In popular culture, the decline and fall of an empire is often portrayed as a rapid, sometimes cataclysmic process with a clear distinction between the imperial and post-imperial phases. In reality, imperial systems are often highly resilient and adaptable to circumstances of severely diminished power. A case in point is the British Empire, which formally ceased to exist by the late 1970s. In spite of the collapse of direct colonialism, Britain has maintained an informal imperialist policy as a junior partner in the American imperial system. Recent events in the Persian Gulf are illustrative of the unfortunate persistence of British imperialism. On December 5th Britain’s foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, signed an agreement with his Bahraini counterpart to establish a new British naval base in the port of Mina Salman in the Kingdom of Bahrain. It will be the first of its kind since Britain’s withdrawal “east of Suez” in 1971. Establishing the new base will significantly expand Britain’s strategic capabilities and influence in the region. The base will harbour the latest Type 45 destroyers and Britain’s two new aircraft carriers. British ships will now be able to remain in the Gulf without rotating back to UK ports. Bahrain will meet most of the costs of building the new facility whilst Britain will be responsible for its operating costs.
The tiny state of Bahrain (population 1.34 million) is an absolute monarchy ruled by the al-Khalifa family. The modern Bahraini state was in large measure a creation of the British. The chief architect was Charles Belgrave — the de facto ruler of the country from 1926 until 1957. Bahrain’s alliance with the United States (the American 5th fleet operates out of Mina Salman) is now of far greater importance than its ties with Britain. Nonetheless, relations with Britain have remained close — with members of the royal family even hankering after a return of imperial rule.
Britain is also responsible for the creation of Bahrain’s hated security establishment, which has a grisly record of torture and other human rights abuses. Until 1998, the head of Bahrain’s General Directorate for State Security Investigations was Ian Henderson — a former Colonial Police Officer in Kenya during the 1950s. Repeatedly implicated in torture in both Kenya and later Bahrain, an investigation into Henderson’s activities by Scotland Yard was dropped in 2001 due to the refusal of Bahrain’s authorities to cooperate with the inquiry.
A wealthy Sunni minority dominates the upper ranks of Bahraini society while much of the Shia majority suffers from serious poverty. In the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, demonstrations erupted within Bahrain against the repressive rule of the al-Khalifa family. In many cases the demonstrators were merely calling for transition to a constitutional monarchy — rather than the overthrow of the al-Khalifa dynasty, but Bahrain’s rulers responded with tear gas, indefinite detention of demonstrators, and torture. Bahrain’s leaders portray the rebellion as rooted in reactionary religiosity. Furthermore, they insist that calls for democracy hide the demonstrator’s real aspirations for an Iranian-style theocracy and have repeatedly claimed that opposition to their rule is fomented by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Bahrain’s already strictly censored media have come under even tighter control since the eruption of protests. According to Freedom House, Bahrain now ranks amongst the ten least free countries in the world. Draconian sentencing is common for the most insignificant of “crimes.” For instance in December 2014 Bahraini activist, Zainab al-Khawaja was sentenced to three years in jail for tearing up a photograph of the King. Her father, Abdulhadi, is serving a life sentence for encouraging peaceful protest.
Britain has responded to Bahrain’s human rights abuses with remarkable indulgence. Human rights organizations and even the U.S. State Department have decried the glacial pace of the government’s constitutional reform. In contrast, the British Government has repeatedly claimed, with little basis, that Bahrain is making significant strides towards improving its human rights record. In October 2012, the same month that Bahrain’s government made public protest illegal, Britain and Bahrain signed a new defence cooperation agreement.
In spite of the recommendations of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC), the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has declined to list Bahrain as a “country of concern.” In January 2014, Britain’s Prince Andrew visited Bahrain at the request of the FCO. The Prince’s visit was part of the British embassy’s “Great British Week” — an event launched to “emphasise the friendship and strong bilateral relationship between the United Kingdom and Bahrain.” Incredibly, during his visit, Britain’s Prince Andrew declared: “I believe that what’s happening in Bahrain is a source of hope for many people in the world and a source of pride for Bahrainis.”
Britain has been heavily criticised by Bahrain’s human rights community for its unwavering support for Bahrain’s ruling elite. In an interview in November of 2014 Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights said: “Even in the U.S., they are not exactly supporting us but they are not giving their approval to the Bahrain government either. The British, no. They not only support trade with Bahrain, but if any other business or country pulls out in order to protest the problems with human rights, the British swoop in to take that trade.”
Rajab speculated that the new base was a “gift” from the al-Khalifas to Britain for their conspicuous support.
Maryam Al-Khawaja, Director of Advocacy at the Gulf Center for Human Rights, said in a March 2014 interview: “while it’s easy to say that western countries have double standards on human rights violations in the Middle East and North Africa, the worst country of all in terms of foreign policy towards Bahrain is the UK.”
