Bahrain ‘invasion’: why isn’t Cameron bothered?

One rule for Gaddafi in Libya - quite another for the al-Khalifa family ruling Bahrain

Column LAST UPDATED AT 07:40 ON Tue 15 Mar 2011

The Brezhnev Doctrine is back and this time round the British government approves. One thousand Saudi Arabian soldiers arrived in Bahrain yesterday to help the Sunni ruling family restore order after a month of pro-democracy demonstrations by largely Shia opposition groups.

The Saudis are desperate to put a stop to the unrest sweeping the region and are particularly worried about their own restive Shia-dominated Eastern Province on the coast opposite Bahrain.

The main Bahraini opposition groups have condemned the Saudi move as an invasion and that's certainly what it looks like.

Surprisingly, given David Cameron's Palmerstonian vapours about Libya, there was not a murmur from Downing Street.

Cameron clearly believes that for the grisly Gaddafi clan to use violence on their own people is a moral outrage. But when the almost-as-grisly al-Khalifas, who run Bahrain, ship in the Saudi army to do their dirty work that's apparently OK. What's sauce for the goose is definitely not sauce for the gander.

Originally, a pearl fishing harbour, Bahrain has always had a slightly raffish and shady air - with the delights of flesh and grape more readily available than in Saudi.

It belonged for a long time to the Iranians who still think it should be theirs. From 1861 to the early 1970s the territory belonged to the UK although until 1947 we let the Indian government run it.

Not blessed with masses of oil, it has developed a large financial services sector and makes money from duty free shopping and tourism.  A few years ago Bernie Ecclestone thought it was a good place for a Formula One grand prix ­ cancelled this year because of the unrest. The Duke of York, it goes without saying, is a frequent visitor and buddy of the Bahraini royal family. You get the picture.

It's a small place - the CIA Factbook says "3.5 times the size of Washington DC", though "slightly larger than the Isle of Man" gives a better idea as it is actually an island.  Or was until 1986 when it was linked to the Saudi Arabian mainland by the King Fahd Causeway.

Since then it has become a Rest & Recreation centre for Saudi men seeking to escape the kingdom's stifling restrictions and the Mutawa or morality police. On Thursday nights ­ - the start of the weekend - it's four blokes to a car and bumper-to-bumper traffic on the causeway. 'Working girls' from as far away as Newcastle and Amsterdam fly in to strut their stuff in the hotel lobbies.   

The Saudi border police are relaxed about locals leaving the kingdom on a binge providing their papers are in order. But cars are searched thoroughly on return for alcohol, pornography or bibles.

To the Western visitor, everything looks well organised and calm. But behind the tinted plate-glass and air conditioning there is a real political problem. Seventy per cent of the indigenous population are Shia Muslims.

The ruling family and just about anyone of power and consequence are Sunni ­ except for the United States Fifth Fleet, with its huge base outside the capital, which is presumably mostly Christian.

The Shias find it difficult to get jobs in the civil service and are forbidden to join the army or police. They are a down-trodden, poor and discriminated against majority and they are fed up with it. Their principal demand is for a new constitution and free and fair elections.

If the Bahraini demonstrators cannot be persuaded or intimidated to leave the approaches to the financial district, where they are currently camped, then the Saudi army may well be used to force them out violently.

Let's hope it won't come to that. But there is an uncomfortable lesson in this affair for the British government and people.  Just as there was a moral cost to our support for Gaddafi's "apparently benign" despotism, there is a moral cost to our continuing support for other "apparently benign" despots in the Middle East. ·