Human Rights

The inside track: how lobbyists have helped launder Bahrain’s reputation

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Image by leechantmcarthur via Flickr Creative Commons

Lobbyists and paid advisers have stepped forward to speak up for Bahrain’s government. 

Fast cars, cheering crowds and the sun. This is the image that the Bahraini government is eager to project to the world during the Formula One Grand Prix – which kicks off with team practice today.

All this projects the image of a country that has moved on from the protests that rocked the island state last year – protests that have continued into 2012 with over 100,000 people marching last month.

But the Bahraini government continues to use force against protestors and, according to an Amnesty International report published this week, reports of torture continue to be widespread.

“With the world’s eyes on Bahrain as it prepares to host the Grand Prix, no one should be under any illusions that the country’s human rights crisis is over,” said Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa deputy director Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

Bahrain has responded by embarking on a charm offensive. Long before the Grand Prix hit the headlines, Bahrain has invested in a bevy of lobbyists and paid supporters who will speak out on its behalf.

Here’s a round-up of who’s who in Bahrain’s lobbying circles.

John Yates
The former assistant commissioner of the Met police is now an adviser to the Bahraini government, working on policing matters – and he has also allegedly lobbied behind the scenes in favour of going ahead with the race. In the past month, while there was uncertainty over whether teams would participate, Yates wrote to FIA President Jean Todt ahead of the latter’s discussions about the race with Bernie Ecclestone, according to the Telegraph. He told Todt he felt safer in Bahrain than in London.

Reporting of the protests was ‘being shaped by a huge amount of inaccurate and often deliberately false information being spread through social media forums’, he is alleged to have told Todt. However, this week he also warned he could not guarantee the safety of race participants, and warned that protesters who invaded the track would be met with ‘live rounds’.

Big Tent Communications
Big Tent Communications, set up by former Sunday Times political editor David Cracknell, was one of the firms hired by the Bahraini government to ‘correct inaccurate reporting’, lobbying journalists and the media around the F1.

Cracknell reportedly emailed Matt Hardigree of the Jalopnik motoring blog, saying: ‘the grand prix in April will go ahead as planned and there is not nearly as much trouble in the country and the opposition PR machine would have the world believe.’

Cracknell then claimed in the email that the Bahraini protests were on a par with the London riots of last year.

Gardant Communications
Alongside tobacco giant Philip Morris and Russian oil giant Yukos, this Westminster-based ‘reputation management’ consultancy has represented the Embassy of Bahrain since at least 2009.

Early last year when the uprising first began, Gardant Communications was providing secretariat services for the all-party parliamentary group on Bahrain, the Guardian reported. This would have given it the opportunity to lobby politicians in both Houses directly - although the latest register shows it has stepped back from this position. In February, members of the all-party parliamentary group wrote to the Times saying the race should go ahead.

The company’s founder, the Earl of Clanwilliam, was reported to have personally greeted the King of Bahrain and his entourage at the airport when they arrived on a diplomatic mission last December. But his attempt at a personal touch backfired and inadvertently pushed the visit into the gossip columns: the Earl was riding a Harley Davidson painted with the Bahraini flag – but crashed into one of the entourage’s limousines, the Daily Mail reported.

Qorvis Communications
Bahrain’s main lobbying ally in Washington is Qorvis. The PR company also represents autocracies such as Saudi Arabia and Equatorial Guinea. Qorvis lobbies the media by putting out a steady stream of press releases at PR Newswire.

After Bahraini security forces raided the offices of Doctors Without Borders (DWB) in July, human rights activists alleged this was part of the government’s effort to deny medical treatment to injured activists.

Qorvis issued a statement saying DWB was to blame because it didn’t get the proper permit to operate in the country.

Qorvis took over the Bahrain account from lobbying company Bell Pottinger in 2010. Last year Bureau reporters secretly filmed senior staff from Bell Pottinger Public Affairs boasting about the company’s access to the heart of government and how it uses ‘dark arts’ to bury bad coverage and influence public opinion.

Joe Trippi
Joe Trippi, former campaign manager for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid, is now spinning for Bahrain in Washington, as Salon has reported. He heads the consulting firm Trippi & Associates.

‘This is one of the progressive countries in the Middle Eastern Gulf,’ Trippi told reporters when asked about criticisms of Bahrain by human rights groups. ‘I have no problem working for them.’

Sanitas International
Christopher Harvin is the partner at Sanitas International who co-signed the contract to represent Bahrain, alongside Trippi, Salon has reported. A former Bush White House aide, the co-founder of the lobbying group recently tweeted about a ‘gesture of reconciliation’ made by the king of Bahrain.

As part of its efforts on behalf of the kingdom, Sanitas placed an op-ed article in the Washington Times by Vice Admiral Charles Moore (retired), now regional president of Lockheed Martin for the Middle East and Africa.

In the article, Moore argued in the article that while protestors have ‘legitimate grievances’, the US ‘needs Bahrain now more than ever to preserve regional stability in what remains a dangerous and uncertain world’.

The Washington Times did not reveal to its readers the role Bahrain’s lobbyists at Sanitas played in placing the article; this did not become apparent until it was revealed in disclosure filings.

Eni Faleomavaega and Policy Impact Communications
ProPublica has reported on the lobbying efforts of Eni Faleomavaega, a Congressional delegate from American Samoa. Although he sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee, ProPublica noted he ‘typically focuses on more local matters: the tuna industry, Pacific Islands affairs and securing federal funding for American Samoa’.

Yet in March 2011, he suddenly lodged a 2,500-word statement into the Congressional Record that ‘closely echoed the Bahraini government’s spin’.

Why? Because the lobbying firm Policy Impact Communications (PIC) is headed by Wiliam Nixon, a former Reagan speechwriter who describes himself as a close personal friend of Faleomavaega. The company has also donated $4,800 to Faleomavaega’s campaign fund.

Also in March 2011, PIC created the Bahrain American Council, ProPublica reported. The group operates out of PIC’s offices and has close ties to Bahrain’s government. PIC previously listed a top Bahraini official as a member of its advisory board.

Bahrain continues to spend millions of pounds trying to wash its image through lobbying and PR companies in both the US and the UK.

Although in the US lobbying registers make it possible to trace these relationships, the UK’s lack of lobbying transparency makes it difficult to detect where these lobbying tactics are taking place.

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