Debates about whether Britain should have an ethical foreign policy are not new. It was one of the big differences between Gladstone and Disraeli in the nineteenth century. As a former diplomat I hold that an ethical foreign policy is not an add-on or optional extra. As in one’s personal life, morality should be intrinsic to everything one does. Ethical considerations should pervade the purpose and conduct of Britain’s foreign policy, which should be to protect and promote the interests of Britain by ethical means.
Being ethical carries with it both a duty of care and a duty to understand. Foreign policy must be grounded in an understanding of a situation and the likely consequences of policy in dealing with it. Some of the biggest foreign policy failures have been caused by inadequacy in discharging these duties, the Iraq war being the most notable example.
Bahrain is Britain’s oldest ally in the Gulf, a region of very great importance to us. In general, our influence has been overwhelmingly for the good. Of all the Gulf states, Bahrain is the most liberal and progressive in terms of upholding women’s rights, freedom of worship, and provision of free healthcare and schooling.
The events at Pearl Roundabout in February, the failure of the subsequent attempts by the Bahrain government to persuade the main opposition bloc to participate in political talks, leaving Bahrain teetering on the edge of spiralling sectarian violence, and a security crack-down accompanied by economic loss and human rights abuses – all raise an acute dilemma for the conduct of foreign policy in a world which believes that reality is what appears in an ever-faster news cycle. Representing democratic values, we of course want to see the observance of human rights and progress towards democratic institutions. At the same time, it is almost invariably counter-productive for us to hector, cajole or publicly lecture friendly governments about their internal arrangements.
From the outside it seems clear that the Bahrain authorities made a huge mistake in using the degree of force they deployed to disperse the demonstrators gathered at Pearl Roundabout. Predictably, this made the protestors more intransigent. At the same time, it is important to recognise growing Sunni fears about imported Shi’a fundamentalism, fuelled by Ayatollah Khomeini’s reinterpretation of the Shi’a doctrine of velayat-e faqih to justify dictatorship by a clerical Supreme Leader. It would be naïve to dismiss these fears as groundless. In 1981, a plot to establish an Islamic Republic of Bahrain was nipped in the bud. Meanwhile, although officially the ancient Iranian claim to Bahrain has been abandoned, it is resurrected from time to time by Iranian spokesmen.
There is little doubt that one-sided reporting in the Western media has worsened the Sunni sense of insecurity. Newspaper tallies of fatalities in the unrest routinely fail to mention that the total includes policemen killed by protestors - a particularly disgusting example being a policeman being repeatedly run over by a car, although it is there to see on YouTube – and the murder of four Pakistani workers by a mob. We do not hear the evidence for the contention that Salmaniya Hospital for a period was indeed taken over by the radicals. Press releases from human rights organisations are treated by journalists as verified facts. While the demonstrations at Pearl Roundabout were extensively reported, large rallies more favourable to the government in front of Al-Fatih mosque were passed by. We preferred to salve our human rights sensibilities rather than take the view of even the main opposition group in Bahrain that the Formula One race should go ahead in the interests of the island’s economy.
Because of the demographics of the Shi’a-Sunni divide in Bahrain, one-person-one vote is highly problematic, a recipe for the tyranny of the majority. Rightly or wrongly, many Sunnis see the threat of a theocracy on the pattern of Iran. It is impossible to envisage Saudi Arabia tolerating a Shia state 25kms off its coast. In these circumstances, it is reasonable to conclude that evolution of the present form of rule, not revolution, represents the best option for the people of Bahrain, and that Britain should use its influence to support a step by step approach to a more representative form of government.
We have a right to expect that fellow signatories of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights will live up to their obligations. But the Declaration does not require them to adopt a particular form of government. Nor does one need a megaphone to convey advice to a long-standing friend. Our relations with the Gulf states are of the greatest importance strategically and economically. With economic power shifting to the East, we should be careful not to overlook that even old friends have choices in an evolving world order. Successful diplomacy means looking beyond the news cycle to take a long-term view both of the past - recognising Britain’s valuable legacy in Bahrain - and of our strategic interests in the future.
Sir Harold Walker was a UK former ambassador to Bahrain, UEA and IraqReuse content