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UK Prime Minister Theresa May has been called out publicly by rights groups in recent days over the British government’s cosy relationship with the Gulf monarchies.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (L) greets Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa in front of 10 Downing Street, in London, Britain October 26, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

Two days before her appearance as guest of honor at the Gulf Cooperation Council Leaders’ Summit, she made it clear she isn’t the type to take such criticism lying down.

“No doubt there will be some people in the UK who say we shouldn’t seek stronger trade and security ties with these countries because of their record on human rights,” begins the small portion of the 10 Downing Street press release that addressed human rights. “We achieve far more by stepping up, engaging with these countries and working with them to encourage and support their plans for reform.”

If you’re thinking there’s some fallacious logic at work here you’d be right – and Bahrain is a great case in point.

Bahrain’s 2016 “reform” agenda has consisted of an assault on core elements of civil society and jailing or deporting government critics. Last month, Amnesty International accused UK Ministers of acting like “overexcited cheerleaders for Bahrain’s woefully inadequate reforms.”

On December 4, Human Rights Watch and others wrote to Prime Minister May to complain about the British government’s “abject failure to exert any positive influence” in Bahrain. We didn’t call on the UK to end trade or security ties, but rather to use the UK’s influence to help put a stop to an orchestrated attack on rights that has badly undermined any prospect of the reform that the UK claims to support.

What exactly “working with” Bahrain to “encourage and support” reform amounts to, remains to be seen.  But one thing is clear – human rights will not be at the center of the UK’s relationship with Bahrain.

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