200 Years of British-Bahraini Relations? Pirates, Rogue Diplomats, and a Missing Treaty

2016 is apparently the 200th anniversary of British-Bahraini relations. The story goes that, in 1816, Britain and Bahrain signed a Treaty of Friendship which has endured the centuries, that these allies have grown to be amongst the closest and warmest friends, and that we now enter the third century of relations. So reported both Bahrain and the UK in January, when the anniversary year was launched. The Foreign Office gaily announced: “When the Kingdom of Bahrain and United Kingdom signed a Treaty of Friendship in 1816, few will have predicted the diplomatic, political, military and economic ties between the two kingdoms would endure for two centuries.”

But go back to the records and you’ll find no treaty was signed. Formal diplomatic relations can barely be said to have occurred prior to 1820 – so are we actually on the 196th anniversary of British-Bahraini relations? Perhaps it was felt that something should be celebrated this year, but 196 does not make for an attractive anniversary year.

What did happen in 1816? What happened in 1820? Was there a Treaty of Friendship? What form of relationship have the UK and Bahrain had for the last 200 years? The answers lie in the India Office Records, and the answer to the first question draws a picture fundamentally different to the that which the FCO is regrettably painting.

Continue reading

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Will You Catch My Good Side?

The following piece was first published on 4 April 2015 on The Bahrain Debate, which I encourage you to check out.

In January 2015, a strange story broke about a group of American students found living in Duraz village in Bahrain. The undergrads (according to the Gulf Daily News they were between 18 and 20 years old) had come to learn Arabic and study the culture and history of Bahrain. The police questioned them over their peculiar choice of housing, and according to some they were later released and prodded to relocate to Riffa, to study the people there.

Anthropologist Henny Harald Hensen ran into few issues when she visited Bahrain in 1960 and  lived in Saar for three weeks, where she studied the people there. Saar was then a small village of about 450 inhabitants, and geographically smaller than the more cosmopolitan Saar of today. It is one of the oldest inhabited locations of the island located in the west. Now inland, it was probably once on Bahrain’s sea-front, and a Dilmun-era temple is located on its outskirts. Continue reading

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Saudi’s husseiniya massacre: sectarianism coming home to roost

On Monday 3 November, tragedy struck in the Saudi Arabian town of Dalwa when three unidentified gunmen opened fire on a ‘group of citizens’, killing five and injuring nine. The next day, two Saudi security officers were killed in a shoot-out with a group of suspects, and two of the assailants were killed. Since then, at least fifteen people have been arrested in connection to the crime. This is an ominous development, not just in Saudi but for the whole Middle East. Only Saudi Arabia can challenge the causes.

The Saudi Press Agency reported it in this very short statement:

Ahsa, Muharram 11, 1436, November 04, 2014, SPA — Police Information Spokesman in Eastern Region stated that at 11:30 p.m., on Monday evening, 10/01/1436 AH, and during the exit of a group of citizens from one of the sites in the village of Aldaloh in Ahsa Governorate, three masked men opened fire at them from machine guns and personal pistols after getting out of a car parked near the site, resulting in the death of 5 people and injuring 9 others, who were transported to the hospital to receive the necessary medical treatment. Ahsa police started the procedures of criminal investigation, and the incident is still under security follow-up.

The curious thing about this press release is that the Agency fails to mention who the victims are, and where exactly the attack occurred. The massacred individuals were Shi’a men, killed outside of a husseiniya, a Shi’a mourning house where every year, in the first ten days of Muharram, the Shi’a remember and mourn the martyrdom of Hussein — grandson of the Prophet Muhammad killed by the tyrant Caliph Yazid. As the Islamic lunar calendar is shorter than the Christian solar calendar, the dates shift through the seasons. This year, Ashura (the tenth day of Muharram), fell on Tuesday, November 4. For Shi’a, the story of Hussein’s martyrdom is at the core of their philosophy.

Read the full article on OpenDemocracy

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Tamorrod: A New Era in Bahrain?

The streets of Bahrain swelled with protesters, so numerous that the security forces could not contain them with their firearms and tear gas. They poured in from every town and village and marched to the capital, Manama, where they defiantly chanted “Tamorrod!” It seemed that all of Bahrain was there. Their united voice could not be suppressed, and the government was forced to stare the reform movement in the eye.

That at least was the vision of the leadership of the Tamorrod – Rebellion – movement . At a Beirut press conference on 7 August, spokesperson Hussain Yousif called on the people to “break the prestige of the tyrannical and tribal state and their repressive tools. It will be of the people for the people: such will be Tamorrod Bahrain.” Inspired by Egypt’s movement by the same name which played a part in the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi, Tamorrod was called for 14 August, the day on which Bahrain secured its independence from the UK.

