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UK arms export to Bahrain (2012-2022)

Country overview

Bahrain is a country located on the Arabian Peninsula, bordering Saudi Arabia. It has a population of 1.8 million, with the large majority being Shia Muslims. Despite this, the constitutional monarchy is ruled by King Sheikh Hamad bin Essa al-Khalifa, a Sunni Muslim, seated in the region’s capital of Manama. 

Similar to other countries in the region the country witnessed waves of popular uprisings during the Arab Spring in 2011. The protests called for socio-economic and political reforms and an end to corruption but were met with a violent, state-sponsored crackdown, supported by troops from neighbouring countries, resulting in the death and arbitrary detention of hundreds of people, as well as widespread allegations of torture and other human rights violations. In a statement, Amnesty International said: “Ten years after Bahrain’s popular uprising, systemic injustice has intensified and political repression… has effectively shut any space for the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression.”

Bahrain signed the Arms Trade Treaty in 2013, but unlike its formal endorsement of the UN Convention Against Torture, the region is yet to ratify the truce; this is somewhat unsurprising, given reports of deteriorating human rights. However, the UK continues its close ties with the major oil-producing state, including the sale of arms

How many military export licences to Bahrain did the UK government issue between 2012 and 2022?

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2023

From 2012 to 2022, a total of 408 export licences were approved by the UK government for military goods to Bahrain.
Overall, the number of UK licenses approved remained consistently high, arguably fuelled by the Bahraini government’s crackdown on protests and political dissents and excessive demand for military equipment.

What is the total value of those exports in GBP?

From 2012 to 2022, the UK approved £185m worth of military export licenses to Bahrain. The graph above displays the value per year, of the military arms exports granted to Bahrain from the UK. Under the leadership of the UK’s coalition government, coinciding with the beginning of the Arab Spring, the value of such exports increased during the protests. Despite international concerns about the human rights situation in the country, arms exports increased in the years after the Arab Spring. (From £2.2 billion in 2011) to $4.6m in 2012 and £18m in 2013. 

Reports that the UK government had failed to investigate the risk that exported weaponry could be used to breach international humanitarian law contributed to the UK Court of Appeal ruling to ban arms exports to Bahrain to in June 2019. This led to a severe decrease in export from £21m in 2018 to £1.8 in 2019. However, the ban was short-lived as export numbers increased by 833% in the next year and by 2777% by 2022 amounting to £50m worth of military exports.

What are the top 10 types of arms export licences Britain selling to Bahrain?

The data above concerns UK- Bahraini military exports, thus single-use. The top ten export items requiring licences are listed below, arguably highlighting the Bahraini government’s desire to suppress political dissents and opposition. 

Other items for military training aircraft and information security equipment among the chief weapons acquired by the government, the on-going conflict between neighbouring countries, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. 

ItemTotal number of licenses
Components for military training aircraft86
Weapon sights52
Sporting guns51
Gun silencers50
Small arms ammunition47
Weapon night sights42
Components for combat aircraft28
Military aircraft ground equipment27
Components for military aeroengines27
General military aircraft components25

Top 3 licenses approved by rating

ItemValue of limited licenses
ML10 ‒ Aircraft, helicopters, drones£55m
ML1 ‒ Small arms£33m
ML4 ‒ Grenades, bombs, missiles, countermeasures£29m
Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade, 2023

Why should British citizens be concerned about arms sales?

The UK continues to export arms to Bahrain, despite the state’s vast record of human rights abuse, thus this a matter of great concern for British citizens. 

Bahrain qualifies as one of the least free countries in the world according to their Freedom in the World 2017 Index, possessing a pitiful score of 12/100. Freedom of expression and association are limited, and violent repression of peaceful protest appears to be widespread in the region. Ambiguous laws enable authorities to detain and arrest citizens on thin charges including, “inciting demonstrations,” “insulting the king” and “damaging the prestige of the government.” The authorities have repeatedly and “dramatically escalated their crackdown on voices of dissent” and their recurrent refusal of entry to various INGOs or intergovernmental organisations, including UN Special Rapporteurs has garnered concern from such bodies. The history of abuse, as well as imaging and surveillance equipment being on the list of the top export goods begs the question, of whether the UK’s sale of military arms to Bahrain aid in sustaining the regime’s unethical surveillance and harassment of its citizens?

The Arms Trade Treaty, of which the UK and Bahrain are fellow signatories, maintains that arms cannot be exported if there is an “overriding risk” of weapons being used to “undermine international humanitarian/human rights laws.” Yet, Bahrain has come to acquire 329 limited-value “standard” licences from the UK since 2012-2022, suggesting that the UK is in breach of the treaty and its code. Such an allegation is acknowledged by human rights activists and journalists alike, as Ahmed Alwadaei, director of Bird, told Middle East Eye that Boris Johnson “should be embarrassed to hold meetings with a regime that holds political prisoners as hostages, tortures children and throws critics in jail and not even have the guts to bring up human rights.” Echoing Alwadaei’s sentiments, Reprieve’s Jeed Basyouni argued “This support is out of step with British values, and should be withdrawn until the Bahraini government stops using torture confessions to sentence political prisoners to death.” 

What has the British government said about these concerns?

In early 2012, the Guardian reported that UK arms sales to Bahrain continued, with no refusals of any export licences, despite the violent crackdown on protesters. The UK government still approved exports, which included gun silencers, rifles, artillery and components for military training aircraft. Business secretary, Vince Cable acknowledged these failings to a committee of MPs, “we do trade with governments that are not democratic and have bad human rights records … we do business with repressive governments and there’s no denying that.” 

In July 2017, Campaign Against Arms Trade’s (CAAT) appealed against the dismissal by the Divisional Court for a judicial review of licensing decisions about military exports to Saudi Arabia and whether they were intended for conflict in Yemen. On 20th June 2019, the Court of Appeal handed down its judgment on the appeal, dismissing CAAT’s claim. The government disagreed with part of the judgment and sought permission to appeal. The Secretary of State for International Trade made a statement to Parliament about the matter, “The government is now carefully considering the implications of the judgment for decision-making. While we do this, we will not grant any new licences for exports to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners (UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Egypt) which might be used in the conflict in Yemen.” However, this pledge was never adhered to, as exports from the UK to Bahrain began to rise again in 2019, as the graph attests. This increase angered various human right groups and campaigners, leading them to believe that the government is “fuelling repression,” especially given Boris Johnson’s 2021 meeting with Bahrain’s crown prince to discuss trade. In an official statement, Downing Street claimed this meeting was intended to “further strengthen our economic, security and diplomatic cooperation” with the state. 

In 2016, the British government listed Bahrain among its list of 30 human rights priority countries”, due to their repeated violations. However, the GCC is one of the UK’s largest trading partners, with bilateral trade amounting to almost £45bn in 2019. This apparent culture of denial continued as in 2021, Bahrain was one of six nations listed by the UK Foreign Office on its human rights priority countries list to be invited by the British government to Europe’s biggest arms fair. Samuel Perlo-Freeman, research coordinator at Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), noted the presence of the six countries shows the UK is “not serious about arms export controls, or global peace, human rights, or good governance.”

What evidence is there that the Bahraini government is guilty of committing human rights abuses, from 2012-2022?

Over the years the Bahraini government has been criticised for committing human rights abuses.
Some of the evidence of such abuses include: 

  1. The crackdown on opposition: The government has repeatedly violently cracked down on opposition groups and their supporters for peaceful activism, including human rights activists and journalists. Examples include a crackdown on al-Wefaq, the country’s main opposition group, that has seen its leader and a party member detained and imprisoned for a tweet. This event sparked an upsurge in protests, whereby witnesses have reported police using tear gas and shotgun pellets against protesters. These don’t constitute isolated cases, as dozens of human rights defenders, political activists, opposition leaders, and journalists have been unjustly imprisoned since the government quelled the 2011 protests. 
  2. Torture and mistreatment of detainees: In July 2011, after the Arab Spring,  international pressure lead King Hamad appointed the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) to investigate allegations of human rights abuses during the crackdown of the protests. The BICI’s findings concluded that the government had “followed a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which in many cases amounted to torture, with respect to a large number of detainees in their custody.” In response they created bodies to end torture in interrogation and detention facilities. However, Human Rights Watch reports found that the bodies had “failed to effectively implement the BICI’s recommendations for combatting torture; that the new offices have failed to fulfil their mandate; and that Bahraini security forces continue to torture detainees using methods identical to those documented by BICI investigators in 2011.”
  3. Restriction of Political Rights: Bahraini authorities have been accused of restricting freedom of speech, assembly and association. This includes censoring the media and blocking government critical websites. Various journalists and bloggers have been arrested and imprisoned, starting with Abduljalil Al-Singace’s arrest, which constituted the first of a long series of arrests in response to the uprisings in 2011. Al-Singace was arrested on 17th March 2011 after posting articles in which he criticized the human rights situation in Bahrain. 
  4. Discrimination against the Shia Minority: The Shia community has long been subject to discrimination by the Sunni government, which has limited their access to employment, education and housing as well as stripped individuals of citizenship. 

This is not an exhaustive list of the ongoing human right’s violations and every year case studies reveal more specific examples and the extent of the violations. 

From 2020-2021, at least 58 citizens were detained or prosecuted for their conduct online.

Reports of unpitying, amoral practices and standards of prison governance prevailed, as the death of at least three detainees due to “medical negligence” were uncovered.   

A leak from an NSO Group’s database, Pegasus spyware, demonstrated “the grave threat” the firm “…poses to critics of repressive governments,” as the publication revealed the devices of three Bahraini dissidents, were targeted and monitored.  

Despite this catalogue of harm, the UK still deems it acceptable to sell weapons and arms to the Government of Bahrain.  Human rights abuses continue.