- The chain of the counter-revolution: Britain’s relationship with the Bahraini Prime Minister as reflected in British documents
Ahead of a 1980 dinner reception by then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher for her Bahraini counterpart, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, a Foreign Office memo for the Minister of Defence at Downing Street described the Bahraini PM as “a forceful and interesting person”. PM Salman, it suggested, wielded more day-to-day power in the governing affairs of the Gulf island than any of his contemporaries from the reigning Al Khalifa monarchs. So too, in light of the instability in the region unleashed by the recent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it was noted by the Foreign Office that:
“We are particularly keen to reassure the Gulf states of our continuing support for them. Bahrain, although not one of the richer markets for British goods by Gulf standards, is a state with which our links have been traditionally close and which, in the face of possible trouble from Iran, will welcome a demonstration of our support, a point on which the Bahraini PM has recently expressed doubts.”
While Downing Street has seen successive change in incumbency over the decades since the two Prime Ministers dined together – a “meeting of old friends” as it was then described by Downing St – neither the potent force of the Bahraini PM, or Britain’s unqualified support for his government have diminished over this period. This article examines available British documentation to highlight the dynamics of the UK government’s relationship with the most influential member of the ruling al Khalifa regime.
Sheikh al Khalifa bin Salman, who remains in office as the world’s longest-standing prime minister and uncle of Bahrain’s current king, is widely regarded as having masterminded the crackdown with which the Al Khalifa regime met the pro-democracy uprising that resurfaced from February 2011. At least 80 people have been killed since Saudi and other Gulf troops were invited into Bahrain to help restore order at the PM’s request, with hundreds more tortured, detained or disappeared. Alongside the continued presence of Saudi troops, Bahrain’s efficient state security apparatus has persevered in its campaign of repression under the direction of PM Salman and his cohort of hardliners, including Royal Court Minister Khalid bin Ahmad bin Salman al-Khalifa, and the commander of the Bahrain Defense Forces, Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Khalifa.. Last month the 77-year old issued a stark caution to Bahrainis planning to take part in demonstrations marking the country’s independence from Britain on 14 August, claiming that his government would “forcefully confront the suspicious calls to violate law and order… through decisive measures”. A new edict issued concurrently by King Hamad and condemned by human rights groups like Amnesty International, threatened punitive measures against any group, individual or their supporters, seeking to “disturb civic peace”. As the PM announced, “terrorists, and those who provide them legitimacy and political cover, will be punished.”
While the language has become more explicit, this tough posturing reflects a continuation of the same hardline approach to internal dissent which accompanied Salman’s ascent to power in 1970. Within two years of Bahrain’s 1971 independence, disputes over proposed legislation including the presence of US navy bases in Bahrain and the controversial ‘State Security Law’ by the British security adviser Colonel Ian Henderson, lead to confrontations between the elected National Assembly and PM Salman. Claiming that the Assembly was obstructing the work of the government, Salman in 1975 submitted the government’s resignation and the Assembly was dissolved by the Emir, citing “a threat to the national unity and the security of the country.” The Constitution was suspended in favour of monarchical rule-by-decree, with the instated emergency laws remaining in effect until 2002. The actions of the PM thus signalled an abrupt end to Bahrain’s first parliamentary experiment – heralding, as BBC journalist Sue Lloyd Roberts notes, “a new dark age in Bahrain that was to continue until the present day.” Nonetheless, just as the highly-effective, much-feared intelligence network continued its work under Ian Henderson, reporting to Salman, in the years following independence, so too British efforts to court favour with the PM continued without regard to his vicious domestic policy.
Records of the UK government’s dealings with the PM during his first decade in office underscore the enduring importance the British-Bahraini alliance, maintained through the appeasement and diplomatic safeguard of the al-Khalifa regime, to furthering British interests in the region. The shakeup of regional and geopolitical dynamics which followed the Soviet seizure of Afghanistan and Iranian revolution in 1979 saw Western powers anxious to fortify their position in the Middle East in the face of nascent antagonism in these states. Likewise, Gulf countries, in particular Bahrain with its restive, marginalised Shi’ia majority, faced new territorial and political insecurities, impressing upon their leaders the importance of galvanising support from their Western backers. Cognisant of these reciprocal goals, British officials sought in 1980 to convene a visit by representatives of the al Khalifa regime with the aim of furthering this diplomatic agenda. As a Cabinet memo of the time described, the principal objective of this arrangement would be “reminding [Bahraini Ministers] of the fundamental community of interest between us and our readiness to continue our support in discreet ways appropriate to the 1980s.” Chief among the ‘discreet’ and appropriate means of support identified in Britain’s Bahrain agenda, were co-operation in security training and the supply of defence equipment – strategies which also furthered the key British aim of “advanc[ing] our commercial interests.” While a number of proposals were put forward for possible Bahraini candidates to be invited by Downing Street, officials agreed on PM Salman as the most suitable guest. Not only was Salman regarded as the most powerful among the ruling al Khalifas of the time, so too, his obvious anxieties about the strength of British support saw UK officials keen to mollify any rising hostility. As a memo to then Minister of State at the FCO noted, “as the head of government, he is the most important political figure in Bahrain, more important than his brother whose interest in and knowledge of political matters is not so considerable.”
While the then Emir was described as “extremely pro-British…a Head of State with which we have the friendliest of relations”, there was greater reservation amongst UK officials about the health of Britain’s relationship with PM Salman. A 1980 dispatch from the British embassy in Manama emphasised that “the main burden of running the state falls on [Salman’s] shoulders and it is he that takes the difficult decisions.” However, it also expressed concern about Salman’s “outlook on international affairs”, noting that: “he is becoming obsessive about his concern that Bahrain’s Western friends may be unreliable in rough weather and about his suspicions that what he sees as the unfair treatment of the Gulf States in the Western media reflects unfair treatment in the minds of Western governments.” It was thus advised that Thatcher and then Secretary of State, Douglas Hurd receive Salman on this basis of his “importance as the Emir’s brother and… the need to set to rest his suspicions that the West cannot be relied on.” There was broad consensus on this in Downing Street and the Foreign office, with one official noting that “we tend to take the Bahrainis for granted”.
In efforts to dispel this impression, Salman was granted a private meeting with PM Thatcher during his visit, at which she emphasised that “the two countries needed each other more than ever in the present period of rapid change”. The parties stated their mutual “strong interest in economic and political relations”, with Salman also expressing his “hope that [Britain] would put no obstacles in the way of arms supply” – weapons which he claimed Bahrain would not use “aggressively.” While briefing memos noted the persistent “problem with Shi’ite Muslims” then confronting the al Khalifa rulers, no mention was made to Salman by either Thatcher or Hurd of the treatment of the oppressed religious majority by his government. Rather, Hurd confirmed Britain’s previously stated willingness to fill gaps in intelligence and defence amongst Gulf states like Bahrain, to help ensure their domestic and regional security. The Bahraini PM also impressed upon Hurd the need for such co-operation not to be jeopardised by the perceived prejudice of Britain’s media. Lamenting the activities of outlets like the BBC, who he claimed were “always broadcasting news of troubles in the area”, Salman had several months earlier cautioned the Secretary that Britain’s press should “be sure of where their interests lay and not endanger Western relations within the area.” Despite these grievances on the part of the al-Khalifa leader, British-Bahraini relations appeared to face little risk of demise and Salman’s visit saw both leaders confirm their commitment to bilateral support. In a courteous letter to the Bahraini PM following his reception, Thatcher noted that “’I knew how close was the understanding between our two countries…I am confident that it will be possible to extend still further our already wide-ranging co-operation in the region.” Similarly, a memo from the Downing Street private secretary of the time documented that: “having welcomed Sheikh Khalifa, the PM said that she was determined to try to maintain Britain’s special position in the Middle East…The links between the UK and Bahrain were, of course, of especially long standing.”
Throughout the intervening decades, Britain has continued to rely on Bahrain as a stalwart ally in the Middle East. And yet, with growing international pressure for democratic reform in the region, Salman’s evermore visible hardline tendencies have made this unqualified support for the al Khalifa regime a more difficult act for British officials. Since the 1999 succession to the throne of Bahrain’s current, purportedly moderate King Sheikh Hamad al-Khalifa, the influence of the PM’s anti-reform faction has been magnified in its obstruction of proposed liberalisation measures. The failure of the reform programme promised by the 2001 referendum for many signified the fissures within the ruling family between ‘Khawalid’ conservatives and those more astute to the imperative of democratisation, albeit cosmetic. These divisions have been confirmed since 2011, as the PM has effectively exerted pressure on King Hamad to sideline the reformist instincts of other leading liberalisers, namely the Crown Prince, in favour of a more conservative and sectarian agenda. Indeed, the relative impunity with which the Bahraini crackdown has been meted out since that time vis-à-vis its Western allies, has given little incentive to discontinue this more overtly counter-reform trend. Commentators have noted the steadily decreasing influence of the Crown Prince over the past two and half years – as evidenced by failed dialogue initiatives and unrelenting violence from the security forces. As a recent report by the Carnegie Foundation noted:
“buoyed by the successful convening of the Formula One Grand Prix in April, hardliners have taken a number of steps to further consolidate control… The hardline faction, which controls the security forces as well as the instruments of censorship, is now very open about its intention to silence the opposition.”
At the same time, British diplomatic and material backing for the al-Khalifas has continued undiminished. That the Bahraini regime has remained largely beyond reprimand in Britain has been confirmed for many by Downing Street’s ongoing reception of the royal family throughout the bloodiest periods of crackdown, and recurrent, official guarantees that “there is a process of reform under way in Bahrain”. Only days after issuing the harsh security decrees in anticipation of protests this August, King Hamad travelled to London to hold office with PM Cameron, before returning to Bahrain where his counter-protest measures were being implemented with force. The fortifications that Britain has assisted the Barhaini royal family to erect against popular revolt through arms supply, PR assistance and diplomacy since 2011 have also emerged in greater focus with the official inquiry by the Foreign Affairs Committee into UK relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain which is currently concluding its findings. However, the inquiry has also seen UK officials come under increasing pressure to justify this support in the face of violence and the patent anti-reform drive of elements of the royal family. During the evidentiary hearings for the commission, the Minster for the Middle East, Alistair Burt was compelled to confirm that British armoured vehicles had been used by the Saudis in their incursion into the island and that Burt’s office regarded the conduct of Bahraini security forces, including “mowing down demonstrators”, jailing, torture, rape and other abuses, as “totally unacceptable” by international human-rights benchmarks. In light of these revelations, Committee member Sir John Stanley suggested that the Minister might, “take this opportunity to offer an expression of regret that British armoured vehicles did indirectly facilitate extreme violence against peaceful civilian demonstrators and very serious human rights abuses in Bahrain”. Pressed on the question three times, Burt refused to acknowledge the connection or express any remorse.
Such diplomatic tight-spots stand in marked contrast to the relative lack of scrutiny with which Burt’s predecessors in Downing Street and Whitehall conducted their liaisons with the al-Khalifas. So too, they are likely to become all the more difficult to manoeuvre for Bahrain’s supporters in London as PM Salman’s hardliners gain greater precedence in the al-Khalifa leadership. The ruthless actions of the security forces over the past two years have served to ratify the widespread illegitimacy with which the monarchy is now regarded by many Bahrainis, cementing calls for the wholesale removal of the royal family. And yet, it is this faction of hardliners on which the regime will now depend for survival in the face of this opposition. As Gulf expert Christopher Davidson has noted, comparing the island to its GCC neighbours, “Bahrain’s has by far the bleakest future, with little hope that the ruling family can restore sufficient legitimacy to ever govern again without resorting to martial law and extensive repression.” While British-Bahraini diplomacy has rested primarily on the amity of its relations with the King and ‘reform-minded’ Crown Prince, a more equivocal, suspicious attitude towards the West has remained alive in PM Salman. The staunch opposition of his faction to any push for reform in Bahrain by Western allies is likely to augment this hostility. Meanwhile, attempts by the US to restore the position of the Crown Prince through a decision to resume weapons sales to the regime have proved counter-productive, as royal hardliners have been encouraged by the perceived normalcy of their government’s diplomatic relations.
For UK officials accustomed to taking their mutually-reinforcing economic and political ties with Bahrain ‘for granted’, these developments may prove all the more troubling. As was recently noted by The Independent, reports from diplomats in Manama have suggested that, “the takeover of the ‘Khawalid faction’ has become so successful that Bahrain’s chief allies in London and Washington are beginning to fear that the normally pro-West monarchy is being usurped by a group with virulently anti-American and anti-British views.” Thus despite the UK’s recent best efforts at policing assistance, royal visits and reigning in hostile British press in its relations with Bahrain, British officials may find that the easy assurances of thirty years ago cannot now be so easily conjured.
1. Letter from Foreign Commonwealth Office to Ministry of Defence, Downing Street, 2 May 1980.
2. Amiri Order No. (4), Article 2, 26 September 1975.
3. Introduction, Bahrain: A brickwall. Correspondence between Lord Avebury and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the British Government on the human rights situation in Bahrain, Parliamentary Human Rights Group (1996)
4. Cabinet Memorandum, 26 September 1981
6. Foreign and Commonwealth Office Correspondence with Douglas Hurd, 29 July 1980
7. Foreign and Commonwealth Office Memorandum, 11 July 1980
8. Letter from the British Embassy, Bahrain to Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 19 January 1980
9. Letter from Foreign and Commonwealth Office to Secretary of State, Douglas Hurd, 1 April 1980
11. Memorandum from meeting between Prime Minister Thatcher and Prime Minister of Bahrain, 16 September 1980
12. Letter from the British Embassy, Bahrain to Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 19 January 1980
14. Letter from Prime Minister Thatcher to Prime Minister of Bahrain, 29 September 1981
15. For full transcript, see: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/foreign-affairs-committee/inquiries1/parliament-2010/saudi-arabia–bahrain-relations-with-uk/
16. ‘The Gulf Monarchies: In the Wake of the Arab Spring’, Arches Quarterly, 6(10), Winter 2012, 144
17. Frederic Wehrey, ‘The March of Bahrain’s Hardliners’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 31 May 2012