Protesters hold flags and banners in front on the Pearl Monument, a large white structure representing dhow "sails" projecting up to the sky, holding a pearl at the top

Bahrain’s uprising, 10 years on

The UK supported repression in Bahrain in 2011 with weapons sales, which continued even after the violent repression of protests. Even though the human rights situation has deteriorated in Bahrain in the decade since, the UK continues to bolster the regime with military and political support.

In February 2011, Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout in Manama became the focal point of protesters calling for political and economic reforms. They were part of the Arab Uprisings, the wave of protests that swept the region in 2011.

The authorities responded with violence. Peaceful protests were met with bullets and teargas, arrests and torture. Ten years on, a new report finds that Bahrain has “regressed in almost every area of Human Rights”.

The UK has a long history of colonial intervention in Bahrain, which has been ruled by the Al Khalifa family for more than 200 years. Bahrain declared independence in 1971, but the UK government has maintained a close relationship with its rulers, in order to protect its interests in the region.

Rather than support the human rights and democratic aspirations of the Bahraini people, it has assisted government repression and whitewashed the regime’s abuses.

UK complicity in repression

As Bahraini security forces responded to the Pearl roundabout protests with a brutal crackdown, much of this abuse used the same type of weaponry provided to Bahrain by the UK.

Military exports approved by the UK government in the months before included tear gas and ‘crowd control’ ammunition, assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles and sub-machine guns.

In March 2011, dozens of Saudi Tactica armoured personnel vehicles entered Bahrain to support the crackdown. They were manufactured by BAE Systems in Newcastle, and supplied to the Saudi Arabian National Guard in a special contract approved by the UK government.

Armoured vehicle driving on a motorway

Ignoring the rules

The UK government permitted the export of these goods in the full knowledge that Bahrain was controlled by an authoritarian regime, and despite its own policy saying it should not authorise exports which might be used for internal repression.

The UK finally revoked 44 arms licences to Bahrain in February 2011, but only after several deaths, hundreds of injuries, worldwide condemnation and intense pressure.

However, by June it was back to business as usual.

  • In July-September 2011 the government licensed military exports worth £1.3 million, including gun silencers, weapon sights and rifles.
  • In August 2011, Bahrain was again described as a ‘priority market’ for UK arms exports.
  • In September 2011, the UK government invited Bahrain to send an official delegation to the DSEI arms fair in London.

CAAT with Bahrain protesters at Downing Street

In solidarity with Bahrain

Ongoing repression

As arms sales continued, repression in Bahrain intensified. The crackdown continued with government forces raiding Shia villages, amid indiscriminate firing of bullets and birdshot, and the use of tear gas as a form of collective punishment.

Physicians for Human Rights said the use of tear gas, ‘weaponised’ in a 500 day campaign against the majority Shi’a population, was

“unprecedented in the 100-year history of tear gas use against civilians”.

Hundreds of people were unjustly detained. Torture and ill-treatment of prisoners was “systematic.”

In the following years, Bahrain became “one of the Middle East’s most repressive states” according to Freedom House. Basic freedoms were restricted, and political opposition dismantled.

Increased repression, increased arms sales

Despite the deterioration in human rights in Bahrain, the UK government continued to allow further weapons sales to the country.

Infographic, with two boxes on a timeline, showing increased UK arms sales to Bahrain after 2011, from £6million in the three years preceding, to more than£16 million in the three following

Arms exports to Bahrain actually increased as repression intensified.

It didn’t just allow these sales;  it actively promoted them. It invited Bahraini delegations to arms fairs in the UK and a bid  to persuade Bahrain to purchase BAE’s Eurofighter Typhoons saw the UK government arrange Royal visits,  a huge delegation to the Dubai Airshow, and even a tour of the Red Arrows.

Military cooperation also increased. In October 2012, the UK and Bahrain signed a memorandum of understanding on military co-operation including areas such as intelligence exchange and military force training.

Training provided by the UK includes military courses for sniper unit commanders training army officers and members of the royal family at the Sandhurst Military Academy, and training for prison guards.

In 2018, the UK opened a new Naval Base in Bahrain, in order to ‘guarantee Britain’s sustained presence east of Suez’ and ‘enable Britain to work with our allies to reinforce stability in the Gulf and beyond.’  Named after a colonial base, it was partly funded by the Bahrain government.

Whitewashing human rights abuses

The UK government and its supporters claim that the UK’s ‘close relationship’ with Bahrain enables it to exert influence and push for reform. In fact, the opposite is true.

The culture of impunity in Bahrain is supported and reinforced by continuing weapons sales. These deals support the regime materially and convey legitimacy on it politically. And the influence flows in the other direction: Bahrain’s rulers know that when they talk about buying UK weapons, or invest in a military base, they are also buying the UK government’s silence on human rights abuses.

For example, the Foreign Office repeatedly refused to include Bahrain on its list of countries of concern for human rights, despite calls from Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and many others.

Bahrain’s allies have opted for a disastrous policy of appeasement and acquiescence, and they have remained largely silent in the face of human rights violations that they would loudly denounce were they taking place in a less strategically important country.

Nicholas McGeehan, Human Rights Watch, September 2014

Taking action

We can challenge this support by resisting arms sales and taking action to support those working to promote human rights in Bahrain.

Banner image: Mahmood Al-Yousif on Flickr. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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