The protests were meticulously planned. On 12 August, there was a marked decrease in the incidence of small-scale protests, in line with a direct request from the Tamarrod leaders to suspend protests in the days leading up to August 14. The police set up new checkpoints at roads leading into Manama. One Bahraini described the atmosphere as the “calm before the storm”.

But the storm never materialised.  The people did not come out in the numbers Tamorrod had hoped for, and even had they the razor wire barricades that stood at the mouth of every village would have had to be overcome. There were some small scale protests, the police threw tear gas and shot at some protesters, and in Shia villages, shops stayed shut. It was not a normal day by any means, but nor was it particularly memorable.

However, despite Tamarrod’s failure to muster the street on its side, 14 August is still a watershed moment in Bahrain’s unravelling political drama. The opposition failed to mobilise, but the threat of Tamorrod – which, had it lived up to its own expectations, would have been the biggest protest march this year – gave the Bahraini government the justification it needed to further empower its security apparatus and grant it sweeping powers not seen since the National Safety Law of 2011, an emergency law in everything but name.

The holy month of Ramadan fell in July and early August this year. Usually a passive month where few possess the energy required for any concerted effort, this year the police kept themselves busy: at least 200 arbitrary arrests occurred according to Bahraini monitors. Amongst those arrested was Mohammed Hassan, a citizen journalist, and his lawyer, who was detained after tweeting that his defendant had been tortured.

In late July, an emergency meeting of Parliament was convened where 22 recommendations for new laws were made to the King. Since the King does not need Parliamentary approval or consultation to pass decree laws it is difficult to see the event as anything other than an attempt to paint a democratic veneer over a decision taken by executive fiat.

Amongst the recommendations were bans on demonstrations in Manama and the revocation of citizenship for anyone convicted of terrorism offences – many activists and opponents of the state are being charged with these offences, even though in many cases their offence related to their exercising their right to free speech or assembly. The King duly accepted these recommendations and passed them back to the government for implementation as decree laws.

Most of the recommendations are either being codified into law or are in the process of implementation. Amongst them is the blanket ban of demonstrations in the capital and a newly legalised form of collective punishment: the father of an under-16 protester can now be fined, jailed or both for the actions of his son.

Will the extension of repressive powers end there? Jordanian and Pakistani police detachments have been brought into Bahrain to help quell the Tamorrod protests. With hindsight, their deployment was probably overkill, but it is not yet clear whether they constitute a temporary or permanent increase in security personnel. Similarly unclear is the permanence of new blockades: cement blocks and barbed wire now close many entrances in and out of Shi’a villages, giving the police control over the movements of activists and general Bahrainis alike. Increasing usage of police cameras at these checkpoints also serve to increase state monitoring of potential trouble makers. The message is clear: opposition to the state, no matter how great or small, is a crime.

And opposition will in all likelihood be small from now. Manama is currently a demonstration-free zone, and if protesters cannot march on government buildings, they can be more easily ignored. The individual villages are contained too, so that protest marches cannot generate momentum. Will Bahrain ever again see tens of thousands marching in unison for reform, such as it saw in 2011? That’s what Tamorrod was meant to be, after all. But not only did it fail to muster the streets, to shout and be heard by the Government and its international allies, it also served as just the opportunity the Bahraini state needed to make sure that no large-scale protest movement could be organised again.

Things have not been plain sailing for the government though: shops closed in all the Shi’a villages and the Manama shopping centres were quiet that day, despite the Prime Minister’s visits to some of them in the morning to promote the narrative of business as usual. If effective suppression comes at the cost of commercial paralysis, prolonged civil conflict hurts all of Bahrain’s people in the long run. Such a burden may only be overcome with political settlement.

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The Hakim of Bahrain

From the Archives is a blog series about Bahrain and its history. The stories told are drawn primarily from the records, documents, correspondences kept at the British National Archives and India Office archives.

This week, a smaller piece on the 1920s, with more to follow as a I read through the period. This has been written to be a standalone piece, but for broader context, check out Old Greybeard of Bahrain and A Chasm without Karama.

***

Some three hundred people came to the Majlis that overthrew Sheikh Isa bin Ali as ruler of Bahrain. On 26 May 1923, in the overwhelming heat of early summer, they crowded into the Political Agency: merchants, townsmen, tribesmen, Sunnis, Shia, Sheikhs of the Al Khalifa and even a group of Persian merchants and British expatriates came to witness the spectacle. Colonel Knox, the Political Resident and highest British authority in the Gulf, sat in the centre of the room, surrounded by his allies: Between him were Major Daly, the British Agent in Bahrain, and Sheikh Hamad, the Heir Apparent and his father’s newly and fully empowered regent. His father, Sheikh Isa, while still holding the title of Hakim – Ruler – was rendered completely powerless.

