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Volume 523: debated on Thursday 17 February 2011

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on Bahrain.

Last night at approximately 3.30 am local time, Bahraini police moved into the Pearl roundabout area of Bahrain’s capital city, Manama, to clear an encampment of protesters. The Bahraini Ministry of the Interior claims that the protesters were asked to move before force was used. Other reports say that the police moved in without warning, using tear gas and rubber bullets. Two people have been confirmed dead and there are reports of further casualties. The police and the Bahrain defence force have moved to secure key areas in Bahrain, particularly the Pearl roundabout in Manama and neighbouring districts.

This morning, there are further reports of sporadic clashes and unconfirmed reports of further deaths. There has also been a large gathering outside the hospital where the injured were taken. Traffic is severely disrupted in Manama and there are reports of stockpile shopping. There are no reports of other areas to the west and south of Bahrain being affected.

We are not aware of any UK nationals having been caught up in the violence so far. We are advising all British nationals to stay away from protests and to avoid all but essential travel around Bahrain. The airport in Manama continues to function normally, but we will of course keep the situation under review and ensure that British nationals in Bahrain receive full consular support.

We have conveyed our concern about these events and the level of violence to the Government of Bahrain. We are greatly concerned about the deaths that have occurred. This morning, I spoke to the Foreign Minister of Bahrain and last night our ambassador spoke to the Minister of the Interior. In both cases, we stressed the need for peaceful action to address the concerns of protesters, and the importance of respect for the rights to peaceful protest and freedom of expression. It is also essential that all those who are injured have immediate access to medical treatment. We urge all sides to avoid violence and for the police to exercise restraint. The Bahraini Government should move quickly to carry out their commitment to a transparent investigation into earlier deaths, and extend that to include today’s events and any alleged human rights abuses.

I also said to the Foreign Minister that this is a time to build bridges between the different religious communities in Bahrain. I said that we would strongly oppose any interference in the affairs of Bahrain by other nations or any action to inflame sectarian tensions between Bahrain’s Sunni and Shi’a communities. We recognise that Bahrain has made important political reforms alongside its growing economic success. We strongly welcome such steps within the context of the long friendship between Bahrain and the UK under successive Governments. I was assured in Bahrain last week and again this morning that the Bahraini Government intend to build on these reforms.

We will always encourage Bahrain and other countries to take further steps that meet legitimate aspirations for greater political and social freedoms. As I said in my statement on Monday, Britain will continue to send a constant message to Governments of the region about how important it is to move in the direction of more open and flexible political systems and sound economic development, while always respecting the different cultures, histories and traditions of each nation.

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for coming to answer this urgent question himself, and for bringing his ministerial team. Does he agree that a wind of change is blowing through the Arab world—first Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, and now Libya, Algeria and the terrible news of deaths and hospitals filled with the wounded as the autocrats of Bahrain seek to crush their people’s hopes? [Interruption.] I hear sneers from the Government Benches. Momentous changes are under way as big as those of 90 years ago after Lawrence arrived in Aqaba.

Seven thousand British citizens live in Bahrain, and UK exports to Bahrain are worth £500 million. Last week, the Foreign Secretary visited Bahrain. Did he have contact with the pro-democracy opposition or was the purpose of his mission simply to be a latter-day Castlereagh, upholding conservative monarchs in the region? Why is there no statement on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website with even the tiniest hint from the Foreign Secretary to the rulers of Bahrain that they must move with the times—or does he chastise only the Israeli Government? Does he agree that all political detainees must be released now?

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that late last year his FCO ministerial colleagues signed off on exports to Bahrain of tear gas, irritant ammunition, riot control equipment and other matériel used to crush democracy? Will he tell the House that there will be no more exports of such matériel from Britain? Will he confirm that the Register of Members’ Financial Interests shows that Ministers, while in opposition, were on a regular gravy train to Bahrain, paid for by the rulers of the statelet? Does he agree that it would be better if the financial links between Bahrain and Members of this House were now suspended?

