Gulf activists focus ire on May after courting GCC

Gulf activists focus ire on May after courting GCC
6 min read
21 December, 2016
The British prime minister is facilitating human rights abuses across the Middle East by investing in Gulf states and their militaries, writes Daniel Wickham.
Prime Minister Theresa May met Bahrain's King Hamad Bin Isa Khalifa in early December [Getty]

Human rights activists from the Gulf have strongly criticised British Prime Minister Theresa May for attending a meeting of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) monarchies earlier this month in Bahrain.

At the summit, May promised stronger security and economic ties with the GCC and £3 billion in defence spending over the next decade, prompting criticism from activists who believe Britain is ignoring - and in some cases, enabling - human rights violations against political dissidents in the region.

May's government is already under fire for supporting a bloody bombing campaign in Yemen led by the GCC's most powerful state, Saudi Arabia, with rights groups accusing the British and American-backed coalition of committing war crimes and fuelling a massive humanitarian crisis.

Gulf activists say Britain is helping to foster a climate of impunity for their allies in the region, even as they engage in wide-scale political repression and destructive conflicts in Yemen and elsewhere.

Bahrain, for example, has mounted a fierce crackdown on opposition groups, yet British support remains unwavering.

"They're going after pretty much everyone," says Maryam al-Khawaja, a prominent Bahraini activist and the co-director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights. "We've seen a complete shutdown of civil space."

Government repression has targeted everyone from Bahrain's largest political society - now banned, with its leader behind bars - to human rights defenders, journalists and protesters. The spiritual leader of the Sunni-ruled country's Shia majority also had his nationality revoked in June.

Al-Khawaja says Britain - once a colonial power in the Gulf - has emboldened Bahrain's rulers to take stronger measures against the opposition.

"This is part and parcel the same policy they used back in the day - enable the government to do what it needs to to do to put down dissent," she says. "By selling them arms, by doing business with them, by blocking initiatives to try to have any form of accountability for the Bahraini government, Britain is treating Bahrain like it's still a protectorate."

Al-Khawaja now lives in exile in Denmark, along with her sister, Zainab, also a well-known pro-democracy campaigner. Both spent time in prison in Bahrain, while their father, Abdulhadi, is serving a life term for his role in protests in 2011.

Their story is a familiar one in the Gulf region. In recent years, more and more activists have been imprisoned or forced into exile by governments determined to suppress dissent.

I can't go back because all my friends have been sentenced for a long period in prison. I don't want to stay here, but being in exile is better than prison and torture

One of them is Yahya Assiri, a 36-year-old human rights defender from Saudi Arabia. He has been living in the UK since 2013, where he runs ALQST, an NGO which monitors the human rights situation in his home country. 

"I can't go back because all my friends have been sentenced for a long period in prison," he says. "I don't want to stay here, but being in exile is better than prison and torture."

Assiri's human rights work makes him a likely target for the Saudi authorities, who show little tolerance for critical, outspoken voices like his. Since 2012, many of the kingdom's leading activists and reformists have been rounded up, including Assiri's close friend, the human rights lawyer Waleed Abulkhair, and nearly the entire membership of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA).

Authorities have also cracked down on Saudi Arabia's marginalised Shia minority, executing a prominent anti-government cleric and killing more than a dozen other Shia dissidents during protests in the kingdom's Eastern Province.

In June this year, security forces shot dead a wanted Shia man reportedly using British-manufactured shotgun ammunition, prompting further calls from activists for a UK arms embargo. The Saudis have previously been accused of using British-made armoured vehicles to help put down protests in Bahrain.

Assiri believes Britain is turning a blind eye to Saudi human rights abuses because of oil and security interests. "Saudi Arabia is a totalitarian regime, and Britain is using counter-terrorism as an excuse to partner with it," he says. "This is despite the fact that Saudi Arabia helps to fuel terrorism, and treats non-violent activists who call for reforms and rights as terrorists."

Now living in Birmingham with his family, Assiri hopes to be granted political asylum by the British government. Nearly three years after he made his request, however, no decision has yet been made. With his friends in jail, Assiri fears for the worst if he is forced to return home.

Other Gulf activists have avoided life in exile, yet remain trapped, unable to leave their home countries because of travel bans imposed as punishment for their work.

Ahmed Mansour, a human rights defender from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was barred from travel in 2012. He had previously spent nearly eight months in prison for allegedly insulting the rulers of the UAE - a charge he denies.

Hundreds have been forcibly disappeared and tortured, hundreds lost their citizenship

Mansour says human rights conditions are deteriorating across the Gulf.

"There are thousands of peaceful activists languishing in jail," he says. "Hundreds have been forcibly disappeared and tortured, hundreds lost their citizenship, hundreds are on travel bans, and women are struggling to get their minimum basic rights."

In the UAE, scores of political activists have been jailed since 2011, some of them subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. Mansour accuses Britain of helping to enable repression.

"May's government provides the Gulf regimes with the tools to squash civil society and peaceful dissent," he says. "Human rights are of no interest to them whatsoever."

Another Gulf activist under a travel ban is Nawaf al-Hendal, the founder of the Kuwait Watch Organisation for Human Rights. The 30-year-old was arrested and beaten by security forces in March last year, then acquitted later.

"The human rights situation in Kuwait is getting much worse," he said. A government crackdown has targeted an array of opposition politicians, bloggers and activists, as well as members of the country's stateless Bidoon community - and hundreds of people accused of insulting the ruling emir. 

In Oman, too, reports of political repression are widespread, even after protests calling for reform and economic opportunities fizzled out a few years ago.

"The country is ruled by fear," says human rights defender Khalfan al-Badwawi. "There are attacks on freedom of expression, newspapers are closed, no public gathering is allowed and security services control everything."

Al-Badwawi knows about this first hand. In 2011, he helped to organise anti-government protests, but later had to flee the country after repeated arrests, threats, and a 98-day spell in solitary confinement which left him suffering from depression and constant nightmares. "I decided I could not live like that any longer," he says.

Qatar has also been accused of serious abuses against dissidents, including the imprisonment of a well-known poet - since pardoned - who was deemed to have insulted the country's former ruler.

Press freedom has suffered too, with the popular Doha News website reportedly blocked by authorities last month, provoking criticism from Amnesty International.

Activists say British policies towards the Gulf monarchies have only encouraged this type of behaviour, with continued arms sales, trade and political support giving rulers the confidence to carry out abuses without fear of repercussions. 

"What this does is reinforce the idea that governments in the Gulf can can commit pretty much any crime and any human rights violation," explains al-Khawaja, from Bahrain. "They will still get away with it internationally."

As May moves to strengthen ties with the Gulf monarchies, activists believe difficult times are ahead, and Britain - if it continues to support its allies unconditionally - will be seen as complicit in whatever repressive measures they take next to crush dissent.

Daniel Wickham is a human rights activist. Follow him on Twitter @DanielWickham93