The UK has denied a Bahraini statement claiming that a British government minister backed the Gulf state’s “initiatives to preserve stability”, complicating delicate relations between the two historic allies.
Lord Astor of Hever, undersecretary at the ministry of defence, on Wednesday held a meeting with officials including Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who has been empowered by the king to launch a national dialogue after one of the bloodiest weeks in Bahrain’s history.
The offer of dialogue with the opposition comes after riot police and the military killed at least seven people in response to a youth-driven, peaceful opposition movement that since February 14 has taken to the streets to demand greater democracy.
Bell Pottinger, the London-based media relations company, sent out a statement on Wednesday night saying Lord Astor had praised the national dialogue launched by King Hamad.
The statement read: “The UK backs all initiatives taken by the kingdom’s leadership to safeguard the country from extremism and internal division, promote national unity and protect the legitimate ruling system advocated by the Bahraini people.”
A British official on Thursday said that was an inaccurate representation of the conversation, adding that the UK was seeking a clarification from the crown prince’s office.
“Lord Astor emphasised the UK’s firm support for the Bahraini government’s peaceful management of the protests at this time and our readiness to help his royal highness the Crown Prince to start a national dialogue, including by encouraging all groups to participate,” a spokesman at the UK embassy in Bahrain said.
The UK and Bahrain have long-standing ties, with a treaty between the British government and the Khalifas in 1820 helping solidify the ruling family’s control over the country.
But there have also been spats.
Some in Bahrain have criticised the UK for harbouring several opposition exiles. Riots last summer were triggered after the arrest of one opposition leader, Abduljalil al-Singace, after his return from the UK where he had participated in a forum calling for reform at the House of Lords in London.
Leading opposition groups, including the main Shia party al-Wefaq, have presented their demands to the government.
These include the release of all political prisoners; an impartial investigation into the deaths of protesters; a more moderate line from state-owned media; the resignation of the government and the formation of a new “national salvation” government; the introduction of a constitutional monarchy; and electoral reform.