Khalid, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for the very kind invitation to give a farewell speech to the Bahrain British Business Forum. Inevitably, as I approach the end of my assignment here after 4 years as Britain’s Ambassador to the Kingdom of Bahrain, I am in reflective mode, looking back at what I and my team have achieved, much of it in partnership with organisations such as the BBBF, what has worked (and what hasn’t), and, importantly, how we have achieved what I described to you in December as a “remarkable transformation in UK/Bahrain relations” since 2011. But also, let me say what I would like to see happen over the next few years, in general rather than prescriptive terms, conscious that my mandate runs out at the end of July. And, finally, let me say a few words about Bahrain.
I last spoke to you just a few days after the UK and Bahrain signed a landmark defence agreement in the margins of the IISS Manama Dialogue. It was, in my view, our most important bilateral agreement with Bahrain since independence in 1971. Indeed, given that it will mean the first permanent British base in the region since our withdrawal from East of Suez in 1971, it is one of the most important agreements we have struck anywhere in the region in the last 50 years. I’m delighted to report that the tender for construction of the new naval facilities has just issued. We hope that construction work will start in September with a view to an official opening of the new base in the autumn of 2016, a fitting tribute to 200 years of bilateral relations and also to the generous support of His Majesty King Hamad and the Bahrain Defence Force.
So it seems particularly appropriate that I speak to you today just 48 hours after the opening by the British Minister for the Armed Forces, Penny Mordaunt, of the terrific new Royal Navy Headquarters in Bahrain, namely the UK Maritime Component Command (the UKMCC), at the Salman Naval Base. This project has been separate from and indeed preceded the decision on a permanent base.
It is a significant step for the UK as we seek to increase our engagement with our Gulf allies at a time of heightened concern in the region as to what the future will hold amidst rising levels of violence, extremism and sectarianism. It sends a strong signal of the UK’s huge commitment to the wider region. Far from retreating to our coastal waters, we are looking to this region and beyond, we are strengthening the bonds that bind us and we are playing our part in securing the rules-based international system on which we all depend. Fundamentally, it is recognition of need for the UK to play its part, as a major and responsible international power, in contributing to the stability, peace and security that guarantees our prosperity.
The new HQ bolsters the capability of the Royal Navy, enabling the UKMCC to better support operations and personnel deployed throughout this region. As the Minister reminded us, there is nowhere outside UK home waters with such a concentration of Royal Navy ships and personnel as Bahrain, around the clock, 365 days a year.
Over the last 14 years, since its establishment in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the UKMCC has grown from 8 to nearly 100 staff, reflecting our increased commitment to regional security over that time. Our US allies allowed us to share their Juffair home, once of course a home for generations of Royal Navy personnel going back to the establishment of HMS Juffair in April 1935, and they made huge efforts to help us get a place of our own when it became clear that we had outgrown our old HQ.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, for first time in five decades the white ensign of the Royal Navy is proudly flying ashore in Bahrain. A fitting way to prepare for the Bicentenary of UK/Bahrain relations next year and, for me personally, as I reflect on my time here it has been a huge privilege to have played a part in these significant developments and to have been witness to a piece of UK maritime history. And let me confirm to you that our new base when it opens next year will be named HMS Juffair.
So, as with my speech to you in December, now seems a particularly auspicious moment to reflect on the transformation of UK/Bahrain relations over the last few years.
I hope those of you who attended the annual St Christopher’s Day dinner hosted by St Christopher’s Cathedral a few weeks ago will forgive me if I make reference to some of things I said than about re-engaging with Bahrain in 2011 and 2012. They are highly pertinent to how our relations have developed.
The clear task I was given by the British Government in the aftermath of the unrest of early 2011 and the particularly difficult period that followed until the establishment in late June 2011 of the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry (the BICI) was to lead the UK’s re-engagement (or reconciliation) with Bahrain, a partner, an ally and a close friend, but with whom our relations had gone through a tough patch in the first half of 2011. And to use that re-engagement to rebuild our relationship and to provide support to Bahrain as it sought to put right what had gone wrong.
As one senior British figure put it to me shortly before I arrived here, standing on the touchline with a megaphone saying ‘that’s bad, do better’ is hardly a great coaching technique far less a way of helping a close friend who has got into serious trouble and clearly needs help.
Now, that process of re-engagement in our bilateral relationship meant, in the first instance, rebuilding mutual trust and confidence. If you were to ask me what was the single most important ingredient in that transformation it would be trust and confidence. Without that none of what followed would have been possible. And trust and confidence is personal.
While I am not an Arabist, I am a Japanologist and I came here from Hong Kong. It struck me from the moment I arrived that, as in East Asia, building personal relationships and rapport was key. And it does not happen overnight. As I used to say to British companies trying to enter the Hong Kong and China markets, you will need to pay several visits before you can really start to talk business because it will take several visits to build up the mutual trust and confidence necessary for a mutually beneficial business relationship.
Arriving during Ramadan in 2011 was a godsend. Courtesy of the wonderful tradition of nightly majalis I was able to meet many people in a short space of time and to meet them again and again on the majalis circuit. So that helped with building personal relationships and rapport.
But that overall process of re-engagement, rebuilding trust and confidence, was made immeasurably easier by three things.
First, the establishment of BICI by His Majesty King Hamad. It represented a recognition that things had gone seriously wrong and that if Bahrain was to move forward there needed to be an independent investigation into what had happened. The British Government warmly welcomed this landmark investigation. That provided the UK with the opportunity to use my arrival a couple of months later as the opening of a new chapter, turning over a new leaf.
Second, and more importantly, King Hamad’s acceptance in November 2011 of the recommendations of what was a highly critical report, for example confirming that there had been systemic use of torture. This acceptance of the report was also welcomed by the British Government and presented us with an opportunity to underpin our re-engagement, that rebuilding of trust and confidence.
And that brings me to the third factor. Bahrain had taken its steps and we the UK now took our step. We, and here in Bahrain that very much meant me, reached out to senior Bahrainis on all sides and said that we wanted to help Bahrain to move forward, specifically helping with the implementation of the BICI recommendations. That did not mean ignoring the abuses that had happened and were continuing to occur but a recognition that if we wanted to see the changes recommended in the BICI report, which Bahrain had accepted, it behoved us as a close friend to step forward and offer to engage and help, not least as it was blindingly obvious that Bahrain had, and continues to have, capacity and capability problems.
Now, given the mutual suspicion that had existed in the first half of 2011 there was some initial hesitation on both sides about moving beyond warm words. In London, reputational risk was a phrase which I often heard. Here, some were concerned about what the UK’s motivation was. Trojan horse was a phrase I heard, albeit just once. But we, as partners, overcame that.
The fact that nearly 4 years on we have in Bahrain the largest programme of British reform support in the region and that here in Bahrain the UK is by far the largest provider of reform support suggests to me that we re-engaged, that we rebuilt trust and confidence and, as a consequence have built a much stronger bilateral relationship. And, as I have said on this platform before, this is reinforced by the views of those who have known this relationship for far longer than me who suggest that it is now better than it has been for many years. One senior Bahraini ventured to suggest it was now better than at any time since independence in 1971.
My firm view is that this is because it is a relationship based on mutual trust and confidence, credibility and partnership. All of that enables progress to be made when you have the political will to do so. And I cannot fault the commitment and engagement of the Bahraini Royal Family and the Bahraini government in relation to the bilateral relationship over my time here. Let me place on formal record my thanks to them for their support.
So what does a transformed bilateral relationship look like:
So, what next? As David Cameron made clear to the Crown Prince, the new British government sees the strengthening of UK/GCC relations as being of strategic importance. There is a huge amount of work going on in London right now about what needs to be done to make that a reality. My own view is that we need to be ambitious if we are serious about wanting to see a step-change in an already close partnership.
With Bahrain I think we are already on the right track. We are showing that we can do enhanced defence and security and reform support at the same time. It does not need to be a zero sum game. Either this or that. But, you need the trust and confidence and the credibility to be partners across such a diverse range of issues and interests.
Next year’s Bicentenary does offer an excellent opportunity to start to implement the step-change to which I have referred. Last week we had the first meeting of the Bahrain/UK Bicentenary Working Group at the Royal Court. There were lots of ideas on both sides. But the reality is that most of the events next year will not be run by government but by people such as you: companies, schools, clubs and community organizations. I strongly urge you to play your part next year in celebrating the Bicentenary of this great relationship and to giving my successor, Simon Martin, every support as he seeks to broaden and strengthen this relationship even further.
And what can I say about Bahrain that my wife Bridget, through her columns, and I have not already said. In 35 years of globe-trotting the welcome here was second to none. We know you feel the same. You tell us so and so does the HSBC survey of expats, where Bahrain is 5th globally and way ahead of any other country in this region. And why is that? To misquote Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign strategist “It’s the people, stupid”. Or, even better, the wonderful Pete Postlethwaite’s line in that memorable film “Brassed Off”, and I’ve always wanted to say this, “Truth is, I thought it mattered; I thought that music mattered. But does it bollocks! Not compared to how people matter”.
Bahrainis are among the warmest and friendliest people Bridget and I have ever encountered. And it seems to me that like does attract like. Non-Bahrainis also make this place special. It’s no surprise then that Bridget and I are sad to be leaving. We will miss you, but such are the enduring friendships we have made here, not least with many of the people in this room, we can honestly say that we’ll be back. This is ‘a bientot’ not goodbye.
So as Bridget and I come towards the end of our tour a few thank you’s are in order. First, to Khalid for his steadfast support, advice and friendship throughout my assignment here. Next, to the BBBF team in the Embassy – it has been great to have you as part of our team. And then to the BBBF committee and you, the members, for your friendship and encouragement. Finally, to Bridget, thank you for your support and, as recommended on your pre-posting course, for pricking my bubble.
All it remains for me to say is, in the words of the country to which we are headed:
Koszonom és viszontlátásra! Találkozunk Budapesten!
Or ‘thank you and goodbye. See you in Budapest’
Thank you and Ramadan Kareem.