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Land Rover and Rolex caught in Bahrain rights row over Windsor horse show

Activists complain to OECD over sponsorship of Bahrain-backed show, claiming firms failed to conduct due diligence on kingdom's rights record
Queen Elizabeth with Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa at her 90th birthday celebrations (AFP)

LONDON - Jaguar Land Rover and Rolex face being dragged into an embarrassing human rights row over their sponsorship of the Bahrain-backed Royal Windsor Horse Show.

The Bahrain Institute For Rights and Democracy, a London-based rights group, says in a complaint to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that the two companies should not be sponsoring the event because of the Bahrain state's repression of critics.

OECD guidelines say multinational firms should carry out due diligence on any business deals or relationship which may have an impact on human rights. BIRD alleges the luxury car maker and fashion brand have failed those due diligence standards.

BIRD says the Bahrain government has for years led a campaign against pro-democracy activists, banned opposition parties and imprisoned campaigners amid allegations of torture.

Event organiser HPower Group is also named in the complaint, which is dated 11 April.

King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa receives a horse, called Hamdani Raad, as a gift from the Queen in October 2017 (BNA)

The start of the social season

The complaint comes before this year’s show, which is set to open next Wednesday and marks the event’s 75th anniversary.

The event is a key date in the British and Bahraini royal families' summer schedules, King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa regularly attends and Bahrain sponsors competitions at the event.

Last year saw Bahrain’s ruler sit alongside the British queen in a luxurious "Kingdom of Bahrain Lounge", complete with gold rimmed glassware and static displays of a Land Rover off-road vehicle and a Jaguar sports car, while the Queen took part in the prize-giving ceremony for the "Kingdom of Bahrain Stakes" race.

This year, Hamad is again expected to attend, alongside Prince Nasser Hamad Al Khalifa, who has faced and denied repeated allegations that he was involved in the torture of pro-democracy activists during the country’s 2011 uprising.

Last year Nasser presented the King's Cup, the centrepiece of the event, which is supported by Bahrain.

Bahrain's royals will enjoy performances from the Household Cavalry Mounted Band and a rare display of Karabakh horses from Azerbaijan.

According to the complaint by BIRD, the sponsors of the event "have failed to investigate and carry out adequate due diligence in relation to the human rights compatibility of the links between the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Royal Windsor Horse Show."

It adds: "The association of the event with the Bahrain authorities provides them with a platform to demonstrate their standing on the world stage; allows them to associate closely with the Royal Family; and to present an image to the world of 'business as usual' that is at odds with the reality of continuing human rights violations in the country."

A spokesperson for Jaguar Land Rover told the Sunday Telegraph, which first reported on the complaint to the OECD, that its support for the Royal Windsor Horse Show is based on it being "a sporting occasion, with no political motives or political agenda".

A spokesperson for HPower Group told MEE that it "would be wrong of HPower, and any other party (including BIRD) to take any action or make any comment that might, directly or indirectly, conflict with or prejudice the due and proper process".

But, they added: “We believe the matters raised by BIRD are wholly without foundation and that this represents an attempt by certain parties to use a longstanding non-political sporting event to promote political views."

Rolex did not respond to requests for comment.

'A full-blown human rights crisis'

The British and Bahraini Royal families have a long history of friendship and Hamad was invited to attend the Queen's 90th birthday celebrations in 2016, in what Human Rights Watch called an "error of judgement".

Campaigners also say that during a protest at the event last year by a small group of Bahraini activists, members of their family in Bahrain were summoned to their local police station at the same time, in an orchestrated operation.

The protestors family members were interrogated aggressively, they said, and explicitly told to call off the protests at Windsor.

The campaign groups Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which have persistently criticised the Bahrain regime for its repression, argue that its association with glamour sport is used to "launder" a more wholesome image for the country

According to Amnesty, the situation in Bahrain "has rapidly deteriorated into a full-blown human rights crisis" since June 2016.

The rights group has warned that "authorities have dramatically stepped up their clampdown on freedom of expression".

It has also recorded “credible reports” of torture and ill-treatment in prisons, and says that authorities have targeted exiled Bahrain activists in Europe, subjecting their family to interrogation and persecution in "reprisal" for their relatives' human rights protests.

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, the director of advocacy at BIRD, told MEE that the Jaguar Land Rover and Rolex were "rolling out the red carpet for King Hamad".

He added: “The fact that these companies are continuing their affiliation with the Horse Show after these events calls into question their commitment to human rights."

BIRD said sponsorship of the event violated UN guidelines on business and human rights, which require firms to “seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts".

Daniel Carey, legal solicitor of Deighton Pierce Glynn, which is working with BIRD on the complaint, told MEE: “If the organisers of sporting events choose to celebrate the head of a state with a terrible human rights track record, then it is not good enough to claim that sport transcends politics.

"Human rights-abusing states are using set-piece events to rehabilitate their reputations, even here in the UK, and companies need to respond to this. My client hopes that the OECD system will now recognise this.”

King Hamad talks to Prince Nasser while seated in a Range Rover in Bahrain (Instagram)
Bahrain's embassy in London has repeatedly denied human rights abuses in the kingdom, and said that Bahraini exiles in London have "engaged in active targeting of harassment and intimidation of Bahraini citizens and high profile Bahrainis visiting the United Kingdom".

Bahrain, which hosts a major US naval base and a smaller British naval facility, has been plagued by political tensions since the 2011 Arab uprisings.

The Sunni-dominated ruling family has responded by stifling dissent, banning the main Shia opposition group, al-Wefaq, and revoking the nationality of Bahrain's top Shia cleric Isa Qassim.

The government in Bahrain is seen as a bulwark against Iran and in 2011 the British government gave strong backing to the ruling family when it brutally suppressed protesters during its version of the Arab Spring amid widespread reports of protesters being jailed and tortured for demanding rights for the Shia majority.

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