Bahrain Mirror (Exclusive): Why did the Bahraini opposition's influence on the British stance towards the Bahraini issue deteriorate while the regime continues to succeed day after day in pulling the Britons to its side? An expert can answer this question by giving us a lesson about the major laws that direct world powers or colonial states in the rich Gulf region such as the interests and conflict over oil and power. In fact, all this is so true, but what else? Apart from the preconceived ideas, we try to discuss this issue with some Bahraini opposition figures living in the UK. Did the opposition fail in dealing with the constants of UK's foreign policy in the Gulf or did the game surpass them? What scope of influence is there left in the light of the victory of the Tories, the historically closest party to the Gulf monarchies? Does the opposition expect anything from the UK in the next five years? Ali Al-Aswad, a former MP and representative of Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society in the 2010 parliament, answers these questions. The Following are excerpts from the interview:
Bahrain Mirror: How was UK's policy towards the Gulf in the previous period of the Tories rule?
Ali Al-Aswad: The Tories are well known for their inclination to have a closer relationship with the rulers in the Gulf region because their strategy is aimed at strengthening UK's economy. The Tories believe that Britain needs the wealthy states rich in oil, especially Saudi Arabia. A former British ambassadors to the Middle East has said: "Bahrainis should not expect us to annoy or upset the KSA by helping out the Bahraini opposition or supporting it inside Bahrain or even backing their demands. We are not ready or willing to upset Saudi Arabia." When the Labor Party criticized holding the Formula One tournament in Bahrain in 2012 and said that they should focus more on freedoms and human rights in Bahrain, the British PM, David Cameron, made a shocking statement, saying: "I think we should be clear Bahrain is not Syria," although there is a conflict between the opposition and the regime, there is still a system and institutions. This stance reveals how the Tories manage foreign affairs.
Bahrain Mirror: What about the Scottish Party, Can its MPs exert pressure to back the Bahraini issue?
Ali Al-Aswad: We, the Bahraini opposition, have an experience with the Scottish National Party. Its leaders praise Al-Manama charter and believe it is an acceptable, rational and logical way out with the presence of monarchies in the Gulf. They also believe it is an applicable charter and could lead to a political solution. We have talked several times to party members and we meet with them regularly. They can't address the Gulf governments directly, yet they raise all the questions and issues they want to discuss with the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Bahrain Mirror: Do you expect anything from Britain in the coming five years? Or will they be lean years?
Ali Al-Aswad: The British role in Bahrain is historical. It is not related to short-term periods; however, it always takes the strategic aspect into consideration in forming UK-Bahraini relations. All the opposition groups have a clear vision about UK's ability to play a positive role in favor of the Bahraini people. We always tell this to officials in the UK, we urge them to consider the Bahraini people as their ally, exactly how they consider the regime as their ally. This is basically the way out. When we convince Britain that it needs the Bahraini people more than it needs the regime, there will be a transition, and other than that the UK will continue to make use of the privileges granted by Bahrain in the Gulf. It will also make use of the privileges granted by the authorities inside Bahrain, for Britain has never been granted such privileges in any other place.
Bahrain Mirror: Are there any channels you can use to affect UK policy with the Tories in power?
Ali Al-Aswad: There are several influence channels in Britain, most importantly the research and studies centers such as "Chatham House", "RUSI" and studies centers in British universities like Cambridge and others. These centers act as a lever that lifts the Bahrainis demands. There is a conviction that the British government only supported the regime and that it did not support the opposition in any field.
There are also the civil society organizations, mainly Amnesty International, which is considered the main source of human rights reports according to decision makers in the UK. None of the UK officials can doubt any report issued by Amnesty, for it is known for its neutralism.
The main influence center in Britain is the "Number 10, Office"- the PM, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Parliament headquarters. There are number of MPs in the British Parliament who widely advocate the political movement in Bahrain. These MPs are mainly concerned about the Bahraini issue.
Bahrain Mirror: Are there Conservative MPs among them?
Ali Al-Aswad: Yes. There are MPs from the Conservative party among them and we are in contact with them. This is considered one of the Bahraini opposition's successes. We always talk to them about the importance of achieving positive results that would make Bahrain a success story. The Tories are convinced about these ideas. We don't want to delve into the complications of the domestic British scene and the fact that the Tories represent the vast majority in the Parliament, what we really care about as an opposition is to have the Bahraini issue on the top of the commissions' agendas within the House of Commons, especially the Human Rights Commission and House Committee on Foreign Affairs that has been handed recently testimonies from the Bahraini opposition about UK's relationship with Bahrain and the KSA.