Finally, does the Foreign Secretary agree that almost a century of British policy, supported by Governments of all parties, based on turning a blind eye to the repression and corruption of the regimes in this region may be coming to an end? Will he therefore agree to a wide review of UK foreign policy in the region before it is too late, and reverse the cuts to the BBC and the British Council, so that Britain can be more and not less present, and on the side of democracy and decency in the region for the first time in generations?

If I may respond to the substantive parts of the right hon. Gentleman’s question, Britain is of course on the side of decency and democracy everywhere in the world, including in the middle east and the Gulf states. The House gave strong support on Monday for the sentiments that I expressed in respect of our approach to the situation. The Opposition were also generally supportive of our continual call for more open and flexible political systems, and for the recognition of legitimate political aspirations, while respecting and understanding the fact that those countries are all different, that they all cope with different situations, and that they have had a different pace of reforms.

It is certainly important to express our gravest concerns in the manner in which I have this morning, but it is also important to recognise that important reforms have taken place in Bahrain and that the King of Bahrain pledged himself in the last week to further such reforms.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the presence of Government statements on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website. That website will of course be updated with all my statements, including this one and what I will say at the press conference that I will hold shortly with the Spanish Foreign Minister. However, I did speak about this matter in the House of Commons itself on Monday, and that is where Governments should give their definitive statements on such things.

Any exports will be looked at under the strict criteria that we always apply in this country. It is true that both in opposition and in government, many right hon. and hon. Members have been to Bahrain and held extensive discussions with its leaders. In fact, on every occasion when I went there in the last five years, Ministers of the previous Government were there at the same time. It is wholly right to have that dialogue with Bahrain and other Gulf states.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about my visit last week. I met a variety of opposition human rights organisations, including the Bahrain Human Rights Society, the Migrant Workers Protection Society and the Bahrain Women’s Union. I subsequently raised some of the issues that they brought up with Bahraini Ministers. We have a continuous discussion and dialogue on human rights with the Bahraini authorities, which again is absolutely the appropriate thing to do.

I am sure that the right position for this country, in the context of that long friendship with Bahrain of which I have spoken, is to press for legitimate aspirations to be met and for actions to be taken that bring different religious communities together, as well as to express our grave concern when such matters arise.

I am not sure that I can match the rhetoric of Rotherham, but I agree with the Foreign Secretary that it is clear that very substantial movements for change are sweeping through the middle east—an area with which we have a long history, including sometimes on colonial terms. He recognised the importance of the area by recently visiting it.

The Foreign Secretary has confirmed already that we will conduct ourselves according to our belief in the rule of law, democratic principles and the need for freedom of expression, but has he considered whether, in this period of potentially tumultuous change, there could be a role for the Arab League? Has he sought discussions with the Arab League ambassador here in the UK or with others elsewhere to determine whether the Arab League could help in what looks like a transformation in the region?

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. There is indeed a movement for change in many parts of the Arab world, although we must understand that motivations and aspirations differ from one country to another. Bahrain has achieved much more economic development than Tunisia or Egypt, but it has a starker religious divide, despite the efforts of the Bahraini Government to say that everyone is a Bahraini. The circumstances are different in each country. A meeting of Gulf Co-operation Council Ministers is taking place in Bahrain this afternoon. They will discuss the situation together.

