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Why does Britain keep rolling out its monarchy to impress tyrants?

For decades the UK monarchy has been wheeled out to impress human rights abusers to whom Britain is keen to sell arms. This weekend, it’s Bahrain’s turn.

Image: Queen Elizabeth and the King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa at last year's Royal Windsor Horse Show. Credit: Nick Ansell/PA Images, all rights reserved.

I believe that the links and knowledge, the experience and the friendships that have been built up over the last hundred years still stand us in good stead today, and will do in the future.” These were the warm words of Queen Elizabeth when she hosted a banquet to welcome King Abudllah of Saudi Arabia in 2007. At the time of the visit the Saudi authorities had been accused of widespread torture, abuses and executions.

11 years later she provided an equally warm greeting for Mohammad Bin Salman, the current Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. During a three day visit to London this March he received the reddest of red carpet visits: enjoying lunch with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, photos on the steps of Downing Street and dinner with Prince William and Prince Charles at Clarence House. Amidst the mutually fawning photographs, the Crown Prince’s visit was widely protested due to his central role in the ongoing destruction of Yemen.

This weekend it will be the turn of Bahraini Royalty to enjoy the Queen’s hospitality: with the regime descending on Windsor for the Royal Windsor Horse Show. The delegation is likely to be led by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, who has been a regular attendee of the show and whose government is sponsoring one of the events.

The hosts will pull out all the stops to ensure that King Hamad and his entourage enjoy the event, but more important to their guests will be the propaganda coup they’ll gain from it. The images of the Queen and King Hamad will be broadcast all over the world and will send a very clear message of support.

For decades now, the UK Monarchy has been used as a diplomatic device to impress despots, tyrants and human rights abusers. Past guests include Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, Vladamir Putin, Robert Mugabe, President Suaharto of Indonesia among others. In 2012 the Diamond Jubilee was attended by the King of Swaziland and reps from Kuwait, Jordan, Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia among others.

Arms sales and Royalty

The Royal family isn’t just used to offer prestige, it has also been used to promote trade and, more specifically, arms sales. The regimes that the Queen and her family are used to entice are many of the same ones that the government is directly lobbying for arms sales and military support.

Bahrain, for example, is listed as one of the governments ‘priority markets’ for arms sales: with successive UK governments having licensed over £80million worth of arms to the Bahraini military since the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising in 2011.

In 2015 Prince Charles said he would no longer let himself be used to promote arms deals. This followed the controversy generated by his appearance at the al Janadriyah cultural festival in Saudi Arabia, which was sponsored by BAE Systems. While at the event Charles even took part in a traditional Saudi dance, which took place 24 hours before BAE, the UK government and Saudi forces agreed a final price on a major fighter jet deal.

It wasn’t his first time acting as an ambassador for the arms industry. In a 1994 documentary Charles visited a Dubai arms fair, defending his presence on the basis that he was boosting UK trade, and if the UK didn’t sell the weapons then someone else would. Human rights journalist John Pilger quoted the Prince as boasting that “We’re really rather good at making certain kinds of weapons.”

Likewise, Prince Andrew has long been linked to arms promotion. Prior to his resignation from the role in 2011, Andrew worked as a Special Representative for Trade and Investment. In that role he was linked to lobbying for arms sales to Indonesia, Azerbaijan and a litany of other dictatorships.

Andrew also attended the Farnborough Airshow, a major showpiece of the UK arms industry, where he met senior figures from the Jordanian, Malaysian and Indian defence ministries. Wikileaks cables revealed that he was also close to the Saudi Royal Family and criticised the Serious Fraud Office investigation into BAE bribery.

Referring to Prince Andrew’s forays (although the point could easily be made about Royalty more general), a Royal spokesperson told the Guardian, “He comes in as the son of the Queen and that opens doors that otherwise would remain closed. He can raise problems with a crown prince and four or five weeks later we discover that the difficulties have been overcome and the contract can be signed.”

Horses in Windsor and repression in Bahrain

There is a human cost to this kind of cosy lobbying. The aftermath of last year’s Windsor Horse Show saw abuses inflicted the families of Bahrainis in the UK who planned to protest against the event. Bahraini security forces detained the families of three activists in a clear effort to intimidate and quash their opposition.

As one of those affected has said: Before even reaching the Horse Show grounds, our family members were arrested and interrogated by security forces at the Muharraq Police Station. From there, they were forced to call us and warn us about what the consequences would be if we continued with our protests in the UK.

It has become a cliché to say that a picture speaks a thousand words, but the clear message this weekend’s images will send to people living under oppression in Bahrain is that their rights don’t matter. If the UK establishment cares about their human rights then it must finally end the arms sales and stop providing photo-ops and PR victories for those that are oppressing them.

Bahrainis in exile in the UK have called on human rights campaigners to protest in solidarity outside the horse show on Saturday 12th May. Find out more here.

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