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I straightforwardly declare an interest: I am vice-chair of the UK-Bahrain all-party parliamentary group. I am very fond of the place, because my connection with it goes back almost 50 years.
Formally, the British relationship with Bahrain dates to 1816, when we signed a treaty of friendship, which has fundamentally lasted since then. In fact, Bahrain remained under British protection until it was granted its independence in 1971, becoming a constitutional monarchy led by the same royal family that had signed the original 1816 agreement. In July 1969, I was posted as an officer of the first battalion, the Cheshire regiment, to Bahrain. Fifty years ago it was a very different place.
The country still maintains close security co-operation with the United Kingdom—a relationship cemented last year with the inauguration of the Royal Navy base at Mina Salman port. HMS Juffair, which is what it is called, is a vital part of our Gulf defence network, and it was largely paid for by Bahrain too. However, internal security in Bahrain is becoming more and more of a problem. Two years ago, when visiting the country, I was shown a large amount of arms and ammunition found by the Bahrain security services. The arms came from Iran, which is definitely stoking up as much trouble on the streets in Bahrain as possible—trouble that is often deadly. Bahrain is now a major target for Iranian subversion. That threat is ongoing and very real. We should not forget that.
Yet, in a region where human rights are often hugely ignored, I feel that Bahrain is, with British advice and assistance, trying its best to be as good as anywhere, even though some may argue that it is not doing so very well. It is true that Bahrain is a majority Shi’a Muslim country governed by a Sunni-led constitutional monarchy, but listening to my contacts in many different sectors of Bahrain society, I feel that the Government do their best to represent everyone who lives there, no matter what their religion or origin.
It is true that Bahrain has banned some opposition parties from standing in the election, but I think those parties advocated or supported violence. I can understand that. I do not think that we in the UK would take kindly to any political party that advocated violence standing in our general elections either.
I would highlight that women in Bahrain can vote, dress, worship and drive as and when they like. I have met quite a few Bahraini female MPs. Everyone—Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jew or whatever—has freedom to worship the way they wish. That is pretty good when looking around the region, particularly at close neighbours such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. Some 8,000 police and security personnel have now received British-sponsored human rights training, as have 100 members of the judicial and public prosecution services. As we have heard, there is now an independent special investigations unit and an ombudsman.