It was a tale of two protests. The first was on Monday, when pro-democracy demonstrators braved a blizzard outside the Bahrain Embassy in London to salute the arrest and continued detention of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja. They intend to continue these protests every month.
The second was held yesterday, when a human rights activist was arrested for throwing an egg at a limousine carrying Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman as he drove through London for a state visit. The car was bullet-proof, the egg was not. I’m not a lawyer, but the balance between the freedom to protest and the freedom to oppress seems clear.
Much as I admire the egg-thrower, there is an element of “MBS”, as he has long been known, that I also appreciate. His decision to lock up hundreds of corrupt members of the Saudi elite last year until they paid their dues was satisfying to watch. The choice of “prison” was also poetic; the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The building is the epitome of the House of Saud’s marriage with the West.
The reaction that this move elicited from investors, many of whom were Western, was also telling. The international business press fell over themselves to point out that MBS’s mass arrest had “spooked” investors. It was a tacit admission that Saudi corruption was great for international business, unless an impetuous young prince did something about it.
Bin Salman has adorned his visit to Britain with a self-advertising campaign. “He is empowering Saudi Arabian women” read one online banner splashed across the theoretically human rights-supporting liberal Guardian website. “#ANewSaudiArabia” was the slogan underneath, alongside an assured mugshot of the Crown Prince himself.
The same advert, on the first day of his visit, has now been noticed rather infamously by Twitter and the evening BBC and Sky News programmes, because it appeared alongside an article by Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, who wrote that “Britain’s red carpet for the Saudi ruler is shameless”.
This unfortunate juxtaposition is also telling. Britain’s newly anti-Saudi Labour opposition party, led by international socialist and former backbencher Jeremy Corbyn, is suddenly faced with the prospect of power (however slim), and near-complete executive control over British foreign policy. For decades, Corbyn has called for change in Saudi Arabia and even more so for Britain to change its attitude. If he becomes Prime Minister, what will Corbyn actually do to change our country’s approach to Saudi Arabia?
After Thornberry thundered in the Guardian on Wednesday, her party leader issued a press statement that arms sales to Saudi Arabia would stop if he became Prime Minister, until MBS stopped the war in Yemen, that is.
Meanwhile, protest one – about Bahrain — is still shivering in the snow. The placards highlight that Al-Khawaja is currently serving a life sentence in a Bahraini prison. The group who organised the protest this week will organise protests on subsequent months, to keep awareness and his spirits high. Over the years, former human rights activist Al-Khawaja, and numerous members of his family, have been arrested, detained without charge, sentenced on ludicrous charges in show trials, had their homes raided and been held incommunicado; they also allege that they have been tortured.
The Bahraini state needs to have a very good national security reason to inflict that amount of inconvenience and suffering on a single family. Just as we did not forgive the Soviet Union, fascist or extremist dictators for their crimes against people’s personal security, we should not ignore what Bahrain is doing to Al-Khawaja and his family.
Regardless of his individual political views, Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja is a former Middle East and North Africa director of one of the most prestigious human rights organisations in the world, Frontline Defenders. He was a senior director of that organisation until his arrest.
Not really an advocacy group, Frontline Defenders now provides emergency support to recorders of human rights abuses in dictatorships and conflict areas. This can include legal advice if arrested, emergency evacuations from an oppressive country or, if needed “going underground”. This advice is being doled out to hundreds of people around the world who carry out selflessly the dangerous task of cataloguing human rights abuses in dictatorships and war-zones. These human rights defenders do this in writing, pictures and video – it takes time – and they all too often get caught. In the Middle East, it was people like Al-Khawaja in Bahrain to whom they turned in times of danger. Now he is in prison himself.
Whether he is a malign radical – political or religious — or is a threat to Bahraini society, or even a cultish inspirer of terrorism, remains to be seen. There is precious little evidence that he is dangerous in any way at all.
Certain members of Britain’s Royal Family, the British political and commercial elite, and others have either not realised or are ignoring the human cost of Westminster’s alliance with Bahrain. The cruelty it appears to have inflicted on the Al-Khawaja family is self-evidently undeserving and excessive. Instead of supporting those who have locked him up, Britain should demand that figures like Al-Khawaja are emancipated, pardoned and perhaps promised half a dozen seats in a new Bahraini Parliamentary assembly, elected freely by the people, alongside whoever else wants to take a democratically-elected position.
Consider also the position of Saudi Arabia regarding Iran. If Britain ever pulls its support for Saudi Arabia, it would be under Prime Minister Corbyn, who has been paid £20,000 to appear on Tehran’s English-language state broadcaster, Press TV, on a regular basis. He has issued only lacklustre criticism of Iran’s human rights record compared to his burnished near-hatred of those in charge in Saudi Arabia. Suddenly stopping arms sales could be a cataclysmic event with a myriad of unforeseen consequences, not least making Saudi Arabia nervous enough to start fighting back more directly against Iranian expansionism.
The historic and present relationship between Bahrain, Iran and Saudi Arabia is key to understanding the decision that Corbyn will have to make if he wants to come good on his promise to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia abruptly when he takes power. The ruling families of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are inter-linked. So are the fates of predominantly Shia Iran and predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia, as are those of Shia majority Bahrain and expansionist Iran. If either of the Shia minorities in either country erupt, Saudi Arabia will blame Iran and a war will start. Iran has a tendency and capability to make small conflicts erupt into larger ones, and to deploy proxy rebels inside rival countries to its advantage. Mohammad Bin Salman is right to be scared.
The reality is that a sudden change in British foreign policy of the magnitude that Jeremy Corbyn is proposing would be disastrous. As an instinctive defender of human rights, Corbyn has been right – over many decades – to highlight the suffering of people in Saudi Arabia and Iran. He may have been somewhat partisan, but overall his concern for the Iranian, Saudi and Bahraini people – or segments thereof – has been a much needed antidote to traditional British superciliousness over our former Empire’s substantial suffering. What Corbyn is proposing is certainly the right thing to do, but the relationship needs to be deflated slowly, not with an order to stop shipping all defence equipment.
Riyadh and Manama would be up the Persian Gulf without a dhow within weeks, if not days, if a revolution of Shia citizens inside either country took root, or if they were invaded. The security of the sanctity of the two holiest sites in the Muslim world, Makkah and Madinah, would be at risk. Given the number of Muslims around the world, the potential for global turmoil would be immense should the government with responsibility for the “Two Holy Mosques” be anything but a stable, gradually reforming government, such as the one that MBS is proposing.
Corbyn could well inherit a difficult relationship with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. He should think carefully. With Iran, the relationship between London and Tehran can only get better. With Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Britain’s two closest allies in the Middle East, he will need to manage the fallout of a deteriorating and historic alliance with caution.