Britain's prime minister and foreign secretary will soon be visiting Bahrain, an anglophile monarchy eager to woo Britain. Theresa May and Boris Johnson are in turn lured to the prospect of expanding Britain's security interests in the Arab Gulf – a goal first set upon by David Cameron – and the business opportunities that provides.

May will be attending the Gulf Cooperation Council Leaders' Summit – the annual meeting of Arab autocrats – midweek, with Johnson arriving at the end of the week to attend the Manama Dialogue, a yearly security conference which every foreign secretary since William Hague has attended.

Bahrain Shia cleric and Iran
Anti-government protesters hold posters of Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim during an anti-government protest in 2016 organised by Bahrain's main opposition group Al Wefaq, in Budaiya, west of Manama, Bahrain Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters file photo

And with these events in mind, Bahrain has been on a charm offensive. The Bahraini Foreign Minister – a cousin of Bahrain's king – has met with Johnson and MPs ahead of the events. In September Bahrain hosted Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary – for whom Bahrain's tiny economy apparently holds high enough priority for him to visit. The King of Bahrain sat next to Queen Elizabeth during her 90th birthday celebrations, and visited Downing Street in October to personally invite May to the summit.

As if King Hamad sending himself as a messenger isn't enough of signpost of how desperately Bahrain desires Britain's friendship, he also personally gifted the UK a brand new naval base, the first of its kind in the region since 1971. King Hamad's £30m-plus investment in another country's security interests comes at a time of severe austerity in Bahrain, when the economy is shrinking dramatically as a result of five years of repression and deflated oil prices.

For the UK, it seems a sweet deal. Britain has a new naval base they've barely had to pay for and a country eager for royal, economic and security ties. Bahrain can be Britain's beachhead into the rest of the Gulf region.

But as May prepares for the summit, where she will be the only female leader – and probably the only woman – in the room, I have one message for her: this relationship is too good to be true. Because for all the attempts of Bahrain's anglophile leaders to dazzle Britain's elites, the fact remains that Bahrain – alongside its neighbours – is an authoritarian regime abusive of human rights. Theresa May can try to ignore the human rights crisis in these countries as a footnote, but she's liable to get burned for it.

Bahrain considers itself shielded [from scrutiny] due to its relations with Britain.

Just ask Prince Charles: he can vouch for the embarrassment Bahrain engenders. In November, the Prince of Wales toured the Gulf, spending four days in the island kingdom – his longest stop on the tour. While he was there, the former leader of an opposition party and torture survivor Ebrahim Sharif criticised his visit, telling the Associated Press that he feared the Prince's presence would "whitewash" abuses.

Within days of Prince Charles' departure, Sharif was prosecuted, charged with inciting hatred against the regime. Perhaps because of how embarrassing it was for Prince Charles that someone was being prosecuted as a result of his visit, Bahrain decided to drop the case.

prince charles bahrain
Prince Charles and his wife Camilla visited Bahrain earlier this year YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

Sharif's case is not an outlier: he previously served a five-year sentence handed down by a military court, and a second year-long prison term in relation to a political speech he gave in 2015. Many activists are also under travel ban and facing prosecution, while the largest political party in the country, Al Wefaq, was dissolved over the summer. Meanwhile, enforced disappearance, torture and the denial of basic human rights remain the norm in the country, despite four years of British assistance which has failed to encourage substantive human rights reform.

Britain is already facing criticism for dogmatically supporting Bahrain, with the United Nations' top torture expert telling the press earlier this year that "Bahrain considers itself shielded [from scrutiny] due to its relations with Britain." The closer the alliance between the UK and Bahrain becomes, the more damaging Bahrain's repression is to the UK's credibility and reputation.

December marks the sixth anniversary of the start of the Arab Spring, when Tunisian street vendor Mohammad Bouazizi set himself ablaze in an act of wretched desperation. Of the protest movements that followed, none were bigger in proportion to population than in Bahrain, where nearly 50 per cent of the population demanded democratic change, only to be crushed by the Bahraini army, backed up by Saudi Arabia.

Now, six years on, Britain is allying itself with the self-same counter-revolutionary forces which helped spread authoritarianism and disregard for human rights across the region, which have played a role in the creation of ISIS, in the tragedy of the Syrian civil war, and directly instigated a humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

As she prepares for her next big foreign visit, the economic benefits of growing relations with oil-rich monarchs might seem alluring for May. The fact is, the pursuit of that relationship will turn Britain into an accomplice of the human rights violations which continue daily in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the region.


Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei is director of advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy and Michael Payne is international advocacy officer at Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain.