2010-2019 | Arms exports | Backing dictatorships | Bahrain

British arms play vital role in crushing Bahrain democracy protests

Tents burn as security forces storm Pearl Roundabout.
Bahrain in Pictures – CC BY-SA 3.0 – via Wikimedia Commons.

14 March 2011

On 14 March 2011, Saudi troops entered Bahrain in a vast column of Tacticas armoured personnel carriers, made by the British defence giant BAE Systems. It was a decisive intervention on the side of the Al Khalifa dictatorship to quell popular protests demanding greater democracy and respect for human rights. Britain had supplied the Al Khalifa regime with tear gas, sniper rifles and other weapons which were used during the crackdown.

Following the example of the February protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo, in which Egyptian demonstrators had succeeded in obtaining promises of constitutional reforms, Bahrainis had gathered in their thousands at Pearl Roundabout in Manama to press demands for modest political reforms. These included calls for a constitutional democracy under the existing monarchy with measures to combat corruption, a representative parliament based on free and fair elections and equal rights for the repressed Shia majority population. These demands, however, threatened the absolute power and privileges of the Sunni monarchy and elite, so Bahraini police moved in with a pre-dawn raid to brutally disperse the protest encampment on 17 February, in what became known as ‘Bloody Thursday.’1

During the following few weeks at least 35 Bahrainis were killed by security forces. Another 600 were detained without charge and many were simply disappeared in what Amnesty International described as a ‘relentless crackdown on human rights,’ which included almost every conceivable type of torture, directed mostly at the country’s majority Shia population who were not to be allowed any say in running the country. Even doctors and nurses who treated wounded protesters were targeted, Bahrain’s security forces detaining 48 of them by 2 May 2011.2

British arms and equipment were crucial in crushing the popular challenge to dictatorial rule. In just nine months in 2010, Britain had exported over £5 million worth of military equipment to the kingdom.3 There had also been for many years a wide scale military, logistical and intelligence cooperation between the two countries, which continued to flourish after the quelling of the democracy protests.  Britain did cancel a few export licenses in the immediate aftermath of the crackdown, but by June 2011 the Campaign Against the Arms Trade was reporting that it was ‘back to business as usual.’ The U.K. government issued licenses worth £1.3 million in the third quarter to cover equipment such as shotguns, pistols, small arms ammunition, assault rifles, and sniper rifles,’ essential military tools for the dictatorship to disperse and kill protesters on the streets.4

Protesters flee tear gas and the security forces.
Lewa’a Alnasr – CC BY-SA 3.0 – via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, Serpent’s Tail, London, 2012, pp. 372 – 375 and Michael Slackman and Nadim Audi, ‘Security Forces in Bahrain open fire on protesters,’ The New York Times, 18 February 2011 accessed at url https://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/19/world/middleeast/19bahrain.html
  2. ‘Bahrain Renews Emergency Law as Repression Persists,’ Amnesty International report, 4 May 2011 accessed at url https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2011/05/bahrain-renews-emergency-law-repression-persists/
  3. ‘Saudi Arabia uses UK-made armoured vehicles in Bahrain crackdown on democracy protesters,’ Campaign Against the Arms Trade, Press Release 16 March 2011 accessed at url https://www.caat.org.uk/media/press-releases/2011-03-16
  4. ‘Protest as UK continues to arm repression in Bahrain,’ Campaign Against the Arms Trade, 14 February 2012, accessed at url https://www.caat.org.uk/media/press-releases/2012-02-14 and Bahrain Watch, report to parliament, 19 November 2012 accessed at url https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmfaff/88/88vw36.htm

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