The latest session of the UK Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee Inquiry into UK policy with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain has focused mainly on trade. Giving evidence was Sir David Wootton, Lord Mayor of the City of London (2011-2012) who led a recent business delegation to Bahrain and David Lloyd OBE, a senior consultant at the Middle East Association.
The background of both speakers is firmly in the business sector and therefore much of the discussion focused around how well the UK was performing with regards to promoting trade in the GCC. It should be noted that part of the inquiries remit was to look at bilateral trade relations and there was a general agreement between the two individuals that UK business could be making more of the potential for trade in the Gulf.
A few interesting areas did however crop up, with an admission from Sir David Wootton that the unrest over the past 2 years has had a negative impact on investment. He said that the protests had brought investment to Bahrain “to a stop”, although existing businesses had continued to operate.
Another eye-opening moment included a discussion on why the UK seems to host a number of “conflict-resolving” events for Gulf businesses. Sir David Wootton diplomatically explained that the UK legal system is more reliable than elsewhere, particularly in the Gulf, and therefore many businesses like to use the British system to resolve conflicts.
Perhaps the most interesting area of the session was when Ann Clwyd MP pressed the two on the human rights records in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf more generally. She accused David Lloyd OBE of “glossing over the terrible human rights record of Saudi Arabia”, citing numerous examples of violations in that country.
Llloyd defended himself, saying he had not glossed over anything and admitted there are indeed grave human rights abuses, but at the same time he felt that improvements were being made. He noted disappointment with Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Al Saud, for justifying the recent execution of a Sri-Lankan maid in Saudi Arabia.
Ann Clwyd MP then asked Sir David Wootton if he had visited any human rights activists, prisoners or opposition figures during his trip to Bahrain, with him replying that he had not. He did however add that he felt that any individuals from the UK in contact with Bahrain, whether political or trade, should encourage Bahrain onto what he called “the right direction of travel”.
Much of the discussions in the first two sessions have centred around what capabilities the UK has to influence Bahrain and whether criticising them politically will damage trade. With that in mind Sir John Stanley MP asked whether the two could cite an example in which the UK speaking out against human rights abuses had resulted in the loss of trade? Both answered that they couldn’t, raising the idea that it is possible for the UK to balance trade interests with human rights concerns.
However, this particular hearing was very much focused on trade and therefore there was little revealing discussion about ethical interests. Many will hope that the coming sessions will begin to unravel this particular aspect of UK policy in the Gulf.