In light of what has happened in Bahrain over the past few months, where the security forces have killed at least 30 pro-democracy demonstrators since February, it was astonishing that the country's second-highest representative, the Crown Prince, received what was tantamount to a public blessing from the British state in the form of an invitation to the royal wedding. Confronted with a growing outcry, Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa has now prudently decided to absent himself. Britain's failure to withdraw the invitation earlier does no credit to Clarence House's Foreign Office advisers, who helped to assemble the guest list to begin with.
The Crown Prince may be an old friend of the Prince of Wales but he is also the son of a despot who has set his government against the "Arab spring" sweeping the region. Far from meeting the demands of the demonstrators who sought an end to royal autocracy, the Prince's father called in troops from Saudi Arabia to have them swept off the streets. Since then, hundreds of people have been jailed. According to Human Rights Watch, the security forces have used the declaration of martial law in March to turn Bahrain into "a state of fear". The Prince did not distance himself from their tactics but backed them to the hilt, declaring that there would be "no leniency towards anyone who seeks to split our society", in other words, to anyone seeking to divest the royal family of its powers.
Western countries are often accused of supporting democratic movements in the Middle East only when it is strategically convenient. In Bahrain's case, concern that the mainly Shia protesters might drag Bahrain into Iran's orbit seems to have played a part in shaping the West's feeble response to the crackdown. Foreign Office officials may insist that all countries with which Britain has diplomatic relations are entitled to be represented at an event like the royal wedding. But the fact that one of the key men behind the repression in Bahrain was offered a front-row seat in what may be the most watched television pageant ever is bound to increase Arab suspicions of Western countries' sincerity when they call for reform in the Middle East.