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.