trials of political and human rights."

Only last week Bahraini human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja was sentenced to three years in prison for "insulting the king" by tearing up his photograph. She had just given birth to her second child, and is free on bail pending appeal. Her father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, is already in jail serving a life term for his role in encouraging the Arab Spring protests.

Nabeel Rajab, one of Bahrain's leading human rights activists, was arrested on 1 October because he "offended national institutions" by his comments on social media. Mr Rajab had criticised the government for using counterterrorism laws to prosecute human rights defenders, and had accused the Bahraini security forces of encouraging violent beliefs similar to those of IS.


He pointed out that a former Bahraini interior ministry officer, Mohamed Isa al-Binali, had joined Isis and was calling on other interior ministry employees to do likewise. Among Mr Rajab's tweets was one saying: "Many Bahrain men who joined terrorism & Isis came from security institutions and those institutions were the first ideological incubator." The Bahraini security forces often draw their personnel from other Sunni states such as Pakistan and Jordan and they then become naturalised Bahraini citizens. The Bahraini Shia say there is a continuing campaign to deny them jobs in all sectors and to change the demographic balance on the island in favour of the Sunni.

There has always been a strong strain of hypocrisy in the claims of the US and Britain to support secular democracy and civil rights in countries such as Libya and Syria. They do so in alliance with Sunni theocratic absolute monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and UAE which understandably have no interest in spreading secular democracy anywhere. In 2011, UAE said it would refuse to join the coalition against the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi if there was any criticism of Bahraini repression.

The most powerful figure in Bahrain is widely regarded as being not King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa but the Prime Minister, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa who has held his office since 1970. Calls for his resignation were one of the main demands of demonstrators three years ago, but he has steadfastly refused to step down.

Bahrain was a British protectorate from the 19th century until independence in 1971, ruled by the al-Khalifa dynasty that has long looked to Britain to shield it from international reaction against domestic repression. From the mid-1960s the head of security on the island was Ian Henderson who had played a role in the suppressing the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s. Successive periods of protest were harshly dealt with. Since 2011 Britain has played a role in muting the international reaction to the suppression of the protests by emphasising that a dialogue is under way and reforms are being introduced, though nobody else sees any sign of these going anywhere. It has played along with Bahraini government claims that Iran is orchestrating Shia dissent on the island though there is no evidence for this.

Sectarian hatreds between the Sunni and Shia communities within Bahrain have deepened in the last three years with the Shia more marginalised than ever. There had been divisions within the royal family about how to handle dissent, with the King and Crown Prince seeking compromise and the Prime Minister and the branch of the al-Khalifa known as "Khawalids" opposed to sharing any power with the majority. But these differences seem to have ended with a victory for the latter faction which can increasingly ignore Shia protests that are confined to villages and the outskirts of the capital, Manama.

It is not at all clear why Britain needs to establish its first permanent naval base in the Middle East since 1970 in Bahrain, other than the fact that it is possible to do so. British intervention in Iraq after 2003 saw the deployment of ground troops in Basra, but they were far too few to control the city or the surrounding countryside. There was a political failure to understand the degree of popular hostility and resistance this force would face. Much the same happened in Helmand Province in Afghanistan after 2006, when again the numbers of British soldiers were too few to assert control while they were enough to provoke local opposition. The base in Bahrain will be used to support RAF operations against the Islamic State in Iraq, but these are on such a small scale that they will not do much to affect the outcome of the war with Isis. Most British disasters in the Middle East over the past century have stemmed from wishing to be a major player in the region, while underestimating the resources necessary to do so.