EU foreign policy towards Bahrain in the aftermath of the uprising


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Toby Matthiesen

For the past few decades, Bahrain has been the Gulf state with the
strongest opposition movement and the highest frequency of street
protests. From mid-2010, tensions have escalated after the arrest of
dozens of bloggers and human rights and political activists. On 14
February 2011, inspired by the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahraini
activists descended on the Pearl Roundabout, which remained under
their control for nearly one month. In mid-March 2011, after Saudi
troops and policemen from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) entered
Bahrain to guard key installations and back the government, the
Bahraini regime cracked down harshly on protesters. The excessive
use of force, which has resulted in the death of a number of protesters
and several policemen and migrant workers, led to a radicalisation of
demands, from calls for political reform and greater representation to
calls to overthrow the regime.69 The crackdown was an embarrassment
for the European Union (EU) and the United States.70 While the
US (together with Saudi Arabia) acts as ultimate security guarantor
of Bahrain through its Fifth Fleet, the EU has close trade ties with
the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Bahrain has very close
relations with Britain, its former colonial power.
The Bahraini protests have undermined the long-standing assumption that
the Gulf monarchies are immune to popular uprisings because of their oil
wealth – the so-called notion of the rentier state that buys off the population’s
acquiescence through the distribution of rents from hydrocarbon revenues.
One would assume this would lead to a re-think of relations with the
GCC and a shift towards a more values-oriented foreign policy. But so
far there has been no fundamental change in the EU’s policy towards the
Gulf. Strategic interests and the economic crisis have made the EU even
more reluctant to alienate a key investor and importer of European goods.
Some argue that the Arab uprisings have in fact strengthened cooperation
between the EU and the GCC in the short-term.71
After the Bahraini security forces killed protesters in February and then
in March 2011, EU and US leaders issued several critical statements.72
However, practical repercussions have been negligible, contrasting
with the actions taken against the, admittedly more repressive, regimes
in Libya and Syria.
One of the reasons for such a timid western response was the pressure
exerted by some of Bahrain’s allies within the GCC, namely Saudi
Arabia and the UAE. The two Gulf monarchies regard the security of
Bahrain’s ruling family as part and parcel of their own domestic security
policies, and quickly sent significant troop detachments to Bahrain to
help quell the uprising. Any criticism, or possible sanctions, would have
been considered by these two states as an attack on themselves as well.
Security, investment and arms exports
The EU’s security and economic relations with GCC States make
any change of EU policy towards Bahrain very difficult. The threat
to call off major investment projects and government contracts
with western companies played a key role in limiting european
actions in Bahrain. Several western ambassadors to Bahrain have
acknowledged as much and have admitted that their reports about
the situation on the ground, particularly since the Pearl Roundabout
crackdown, were not taken seriously in their capitals.73 Some EU
The Gulf States and the Arab Uprisings 79
member states, such as Britain and France, had a stronger and closer
security relationship with the GCC, and with Bahrain in particular,
and were therefore seen as less likely to change their policies than
other states with more limited strategic interests in the region.
Denmark, for example, asked for a stronger condemnation and put
forward the idea of sanctions against regime members.74
One of the actions that was taken after the crackdown was a
temporary halt in arms exports. In 2011 the US suspended arms
exports to Bahrain but resumed them in 2012. This set a precedent,
which was followed by other countries. While the UK initially
revoked some arms exports licenses to Bahrain after the first shooting
of protesters,75 it also resumed arms sales, including of small arms,
from 2012 onwards.76 The EU did not categorically ban arms sales
to Bahrain. This led to debates in the European Parliament, with one
MEP suggesting in May 2011 that perhaps the EU should impose an
arms embargo on Bahrain, as it had done towards Syria.77
The issue of weapons sales to Bahrain is connected to the broader sale
of arms to the other GCC States. EU countries have delivered or plan
to deliver a record amount of weapons to Saudi Arabia since the start of
the Arab uprisings. This is despite the fact that Saudi troops were present
in Bahrain during the crackdown on protesters and could potentially
participate in the repression of future protests there. In addition, many
of the weapons exported, including German tanks, could be used against
the local population in the case of an uprising. A possible future target
could be the simmering protest movement in Saudi’s eastern province.78
Parliamentarians vs. bureaucrats
The Bahraini crisis has highlighted some peculiarities of EU foreign policymaking.
It has brought to the fore discrepancies between the interests
and policies of the elected institutions (the European Parliament) and the
appointed political institutions and the diplomatic service, at both national
and EU levels. The European Parliament has repeatedly criticised both the
EU’s policy towards Bahrain and the conduct of the Bahraini government.