My right hon. and learned Friend asked specifically about the Arab League. In recent days, I have discussed the situation in the Arab world, and most specifically in Egypt, with the secretary-general of the Arab League, Mr Amr Moussa. We might be hoping for too much if we expect a consistent position on this by the Arab League, because the circumstances of each country differ so much, and because, of course, the Arab League includes nations such as Syria and Libya, which have a particularly severe approach to dissent and are not accommodating of any reform movements or demonstrations in their countries. I think, therefore, that it would be difficult to bring about a unified response from the Arab League, although it would be very good if it did happen. The British Government will continue to make our case in exactly the way he described.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his answer. Will he give more detail of the work being done to support British nationals in the country, and what contingency plans will go ahead in the event of these protests escalating? I fully support his comments urging restraint on all sides and expressing the British Government’s grave concerns about the policing of the protests on Pearl square, and his advocacy of the protection of human rights. Given the strength of our diplomatic relationship with Bahrain, will he tell the House what he and his officials plan on doing in the days ahead to ensure that the Bahraini Government are aware that the eyes of the whole world are on the behaviour of the police and security forces in the light of recent events? He is right, of course, to say that Bahrain has seen some progress on political reform since the introduction of the new constitution in 2002, and I welcome the fact that when he was in Bahrain last week, he raised the importance of continuing progress along that path. Will he therefore tell the House specifically what advice on such further reform he gave to the Bahraini Government last week, and what steps the British Government would now like to see in the days, weeks and months ahead?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. On contingency plans, I have spoken to our ambassador in Bahrain this morning. Of course, we are watching the situation very carefully as it may affect British nationals, travel advice or the situation at the airport. If it becomes necessary, we will send additional resources to reinforce our diplomatic or consular presence. That does not seem to be necessary yet, but we will keep it under review night and day. After recent experiences in Egypt and Tunisia, we are used to sending a rapid deployment team when necessary, and to smoothly and calmly assisting British nationals if a crisis develops. I also thank him for his welcome for other things that the Government have said.

On the specific advice that we give to the Bahraini Government now and in the future, we always have to be careful, given that we do not believe in outside interference in the political affairs of other nations, about being so prescriptive that we think exactly what reforms should take place. However, we think that there are legitimate aspirations that should be satisfied, and that it is important that the Government in Bahrain continue to make it clear in their words and actions that political reforms will continue and that economic opportunities will be opened up across the whole of society. That is what we will emphasise. However, as another nation, we will not try to determine the exact detail of their policies.

As my right hon. Friend will know very well, Iran has long had a claim over the sovereignty of Bahrain, which raises delicate international problems at the present time. However, it is something on which the British Government and the Arab League can march together in giving support to His Majesty the King of Bahrain in resisting any attempt by Iran to exploit the present situation.

My hon. Friend is right. That is why I mentioned earlier, in response to the original question, that we would strongly oppose any outside interference in the affairs of Bahrain or any attempt to widen and exacerbate the sectarian difficulties that clearly exist there. He puts his finger on that. It is a message that should go out loudly and clearly from the western world, and now I think from the Arab world. I have no direct evidence of such interference taking place, but it is right for us to sound a strong warning about it.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that events in Bahrain and throughout the Arab world demand a much more fundamental reassessment of British and western policy in the region, away from support for autocratic Governments, to unequivocal support for democracy, freedom and human rights?

Our relationship is with nations rather than individuals, as I have stressed in the case of Egypt and Tunisia. However, it is important to be able to work with the leaderships of countries throughout the Gulf—a particularly strong example of that—in the interests of the security of the whole region as well as of the welfare of British nationals, and of the consistency and strength of our policies on the Iranian nuclear programme. Of course, we have good relations and have discussed foreign policy matters very closely—as often, though perhaps not often enough, happened under the previous Government—with all the leaders of the Gulf states. I do not think that events call for us to break our links with the leaders and monarchies of such states. That would be the height of folly. However, they call for us to repeat all the time the messages that I have mentioned today, and for Britain to assist in that wherever we can. Last week in Tunisia, I announced the Arab partnership fund to help the development of civil society and political parties throughout the Arab world. That is the right approach for Britain.

Unlike Libya, where demonstrations are also taking place today, Bahrain is a loyal friend of the west. It has started political reforms and is very tolerant of western lifestyles. May I urge my right hon. Friend, before the Government make any criticism of Bahrain, to proceed with extreme caution and say, on behalf of the House of Commons, that the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), with his one-sided views, does not speak for us?

