David Cameron, former PM, visits Bahrain: Is he following Tony Blair’s lead?

#Diplomacy

Pro-democracy campaigners fear he may use his position to provide political support for the Gulf kingdom

David Cameron, who resigned in June 2016, strengthened ties with Bahrain during his time as UK PM (AFP/file)
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Friday 13 January 2017 10:55 UTC
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David Cameron visited Bahrain this week to meet with the Kingdom's Crown Prince and business leaders, Middle East Eye can reveal.

The visit, which saw Cameron thanked for his “prominent role” in advancing Bahrain-UK ties, comes after recent reports that the former Prime Minister is following in the footsteps of Tony Blair and has set up a private firm to handle his post-10 Downing Street affairs.

The former prime minister, whose period in office saw ever closer diplomatic and military ties with Bahrain despite ongoing human rights concerns, arrived in the country on Tuesday and held meetings with Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa.

The Bahraini royal, who welcomed Cameron at Riffa Palace, praised the former British prime minister and welcomed long-standing ties between Bahrain and the UK.

However, pro-democracy campaigners have expressed concern over the visit, amid speculation that the 49-year-old former PR executive could be attempting to cash in on international contacts gained while in office.

Marc Owen Jones, a campaigner with Bahrain Watch, told MEE: “During his term as prime minister, Cameron paid little regard to human rights in Bahrain, and now, without the obligations or responsibility of office, he is likely to go the way of Tony Blair, using his elite network for lucrative personal gain.”

READ: Cameron's record of Middle East disasters rules him out of top job

Britain’s current ambassador to Bahrain, Simon Martin, also attended the meeting with Cameron - who resigned as prime minister in June after backing the losing side in the EU referendum - and the crown prince, prompting suggestions his visit was being supported by the British government.

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), told MEE: “Under David Cameron, Britain sold more than £15bn in weapons to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and consistently failed to apply British leverage positively in Bahrain. He's no longer prime minister, and he should not use his privileged position to provide further political support for the repressive Gulf kingdom.

“The presence of the UK Ambassador at the meeting raises more questions about this visit. Former UK officials should not turn into political mercenaries for this repressive Gulf kingdom.”

'The presence of the UK Ambassador at the meeting raises more questions about this visit. Former UK officials should not turn into political mercenaries for this repressive Gulf Kingdom'

- Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy

Former prime ministers can be accompanied by as many as eight close protection officers on foreign trips, but the figure for Cameron’s Bahrain visit is not thought to have been as high.

A Foreign Office source in London told Middle East Eye that the British government “did not pay for transport or security for the trip”. It is not known whether Cameron or the government of Bahrain paid for the trip. MEE has contacted a representative of Cameron for comment but has received no response.

The former prime minister, who also stepped down as an MP after the EU vote, was accompanied on the trip by Laurence Mann. Mann served as his former political secretary, but continues to work for Cameron as a private citizen.

Mann was awarded a CBE by Cameron’s government in 2015 and now serves as the sole director of The Office of David Cameron Ltd, the firm which oversees the former leader's business interests, according to records held by Companies House.

During the visit to Bahrain, Cameron also visited the headquarters of the Bahrain Economic Development Board (BEDB) and met with Bahrain’s transport and telecommunications ministers. The BEBD is central to Bahrain’s plans to invest some much-needed momentum into its financial services and non-oil industries.

Tough road ahead for Cameron?

Cameron will no doubt be aware of the wide-ranging criticism his predecessor Tony Blair faced when he offered his services in the Middle East.

Last month, sources close to Cameron told the Sunday Times newspaper that it was not unusual for a former prime minister to set up a firm to manage their affairs.

Earlier this month the government sought to play down reports in the Daily Mail that Cameron would be recommended as a future NATO secretary general.

READ: Why Libya is David Cameron's Iraq

Cameron is thought to have been looking for a suitably high-profile role, and has also been rumoured to be considering a role in international development.

Former prime ministers can sometimes struggle to find a place in public life after leaving Downing Street, and Cameron would need Theresa May’s blessing for any major international role. He is also understood to be unlikely to have many allies in Brussels in the wake of the Brexit vote.

Nonetheless, he appears to be enjoying his departure from office. Before Christmas it was revealed he had returned to his previous passion of grouse shooting, a pastime deemed too controversial while he was in office.

A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “Our overseas embassies only provide assistance for visits of former Prime Ministers and former ministers when they support UK government objectives.

“During Mr Cameron’s recent visit to Bahrain, British Embassy officials accompanied the former Prime Minister to some meetings which supported UK objectives of cooperation on reform, defence and other shared interests. This support was provided at no cost to the taxpayer.”