Wed, 01 November 2023
The new British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Bahrain, His Excellency Alastair Long, is settling into his new role as a custodian of the close relationship shared between the two countries. He kindly sat down with Kristian Harrison to discuss his diplomatic career to this point, his plans to bolster ties between the UK and Bahrain, his passion for animals and the environment, and much more.
Excellency, welcome to Bahrain! Please can you firstly give us a brief overview of your diplomatic career so far?
I started as a diplomat more than 20 years ago when I joined the Foreign Office and worked immediately on environmental security and then Turkey in London. My first overseas posting was in the wonderful city of Vienna where I was working for the UK delegation to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, largely on governance issues in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
From there, I worked on UN issues in our International Organisations Department and from there began work in Iran, which was my beginning in the Middle East and this particular region.
I was then appointed as the Deputy Ambassador in Muscat, Oman, followed by a role as the Deputy Consul General in Dubai and the Regional Director for Trade for the whole of the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. From there I moved to Riyadh, where I was the Director of Trade for Saudi Arabia, then to Cairo, Egypt, where I was the Trade Commissioner for Africa and now I have happily been appointed to Bahrain as my first full Ambassadorship.
What are your first impressions of the Kingdom?
I’ve come across Bahrain a few times in the past when I have visited for work reasons, and had always received a very warm welcome. My first impressions are of a place that feels comfortable in its skin. It’s got a deep history, a very strong human feel to it, and to be truthful it’s been wonderful, almost like coming home.
How would you describe the current state of relations between the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Bahrain?
They are truly excellent. There are very few places in the world where our relationship is this strong and they’re arguably at an all-time high as well after a wonderful visit of HRH the Crown Prince and Prime Minister to the UK in July, which seemed to seal all kinds of different areas of cooperation that we’ve been working together on.
As the new British Ambassador, what are your key priorities both in the immediate future and in the longer term?
In the immediate future, I feel a certain responsibility for this very special relationship to keep it in good fettle. From culture, through education, through trade and prosperity, through climate work, through to security cooperation and more, there’s a need not to rest on our laurels, to keep building and working together.
Longer term, I believe we can chart a path together for the future because we’re remarkably similar nations. We have service economies, we’re coming to the end of hydrocarbon production, we have amazing national talent pools, and we are looking to a future of net zero and technological innovation.
What challenges, if any, have you encountered in your short time here? What do you envision your major obstacles to be?
In terms of challenges, there’s the parochial, and then there’s the strategic. At the parochial level, the relationship is so strong and full of personal relationships and ideas for what more we can do together, that actually some of it’s just managing my energy and picking the priorities. However, I’m assisted in that by a fantastic embassy team who help me think through what we can be doing together.
I think that the strategic challenges that Bahrain and the UK face are the ones that we’re facing globally together. So climate, of course, future food security, and how to assure our future economic growth and prosperity.
Can you discuss any upcoming high-level initiatives between the two countries?
We have our coming together of the UK and Bahrain for what was previously called our Joint Working Group happening soon. We should also have a senior delegation to the upcoming Manama Dialogue, which we always regard as a really important event. COP28 will also be hosted in the GCC, whilst the UK’s Global Investment Summit will be visited by important Bahraini interlocutors. This is of course supplemented by various visits of ministers both ways, so there’s a really good rhythm to our bilateral exchange and cooperation at the moment.
What are the current trade figures between the UK and Bahrain?
Actually, trade is better than it’s ever been between our two nations, at a shade over £3b (BD1.37b). If you look at that in isolation, that’s an incredible figure, but we aspire to do even better and once the UK-GCC Free Trade Agreement is finalised, we should be able to achieve that. I believe there’s an incredible alignment of sectors of interest between the UK and Bahrain; be it education, financial services, data and technology, healthcare, environmental and sustainable technology and infrastructure, there’s so much room for growth that I’m hugely optimistic about it.
How does the UK view Bahrain’s role in regional security and stability in the Gulf?
I think you’ve seen remarkable leadership from Bahrain over many years, especially recently in the region. This is a nation that believes in peace and coexistence, exemplified by His Majesty King Hamad’s guidance on that particular issue. For example, consider the visit of the Pope to Bahrain last year, and the reciprocal visit of His Majesty to the Vatican in Rome last month, something which I believe sends powerful signals. Also consider the Comprehensive Security Integration and Prosperity Agreement (C-SIPA) just signed with the United States, which is very much about an international framing of security and prosperity.
The UK has also enjoyed the same with Bahrain, projecting a clear message of what’s good for our collective prosperity is ultimately good for our collective security. Ultimately, we really see Bahrain as a leader and as a global example; considering the Gulf has huge visibility and priority in the world now, Bahrain playing that role is essential.
What cultural exchanges between the two nations are planned and how does the Embassy aim to promote tourism?
Bahrain has a rich, enviable culture going back thousands of years, and has really embraced that in its national life. As for the UK’s part, I’m searingly proud of our cultural, sporting, educational and wider heritage. People I have spoken to throughout my career, including prominent parliamentarians who have experienced Bahrain first-hand, have given positive accounts of it. Ultimately, we need to broadcast that more, whether in the media, at functions, or through word of mouth.
We have noticed you are a cat person! Can you tell us about your passion for animals and the environment?
Since day one, I never knew anything other than having a cat wandering around me! When I was super young we had a cat called Tiggy and then two wonderful tabby cats, Emily and Fergus, who were with me for most of my childhood. Currently, we just have one cat who’s travelled with us to Bahrain from Egypt, where we rescued him. His name is Zanjabil, which is the Arabic word for root ginger because he’s ginger! I think animals are incredibly important and I’m really pleased that we have a pet for my children’s sake because I think learning the care of an animal is a great way to learn consideration, respect for nature and the natural world.
Where I think I’d really like us to work with Bahrain is on its environment, as a part of the climate and sustainability discussion. Around Bahrain, you have a fabulous resource of seagrasses, which are an incredible carbon sink. It also has the world’s second largest population of sea cows, or dugongs, alongside precious corals and marine life.
What does an ambassador do with his spare time?
I’ve always had a keen passion for music and sport although due to various mild ailments I’ve been thwarted in pursing both recently! I’m also a dad to three children and, as any parent knows, your time is drained when you’ve got little people around that you need to look after! I do love the outdoors; I believe just being out in the open, experiencing nature around you, is incredibly restoring, so I’m looking forward to exploring what Bahrain has to offer when the weather cools a little.
Finally, do you have any words for the British community in Bahrain?
First of all, thank you for being here, for being a rich part of our relationship, for shining a light on what’s good about Bahrain in the UK and vice-versa, and for being respectful citizens in this lovely, warm, welcoming country. Of course, make sure you understand the local customs and traditions and respect them sincerely, but know that as an embassy we are always here to help if needed.