Brexit and Bahrain: what does Brexit mean for the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) foreign policy towards Bahrain?

By: Ethan Sykes - Lancaster University, UK
By: Ethan Sykes – Lancaster University, UK

Executive summary

The matter of Brexit and its impact on the UK’s policy towards Bahrain is an interesting one for a series of reasons: first, the UK is undergoing a major political upheaval; second, Brexit holds particular implications for British foreign policy; third, Bahrain is an interesting case study because of the closeness of its relationship with the UK and its location in a region of specific interest to the UK; and fourthly, it is rather unclear what the future of Bahrain will be due in part to its government’s actions.

This report sets out the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) interests in Bahrain before then outlining how these interests are likely to be affected by Brexit:

  • Trade – the UK has a relatively limited amount of trade with Bahrain indicating that trade considerations are not a determining factor;
  • Energy – to an extent all Western European countries have a significant interest in oil in the Middle East meaning this is an interest for the UK regarding Bahrain;
  • Security and military – Bahrain is a key ally of the United States (US) therefore meaning the US has an interest in ensuring Bahrain is stable, given the closeness of the UK and the US this means the UK also has such an interest;
  • Geopolitics – Bahrain has a huge level of geopolitical importance for the UK indicating that geopolitical interests play a role in UK policy making;
  • Democracy promotion – whilst the UK does have an interest in the promotion of democracy and human rights in Bahrain the government does not seem to take this view indicating that such considerations do not have a large influence on UK policy making.

The various possible permutations of Brexit and their possible consequences are as follows.

  • No deal – if there is a no deal situation and if (as expected) it has a significant degree of economic consequences then the UK will become much less focused on issues relating to human rights and democracy in Bahrain.
  • Deal – if a deal is reached that maintains close cooperation between the UK and the EU on foreign policy then the UK’s position on human rights and democracy and Bahrain will presumably not change. If a deal is reached that does not maintain close cooperation then the UK position may change, most likely to one more aligned with the US and as such less focused on promoting human rights and democracy in Bahrain.

Impact of Brexit on the UK’s interests:

  • Trade – should the UK be responsible for its own trade policy post Brexit then trade will increase its influence on the decision making of the UK government. Should the UK not be responsible for its own trade policy post Brexit then this will not happen;
  • Energy – it is possible (though not clear how possible) that the EU will move towards decarbonisation (and therefore be less influenced by energy concerns) the UK will not. If this happens the UK will continue to be influenced by energy concerns;
  • Security and military – The EU has little foreign policy competencies meaning the consequences of Brexit on the UK’s security and military concerns will be minimal;
  • Geopolitics – as stated above the EU has little foreign policy competencies meaning the consequences of Brexit on the UK’s geopolitical concerns will be minimal;
  • Democracy promotion – the aims of the UK’s post Brexit foreign policy are that the UK will be assertive in promoting its interests (such as human rights and democracy) abroad. Given this the UK will presumably not decrease its support for democracy in countries such as Bahrain post Brexit.

Future British – Bahraini relations there is evidence that indicates that post Brexit the UK could become less inclined to express concern about human rights in Bahrain but that it could also become more inclined to do so (a brief summary of these arguments are given below). This report finds that on balance Brexit will likely decrease the UK’s inclination to express concern about Human Rights in Bahrain.

Less inclined to express concern:

  • Countries do not normally take significant action against ex-colonies (such as Bahrain in the UK’s case);
  • The UK is in a very vulnerable position regarding its trading relationships post Brexit and therefore will likely be forced to focus on trade deals not expressing concern about human rights and democracy;
  • The UK government does not want Bahrain to become a democracy and therefore will not exert pressure to try and make Bahrain democratic.

Whilst there arguments that indicate that the UK may be more likely to express concern about human rights and democracy post Brexit this report finds that these reports are dependent on factors such as: political considerations (which may not materialise or if they do may be ineffective); the government not choosing to selectively apply its commitments and concerns regarding democracy and human rights; and individual (potentially opposition) MPs being able to have a meaningful influence over the government. This report therefore concludes that Brexit will likely lead to a change in the UK’s foreign policy to Bahrain; this change will probably take the form of the UK decreasing its focus on human rights and democracy promotion in Bahrain.

However, it should be noted that whilst the above does seem rather negative there are indications that the situation may be more positive than it seems. This is because there are also arguments indicating that the UK will be more inclined to express concern about matters relating to human rights and democracy abroad post Brexit. A brief summary of these arguments is given below.

More inclined to express concern:

  • The UK government might be forced to express greater concern about human rights and democracy in Bahrain due to political considerations;
  • The UK government recently published a document stating its support for human rights defenders;
  • There is significant support for this course of action among MPs.

As such, it can be seen that whilst the situation is largely negative, there are some positives aspects. Non-governmental organisations (such as SALAM) should try and exploit these aspects to ensure that the UK government does not become less inclined to express concern about democracy and human rights in Bahrain post-Brexit.

 

Click here to read the full report

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