January 7, 2013 8:54 pm

MPs criticised over Gulf states inquiry

MPs have come under fire for their handling of an inquiry into the UK’s approach to its Gulf allies after it emerged that evidence from the opposition in the troubled state of Bahrain had been excluded.

Lord Avebury, vice-chairman of the parliamentary human rights committee, said he was “very disturbed” about the omission of dissident voices from a Commons probe into the UK’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

In a letter to the foreign affairs committee, which is conducting the inquiry, he said the list of approved submissions published last week excluded “all the pro-democracy and human rights submissions on Bahrain”, while including pro-government contributions.

The committee had requested evidence on how Britain should balance its defence and commercial interests in the Gulf with human rights issues.

The sensitive inquiry comes as the predominantly Sunni-run Gulf states are flexing their economic muscle to influence western opinion over the unrest in Bahrain, which they blame on Shia Iran.

Almost two years since protests broke out in the strategically vital Gulf state, Bahrain remains gripped by political unrest as youths from the majority Shia population protest against the minority Sunni-led government.

Manama says it is reforming after an independent commission last year lambasted its security forces for excessive use of force and the systematic use of torture after Saudi Arabia led Gulf forces into Bahrain to back the brutal quelling of dissent.

But the opposition says pledges of change are window-dressing and bloody repression continues.

Bahrain’s highest court on Monday reaffirmed sentences of up to life in jail for 13 political leaders for attempting to overthrow the monarchy, in another blow to UK-aided attempts to forge a dialogue within the island state’s polarised society.

Richard Ottaway, foreign affairs committee chairman, declined to comment. But one official said the publication of 36 submissions was not intended to indicate “the total sum of accepted evidence”.

An official said: “A further publication of evidence is expected in due course,” adding that oral testimony would be heard before the committee issued its report – expected before the summer.

Nine groups and individuals critical of the government have written to the committee, raising objections against the “disproportionate number” of submissions from those linked to the government “but who do not make these affiliations clear”.

Of the 36 approved submissions, most provide testimony in line with the government’s position, including Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al-Khalifa, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of Bahrain’s appointed upper house of parliament.

Evidence has also been provided by lobbyists including Sir Graeme Lamb, a senior retired British army officer, who works for a consultancy that has been advising the government.

Critical voices have been included, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and a UK-based satellite television station associated with the opposition movement.

But the main Shia opposition group, al-Wefaq was surprised to find that its submission had not been included.

Abduljalil Khalil, a senior al-Wefaq member, said the group’s exclusion was “unexpected.” He expressed concerns that the committee was failing to take a broad spectrum of opinion on the political crisis.

The UK is treading a delicate balance between fostering democratic development while maintaining its commercial relations in the Gulf, an export market worth £15bn a year.

The oil-rich Gulf states have become increasingly sensitive to criticism in the wake of the Arab uprising as the youth-driven wave of dissent spread to Bahrain, exacerbating decades of festering sectarian grievances.

Blaming the Bahrain protest movement on interference from Shia Iran, the Sunni Gulf states want western allies to show stronger support for their increasingly security-conscious policies.

In July, BP was excluded from a pre-qualification process for the extension of Abu Dhabi’s 75-year-old oil concession.

When the foreign affairs committee inquiry was launched in September, Saudi officials threatened to reassess relations with the UK, rejecting “any foreign interference in the workings” of the Gulf states. David Cameron visited the Gulf in November .

After strenuous diplomacy, BP was later readmitted to the oil-concession bidding process.

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