Regarding press freedom in Bahrain, Arch Puddington of Freedom House remarked in 2013: “Restrictions on the press have steadily worsened since pro-democracy protests began in 2011… Many domestic journalists have been arrested and detained without warrants and confessions have been extracted through torture.”
Britain responded by defending Bahrain’s record on free speech. On World Press Freedom Day the British embassy published two articles on media freedom — one written by the editor of a government-controlled paper, the other by a political organization sympathetic to the government. In the former editor, Anwar Abdulrahman remarked that:
“So-called human rights organizations, which, unfortunately, are largely administered by ex-ideologists and even terrorists, today propagate their own version of the word ‘freedom… In today’s world there is a frequent tendency for the press to brand those in power as ‘baddies’, and the real wrongdoers as victims.”
The announcement of the new British naval base comes at a somewhat curious time. Britain has withdrawn from Afghanistan, and the British military is facing significant budget reductions. The key to Britain’s rationale for establishing the base is the UK’s relationship with the United States. The U.S. “pivot to Asia” does not diminish the tremendous importance of Middle East — but it does mean that U.S. forces may be more thinly spread. Beefing up the British military presence in the Gulf will buttress the repressive monarchies that maintain U.S.-oriented “stability” in the region. Since Bahrain is footing the bill, this is a cost-effective demonstration of the continued value of the Anglo-American alliance. Defence Secretary Philip Hammond partially acknowledged this factor declaring that: “As the United States focuses more of its effort on the Asia-Pacific region, we and our European partners will be expected to take a greater share of the burden in the Gulf, the Near East and North Africa.”
Furthermore, Middle Eastern energy resources are of increasing importance to the UK as North Sea reserves dwindle. Qatar is the chief supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the UK and its importance as an LNG trading partner is projected to increase as British demand increases over the next decade.
Commercial links between Britain and the Gulf States are also significant. The UK is a major arms exporter to the region, which is in the grip of an escalating arms race. The most lucrative arms deal of British history was the Al Yamamah deal with Saudi Arabia, which secured 600,000 barrels of Saudi crude oil per day beginning in 1985. More recently Prime Minister David Cameron visited the Gulf to facilitate the sale of 100 Typhoon multirole fighters to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in a combined deal worth some £6 billion. Cameron’s visit also coincided with the announcement of a joint defence partnership between the UK and the UAE. The establishment of Britain’s new base in Bahrain may facilitate sales of the Typhoon to the kingdom. Doug Barrie, a senior analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies commented:
“The mood music created by the naval base agreement can only be of benefit to defense industrial relations between the two sides. This closer strategic tie between the two governments provides a great opportunity for defense collaboration, including possible defense equipment sales.”
Britain claims that British weapons are not used for internal repression. However, weapons sales are interpreted by Bahrain’s rulers as tacit support; evidence that they can rely on British support in spite of international criticism. Furthermore, Britain could make its arms sales to Bahrain conditional if it were serious about curbing human rights abuses. The U.S. has set a precedent for this by withholding weapons in order to ensure the return of Tom Malinowski, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, who was expelled from the country in July. 
Finally, the Gulf States also invest heavily in Britain. The UAE has recently invested £8 billion, and Qatar is believed to have invested around £20 billion in the UK — with that amount projected to increase significantly.
Britain’s recent moves in the Gulf could be interpreted a “return” east of Suez, but the reality is that Britain never left — the UK has maintained close ties with the repressive ruling families of the Gulf Cooperation Council for decades. The new base does, however, represent a significant deepening of that strategic alliance. An alliance that is highly lucrative for Britain’s ruling elites but a severe impediment to the establishment of democracy in the Gulf. Furthermore, the base represents a significant danger to the British people. The presence of western military installations in the Middle East has been a key factor in the rise of Islamist terrorism. As Seamus Milne noted in the Guardian, the creation of the new naval base will likely inflame the broader Sunni population of the Middle East, who view their rulers as illegitimate proxies for western interests. Simultaneously, it will serve to antagonise the Shia underclass of the Gulf and Shia Iran. One might imagine that Britain’s disastrous involvement in the American led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan would have encouraged Britain’s ruling elite to abandon its imperialistic foreign policy. Unfortunately, Britain’s commitment to that pernicious policy is as strong as ever.
Alex Doherty is a co-founder of New Left Project and a graduate student in the War Studies department of King’s College London. He has written for Z Magazine and Open Democracy amongst other publications. You can follow him on twitter @alexdoherty7
 If one is to explain why the Americans are somewhat more critical of Bahrain’s human rights record it is probably due to the fact that as a relatively minor player in world affairs (and as a recipient of significant direct investment from the Gulf) the British cannot afford to alienate the Gulf states – who are critically dependent on U.S. power to maintain their rule in a way in which they are not dependent on America’s junior partner.
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