* Arab Spring raises Gulf sensitivity to criticism
* Signs emerge of Gulf annoyance with Britain
* Britain has vital Gulf commercial, strategic interests
By Mohammed Abbas
LONDON, Nov 2 With billions of dollars worth of
deals and vital geostrategic interests at stake, Britain can ill
afford to upset its Gulf allies, yet signs are emerging of
growing Arab irritation over the issue of human rights.
The Arab Spring has ratcheted up sensitivity in the largely
autocratic Gulf region over perceived criticism of how it deals
with dissent, making Britain's efforts to balance its push for
rights and democracy with other interests increasingly tricky.
Saudi officials told the BBC last month they were "insulted"
by a parliamentary inquiry expected to look into the country's
human rights record and that they would be "re-evaluating their
country's historic relations with Britain" in response.
The United Arab Emirates' Minister of State for Foreign
Affairs Anwar Gargash rubbished an October editorial in
Britain's Guardian newspaper describing the UAE as an
"authoritarian regime", accusing the paper of knowing "very
little with their condescending view".
Although the parliamentary inquiry carries no legislative
weight and the Guardian does not speak for the British
government, the criticism nonetheless stung.
"There's huge nervousness across the region, and that
nervousness is caused by a number of unresolved crises, the
tensions with Iran and of course the Arab uprisings," said Chris
Doyle of Caabu, a group set up to advance Arab-British ties.
"This has made keeping relations on a smooth and even keel
very difficult for the British government, because whilst it is
not responsible for what is written in the media, it is often
seen as responsible, whether it likes it or not," Doyle added.
Gulf states are regularly criticised by rights groups, who
accuse them of a heavy-handed response to dissent, an opaque
legal system, a lack of democracy and a poor record on women's
freedoms and the rights of migrant workers.
More recently, Gulf states have been criticised for their
response to Arab Spring protests: Sunni Muslim monarchy Saudi
Arabia has cracked down on Shi'ite and other activists, and
Sunni-ruled Bahrain crushed protests by its Shi'ite majority.
Sunni Gulf leaders fear powerful Shi'ite neighbour Iran will
exploit the Shi'ite unrest to destabilise their rule, and are
unsettled by the West's speedy withdrawal of support from former
Middle East allies in the face of pro-democracy demonstrations.
Bahrain this week banned all protests, a move Britain called
"excessive" which it "hoped" would be rescinded.
But while British criticism may sometimes go too far in the
eyes of the Gulf, it has not gone far enough in the eyes of
rights groups and some lawmakers, highlighting Britain's
"We feel the UK has a marked tendency to pull its punches
over human rights with Gulf countries," said Amnesty
International UK's head of Policy and Government Affairs Allan
Hogarth. "Bahrain's swingeing attack on freedom of speech and
freedom of assembly deserved a much stronger response."
Any strains between Britain and its Gulf Arab allies would
have geostrategic and commercial implications.
Bahrain, home of the U.S. navy's Fifth Fleet, is an
important Western ally in keeping the oil shipping route of the
Strait of Hormuz open in the face of threats of an Iranian
Top oil producer Saudi Arabia is also an important British
ally in counter-terrorism efforts.
More generally, Britain has deep ties with Gulf Arab states,
many of them former British protectorates, whose citizens have
long come to Britain to buy homes, shop and study.
Britain's Foreign Office says about 160,000 Britons work in
the Gulf, and exports to the region are worth 17 billion pounds
($27.44 billion), on a par with China and India combined.
Gulf investment in Britain was worth some $2.25 billion last
year, the Foreign Office said, including interests in some of
Britain's highest profile buildings, shops and sports venues.
British defence giant BAE Systems says its chances
of delivering profit growth this year hinge on talks to finalise
a fighter jet deal with Saudi Arabia, and the company is
lobbying hard to agree a big sale of fighter jets to the UAE.
Unfortunately for BAE, perceived British criticism of the
Gulf is not helping the sales pitch.
"A significant section of the NGOs (non-governmental
organisations) .... are deliberately provoking parliamentarians
into taking positions which are unnecessarily unsympathetic to
the conditions on the ground in the Middle East, which does real
damage to our arms exports," said British lawmaker Peter Luff.
Luff, who until a September cabinet reshuffle was defence
equipment minister, said Gulf allies don't always understand why
"Britain is so keen to shoot itself in the foot".
"I'm not condoning human rights abuses, of course not, but
.... sometimes you have to be pragmatic," he added.
In August, Gulf and industry sources told Reuters British
oil major BP had likely been sidelined from bidding to
run UAE oil fields in part due to "tensions" stoked by Britain's
support for the Arab Spring, and a BBC Arabic report on a
government crackdown on Islamists.
EVOLUTION VS REVOLUTION
The Foreign Office says it promotes human rights
consistently, including in the Gulf, "based on what is
practical, realistic and achievable".
Parliament's foreign affairs committee says strategic
considerations should not colour assessments of human rights
violations, and accused the government of being "inconsistent"
in its treatment of Bahrain compared to other countries.
Gulf officials could not be reached for comment. However,
diplomats and sources close to Gulf authorities said British
criticism could be seen as naive, hypocritical and dangerous.
Pointing to the Iraq war, Gulf officials say that attempts
to fast-track democracy can backfire, and the West often does
not understand the region's complex sectarian and tribal mix.
Gulf countries have made small steps towards greater
openness in recent years, but warn that changing too rapidly
will risk further destabilising an already volatile region.
"The people in the Gulf will say, 'you of all people should
understand why evolutionary change is better than revolutionary
change'," said William Patey, a former British ambassador to
Saudi Arabia, referring to Europe's long history of revolutions.
Gerald Howarth, who up until the September reshuffle was
minister for international security strategy and had close
dealings with Gulf allies, compared Bahrain's unrest to
Britain's struggle with Northern Ireland's sectarian troubles.
A murder investigation into the killings of Roman Catholic
civil rights marchers by British soldiers in Londonderry was
only announced this year, 40 years after the incident and after
a 12-year public inquiry.
"The criticism about civilians being killed on the streets
of Bahrain. Well forgive me, we took 13 people out on the
streets of Londonderry, in one day."