What are Theresa May’s foreign policy priorities in the Gulf?

At a summit in Bahrain next week she could promote human rights—or business

December 01, 2016
Prime Minister Theresa May ©Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images
Prime Minister Theresa May ©Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

It’s probably fair to say that Theresa May hasn’t yet put her stamp on foreign policy. So what does the prime minister stand for—aside from “Brexit meaning Brexit” and the UK’s renewed interest in free trade?

Her attendance at the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Bahrain next week may offer us more clues. And given the host’s record, we may also learn more about how May’s government is going to reconcile its business-friendly foreign policy with ongoing commitments to uphold human rights.

The PM’s visit to Manama, Bahrain’s capital, comes soon after a damning Amnesty report on the country. After bloodily suppressing protests for democracy during the Arab spring in 2011, the Sunni-led Bahraini authorities under King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa promised to institute major reforms. They have since done nothing of the kind.

Instead, there are now swingeing restrictions on demonstrations and other forms of peaceful assembly in Bahrain, with an indefinite ban on all public demonstrations in Manama. The security forces regularly disperse unauthorised protests, not least those in poor Shia villages where resentment over the jailing of political prisoners is widespread. The security forces all too frequently use excessive force, discharging tear gas into homes and firing at unarmed protesters with shotgun pellets.

Meanwhile, the country’s main opposition group, the Shia party Al Wefaq, has been forcibly dissolved and its Secretary General, Sheikh Ali Salman, given a four-year prison sentence. Other opposition leaders, including some imprisoned in 2011, also languish in jail.

Yet despite this the UK has been involved in Bahrain’s unconvincing attempts to portray itself as intent on serious reform. Through its Conflict, Security and Stability Fund, the UK has provided support for Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior Ombudsman, Prisoners’ and Detainees’ Rights Commission and the Special Investigations Unit (which monitors police behaviour), bodies set up in the wake of the protests of 2011.

These, we’re led to believe, show a country serious about cleaning up its act. Last year, when foreign secretary, Philip Hammond told MPs that Bahrain was involved in “significant reform” and was a “country which is travelling in the right direction.”

However, wider forces are at play.

In November, a major Royal Navy base in Bahrain was opened, Britain’s first permanent military foothold in the middle east for more than 40 years. Meanwhile, Bahrain is a member of the military alliance—led by Saudi Arabia—engaged in operations to quell the Houthi uprising in Yemen. In Bahrain, leading opponents of the ruling family such as activist Nabeel Rajab are facing more jail time for criticising the country’s involvement in the Yemen bombing campaign, which has killed and injured thousands of civilians. Though not part of the campaign, Britain is heavily involved by proxy—having sold Saudi Arabia some £3.3bn worth of planes and bombs during the conflict, according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade.

At the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting the UK will support a “road map” for peace recently outlined by the UN's Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. While this offers a sliver of hope for Yemenis caught up in this nightmare of Houthi attacks and aerial assaults from the Saudi-led coalition, there is little prospect of justice for those whose lives have already been ruined. Meanwhile, the UK government has rejected calls to halt shipments of weapons for Riyadh, despite a report commissioned by Amnesty in which leading lawyers concluded that this constituted “a breach by the UK of its obligations under domestic, European and international law.”

Yet May could still surprise us. In football-obsessed Britain there is mounting scrutiny of Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 World Cup, with hundreds of thousands of foreign workers toiling in dangerous conditions, most of whom have their passports confiscated under the country’s employment sponsorship rules. The International Labour Organisation, human rights groups, and football bodies have all expressed concern at conditions that in some cases amount to forced labour.

With the eradication of modern slavery a key British government policy, the prime minister may wish to make it clear that Qatar’s new labour sponsorship law, due to come into effect on 13th December, will still leave migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation and restricted in their ability to leave abusive employers. Whether she will do this at the summit, or tackle any other human rights issue, remains to be seen.