Fact-finding trips by MEPs have highlighted the repression of political
freedoms in the country. While European bureaucrats seem to defend the
EU’s institutional and strategic interests, elected parliamentarians have
more leeway to call for a more values-oriented foreign policy and can
play on the often-negative image of the Gulf in European public spheres.
The European External Action Service (EEAS) has limited its criticism
towards Bahrain. While High Representative Catherine Ashton has
repeatedly called for dialogue, she has refused to blame the government
for the violence and the failure of dialogue. One of her top advisors, the
British diplomat Robert Cooper, provoked outrage when he referred to
the crackdown by saying that ‘accidents happen’.
In January 2013, the European Parliament endorsed a resolution on
human rights violations in Bahrain. It criticised the ‘lack of an EU
response to the ongoing situation in Bahrain’ and called for targeted
sanctions against individuals responsible for human rights violations
and for a ban on exports of tear gas and technologies that allow the
tracking of protesters and activists.79 Bahrain has become notorious for
its ‘weaponisation’ of tear gas ‘- using it as a collective punishment
in residential areas – and its use of ‘spying-software’.80 Both of these
items allegedly come from EU member states, more specifically from
the United Kingdom.81
In the UK too some members of parliament have voiced strong criticism
of the political situation in Bahrain. The announcement of an inquiry
by the UK’s all-party parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee into
relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain led to an extremely harsh
response by these countries.82 The Committee routinely conducts
investigations of the UK’s foreign relations, but in this case the Gulf
regimes’ reaction has given it an unusual amount of publicity and
has heightened public interest. Nevertheless, the inquiry in itself
The Gulf States and the Arab Uprisings 81
will not impinge on the willingness of the British political, economic
and security establishments to continue their close relationship with
Bahrain and the GCC as a whole.83
Even the relatively mild criticism of Bahraini government policies since
2011 by the EU and US has been fiercely rejected by the ruling regimes
in the Gulf. Another prime example of this was the media campaign
against the former British ambassador to Bahrain, Jamie Bowden, who
was harshly criticised in pro-government media after meeting with
representatives of Bahrain’s largest opposition party al-Wefaq during
the start of the uprising in 2011.84 With 18 out of 40 parliamentary
seats at the start of the uprising, al-Wefaq is seen by most stakeholders
as key to any political settlement in Bahrain. It favours dialogue with
the government; in fact, it is at the moderate end of the opposition. As
Bowden’s assignment was coming to an end – he had been ambassador
to Bahrain since 2006 – he was appointed ambassador to Oman, in an
attempt to manage the situation without causing long-lasting damage to
UK-Bahrain relations. The new UK ambassador to Bahrain resumed the
traditional position of unquestioned support for the Al-Khalifa ruling
family. The manner in which the British embassy marked World Press
Freedom Day in 2013 was illustrative of such an approach. Two articles by
pro-government journalists calling for the censorship of pro-opposition
media were published on the embassy’s website, causing an uproar on
social media and in the British press.85 The newly-appointed ambassador
also criticised a Human Rights Watch report on Bahrain, stating that its
comments about the National Dialogue were ‘deeply unhelpful’.86
‘Dialogue’: on going, or not?
When asked about Bahrain, Western officials are quick to point to
the National Dialogue and the Bahrain Independent Commission of
Inquiry (BICI) as proof of progress; both are in fact cornerstones of
the Bahraini regime’s public relations strategy.
The government initiated a ‘National Dialogue’ in July 2011. While
the main legal opposition groups, al-Wefaq and Waad, initially
agreed to participate in the initiative, they soon withdrew as they
began to see it as a PR exercise from which no results could be
expected.87A new National Dialogue was re-started in February
2013, but again fell victim to suspicions from both sides. In fact, the
dialogue sessions held since then have never gone beyond the stage
of discussing procedural formalities of how the dialogue should be
held, who should participate in it and what the agenda should be.
Opposition representatives who attended the talks (a coalition whose
strongest members are al-Wefaq and Waad) temporarily withdrew
for two weeks in May 2013 in protest against repressive government
policies.88 The National Dialogue does not include the outlawed
opposition, which is driving the protests on the ground, and seems
to have only limited backing from the hardliners in the royal family.
As such, it has very little chance of succeeding. MEPs have demanded
that all political opposition groups, including those whose leaders
have been jailed, be represented in what should be a truly inclusive
dialogue.89 A similar view was expressed by US President Obama
when commenting on Bahrain: ‘The only way forward is for the
government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t
have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in
jail’.90 This is not, however, the EU’s official position.
