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Bahrain delegation visit UK Parliamentarians in Westminster and Portsmouth

The British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (BGIPU) hosted a parliamentary delegation from the National Assembly of the Kingdom of Bahrain to Westminster from 25 February to 1 March 2013. The delegation comprised Second Deputy Speaker of the Council of Representative,  Sheikh Adel Abdulrahman Al-Maawdeh, Mr Abdul Hamid Jalal Al-Meer and Mr Mahmood Yusuf Almahmood Members of the Council of Representatives (Lower House) and Ms Hala Ramzi Fayiz Qurisa and Ms Nancy Dinah Elly Khedouri, Members of the Consultative Council (Upper House).   They were accompanied by Mr Ali Hasan Al-Khazali,  and Mr Mohamed Al-Abbasi, both Parliamentary Advisors of the National Assembly.  The Ambassador of Bahrain, H.E. Alice Thomas Samaan and her staff also participated in some elements of the programme and worked closely with BGIPU staff on all arrangements.

On 25 February, following an introductory briefing on the operations of the House of Commons, the delegation met with Lord Faulkner, in his capacity as Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords, prior to a working lunch hosted by Baroness Symons on accountability mechanisms of parliaments.  The delegation also met the Director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), Mr Chris Doyle to discuss UK-Bahrain relations before a general discussion with the Chairman of the Business, Innovation & Skills Select Committee, Mr Adrian Bailey MP on the operations of committees in the UK parliamentary system.  A welcome reception for the delegation was hosted by the BGIPU Chairman, Mr Robert Walter MP, with a key focus on recognising the long historical relationship between both countries and the importance of parliamentary dialogue and exchange on issues of common concern.  The Lord Speaker, Baroness d’Souza, attended this reception, allowing her to provide the visitors with key insights into the work of the House of Lords.

The following day commenced with a tour of the Palace of Westminster hosted by Sir Gerald Howarth MP, followed by a meeting with the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Mr Richard Ottaway MP and Foreign Affairs Committee member and BGIPU Executive Committee Member, Sir John Stanley MP.   This discussion provided an opportunity for broad exchanges on developments affecting security in the Gulf region, including the important maritime security role undertaken by Bahrain, including in cooperation with the UK and others.  The importance of maintaining a mutually beneficial defence relationship was highlighted, noting the threats and challenges for regional security posed by the uncertainty of regional development, including the impacts of the Arab Spring, including the ongoing civil conflict in Syria, and the role being played in the region by Iran, including with regard to its nuclear program.

In common with the discussion with Foreign Affairs Committee Members, the internal situation in Bahrain, including progress on implementing the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) Report into unrest in February and March 2011 was discussed with most UK parliamentary interlocutors during the course of the visit.  The delegation provided an update on the state of play of the National Dialogue, including efforts to better engage opposition groups in the process including divergences within differing opposition groups.  UK parliamentarians welcomed Bahrain’s decision to commission the BICI report but urged the relevant authorities to be diligent in addressing all of its recommendations, not just dealing with those which were the easiest to resolve.

At a working lunch on the impacts of the Arab Spring hosted by Mr Thomas Docherty MP, UK parliamentarians agreed with their Bahraini counterparts, that stability was very important for national growth and prosperity but stressed that this could not be done to the exclusion of broader human rights or in isolation from legitimate calls for political reform.  The Bahrain delegation were told that many prominent observers in the UK, including FCO Ministers, were concerned by gaps in addressing the BICI outcomes and deeply worried by recent convictions and other actions against political dissidents, including stripping them of Bahraini citizenship.  BGIPU Vice-Chair, Ms Ann Clwyd MP, noted the concerns of the IPU Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians in this regard and called for Bahrain’s cooperation in facilitating the important work of the Committee to defend the rights of elected officials.

Bahraini interlocutors highlighted their views of the difficulties facing government authorities, saying external influences were behind much of the recent unrest.  They dismissed characterisation of recent troubles as being an internal struggle for equality between differing religious groups within Bahrain saying much of it was being fomented from outside the country.  They said there was preparedness to be open to calls for reform and change, but such calls must be free of threats of violence and help advance Bahrain’s own interests, not the interests of others.  The delegation took the opportunity in discussions with all interlocutors to highlight the violent and destabilising nature of street protests, saying the threat this posed to economic growth and public order needed to be addressed to avoid very serious economic and social consequences.

Members of the visiting delegation also claimed there was a lack of balance in international media coverage of the situation in their country.  UK counterparts said authorities in Bahrain could always be more active in better engaging the media to register its perspectives, but it was also important to demonstrate the Kingdom’s commitment to restraint and respect for human rights in addressing any outbreaks of dissent.  This was a two-way process with both sides of any dispute needing to play their part responsibly.  Along similar lines, there was a valuable meeting with Northern Ireland MP, Mr Ian Paisley, where the delegation debated comparative perspectives on the challenges of sectarian violence and policing reform and how best to pursue paths to conciliation and peace, drawing on examples from Britain’s recent past.

The delegation enjoyed a comprehensive exchange with the Senior Minister of State of the FCO, Baroness Warsi, on the British-Bahraini dialogue, inter-religious dialogue and inclusiveness, with visiting members taking the opportunity to highlight the tolerance and religious diversity of Bahrain, including by noting that the delegation, itself, included representatives of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities of Bahrain.  The delegation also participated in a roundtable discussion at Chatham House on recent political developments and the role of the media in Bahrain prior to a dinner hosted by the Ambassador of Bahrain for the delegation and host parliamentarians, including the BGIPU Chairman, at her Residence.

The culmination of the delegation’s time in the UK was a constituency visit to explore in more detail the specific responsibilities of UK parliamentarians, in the form of a visit to Portsmouth hosted by local MP, Mr Mike Hancock.  The location was particularly relevant given the maritime dimensions of the bilateral relationship and the rich naval history of the City of Portsmouth.  Key elements included a tour of the Ship Build Halls and Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carrier construction at BAE Systems, followed by a lunchtime discussion on BAE Systems support for Royal Navy activities in Bahrain.  The highlight of an extensive tour of the naval base, commercial and historic port of Portsmouth was a visit to the Royal Navy’s flagship, HMS Victory, including fascinating insights from the curator on the life and death of Admiral Nelson.  An official dinner by the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, including detailed discussion on the education sector in Portsmouth and the prospects of revival for the Portsmouth FC brought this wide-ranging and expansive delegation visit to a close.

The BGIPU is grateful to all who contributed to the success of this visit, particularly the BGIPU Chair, Executive Committee and other members who hosted key events, as well as Clerks and other parliamentary staff who provided briefings.  We also express our deep gratitude to the Ambassador of Bahrain, H.E. Alice Thomas Samaan, Sheikha Zeina Al Khalifa, Deputy Head of Mission, and Mr Hussain Maklooq, First Secretary of the Embassy of the Kingdom of Bahrain in the UK for their invaluable assistance with this delegation visit.