Thankfully, that is the case on all subjects, so it is hardly necessary to make that latter point. My hon. Friend is right—we have had a long friendship for the past 40 years with Bahrain, and it is felt strongly in that country. He is also right to point out that protests have been going on in Libya, where television cameras are not present, so they may not be so much in the news. However, we should remember those protests, too, and we call on the Government in Libya to recognise the right to peaceful protest and to avoid the excessive use of force. That message should also be conveyed clearly today.

The great changes would not have happened without fresh information from the platforms of social networks and from the most reliable, trusted news organisation in the world. As the Government are in the mood for U-turns, should not they look again at their planned wasteful cuts to the BBC world services?

The hon. Gentleman is right that social networking sites have played a strong role in recent events across the middle east. So has satellite television, which brings us to an important point. The BBC’s services must adapt to the changes in the world—the vast majority of people in the Arab world keep in touch with those events through watching satellite television channels. That is the way for the BBC to develop its services, including its online services, rather than thinking that every service that it now provides has to stay exactly the same. Medium-wave transmissions across much of the Arab world will be continued. Shortwave transmissions will continue into the Arabian peninsula and into Sudan, but the right way to go is to develop the BBC’s satellite television services. That is the sort of thing people are watching.

My right hon. Friend has a good record on standing up for human rights in the region, but in the events that are now unfolding, will he take a close interest in the position of Christians and Christian communities throughout the region? They have already faced pressure and persecution both from some of the existing regimes and from certain political forces within them, although Bahrain is not one of the worst examples by any means.

As my hon. Friend says, the important issue that he raises is thankfully not a factor in these particular disturbances, but the message of tolerance and acceptance of different religions should always go out clearly from this country. That is very important to underline in the middle east today, where there have been terrorist outrages against Christians, but also against other religious minorities across the region. Part of what we need in the middle east in the coming years is not only an acceptance of more open and flexible political systems, but real leadership from the countries concerned in accepting the presence of different religions.

May I welcome the tone and content of the Foreign Secretary’s statement? Bahrain has a long-standing relationship with our country, and it is seeking to reform in the context of its own philosophy. I do not blame the Foreign Secretary, but before his visit there were no protests in Bahrain. In the meetings that he held with those who wanted to accelerate the reform process, did he anticipate that they would happen? Will he continue not to lecture middle eastern countries, but to work with them to ensure that their reform process is brought to a logical conclusion?

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. That is the right way to frame those things—with a deeper understanding of what is happening in those societies. He might have a word with the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) afterwards about some of those issues. It is true that outbreaks of disorder have occurred in several places that I visited last week, but I am confident that it is not cause and effect. In my tour of the middle east, we correctly anticipated some of the places, such as Yemen and Bahrain, where difficulties would arise. It is all the more important in those countries to stress the message of necessary and appropriate reform. Among the leadership in Bahrain, there is the appetite and determination to carry out those reforms. There is no doubt about the sincerity of the King of Bahrain and the leaders of the country about that. We will therefore continue to give our advice and to deplore situations where violence arises and lives are lost. Both elements are important.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement. Will he clarify the position to ascertain whether what is happening in Bahrain now is connected to incidents there four or five years ago, when disturbances were linked to the influence of Iran, which asserted that it was the custodian of Shi’ites and would even send its troops to defend them, or whether it is a genuine desire for reform by the people of Bahrain?

As I said, I do not have any evidence of Iranian involvement in the protests, although, over the years, I think that some statements by Iran have been intended to exacerbate tensions in Bahrain. We should therefore remember that context. However, it is fair to say, without analysing or knowing the politics of every other country in the world, that there are legitimate aspirations for better economic opportunity and political rights in the countries concerned, including Bahrain. Undoubtedly, a mixture of factors is at work, and that underlines the need for the approach that I have described.

I point out to the hon. Gentleman that points of order follow statements, so we will deal with the business statement first.