Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Bahrain’

Is the GCC Unravelling?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th November, 2017

C0F4FE57-2826-47BC-B8AE-6C6F8B4B45BCThe Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, more commonly known by its previous name, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has been in existence since 1981 and aims at a degree of economic integration between Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman as well as cooperation in other fields, but some of its more ambitious plans have been quietly shelved. Following the launch of the euro there was talk of moving towards a single GCC currency, to be called the khaleeji (Gulfi), but Oman said it would need to opt out and enthusiasm waned elsewhere. Then at the time of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, tentative moves were made to bring two other Arab monarchies, Jordan and Morocco, into the fold, despite neither being in the Gulf. However, the one obvious geographical absentee absentee is Iraq, which overthrew it’s short-lived monarchy in 1958, was never a serious contender while Saddam Hussein was in power and has been equally unpalatable to the Sunni Arab monarchs since Shia-dominated governments have been in charge in Baghdad following the 2003 US-led invasion. When there was stronger than usual unrest among Bahrain’s majority Shi’i population in 2011, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent in troops to help the Al Khalifa monarchy quash it. Since then, Iran has been the focus of much of the GCC’s animosity, notably from Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as Tehran’s rival for regional hegemony. But since this summer, another deeply complicating factor has emerged: the embargo of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, mainly because of the activities of the Doha-based TV channel, Al Jazeera, and Qatar’s alleged cosying up to Iran (with which it shares a gigantic gas field). Kuwait has been trying to mediate, while the wily ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos, is keeping well out of it. The Saudi Foreign Minister the other day downplayed the importance of the row, but it has inevitably made the facade of GCC unity crumble. And if the standoff continues for long, the GCC would be in real danger of unravelling.

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The Case of Nabeel Rajab

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 7th October, 2016

nabeel-rajabYesterday I joined fellow member of English PEN along with other human rights activists at a vigil outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London for the imprisoned Bahraini human rights campaigner Nabeel Rajab. He was due to be sentenced that day by a court in Bahrain, but in the event the decision was postponed until 31 October. He is charged with a list of freedom of expression “offences”, including insulting a Bahrain state institution and Saudi Arabia in online postings. He is also accused of “spreading false news and rumours and inciting propaganda during wartime which could undermine the war operations by the Bahraini armed forces and weaken the nation”. The government has insisted that Rajab, aged 51, remain in custody throughout his trial despite recurring health problems, for which he was briefly hospitalised in June. Nabeel had previously been serving a prison sentence for his human rights work, before being pardoned on health grounds, but he was rearrested in June, prior to his hospitalisation. Since the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, there has been a crackdown on dissent, especially among the island nation’s Shia majority, who argue that they are marginalised from society by the Sunni ruling elite. I used to go to Bahrain several times a year and prior to 2011 it was one of the most liberal states in the region. However, that has changed dramatically over the past five years and the last time I tried to go to Bahrain I was refused entry because of tweets I had posted criticising the government’s crackdown and in particular, the imprisonment of doctors who had treated wounded demonstrators. Yesterday, outside the FCO, I gave a short interview to LuaLuaTV, in which I said I was ashamed of the way that Britain’s Conservative government continues to give unconditional support to Bahrain’s regime despite its egregious human rights abuses. So does our royal family, for which they should be challenged. In the meantime, human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Index on Censorship will continue to campaign for Nabeel Rajab and other detainees and journalists such as myself will make our voices heard. jf-interviewed-by-lualuatv

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Landmark Ruling on Arms Protesters

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th April, 2016

DSEI protestEight anti-armaments campaigners, who were charged with blocking the entrance to last September’s giant arms fair in London, DSEI 2016, were this week found not guilty, on the grounds that they had acted in good faith to prevent an even greater crime. After listening to four days of often passionate testimony, the judge said the court had heard compelling evidence of the role of weapons on sale at DSEI in repression and human rights abuses. During the trial, the defendants had particularly highlighted the use of weapons in Saudi Arabia’s attacks in Yemen, the suppression of  dissent in Bahrain and Turkey’s military activities in predominantly Kurdish areas of the country. They also argued that some illegal types of weapon had been openly displayed at the Fair. An estimated 30,000 visitors went to the Fair despite the disruption by protesters. DSEI is one of the largest such events in the world and a,though another one is planned for next year, anti-war campaigners are determined to be out in force on that occasion too.

