Strengthening Historic Bonds

by Kristian Harrison

Sun, 12 May 2024

His Excellency Alastair Long, Ambassador of the United Kingdom to Bahrain

In an exclusive interview with Bahrain This Month, His Excellency Alastair Long, the esteemed Ambassador of the United Kingdom to Bahrain, shares insights into his first nine months in the role and outlines plans to further strengthen the enduring bond between the two nations. Kristian Harrison had the privilege of engaging in a candid conversation with him, delving into various aspects of trade dynamics, collaborative projects and personal reflections on his diplomatic journey.  

How has your first nine months been as the British Ambassador to Bahrain? 
It has genuinely been both a privilege and a pleasure. Bahrain and the UK share a close relationship, which I’ve had the honour to witness first-hand. The warmth of the welcome I’ve received here has been truly remarkable and I’ve been deeply encouraged by the enthusiasm for collaboration between our two nations across various sectors. 

How do you plan to strengthen the relationship further? 
The true challenge, when you inherit such a strong working relationship, is what more can you build on such a rock-solid foundation? My focus is on ensuring that this relationship remains robust and relevant for the future while nurturing the bond our two kingdoms share. This involves not only maintaining existing ties but also exploring new avenues for cooperation. In particular, I see great potential in fostering partnerships in future industries such as digital technology and sustainability. Additionally, investing in people-to-people ties and cultural exchanges will help deepen mutual understanding and appreciation between our nations. 

What is the latest update on trade between the two countries, particularly in regard to various Free Trade Agreements? 
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, there has been a notable uptick in investment flows in both directions. Bahraini investment into the UK has seen considerable growth, which not only benefits the UK economy but also enhances Bahrain’s international profile and economic diversification efforts. Similarly, UK companies have shown a keen interest in Bahrain’s business-friendly environment, leading to increased investment in the kingdom. On the FTAs, we’re nearly there, I promise you! These things necessarily take time because they’re big and they’ll endure for decades. Rather than rush, we’d rather get it right now and create something that really speaks to the global community about the free trade plans that we have together. 

What are the key collaborative projects, especially in education and culture? 
Education and culture are vital pillars of the Bahrain-UK relationship, and there are several key collaborative projects underway in these areas. One notable initiative is the expansion of British degree courses in Bahrain, providing students with access to high-quality education. Additionally, there are ongoing efforts to promote student exchanges and cultural programmes, fostering greater cross-cultural understanding and collaboration. The British Council plays a significant role in facilitating English language provision and cultural exchange activities, further strengthening ties between our nations. 

How do you facilitate cultural exchanges? 
The British Embassy in Bahrain works closely with local partners to promote cultural exchange programmes. These activities provide opportunities for Bahrainis and Britons to engage with each other’s cultures, fostering mutual appreciation and understanding. Furthermore, our new visa arrangements I think are really attractive. We still have the greatest number of Bahrainis coming to the UK than any other international market and they’re most welcome. There is no substitute for spending time in each other’s countries for understanding one another. 

You’re a great spokesman for conservation and the environment. What efforts are being made by British entities to combat climate change in Bahrain? 
Britain is actively engaged in efforts to combat climate change and promote environmental sustainability in Bahrain. We’ve had our Centre for Aquaculture and Environmental Science working here for a number of years now, and such collaborative projects focus on various aspects of environmental conservation and climate resilience. For example, initiatives to protect marine ecosystems, such as mangroves and seagrass beds, are crucial for preserving biodiversity and mitigating the impacts of climate change. Additionally, efforts to enhance water resource management and promote renewable energy technologies contribute to Bahrain’s long-term sustainability goals. 

Now you’ve settled in here and had more time to explore the island’s delights, do you have a favourite Bahraini dish? 
During the Holy Month of Ramadan, I was lucky enough to visit various majalis in the evenings. One of the things I just can’t say no to are these wonderful doughnut-ty balls, Luqaimat, which for me are absolutely incredible. I think they’re going to be my destruction, honestly. If I look twice the size in a couple of years’ time, it will be because of those. But I think Bahraini food is wonderful, with tradition and innovation in equal measure. 

What advice would you give to your younger self? 
What I would say, to both myself and other young diplomats, is that diplomacy is a profession. But it’s a profession that requires real broad experience because you need to understand almost every aspect of the international system. At the point at which you become an ambassador, you need to be able to draw on understanding of the UN, understanding of developed and developing contexts, understanding of international finance, trade, consular issues, the defence world, the cultural world and more. Therefore, breadth and varied experiences are really important. Language skills also help immensely. 

Have you faced any particularly challenging situations as a diplomat?
Diplomacy often involves navigating complex and sensitive issues, which can present significant challenges. While the visible aspects of diplomacy may appear cordial and diplomatic, behind the scenes, diplomats often engage in difficult conversations and negotiations with counterparts who may hold divergent views. Finding common ground and working towards mutually beneficial solutions requires patience, tact and perseverance.

If you hadn’t have become a diplomat, what would you have been?
Funnily enough, diplomacy was not always my career goal! Prior to entering the diplomatic service, I pursued a career as a musician, studying trumpet performance at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and playing professionally for several years. There are loads of skills you learn, even from being a professional musician, which might seem a distance away from international relations, but you learn skills of presentation, teamwork and self-drive, because as a musician, you’re self-employed and money can be hard to come by. I still hugely enjoy music and value that experience.

How have you changed professionally and personally during your time in Bahrain so far?
Professionally, I’ve gained valuable insights into the complexities of diplomatic engagement and the importance of building strong relationships with host countries and international partners. I’ve also learned that I can achieve nothing without my truly fabulous Embassy team who understand Bahrain exceptionally well. Personally, I’ve learned to adapt to a new cultural environment and embrace the unique opportunities and challenges that come with living abroad. Balancing the demands of diplomacy with family life has been a rewarding but sometimes challenging experience, requiring careful prioritisation and time management.

Finally, any message for the British community in Bahrain?
However much the world is changing, I think we can just be so proud of the breadth of what the UK does and offers. I’m reminded every day here by how much the UK is doing, whether it’s in archaeology, music, science or defence and security. We are one of very few nations that really has a whole suite offer. As we navigate the opportunities and challenges of the future together, I encourage you to continue to be ambassadors for the UK and active participants in the vibrant community here in Bahrain.