The question is how can the Bahraini opposition invest the capacity of these commissions in order to make changes.
Bahrain Mirror: How can we understand UK's policy when Philip Hammond was the foreign secretary, who was previously appointed as Secretary of State for Defence, noting that during this period the British military bases returned to the Gulf?
Ali Al-Aswad: Something should be clarified in this regard. The decision of returning the British base to the Gulf was not made by Hammond, for this issue was being discussed since William Hague was foreign secretary. I believe Britain has much bigger considerations other than its minor ones in its relationship with Bahrain. It wants to say that it is present here, in case the US completely withdraws from the region; which is a matter that is being discussed by many people.
Britain returned this base claiming that the Bahraini government is concerned about the Iranian presence in the region. Maybe this base is a solution for this unjustified concern. Britain sees that it is a kind of reassurance. This military presence could have been reframed: Give the Bahraini people democracy and we will protect you from any external threat. However, we figured out that the British base returned without exerting any pressure, without demanding any further freedoms or talking about democracy or anything else. Yet, this might happen in the future. We have a conviction that the West does not address issues on a short term, but in a strategic manner.
Bahrain Mirror: This leads us to ask about the difference between US and UK policies towards Bahrain?
Ali Al-Aswad: After Obama won a second term, the US started to look at the Gulf from a different viewpoint, including Bahrain and its importance since its fifth fleet is located there. The US concern about the Bahraini human rights issue differs and the way its addresses it differs too. They; however, agree with the UK in regards to its strategy.
The British say that they are a constitutional monarchy and Bahrain is a monarchy as well, and that there are institutions in bahrain established in a British way and that Britain was present for long time in the Gulf (they do not consider it colonization). They also say that the Bahraini culture is similar to that of the British, and then they say that the Americans came from different systems, electoral presidential systems. The Gulf rulers do not like to deal with democratic states. They see that dealing with European governments, namely Britain, is more comfortable than dealing with the Americans.
The government of Bahrain has clearly showed its dissatisfaction regarding how the US is dealing with the Bahraini crisis.
We hope that the US and UK will play a mediator role. In general, there does not seem to be a potential solution for the crisis that has erupted in the country since February 14, 2011 to date, unless the US and UK governments initiate talks with the Bahraini regime.
Bahrain Mirror: Will you develop your relationship with the Tories or will you maintain the same distance?
Ali Al-Aswad: We, the Bahraini opposition, have a good relationship with the Tories. We frequently send letters to the UK government through a number of MPs from the Conservative party who acknowledge the legitimate demands of the Bahraini people and the outcomes of the Manama charter. We have also conducted a lot of meetings, over the past four years, with the British government through more than one representative.
The UK government was being clear with the Bahraini opposition. We disagree on some issues and on some of the UK's expectations, such as expecting the Bahraini opposition's participation in the 2014 elections. The opposition highlighted the reasons behind its inability to participate in the elections; we have explained this several times to the British government. There is a positive relationship. The British government does not look at the Bahraini opposition the same way it does to other opposition movements; sometimes it hides this and it shows this at other times.
The British government is aware of the Bahraini opposition's peaceful approach. Britain, for its part, supports this. However, as I said before, the British government has its own interests which I think, until this moment, are more important than the Bahraini people's demands.
Bahrain Mirror: What is your message to Mr. David Cameron?
Ali Al-Aswad: I say to Mr. Cameron: Look at the Bahraini people from the same viewpoint you looked at the Arab peoples who called for freedom and democratic and political transition peacefully.
I say to Mr. Cameron that Bahrain is an advanced and very important example in the Gulf region. Bahrainis have a deep-rooted history and should be respected because they have demands. There shouldn't be a different view or double standard concerning the Bahraini demands and the demands of other peoples in the region. I say to Mr. Cameron, when you consider the Ukrainian people's demands and say that Ukraine has to be free and not occupied by any other country, we say that Bahrain also should be completely independent state, not subject to the administration of any other country despite the circumstance and difficulties. Britain has to play a key and effective role in order not to allow the presence of any groups or soldiers on Bahraini territories other than the national army.
I say to Mr. Cameron that Britain has to look positively at the Bahraini opposition that is demanding that Bahrain be a developed example among the monarchies. We say to Mr. Cameron that these are the last five years of your political action; you have a chance to make a democratic political transition in Bahrain to be considered as one of the most important achievements in the region on the level of the Gulf. Then the Bahraini people have something to say to the British when this is achieved.