Link: https://www.caat.org.uk/

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Keepers of the Golden Shore

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 29th February, 2016

Keepers of the Golden ShoreThe transformation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) from impoverished sheikhdoms along the Trucial Coast to a dynamic post-modern society with one of the fastest rates of economic and population growths in the world is surely one of the most remarkable development trajectories of the second half of the 20th century. As a country, the UAE has only existed since 1971; previously, the seven emirates had survived with often indistinct borders between them drawn in the sand, all under the tutelage of Great Britain as the protecting power. It was largely thanks to the UK’s cost-cutting decision to withdraw from East of Suez that concentrated the minds of the local rulers that they would do better in an uncertain world as a single identity rather than as seven, though Ras Al Khaimah dragged its heels for a while. Bahrain and Qatar could have been part of the new enterprise but decided to go their own way. Subsequently, oil revenues helped Abu Dhabi become the strongest kid o the block, though Dubai’s embracing of economic diversification and in-your-face self promotion has made it the one emirate of which that everyone has heard.

UAE 1950sIt would be tempting to think that the above is all the really matters when one considers the history of the UAE, but as Michael Quentin Morton’s new book Keepers of the Golden Shore (Reaktion Books, £25) recounts, archaeological findings show significant human activity in this region at a time when the climate was more benign than it is now. Moreover, pearl fishing brought periods of prosperity to Gulf communities, albeit unevenly distributed, for several centuries. But the bottom fell out of the pearl market around 1930 in the face of competition from Japanese cultured pearls and the impact of the Great Depression. The following two decades, including the Second World War, were a period of great hardship for Gulf Arabs, including widespread malnutrition, causing some local people to leave. The subsequent exploitation of oil dramatically changed that situation so that now the UAE’s hunger is for overseas migrant labour and the newest and flashiest of everything.

Sheikh ZayedQuentin Morton, who grew up in the Gulf, writes with calm authority and rational judgment about the often passionate rivalry between the various emirates and their ruling families, several of which engaged in fratricide and other dastardly acts. He rightly underlines the particular significance of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan (1918-2004), ruler of Abu Dhabi and President of the UAE, without fully explaining his charisma. I was in Bahrain when Zayed died and the public mourning even there was dramatic and sincerely felt. Perhaps because he does not want to get his book banned in the UAE and neighbouring countries, the author is a little circumspect in his treatment of the bloody suppression of the Pearl roundabout protests in Bahrain in 2011. But for anyone who wants to understand from where what is now the UAE emerged and how that happened this is a most useful and readable account..

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Remembering Eric Avebury

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 14th February, 2016

Eric AveburyLord Avebury, who died earlier today at the age of 87, was better known to many in politics by the name he had before inheriting a peerage: Eric Lubbock. In 1962, Eric won for the Liberal Party one of the most famous by-elections of modern times in the suburban seat of Orpington, just down the road from that of the Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, hastening Macmillan’s political demise. By chance, Orpington was a favourite dormitory town for Fleet Street journalists as well as printers, because of the excellent commuter train service, and they really went to town by identifying a new breed of voter: Orpington man. People tend to forget that Eric hung on to the seat at the next two general elections before succumbing to the Tory tide that swept in Ted Heath in 1970. This defeat was given sweet recompense by the timely inheritance of his peerage (which would have forced him to resign from the House of Commons, had it happened earlier — or else try to imitate Tony Benn in trying to renounce  it). Though the Lubbock family was well-known in north-west Kent, Eric was not a natural member of the still rather fusty House of Lords, but both he and the Liberal Party realised that he could use new position as a platform to promote Liberal causes. Over the years, he would increasingly focus on human rights internationally. He and I often found ourselves at the same events not just because I stood for Orpington in the 1987 general election but also because increasingly our human rights issues were the same. We took a perverse delight in the fact that both of us had been banned from Bahrain because we highlighted some of the excessive actions of the Sunni monarchy against predominantly Shia dissidents. Eric’s own religious beliefs were essentially Buddhist and he provoked a degree of derision in the tabloid Press when he suggested he should leave his body to be recycled as animal food. In several ways he was ascetic, and in the timeworn phrase of obituarists, he did not suffer fools gladly. But he was a man of immense humanity, driven by a thirst for justice, and he will be much missed.

