Bahrain: Human Rights - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:10 pm on 13th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour 8:10 pm, 13th March 2019

My Lords, this is an important but very short debate, and I greatly regret that we each have only a couple of minutes for what we need to say. I will not repeat what the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, has just said about the advances that have been made in Bahrain; there were not just female ambassadors to the UK, US and other countries, but ambassadors of different religious faiths, which is important.

The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, clearly feels strongly about this—quite rightly—and he has made a couple of points relating to my report. It was now four or five years ago, and perhaps this is a good time for me to consider revisiting it and looking at what has happened. I criticised Bahrain at the time for not allowing the UN special rapporteur on torture to visit, and also because we could not visit the prisons. But if you look at what Bahrain was setting up with the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry following the riots, it was way ahead of most other countries in the region. If you were to ask me which country in the Middle East I would like to live in, if I had to do so, I would probably choose Bahrain as one of the best. That does not mean, as the ambassador said this to me the other day, that all is perfect—it certainly is not. But the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, is missing something profoundly important—the situation of Bahrain in this incredibly unstable region. Bahrain is just a mile or two down a causeway from Saudi Arabia, a Sunni power, which is in conflict with Iran, just across the water from Bahrain, which is a Shia power.

The book given to me recently by the Al Wefaq party, which left the Parliament of its own will—we criticised it for that; it need not have left and it would have been better if it had stayed and stood for election—is expensively produced. I have no problem with that, although it would be good to know how it was financed, because, as the noble Lord has said, there are questions about other finances. Indeed, there are questions about the financing of Al Wefaq. A gentleman resident in Britain whom I see on a number of occasions, Mr Ali Alaswad, is a strong supporter of and a former Member of Parliament for the Al Wefaq group. He emphasises that if it started supporting violence, he would no longer support it. I understand that. But he also understood the point I am making about the impossible position of Bahrain between two competing regional superpowers—one Shia, one Sunni.

The book is produced by Al Wefaq and written by Sheikh Ali Salman, who is currently in prison. It starts off by explaining the Shia history of Bahrain. The Shia population is the majority; the Sunni population is the minority. When I asked the King there four or five years ago how he felt about that, he said quite passionately, “I am a Muslim first, not a Shia or a Sunni”. I understand that, but religion, like other ideologies, is always subject to splits. Those splits can be violent, and often are. We need to understand that Bahrain does not want to be in the position of Yemen, which is already part of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

I say to the noble Lord by all means keep questioning this, but put it in the round. What would he do if he were a minority community of Sunnis looking across the water to Iran and wondering what will happen to them if it takes over? This cannot be ignored. It is part of the strategic geopolitics of the region.