The other cornerstone of the Bahraini government’s PR strategy was
the establishment of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry,
sponsored by and answerable to the king.91 The BICI, headed by the
Egyptian-American human rights lawyer Cherif Bassiouni, issued a
report in November 2011 that outlined human rights abuses, including
systematic torture committed by security forces in February and
March 2011. A year later the regime published a report stating that
Bahrain was on a reform path, that torture had been uprooted, and that
the BICI’s recommendations had been implemented.92 But the reality
is that many recommendations have not been implemented, especially
The Gulf States and the Arab Uprisings 83
those of a more political nature such as the retrial of all those convicted
in military or semi-military courts and under emergency law.93 Instead
of starting a process of transitional justice, the BICI has become a
symbol of the political stalemate in Bahrain.
Sectarianism at home and abroad
The Bahraini crackdown has exacerbated sectarianism both in Bahrain
and in the wider region. Particularly in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait,
tensions between Sunni and Shia have increased sharply. Saudi Arabia’s
Shia minority, mainly located in its eastern province, close to Bahrain,
was sympathetic to the protesters. In February 2011 they started
protesting in solidarity with their Bahraini counterparts and against
the discriminatory policies of the Saudi state. Many commentators
speculated that Saudi Arabia’s decision to send troops to Bahrain was
an attempt to demonstrate that Saudi Arabia will defend the GCC
monarchies against internal and external threats, and was also intended
as a show of strength vis-à-vis Iran. But it was also motivated by fears of
a Shia uprising within Saudi Arabia, to serve as a dissuasive measure. In
fact, the largest Saudi Shia protests started only after the entry of Saudi
troops into Bahrain.94 The intervention thus backfired, and helped to
encourage rather than quell Shia protests. By coupling the Saudi entry
into Bahrain with a sectarian rhetoric, the Saudi and Bahraini royal
families created a ‘sectarian Gulf’, and rallied their Sunni populations
‘around the flag’.95
Since late 2011, sectarian tensions have moved to a new arena, the Syrian
crisis. Although Bahrain has been relegated to the sidelines, it keeps
looming in the shadow of larger regional conflicts. The more violent
the Syrian civil war gets, and the more it is framed in sectarian terms,
the stronger the implications for Bahrain. There have been reports of
Bahraini jihadists that have died in Syria, and part of Bahrain’s Sunni
community is convinced that they are involved in a regional civil war.
While there have been no reports yet of Gulf Shia going to fight in
Syria to defend the Assad regime, their loyalties are quite pronounced
in private conversations and on social media.96
By joining forces with the Gulf States to ‘manage’ the Arab uprisings
(mainly in Yemen and Syria), the US and the EU have implicitly
condoned the sectarianism used by the Bahraini and Saudi governments
to subdue protesters. The West has been complicit in creating a
sectarian Gulf, which is in line with its strategic goal of keeping the
Gulf monarchies in power to help counter Iran.
But the EU should work towards easing sectarian tensions in the
region and to prevent sectarian identity entrepreneurs on both sides
from framing issues within the context of a sectarian regional war.
This is increasingly the case, particularly since Hasan Nasrallah,
Secretary General of Hezbollah, acknowledged the deployment of
his fighters in Syria and Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the popular Qatar-based
Islamic scholar, in May 2013 urged all able Sunni men to join the fight
in Syria.
Revolutionaries in Bahrain are gaining in strength vis-à-vis prodialogue
groups like al-Wefaq, and are becoming more violent. On 29
May 2013, a bomb detonated in the Shia village of Bani Jamra, injuring
seven police officers.97 In the medium-term it cannot be ruled out that
Western expatriates, particularly British citizens, might be targeted for
their government’s alliance with the Bahraini royal family.
In its relations with Bahrain, the EU should take into account
both interests and values. A more balanced foreign policy should
acknowledge the wave of people power that has swept the region
since the start of the Arab uprisings. The EU should not limit itself
to maintaining good relations with the ruling regimes, but should call
attention to human rights and political reform, and should engage with
civil society and non-violent opposition groups.
The Gulf States and the Arab Uprisings 85
Several European Parliament resolutions provide recommendations
that, if implemented, could lead to sustainable stability in Bahrain. A
long-term solution would also need to include the full implementation
of the BICI recommendations such as a retrial of all those convicted
in military or semi-military courts and under emergency law and the
persecution of those responsible for human rights abuses and violence,
from both the protestors’ and the government’s side. Without such
measures and meaningful political reforms to transform Bahrain into
a genuine constitutional monarchy, the country is set for years of
potentially violent civil strife. And this can neither be in the interest of
the EU nor of the GCC.



