Iain Ferrier Lindsay has been Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Kingdom of Bahrain since 2011. Having joined the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in the 1980s, he has since represented the United Kingdom on diplomatic missions in Hong Kong, Japan and Bucharest, among others.
What is the British embassy’s stance on the political turmoil that has been troubling Bahrain since the crackdown on the Jasmine Revolution-related protests in 2011?
Our view is that sustainable stability in Bahrain can only be achieved through continued reform. We support the reforms, which are underway and urge the Bahraini government to show greater energy in implementing reform. Progress has been made in some areas but there is still a lot more to be done, e.g. on implementing the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry and the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review. But there needs to be movement on the political track as well as the reform track. We therefore welcome the resumption of political dialogue in early February and encourage all parties to remain involved in the process. The only way to promote peace and stability in Bahrain is through an inclusive dialogue that addresses the legitimate aspirations of all Bahrainis and helps to build the trust and confidence necessary for longer-term reconciliation.
In 2005, Tony Blair officially stated that Britain and Bahrain have a ‘strong, warm and longstanding relationship.’ Given the current times of political crisis Salman al-Khalifa’s government seems to be troubled with, as well as allegations of accounts of rights abuses, is this strong relationship still the case?
Britain has had a long-standing and close relationship with Bahrain, going back nearly 200 years. We are Bahrain’s oldest and most trusted partners outside the region. Bahrain is of great strategic importance for the UK. Therefore Bahrain’s stability is critical for our interests. Given, as I say above, that we believe that sustainable stability can only be achieved through continued reform and given the closeness of the relationship, not just with the government but across the spectrum of Bahraini society, it is natural that the UK should want to help Bahrain to reform. So, yes, the relationship is still close. But, as with all good friends, we are honest when we see things which we believe are wrong. So we are not an uncritical friend.
The unwillingness of the government to acknowledge some opposition and, in instances, choose to repress certain voices, has seemingly pushed many, mostly poor Shiites, to extreme political convictions. Given United Kingdom’s experience of repression in Northern Ireland, what would your advice to the authorities be, for this particular issue?
Bahrain needs reform and political dialogue. There are legal opposition parties in Bahrain. They are currently taking part in the political dialogue that is underway. While I agree that the events of the last 2 years have led to an increase in radicalised young Shia I do not believe that they are representative of the Shia population at large. I think it is still the case that Al Wefaq, the main Shia opposition party (who are in the talks and who won nearly half the seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections) still commands the loyalty of most Shia. But the risk must be that if there is insufficient reform and the political dialogue gets nowhere that more people, on both sides of the sectarian divide, will adopt more extreme positions. Some observers in Bahrain say that the country resembles Northern Ireland in the late ‘60s. What the UK’s support for reform and dialogue is intended to do is to ensure that Bahrain does not stumble into becoming like Northern Ireland of the ‘70s or ’80s.
Given how the country is ran by a Sunni minority, while the base population constitute Shia Muslims, do you think sectarianism is still a relevant issue in the Bahraini political discourse?
There is clear evidence that Bahrain has become a more sectarian society in the last few years. This is a tragedy because Bahrain has traditionally been seen as a society tolerant of different religious beliefs, eg we have Catholic and Anglican cathedrals here, a synagogue and numerous Hindu temples. Bahrain remains the only Gulf State where public celebration of Shia rites, such as Ashura, is allowed. Rebuilding trust and confidence between communities is essential for Bahrain’s long-term stability.
Depleting oil resources mean that many Gulf States are racing to diversify their economies on resource-amassed capital. However, King Hamad’s rule has pushed even many Sunnis into opposition through deregulated politics and the tendency for royalty to grab land and power as they please. Given your experience, do you think the post-oil demand Bahraini economy can be achieved without honest liberalisation on part of the authority?
Looks more like a political statement than an open question! While Bahrain has a reputation as one of the most open and transparent economies in the region (and remains a significant regional financial centre because of that reputation), and has already developed the most diversified economy in the Gulf because of its limited natural resources, there is little doubt that economic and social reform must be part of its long-term reform package.
Manama and Bahrain in general seem to hold a significant community of Britons and other Westerners. As a representative of British interests in the Kingdom, did your office notice a rise of hostilities towards the foreigners? How do the Bahraini people view the British presence?
I’ve seen no evidence of any increase in hostility towards Brits or other westerners. As I’ve said already, Britain is seen as a friend by people from all communities and from across the political spectrum. Many Bahrainis see the UK as a second home, having studied or worked there. And the British community here, many of whom have worked around the region, say that Bahrain is where they are made to feel most welcome, most part of the family. Bahrainis have a well-earned reputation as among the friendliest people in the region.
Given your previous diplomatic experience, how does working with an Islamic Gulf state such as Bahrain differ from East Asian or Balkan countries?
Bahrain is certainly culturally very different to places such as Romania, Hong Kong and Japan. The emphasis on religious belief is also a key difference, though Bahrain is a liberal society compared with its neighbors. There are similarities with East Asia in terms of the importance of personal relationships and building rapport.
Words: Michael Borowiec