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Human Rights and the Arab World

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 11th December, 2014

imageOver the last three decades, much of the world, from Brazil to Indonesia, has moved from dictatorship to democracy, but despite the so-called Arab Spring that began with Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia in December 2010, most of the Arab world has remained immune. Several states, such as Syria and Bahrain, are even worse than they were when it comes to the situation of civil society and human rights. Especially tragic is the most populous Arab state of all, Egypt, which was so full of hope during the 2011 Revolution, but where things have returned to their previous brutal state following the coupl against Mohammed Morsi in July last year. As the United States and several other western countries view Egypt as a crucial ally they have been restrained in their criticism of some of the gross outrages that have taken place in Egypt over the past 18 months, so it has been left to NGOs and some of the international media — notably Al Jazeera — to make their concerns known. Prominent among the former has been the International Coalition for Freedoms and Rights (ICFR), which has sent everal missions comprised largely of lawyers to Cairo during 2014. Egypt has similarly been the Central focus of ICFR’s first conference this week in Istanbul, which I have been attending and which will lead to the creation of a lawyers’ task force to monitor situations and to disseminate information, as well as a media group. While so much of the West is concentrating on the War on Terror it probably needs reminding about the values it is meant to stand for, including democracy and the respect for human rights, which are alas so lacking in so many Arab States.

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Iran Invited to Geneva2. And the Kurds?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th January, 2014

Kurdish area of SyriaThe UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, has announced that Iran has now been invited to attend the Geneva talks on the future of Syria, due to be held on Wednesday. That is welcome news, though it is a little odd that the significance was almost lost in the revelation that a whole host of other states have also been invited, including Bahrain, Luxembourg and the Vatican. Given the small size and, at least in some cases, marginal direct involvement of some of the likely participants, it is maybe not surprising that Syrian Kurds — many of whom have also risen up against the regime of Bashar al-Assad — are asking, why not them too? The quick answer from the UN would doubtless be that they are not a state, though some of the other Syrian actors who will be present do not represent a state either. But of course there is a more substantial matter involved, namely the position of Kurds in the whole region. Only in Iraq have Kurds gained a high degree of autonomy; in fact, it is not inconceivable that the Kurdistan Region of Iraq could become an independent country one day. The issue then is, which other areas in the region with a high percentage of Kurds among their population would like to try to become part of some putative Kurdish state? The Iranians stamp hard on any attempts at Kurdish separatism, and Turkey — which houses almost half of the region’s population of Kurds — strongly resists any attempt to undermine the territorial integrity of the Republic of Turkey. Moreover, Kurds in Turkey are themselves divided about how far they ought or ought not to be autonomous, let alone independent. But what is clear from even a cursory study of Middle Eastern history following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire is that the Kurds were denied a proper opportunity for self-determination by the Allied Powers. And if Syrian Kurds are excluded from Geneva2 it will strike some Kurdish activists as yet more of the same.

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Diplomat Awards 2013

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 29th April, 2013

Ambassador BoomgardenHE Carlos dos SantosThe Langham Hotel, just opposite BBC Broadcasting House, claims with justification to be one of the oldest top-end hotels in Europe. Crown Prince Edward presided over the opening of its grand function room in 1865; this evening, almost a century and a half later, it welcomed the massed ranks of London’s diplomatic corps, at what has become a key date in the capital’s annual social calendar: Diplomat Magazine’s Awards for diplomats of special note, nominated by their peers. It’s true that in the interim the hotel went through some barren years, especially after the Germans dropped a bomb through the roof and the BBC then occupied it for offices. But now it is back to its former glory (despite recently hosting Justin Bieber, on the less than glorious London led of his concert tour). The Awards were presented tonight by Sir Christopher Meyer, former UK Ambassador to to Washington and head of the ill-fated Press Complaints Commission; he is now sucked into the corporate sector and performed with immense slickness and occasional wit. The laureates included the Christian Lady Ambassador of the Kingdom of Bahrain (Middle East), the German Ambassador (who sent a deliciously subversive pro-European Unity message in his absence), the Ambassador of Brazil (South America), the Ambassador of Indonesia (Asia)  and the High Commissioners of Mozambique (Africa) and Trinidad & Tobago (The Americas). The hotel and various sponsors certainly did us all proud and it is a credit to the Diplomat’s owners/editors Hugo and Venetia de Blocq van Kuffeler that they manage to keep the whole enterprise going in these difficult economic times. With over 160 diplomatic missions London as a posting remains one of the highlights of any diplomat’s career and indeed for some being accredited to the Court of St James’s is the crowning of a professional lifetime, even if on occasions (as Sir Christopher wickedly reminded us, in the words of Henry Wotton) they are being sent abroad as honest men (and women these days) to lie for their country.

