Who Pays the Price for UK National Security Policy in Bahrain?

Bahraini human rights activist Sayed Alwadaei was imprisoned and tortured for speaking out against the government of Bahrain, one of the UK’s leading military and commercial partners in the Middle East.

I come from Bahrain, an island kingdom in the Arabian Gulf. Bahrain may be tiny but it has huge strategic importance to the UK and USA as the permanent base for their naval forces in the Gulf. Although it’s a rich country, it’s probably the most politically unstable of the Gulf States and the King relies heavily on Saudi Arabia, the US and UK to keep control.

Following the Arab Spring protests that engulfed the nation in early 2011, I was arrested as a result of speaking out to the media. For about 28 days I was subjected to physical torture; I was blindfolded and beaten randomly. Then I was released, but soon tried and sentenced through a military court.

After my time in prison, I was even more determined and I continued to protest. I wanted to challenge the state to stop abusing our human rights. We want democracy in Bahrain, just like in the rest of the world.

The state’s response to our protests was repression and the use of tear gas. We collected hundreds of tear gas canisters from the street when we regained our positions. What struck me the most is how many of those canisters had labels saying ‘Made in the UK’ or ‘Made in the USA’. So it is not only Bahrain that is repressing us, it is also those states which provide them with the means to do so.

Afterwards, I had to flee Bahrain and was given asylum in the UK. While I appreciate their protection, I am still determined to speak out against the government of Bahrain’s repression and what the UK government does to support it.

In October 2016 the King of Bahrain came on an official visit to Britain. I threw myself at his car as his motorcade entered Downing Street. As he shook hands with Theresa May I was shouting, “Why are you hosting a dictator? Why are you hosting killers?” The UK says that it is helping Bahrain restore democracy. Although the police arrested me, I think I caused the King great embarrassment.

As a result, there were reprisals against my family still in Bahrain. My wife and infant son were detained and had to flee the country. Three members of my wife’s family who stayed were interrogated about my activism, tortured, and imprisoned.

The British government is deeply involved in propping up the repressive Bahraini regime, from security cooperation to what they call the technical assistance programme. This includes training judges, providing courses on how to conduct investigations into allegations of torture, inspections of UK prison facilities and so on. While they are meant to teach Bahrain models of British best practice, I see the UK government’s role as teaching the Bahrainis how to escape the consequences of their human rights abuses.

The human rights situation in Bahrain is now worse than it has ever been, even worse than in 2011. This is because those bodies that are supposed to be investigating torture are complicit in covering it up.

The British government has shown the people of Bahrain that there is no morality, no ethics in how it conducts its business. Really its priority is to invest in the arms industry, to invest in wars despite how catastrophic it is for the civilians caught up in them.

How can this bring any peace, prosperity or stability to the world? How does it even serve any national security? National security is used as a banner for unethical foreign policies, as a justification for pursuing really shady deals with corrupt regimes.

By legitimising them, the British government acts like a PR company for the Gulf monarchies. Indeed, it does better PR than the dictators themselves. It should stop publicly endorsing them and put an end to arms sales. It should stop hiding behind national security and be transparent about the nature of this toxic relationship.


The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

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