For a timeline of protests see Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry,
Report of the Bahrain
Independent Commission of Inquiry
, 23 November 2011, pp. 65–169, available at:;T. Matthiesen,
Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab spring that wasn’t
(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013), chapters 1, 3 and 4; L. Noueihed and A. Warren, The Battle for the Arab Spring: revolution, counter-revolution and the making of a new era (New haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), pp. 135–63.
These figures are estimates, as deaths can often not be clearly attributed to government forces.
This is the case when security forces use less directly attributable means of coercion such as the
use of tear gas in confined spaces, which can lead to casualties.
C. Spencer and J. Kinninmont, ‘The Arab spring: the changing dynamics of West-GCC cooperation’
in: R. Alcaro and A. Dessì (eds.),
The Uneasy Balance: potential and challenges of the West’s relations
with the Gulf States
(Rome: Istituto Affari Internazionali, 2013), pp. 49-69, available at:
Catherine Ashton’s statement on 17 March 2011 called upon all sides to exercise the maximum restraint and initiate a dialogue, and stated that ‘the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all Bahrain’s people must be respected’, available at:
Interviews with EU ambassadors to Bahrain, May 2011.
The US and the UK also abstained from a Swiss-sponsored resolution intended to condemn human rights abuses in Bahrain ahead of Bahrain’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN human Rights Council in September 2012. Spencer and Kinninmont, op. cit., p. 59.
‘Britain cancels Bahrain and Libya arms export licences’,
The Guardian,18 February 2011, available
Campaign Against Arms Trade, ‘UK arms export licences’, available at:
European Parliament, available at:
‘Weapons exports: EU nations sell the most arms to Saudi Arabia’,
Spiegel, 19 March 2012, available at:
; ‘Der falsche Panzer, das falsche Land’,
Sueddeutsche, 11 July 2011, available at:
‘European Parliament calls for EU sanctions against Bahrain’,
Marietje Schaake, 17 January
2013, available at:
Physicians for human Rights, ‘Weaponizing tear gas, Bahrain’s unprecedented use of toxic
chemical agents against civilians’, August 2012, available at:
‘Surveillance software targeted British/Bahraini citizen’,
, 13 May 2013, available at:
; Bahrain Watch, available at:
Saudi officials even stated that they would be ‘re-evaluating their country’s historic relations with
Britain’ and that ‘all options will be looked at’. See ‘Saudi Arabia “insulted” by UK inquiry’,
15 October 2012, available at:
For more on the inquiry see: Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern
Ireland, ‘UK’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain’, available at:
See for example: ‘Community leaders want British envoy Bowden to leave Bahrain’,
Gulf News,17 March 2010, available at:
British Embassy Manama, ‘British Embassy Bahrain marks the World Press Freedom Day’,
available at:
uman Rights Watch, ‘Bahrain’s rights, Britain’s failure’,
14 May 2013, available at:
uman Rights Watch criticised’,
Gulf Daily News,
25 March 2013, available at:
J. Kinninmont, ‘Beyond Bahrain’s dialogue’,
Foreign Policy,
18 July 2011, available at:
‘Angry opposition suspends participation in Bahrain national dialogue’,
Middle East Online,
22 May
2013, available at:
European Parliament, ‘Bahrain: MEPs welcome national dialogue but say it must include the
opposition’, 7 March 2013, available at:
See: The White house, Office of the Press Secretary, ‘Remarks by the President on the Middle
East and North Africa’, 19 May 2011, available at:
For more information, see the Commission’s webpage, available at:
Bahraini Information Affairs Authority,
BICI Follow-Up Report
, November 2012.
For a critique of the slow and partial implementation of the BICI see: Bahrain Center for
Rights, ‘The BICI reforms: promises of progress, a worsening reality’, 20 November 2012, available
; and
For more information see: T. Matthiesen, ‘A “Saudi spring?”: the Shi’a protest movement in the
Eastern Province 2011–2012’, op. cit.
This is one of the main arguments in T. Matthiesen,
Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the
Arab spring that wasn’t
, op. cit.
T. Matthiesen, ‘Syria: inventing a religious war’,
The New York Review of Books,
12 June 2013,
available at:
‘Bomb injures seven policemen in Bahrain – source’,
29 May 2013, available at: