- Bahrain, British Imperialism
- Britain’s role in strengthening the Khulaifi presence
- Bahrain, a war prize
- The situation before the First World War
- The situation after the Second World War
- American and British Protection
The deep links between the ruling circles of Britain and Bahrain were demonstrated by the presence of King Hamad at Queen Elizabeth 11’s diamond jubilee celebration dinner held at Windsor Castle in the spring of 2012. Hamad’s visit went ahead despite the killings, torture, sackings and demolitions being administered to those demanding democracy and self-determination for the Bahraini people.
Britain was the key force in shaping modern Bahrain and in installing and defending the al Khalifah ruling house. That and its continuing support for the regime mean it must accept a large responsibility for the kingdom’s current problems.
This paper looks at the record of British rule in Bahrain and at how it created popular resistance the echoes of which are clear in today’s democracy movement.
Britain has been present in the Gulf since the sixteenth century. In the following century its naval vessels would drive out the earlier arrivals, the Portuguese, establishing themselves as the dominant European trading and naval force in those waters. (1)
By the beginning of the nineteenth century concern over its vital trade routes with India, the alarm raised by Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt and concern over the power of local Arab fleets led Britain to impose direct control. (2)
Claiming these Arab fleets were pirates, in reality they were acting to keep out British interlopers, various British expeditions were mounted to defeat the local Arab rulers and their fleets.
After demonstrating their military power the British then turned to coming to terms with these rulers. The first ones they turned their attentions on were the al Khalifah rulers of Bahrain.
Britain’s role in strengthening the Khulaifi presence:
The al Khalifah’s had taken control of Bahrain when in 1782 they led the forces of the al Utub tribes in driving Persian forces from the island. Their conquest coincided with growing British interest in the Gulf. The East India Company had established factories (trading outlets) in Basra, Bushire and Bandar Abbas. As well as keeping the waterway clear of pirates the British grew anxious about the presence of French and Dutch merchants and of the Russia’s expansion into the Caucuses to the north of Persia’s borders.
In June 1816 the East India Company’s resident (agent) in the Persian port of Bushire (Bushehr), Lieutenant William Bruce, received a letter from Sheik Abd Allah al Khalifah asking whether it was true the British were in league with the ruler of Muscat to attack Bahrain. Bruce sailed on a naval vessel to the island kingdom and drew up a treaty of friendship with al Khalifah whereby Bahraini vessels could trade with the Company’s Indian ports and vica versa and allowing it to establish a resident in Bahrain who would be free of any restrictions. (4)
In 1820 the British demanded the al Khilafah’s sign an agreement that goods seized by pirates could not be traded in Bahrain.
In 1861 the British sent a naval force to Bahrain, seized two dhows and foisted a ‘perpetual treaty of peace and friendship’ on the al Khalafi’s whereby the British Political Resident had responsibility for settling any disputes over trade and for maintaining security in Bahrain’s waterways. British residents had to be treated as ‘favourable people.’ (6)
The al Khalifah’s promised to end piracy in return for British protection.
By this time the al Kalafi’s had encouraged a system to develop where the Shia and Sunni population had separate religious courts. The Shia courts received no state funding and in any dispute involving members of both communities a Sunni judge would resolve the issue.
Bahrain, a war prize
Yitzhak Nakash argues:
“The Al Kalifa conquest of Bahrain altered the class structure on the islands to something little better than serfdom. Because Bahrain did not submit peacefully to the Al Kalifas, the ruling family under Islamic law considered all property in the islands as booty, confiscating most agricultural land and leasing it back to the Bahraini Shi’is. By the 20 century the ruling family had become the largest owner of property and date gardens in Bahrain, controlling as much as 80 percent of agricultural land.” (7)
Leaving aside what Islamic law justifies this the ruling family owned land which was in great demand and extorted rack renting rents from their tenants. The Shi’a population were subject to a poll tax, water, date gardening and fish taxes. (8)
In 1867 the al Khalifah controlled port of Zubarah, whose ownership was contested with Qatar, rose in revolt. Sheik Muhammed asked the British Resident in the Gulf, Colonel Lewis Pelly, for help in retaking the port. He also asked for aid from Iran. Before either could respond Muhammad mobilised sufficient force to capture the city but in a move to detach himself from Britain attempted to ally himself with Iran. The British intercepted his communications with them and Pelly appeared before Bahrain with a naval flotilla, Blockading, bombarding the capital and burning the Sheik’s fleet. When it capitulated Pelly simply dismisses Mohammad and installed his brother Ali. (9)
Bu 1890 the British demanded legal responsibility for the judicial control of their subjects, not the local authorities. The Political Resident in Bahrain assumed not only judicial control over British citizens but also for the native courts and law enforcement.
Two years later the Sheik and the British agent in Bushire signed an ‘Exclusive Protection Agreement’ which stated that the al Khalifahs were not to enter into any agreement or even communicate “with any power other than the British government.” No agents of other states could enter Bahrain without British permission. (11)
Formally Bahrain was part of the Ottoman Empire but in 1892 the British government sent a note to the authorities in Constantinople [Istanbul] stating:
They refused to withdraw their claim to Bahrain but assured the British they would not force the issue.
An ‘Exclusive Agreement’ signed off by Sheik Isa contained the following terms:
“1st. That I will on no account enter into any agreement or correspondence with any power other than the British Government.
2nd. That without the assent of the British Government I will not consent to the residence within my territory of the Agent of any other Government.
This agreement was the model for treaties with seven other rulers along the coast.
Fred Halliday points out:
“The main agents of British policy were the colonial administrators sent to the Gulf who, under the Indian system, took the name of ‘Political resident’ and subordinate ‘Political Agents. The Resident was until 1947 based in Bushire on the Iranian side; he then moved to Bahrain and remained there until 1971.” (14)
In 1895 a rebellion against the Sheik broke out. The British Agent in the Gulf helped crush it leaving considerable casualties. Ottoman forces then tried to take the island but were defeated by the British. (15)
An 1899 minute from the Foreign Department of the British Government of India, responsible for Gulf affairs, spells out Bahrain’s position:
“Politically we have a ‘Protectorate’ already. Different nations give different meanings to the word. But all meanings have one element in common, viz, that a protected state has no freedom of action in foreign affairs, except through or by the remission of the protecting State.” (16)
The situation before the First World War
In the immediate years before the First World War the British strengthened their overall position in the Gulf and in Bahrain in particular as the Ottoman’s tried to re-establish their presence in the region.(17)
Negotiations got underway in 1915 after the arrival of British warships and officials and then a visit by Sheik Isa’s son, Abdullah, to London, a deal was reached with the al Khalifahs. They demanded equality with the other rulers in the Gulf, the right to appoint the Majlis (the toothless parliament) free from any British interference, the right to deal directly with London and ownership of the Qatari port of Zubarah (this was eventually recognised at Qatari in 2001 by the International Court of Justice). In return a British Order in Council gave greater power to the Political Resident. Two years later the British authorities in London and Delhi agreed he would be responsible to the Government of India unless affairs had international repercussions when the Foreign Office in London would step in.
Britain refused all of Sheik Isa’s demands and began to see both him and Abdullah as a threat to their position citing, rather hypocritically, the family’s own self interest and lack of involving Bahraini citizens in decision making.
A taste of how the British viewed the al Khalifah ruler Sheik Isa Bin Ali comes from the then Resident, Major Dickson, who urged in March 1920:
“The occasional presence of a warship in Bahrain harbour would do much to keep our prestige alive among a set of people who are only too apt to forget that the British Empire exists and does take an interest in Bahrain affairs. Personally also I know my own work will be greatly facilitated if Sheikh Isa were to occasionally wake up and see a warship lying out in his harbour.” (18)
After negotiations with Isa’s son Abdullah it was agreed a municipal council would be formed with Abdullah as President presiding over four of Isa’s appointees and four foreigners chosen by Dickson. Its first meeting was marked by angry demonstrations.19)
The British decided they wanted Isa to quit and did not want Abdullah to succeed. When it suited them they were prepared to acknowledge the grievances of the Shia population to use against the Sheik. In December 1921 a new agent arrived, Major Daly, who received a deputation whose address stated:
“…the Shiah community is in a state of great humiliation and subject to public massacre. They have no refuge, the evidence of none is accepted, their property is subject to plunder and themselves liable to mal-treatment every moment.” (20)
Daly even gave refuge to one man whose father had been killed.
The rising tide of Arab nationalism meant there were criticism of Britain’s role in Bahrain and police stations came under attack. Scared too by this development the Sheik turned to Daly for advice.
In February a Shia villager was rescued from arrest by his friends and family. Anger exploded with shops in Manamah shutting and the bazaar coming to a halt. Faced with this Sheik Hamad agreed to accept a delegation who presented their grievances, which were: the instigation of proper courts of law, an end to the Sheik’s camels grazing in villager’s gardens, an end to forced labour, an end to the Sheik’s calves being left with bakers to be fattened and the proper running of the prison. Hamad agreed to them but there was widespread suspicion he would do nothing about them. (21)
After disturbances on the island in 1923 in which Persian (Iranian) merchants were attacked and with growing concern in London over Sheik Isa’s rule, the British Political Resident, Colonel Knox, arrived with two warships and demanded Sheik Isa Bin Ali abdicate, he refused, but Knox simply announced the abdication and that Isa’s son, Hamad, would run the kingdom. The reforms Knox outlined included that the political agent would be responsible for the political and administrative as well as judicial affairs of all foreigners, a customs service would be created ending al Kalifah personal control of customs and its revenues, the royal family could no longer simply take what they wanted from their subjects, there was no right of association except by the sanction of the political agent and Prince Hamad and lastly, while Sunni and Shia should now both pay taxes Britain recognised there was no equality between them and Bahrain was a Sunni dominated kingdom. 22)
The British noted:
On 10 August 1925 the following advertisement appeared in the Personal Column of the Times:
“Young Gentleman, aged 22/28. Public School and/or University education, required for service in an Eastern State. Good salary and prospects to suitable man, who must be physically fit; highest references; proficiency in languages an advantage.” (24)
A young Oxford graduate and former administrative officer in the British Colonial Service, Charles Belgrave, answered and found himself being interviewed by the British agent in Bahrain. The Sheik wanted an English official to be his personal adviser. Belgrave got the post and effectively ran the country from 1926 until 1957. Formally he was a financial adviser but he ran the judicial system and the police appointing Baluchi, Omani, Yemeni and Iraqis to man it. (25)
Around the same time another event was to occur which transform Bahrain. British oil companies had dismissed finding any significant oil in the Arabian peninsula, concentrating instead on their Iraqi and Iranian fields, but in 1929 the Bahrain Petroleum Country Limited (BAPCO), a wholly owned subsidiary of Standard Oil of California but registered in Canada to get round the British veto on American companies entering Bahrain, signed the country’s oil rights in a concession from the al Khalifah. Three years later oil exports began and revenues flowed in to the coffers of the royal family.(26)
The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Bahrain hard and the traditional pearl fishing industry was undermined by Japanese exports of artificial pearls, but it was offset by the development of the country’s oil fields. Some 40-50 percent of state revenue went to the royal family through the civil list while Sheik Hamad took a third of all oil revenues. The al Khalifahs now had greater economic power than the country’s merchants. (28)
1938 saw strikes over the preferential treatment given to foreign oil workers, Sunni and Shia Bahrainis were united together:
“… the demands raised were for local control of education, the right to organize trade unions, the replacement of the British ‘Political Agent’ and the expulsion of foreign workers from the Bahrain Petroleum Company.” (29)
Three strike leaders were exiled.
When students and oil workers threatened a general strike in support of the Majlis movement in November 1938, the regime arrested some prominent reformers and deported them to India.
During the Second World War the US federal authorities financed the building of a refinery for high grade aviation fuel and three plants to build ferry cans and oil tanks. Afterwards these were handed to BAPCO. All of this meant that Bahrain was home to a growing working class recruited from the islands. It was quickly going to exert its influence. (30)
The importance of Bahrain for Britain grew as its relations with Iran worsened after Reza Shah of the new Pahlavi dynasty took power in a coup in 1923. The New Shah tried to reduce British power in Iran, for instance banning Imperial Airways from flying over the country and awarding routes instead to Germany’s Lufthansa. Britain had to withdraw its remaining troops, quit its naval bases at Henjam and Basidu and in a case brought to the League of Nations increased its share of Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s revenues from 16 to 21 percent, though having to accept an extension of the country’s lease on the oilfields until 1961. The Shah also formally laid claim to Bahrain and Teheran regularly claimed that the British authorities did not provide adequate protection for the Shi’ite population.
There were suggestions in London that Bahrain should be made a British Protectorate but the Government of India objected to any change in the status quo of the Gulf as that might benefit Iran. Therefore the official position was:
The racism of the British administrators shines through, so the British agent in Bahrain argued, on the eve of World War Two, “We certainly do not want to administer their disgusting territories and people.” (33)
The situation after the Second World War
The end of the Second World War heralded the great wave of Arab nationalism symbolized by Abdul Gamal Nasser in Egypt and the Algerian struggle for independence. Opposition to British and al Khalifa rule was spurred on by Indian independence, the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy in 1953 and then the humiliation of the British empire with the collapse of the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956.
Bahrain was not unaffected. One obvious target was Charles Belgrave. Yitzhak Nakash argues:
“By the late 1940s, Shi’is as well as Sunnis, had come to regard Belgrave as the symbol of colonialism in Bahrain. Among the local population he was known simply by his designation as ‘the adviser.’ Bahrainis associated Belgrave with the Al-Khalafi as the source of their poverty and suffering.” (34)
A huge grievance was British and US support for Israel. In May 1948 a US aircraft carrier and its escort visited Bahrain and its officers were invited to a lavish dinner with Sheik Salman and Belgrave. The day before Washington had recognized the state of Israel. Of 60 invitations to prominent Bahrainis, only 15 accepted, the rest citing the US’s action as reason for their refusal. (35)
Rebellion broke out again in 1953 and 1954, culminating in a general strike in July 1954. The initial spur was clashes between Sunni and Shi’ia which led to moves to overcome sectarian division. In direct response to Nasser’s calls from Cairo for Arab unity Shi’a and Sunni nationalists met, in October 1954, in the al-Khamis mosque, the first to be established on the island at the direct instigation of the Prophet, and drafted a charter of demands against British rule.
Reformers from both the Sunni and Shi’ite communities organized a Higher Executive Committee (HEC) demanding greater national autonomy, the convening of a legislature, the right to form trade unions, and the creation of proper courts. Lengthy Protracted negotiations between the king and the HEC led to royal recognition of a Committee of National Unity, in return for HEC dropping its demand for a national assembly. Activists in the trade unions reacted to this by forming the National Liberation Front-Bahrain, pressing for more fundamental changes in the country’s political structure.
In 1954 striking workers elected their own political party, the united Higher Executive Committee which pressed for parliamentary democracy.(36)
Two years later, King Hussein of Jordan, bending to the pressure of Arab nationalism, had dismissed Sir John Glubb, head of the British trained and armed Arab League, who was seen as a symbol of British influence in the Middle. The Bahraini opposition focused on demanding Belgrave’s removal. (37)
The Bahrain Patriotic Liberation Front (later the Democratic and Progressive Tribune) and the Bahrain Patriotic Liberation Front, which was linked to the Iranian Tudeh (Communist) Party, itself founded by Bahrainis living in Iran, were at the centre of growing unrest. In March 1956 the island was paralysed by student protests and a strike by BAPCO workers. British troops killed ten demonstrators and jailed many more. Leaders such as Abdul Rahman Al-Baker, Abdul Aziz Al-Shamlan and Abdul Ali Al-Alaywat, were exiled to St Helena in the south Atlantic, where Napoleon ended his days. (38)
But the repression did not quell the unrest which was boosted by Egypt’s defiance of the Anglo-French attempt to conquer the Suez Canal in league with Israel. In December the British foreign secretary, Selwyn Lloyd stopped off en route to Cairo and tens of thousands of protesters chanting ‘Selwyn Go Home’ blocked the route from the airport to Manama. His car was stoned by protesters demanding Belgrave’s removal and the British minister had to reach the capital by boat. (39)
After the stoning of Selwyn Lloyd’s car, Prime Minister Anthony Eden convened a discussion at Downing Street on the situation in Bahrain and the Gulf. He was gung ho in favour of military intervention on behalf of the Sheik stating:
“We have the resources. We must take the necessary measures to make them available.”(41)
Regarding Belgrave he stated:
His colleagues were less keen on military intervention with Selwyn Lloyd telling Eden in words which could have applied to the future Suez operation, that:
Selwyn Lloyd argued Belgrave had to go because he had become the symbol for all that was wrong in Bahrain. Sheik Salman wanted Belgrave to say and his adviser showed no sign of going. London discussions eventually ended in August with the announcement of his retirement. By then events in Suez had overtaken everything.
On 3 November protests against the imperialist attack swept Bahrain with the torching of foreign businesses. The ruling Al Khalifa fled the capital, Manama, taking temporary refuge in the village of Refae Al Gharbi where only Sunni Arab families who had served as royal bodyguards were allowed to live. Eventually the al Khalifa’s and the British put down the rebellion, declaring martial law and outlawing strikes, but both were aware of the rising tide of Arab nationalism. 45)
Sheik Salman responded by arresting leading figures in the Higher Executive Committee, charged with plotting to kill him and Belgrave. They were tried by a tribunal made up of Belgrave and three members of the royal family which deported five to St Helena. A state of emergency was declared and Bahrain returned to al Khalifah rule. (46)
Belgrave himself would depart Bahrain in 1957, formally because of illhealth. He was replaced by another British “adviser.”
By 1958 members of the al Khalifah family held 14 out of 60 of the key government posts with British officials taking 23. By 1965 the al Khalifah’s held 25 of the top 63 posts. The police and detective force was based on foreigners; in 1959 only 202 police out of a total of 739 were Bahrainis while 127 were North Yemenis, 61 Omanis and the same number of South Yemenis. Seventeen of the 29 officers were British:
‘The chief CID men, three Cypriots known in Bahrain as “Ben, Bob and Green,” were especially loathed; the former two retired from the service after being severely wounded by a bomb planted in Bob’s car in 1966.’ (47)
The overthrow of the British backed monarchy in Iraq in 1958 was a major blow top Britain’s position in the Gulf. Selwyn Lloyd immediately flew to Washington where it was agreed Kuwait should be granted independence to appease nationalist sentiment there, but Britain had to maintain control in the other Gulf States. Selwyn Lloyd telegraphed London saying:
The first protests after 1956 came in 1962 when secondary school teachers struck and were subject to mass arrest. In 1963 women took part in demonstrations for the first time in celebration of the unity between Egypt, Syria and Iraq.
In 1965 unrest broke out again with a strike over lay offs by BAPCO. The strikers demanded not just reinstatement but the right to organize trade unions, the freeing of political prisoners and an end to the state of emergency and police harassment. Students rallied to the protest movement.
March 1965 saw a full scale uprising against Britain’s control of Bahrain following sackings of oil workers. Demonstrations started with high school students who were attacked by security forces prompting a nation wide uprising under the slogan ‘down with colonialism’. The uprising lasted for about one month, during which 6 Bahrainis were killed and many others injured and jailed during the protests. They demanded: the reinstatement of those dismissed, the right to form trade unions, freedom of assembly, freedom for all political prisoners, the removal of all British and other foreign employees and the lifting of the state of emergency in force since 1956. (49)
A front of Progressive Forces was formed including Communists and Ba’athists (50)Fred Halliday notes a key shift:
The town of Muharraq, nicknamed Port Said in honour of the Egyptian city’s resistance to the British two years earlier, was liberated for several days. British helicopters dropped tear gas on the town. (52)In the middle of all this Prince Philip visited saying on arrival, “I hope I am not interrupting a war.” (53)
Although the uprising was suppressed it left a rich legacy of rebellion.
In 1966 the British Agent recruited a former colonial officer from Kenya, Ian Henderson, who had been involved in the counter-insurgency operations during the Mau Mau rebellion, to create the State Intelligence service, which “became an efficient and repressive instrument of the Al Khalifah.” 55)
Henderson remained in charge until 1998.
British troops also remained and in May 1966 the Economist noted:
American and British Protection
In 1967 Harold Wilson’s government in London announced they would withdraw all British forces east of Suez. The British were quitting HMS Jufair in Bahrain. Worried about Iranian and Iraqi ambitions to control the Gulf the US stepped in. In 1970 the reached agreement with the Sheik to take over HMS Jufair. The American negotiator reported:
The al Kalihah’s were now under US ‘protection’ but the British continued to run the security forces through appointees.
In the post-war decades until British withdrawal in 1971, the British leased naval facilities in Bahrain to the US. After 1971 the US agreed to pay $4 million a year in return for base rights but Bahrain withdrew from this deal in 1973 in protest over America’s support for Israel in its war of that year with neighbouring Arab states. The US only received limited facilities again in 1977 after lengthy negotiations and Bahrain only became a major US base during the 1990-91 Gulf War when 20,000 US personnel were based there with Bahrain being key to the air operation against Iraq during Operation Desert Storm. In 1995 Bahrain became home to the US Fifth Fleet and to US regional command. In addition to paying for the lease of the base the US began major arms sales to what it now regarded as a key ally.(58)
In 1972 Sheik permitted elections to a National Assembly. Eventually 27,000 males elected 30 members to it. It divided into a People’s Bloc, the old National Front under another name, and a Religious Party based among the rural Shi’ia.(59)
It met in two sessions, in December 1973 and July 1974 but because of its opposition to a new security law being proposed by Sheik Isa, who would be given the power to arrest anyone threatening national security in his eyes, He responded by suspending constitution and by direct rule through the State Security Law. The National Assembly never met again. (60)
Thousands were jailed and the media kept on a tight leash. Without British support the al Khalifahs turned to the Saudis for help and expertise in internal control. The culmination of that came in 2011 when Saudi forces crossed the causeway to help suppress the uprising which was an integral part of the Arab Spring.
The presence of a former Scotland Yard senior policeman, John Yates, as the current adviser to King Hamad upholds a tradition established by Belgrave and Henderson – it constitutes a living legacy of British imperialism. (61)
It is a tradition which should not be upheld in the 21st century by the Queen, prime minister David Cameron and the British banks and corporations who make a tidy penny in Bahrain.
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51- Fred Halliday, Arabia Without Sultans, Penguin, 1974, P446
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56- Fred Halliday, Arabia Without Sultans, Penguin, 1974, P447
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58- Lobna Ali Al-Khalifa, Foreign Direct Investment in Bahrain, Universal Publishers, 2004, P113-114
59-Graham E. Fuller and Rend Rahim, The Arab Shi’a: The Forgotten Muslims, Palgrave, 2001, P125
60- Laurence Louėr, Transnational Shia Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf, Columbia University Press, 2009, P156-157
61- http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/2012/05/if_you_take_my_advice_-_id_rep.html – accessed 29 May 2012
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