Libya’s bloody crackdown on a revolt against Muammar Gaddafi has embarrassed Britain, which already faces questions about whether it sacrificed principle for profit in its dealings with the energy producer.
British arms exports and security ties with Libya and Bahrain, where security forces fired on protesters last week, have come under scrutiny as the wave of protests sweeping the Middle East causes soul-searching in the West.
Britain rushed to revoke more than 50 arms export licences for Bahrain and Libya last week after criticism that British tear gas or riot gear could be used against demonstrators, Reuters reports.
George Joffe, a Middle East expert at Cambridge University, said Britain’s troubled relations with Libya showed the pitfalls of making trade a priority in foreign affairs, as he said British governments had done for decades.
“If you insist on prioritising commercial relations then you are bound to have to get into bed with some very unpleasant people,” Joffe told Reuters.
Together with the United States, Britain long treated Libya as a rogue state. The 1984 shooting of a London policewoman from inside the Libyan embassy, the Libyan arming of IRA guerrillas in Northern Ireland and the 1988 Lockerbie airline bombing over Scotland, for which a Libyan was convicted, all contributed to the branding of Gaddafi as a pariah.
That changed dramatically after Gaddafi agreed in 2003 to abandon efforts to acquire chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. British Prime Minister Tony Blair helped lead him back into the international fold during a landmark visit to Tripoli in 2004, and cultivated him as an ally in the fight against al Qaeda.
He visited again three years later, when Libya agreed to buy British missiles and air defence systems and oil giant BP (BP.L) signed a major natural gas exploration agreement.
In 2009, Libya provoked a crisis in Britain’s relations with its closest ally, the United States, when Scottish authorities freed Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, the man jailed for the Lockerbie bombing in which 270 people died.
U.S. politicians questioned whether BP lobbied Scotland for the release of Megrahi, sent home on compassionate grounds because of cancer, though the company and Scottish ministers denied it.
An official British report this month found no conspiracy between BP, the Scottish government and London to free Megrahi.
But it did find that the former Labour government tried to make it easier for Libya to seek Megrahi’s release, fearing British interests would be hurt if he died in a Scottish jail, which would have angered Tripoli.
The Conservative-led coalition government, formed last May after 13 years of Labour rule, says it was a mistake to free him.
But Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Tuesday that the work done to turn Libya away from building weapons of mass destruction and sponsoring international terrorism was the right thing to do. “Otherwise … we would be facing an even worse situation now,” he said.
British ministers condemned Libyan security forces this week for shooting protesters in attempts to quell the uprising against Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.
But, for years before, British governments were muted in their criticism of Gaddafi even though U.S.-based watchdog Freedom House, in a survey last month, gave Libya its lowest possible rating for both political rights and civil liberties.
“Gaddafi … was desperate to gain legitimacy and Tony Blair provided Gaddafi with an opening to regain legitimacy,” said Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics.
Gaddafi was “one of the nastiest Middle Eastern dictators” but his emergence from international isolation had enabled him to shed an image of radicalism and subversion and portray himself as a statesman, Gerges told Reuters.
A government report for July-September 2010 showed it had approved licences for a long list of arms and component exports to Libya, including teargas, crowd control ammunition, components for surface-to-air missiles and laser rangefinders.
Gaddafi spent a short period at a British army signals school during his military career, but a Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said only half a dozen Libyan officers had received training in Britain in the last six years.
Bahrain is a close ally of Britain in the Gulf and more than 100 Bahraini military officers have trained in Britain in the past five years, according to press reports.
The King of Bahrain has been invited to the wedding of Prince William, second-in-line to the British throne, and Kate Middleton in London in April, according to British media.
The coalition government has made trade even more central to its foreign policy than its predecessors.
A high-level business delegation accompanying Prime Minister David Cameron on a tour of Gulf countries this week has a strong defence contingent, suggesting defence firms see good business opportunities in the region.
The group includes Ian King, chief executive of BAE Systems, Europe’s biggest defence contractor, and representatives of Cobham, QinetiQ, Babcock, aero engine maker Rolls-Royce and the UK arm of French defence firm Thales.