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Sunday, 29 May 2011

Is anyone surprised?

Is anyone really surprised by the 'news' that Britain is "training Saudi forces used to crush Arab Spring", as The Observer puts it? Who did people think was training these forces? The Tooth Fairy? Father Christmas? The Woodcraft Folk? The country in question being the very Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that we British ourselves created in 1932. Saudi-British relations have always been close, with the Saudi British Society doing a great deal to keep them so. Amnesty International offers arresting reading for anyone interested in the state of Anglo-Saudi relations, given the Saudis' appalling human rights record. So why do we train Saudi forces? Because we have certain interests in common with Saudi Arabia, as well as being critical of their human rights record, so in the world of realpolitik, we co-operate with them on certain matters, security included. I'm not sure that I see any rational alternative to such co-operation, under this British government or any other. 

Saudi forces have indeed been brutally suppressing protesters in Bahrain - does anyone think that they would not still have done this if we had not trained them? David Cameron has been roundly attacked for recently hosting the Crown Prince of Bahrain at Downing Street, although Number 10 says that Mr Cameron used the meeting to press the Crown Prince to embrace "reform not repression", and I can guardedly respect that (by the way, Bahrain's Crown Prince does have a very positive record when it comes to supporting the Israeli/Palestinian peace process).

The balance between engaging with unsavoury regimes and criticising them is always a difficult one to strike. That is a challenge with which the Liberal Democrats amply engaged in opposition, and, now that the party is in government, we find that, lo and behold, it is not a challenge that disappears or is easily met. This government, like any other British government, balances its concern for human rights with the UK's security needs and the preservation of British interests overseas. As a great supporter of the Coalition Government and its approach to foreign policy, I do not claim to have easy answers to the questions that I am raising in this post. Is it lame to say that, when it comes to human rights in this difficult context, the Foreign Office is doing the best it can to strike the right balance? Especially with a Lib Dem Minister, Jeremy Browne, responsible there for human rights, doing his impressive best to take a nuanced approach to these difficult, complicated issues.

The situation in Bahrain stinks, of course. But again, why should this come as a surprise? It's been going on for years. One has to support all constructive efforts to improve the situation for the people who live there, while recognising that this is going to take a long time and might well get worse before it gets better, a stark assessment that will come as scant comfort for the people concerned. Crucially, the presence in Bahrain of Saudi troops (and troops from the United Arab Emirates) must be seen in the context of the increasingly complicated, evolving relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

It is also crucial to consider Iran in any evaluation of what is happening in Bahrain. Iran's strategic ambitions must not be ignored. And you can't accuse the EU, including the UK and our current government, of ignoring Iran, given the sanctions that have just been announced. If you look at this video, and go in by about eleven minutes and fifteen seconds, you can see what Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has to say about Iran, and I applaud his excellent record on this.

I was fascinated, incidentally, to read this Chatham House article by Shashank Joshi about the risk of 'threat inflation' when it comes to Iran. The article pulls no punches in warning about the huge threats posed by Iran and its strategic ambitions, while also warning against the delusion of seeing a hidden Iranian hand behind every development in the Middle East. The article raises some complicated questions, as it concludes: 
None of this is to deny that Iran is likely, willing, and probably able to foment some degree of violence inside Bahrain and its anxious neighbours, if it was determined to do so. It is prudent to warn off Iran, given its history of intervention and impetuous diplomacy.
But what is more likely to render aggrieved Shia groups receptive to Iranian meddling: peaceful dialogue and meaningful reform, or bitter sectarian accusations and crushing violence?
The Saudi-led effort to vilify essentially moderate demonstrators will, in the long-term, radicalise these groups, harden confessional fault-lines, and thereby produce the very Iranian backlash on which these policies are conditioned.

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