Bahrain’s camera-shy king visits Downing Street

Blink and you’ll have missed it, but yesterday there was another one of those flying visits to Downing Street by Bahrain’s jet-setting King Hamad. It’s one of several he’s made to the UK lately. David Cameron will be getting quite familiar with his tea and biscuit preferences.

OK, I don’t have a big problem with heads of state visiting Britain - it would be pretty strange if they didn’t. But the frequency of Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa’s visits is intriguing, as is their rather below-the-radar quality.

From what I can gather, yesterday’s visit involved little or no prior notification of political correspondents. Were it not for a call I took from a BBC reporter it may not have come to my own attention at all (and you, dear reader, would not now be reading this post).

Hmm. Why keep the visits quiet? Doesn’t the UK government want to tell the world - or at least the UK political lobby - about its ongoing efforts to engage the Bahraini authorities in serious discussion about tackling human rights?

William Hague and others seem to know the score with Bahrain - last year’s (diplomatically-worded) condemnation of the country’s “disproportionate” sentences against several Bahraini medics being a case in point. They were, chided Mr Hague, “worrying developments”. Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the Olympics, the UK authorities seemed to be taking seriously the prospect of preventing the attendance of the head of Bahrain’s Olympic Committee, Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa - possibly not surprising given that Sheikh Nasser has been quoted saying he’d like to see a “wall” falling “on the heads” of Bahraini protesters, “Even if they are an athlete”. (Nice touch that last remark …)

Anyway, scroll forward to the present and the reforms promised by the Bahraini government after the hammering it took in last year’s Bahrain Commission of Inquiry report just aren’t materialising. Yesterday, for example, there was news that the prominent Bahraini dissident Nabeel Rajab had won an appeal against a three-month jail sentence for sending a tweet “insulting a national institution”. But what on earth was he doing in jail in the first place? And it was a sort of Pyrrhic victory for him anyway - he’s already in jail serving a three-year term for attending an “illegal demonstration”.

Rajab’s case isn’t an isolated one. Other dissidents are still languishing in Bahrain’s jails, including Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, one of 13 Bahraini activists put behind bars after being convicted on charges including “setting up terror groups to topple the royal regime and change the constitution”. 

On the eve of April’s Manama Grand Prix Amnesty made it pretty clear that Bahrain was reneging on its promise to implement the Commission of Inquiry reforms. Indeed instead, the authorities were quite evidently trying to use the glitz of the car racing as good PR - hoping a nice cloud-spray of bubbly would obscure the arrests and the beatings. In fact it backfired, and even sports correspondents went about reporting on peaceful protesters getting tear-gassed.

So now maybe the Bahraini authorities are fighting shy of publicity and prefer their visits to No10 and elsewhere to be well away from the cameras. No need for the UK to go along with that though … 

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