LONDON (Reuters) - 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 criticized 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 criticized 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 neighbor Iran will exploit the Shi‘ite unrest to destabilize 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Bahrain this week banned all protests, a move Britain called “excessive” which it “hoped” would be rescinded.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 dilemma.
“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 blockade.
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 defense giant BAE Systems says its chances of delivering profit growth this year hinge on talks to finalize 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 organizations) .... 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 defense 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.
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 color 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 destabilizing 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.”
Additional reporting by Raissa Kaslowsky in Dubai and Angus McDowall in Riyadh, Editing by William Maclean