[photos show HE Georg Boomgaarden, Ambassador of Germany, and HE Carlos dos Santos, High Commissioner of Mozambique]

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Engage with Iran, Don’t Isolate It

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 11th April, 2012

Iran has said it supports the UN special envoy Kofi Annan’s Peace Plan for Syria, which is a welcome development and highlights the fact that any workable settlement may only be possible with Iran’s active diplomatic engagement. Tehran has long been Bashar al-Assad’s closest ally and one of the reasons it was able to endorse the Annan Plan was that that does not call for the removal of Assad, even if that is what many Syrians and Western countries, including Turkey, would prefer. So far, the Assad regime has remained deaf to pleas to end the assaults that have cost thouands of civilian lives as well as fuelling an inevitable armed opposition. But if Assad will listen to anyone, it would be the Iranians. And there is a wider point at stake here. Iran historically was a major regional power, indeed once the centre of a great empire. Recently, it has been trying to reassert its influence, not only in Iraq, which now has a Shiite-led government, but more widely. However, the policy of Washington and the EU — not to mention Israel — has been to isolate Iran and indeed subject it to punitive sanctions, because of the country’s nuclear programme, which may or may not be working towards the production of a nuclear weapons capability, according to who you believe. Certainly Iran’s Gulf neighbours don’t want to see a nuclear-armed Iran and two of them — Bahrain and Qatar — play host to US military forces. However, most of the Arab states in the Gulf are nonetheless engaging with Tehran, as they recognise that whatever differences they may have with the current government there, engagement is more likely to produce a modus vivendi than belligerency. This is a lesson the West could usefully learn. Of course there are many aspects of the Islamic Republic which leave Western governments uncomfortable, not least regarding human rights and President Ahmadinejad’s comments about the Holocaust, but that should not blind people to the fact that through engagement it is possible to work with countries which have totally different political systems or religious beliefs towards achieving common aims.

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Easter in Ahmadi

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 7th April, 2012

As a Muslim country, Kuwait does not acknowledge Easter, but the state’s constitution recognises the freedom to practise religion, so the more than 300,000 Christians in the country can go to the masses and other Holy Week services at the Catholic cathedral in Kuwait city or at various other churches and house worship groups in the capital or in the oil town of  Ahmadi. Only around 200 or 300 Kuwaitis are Christian, believed to be the descendants of people who came to the area from northerly parts of the Ottoman Empire more than a century agao, but now completely assimilated. But in more recent times it has not been possible for a non-Muslim to be naturalised as a Kuwaiti; in fact, naturalisation is very difficult in general, unless someone has roots in the area dating back generations. That contrasts with the situation in Bahrain — the only other state in the Gulf that has a small community of indigenous Christians — which does offer naturalisation to some foreigners who settle there long-term, though that is not often a straightforward process. So the vast majority — 99.9% — of Christians in Kuwait are foreigners, the biggest communities coming from the Philippines, India and other South Asian countries. The Catholic church in Ahmadi, where I am staying, has been offering Easter masses in English, Tagalog and several Indian languages and other church communities, including a small group of Anglicans, have made their own celebrations. Only Islam is taught in Kuwaiti schools, however, and when a member of the ruling family recently suggested that the Armenian community should be able to open a new church here, she was told firmly by the religious authorities to stay out of affairs that should not be her concern. Christian evangelisation is strictly forbidden and as in much of the Islamic world, apostasy is a serious offence for Muslims in Kuwait. Christians are hardly likely to complain about that, however, as they know they are far better off here, in being allowed to worship in dedicated places, unlike over the border in Saudi Arabia.

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