Knox had been squarely for the status quo and initially unwilling to take to the task of reform to any degree. Let life in Bahrain take its natural course, he argued, and if changes must be made, can it not wait until the old man breathed his last and Sheikh Hamad succeeded to the Sheikhdom in a more natural way? But the British government had come back to him and ordered that it happen; thus he became the brazen voice of reform.  Continue reading

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Old Greybeard of Bahrain

From the Archives is a blog series about Bahrain and its history. The stories told are drawn primarily from the records, documents, correspondences kept at the British National Archives and India Office archives.

This week, a smaller piece on the 1920s, with more to follow as a I read through the period. Enjoy this vignette.

***

The first eighty years of the Al Khalifa dynasty’s rule in Bahrain was chaotic and messy, a non-stop war. Mainland enemies threatened to invade the islands and take it from the Al Khalifa, who had themselves only wrestled it from the Persians in 1783. Once the dynasty’s lordship over the islands was finally, begrudgingly accepted by other rulers and states, it was not long before the fighting turned inwards, as it broke out between the ambitious brothers and cousins of the Sheikhly family.

That warring ended in 1869 after the latest bout of fratricide saw the murder of the latest Ruler, Ali bin Khalifa, at the hands of his brother and cousin. The British Political Agent intervened by enforcing a strict law of primogeniture (i.e., eldest son inherits) and propping up Isa, the young and orphaned son of the murdered Ali, as Ruler.

And Isa bin Ali ruled uncontested. Fifty-four years on though and the regime had reached an impasse. The British had been pressing Sheikh Isa to instigate reforms for a year and a half now: in late 1921, a deputation of Shia villagers handed the Political Agent, Major Daly, a petition demanding that something be done about the tyrannical feudal laws. Major Daly had duly sent it on to his superior, the Political Resident of the Gulf, Lieutenant-Colonel Trevor. Reform was necessary, it was decided by the British, but it would be far cleaner if the Bahrainis did it themselves. Together they had been trying to get a home-grown reform movement going. Continue reading

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Post Script & Bibliography

I didn’t intend it to be this long. I started the blog in May and just as I was getting into it, was hit by the pressure of the last weeks of university. When I was freed up, I wanted to jump straight in with something I had the material for, and I have a wealth of notes on 1956. It seemed natural to write the story and I thought I could fit it all into a single post at the time. Then I realised that I couldn’t talk about 1956 at all until I covered 1952-through-55, and one post became two, then three – it finally ended at five, but a sixth did threaten to be written.

It’s been interesting to write in ways in which I did not expect in the first week of June, when I mashed the first one out – perhaps that’s why I feel compelled to write this post script. The first post was clunky and not my best work: stick in quotes, prop them up with exposition and call it a day. From Part 2 onwards, the narrative starts to take a much more natural feel, no doubt helped by the fact that I had more contemporary sources to draw on now as well as the influence of Marc Morris, whose The Norman Conquest I was reading at the time. Part 3’s narrative came just as easily, but it was there that I reached a hitch. Once the story got to November 1956, I was stuck for information. It took me a month to go back to the archives and satisfy myself that the story was not available there – a story which in itself is interesting in its own right.

And now, with Part 5 it comes to a satisfactory close – all the more so as I managed to tie it back to the beginning of Part 1. My writing style and ability has developed more than I would have guessed it would, as has my understanding of planning. I certainly don’t intend to write another muti-part series again without making sure I’ve got all the necessary information beforehand first.

With all that said, it’s time to start planning out the next blog.

Bibliography 

The National Archives (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO) FO 371/120544 Internal Political Situation in Bahrain

TNA: PRO FO 371/120545-49 Internal Political Situation in Bahrain

TNA: PRO FO 371/126893-95 Internal Political Situation in Bahrain

TNA: PRO FO 1016/468-70 Bahrain: Internal Political Situation

TNA: PRO FO 1016/551 Internal Political Situation: Bahrain

TNA: PRO FO 8/2180 Internal Political Situation in Bahrain

Papers of Charles Belgrave, 1926-1957

Belgrave, Charles, Personal Column, Librairie Du Liban, Beirut 1972, 1996

Khuri, Fuad, Tribe and State in Bahrain, University of Chicago, 1980

Nakhleh, Emile, Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernising Society, Lexington Books, Plymouth, 1976, 2011

Rogan, Eugene, The Arabs: A History, Allen Lane, London, 2009

Al Wasat News, Important Figures in the Times of the Committee, 14/10/2004 (link) accessed 18/07/2013

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Year of the Nationalists, Part 5: Uncomfortable Peace

From the Archives is a blog series about Bahrain and its history. The stories told are drawn primarily from the documents, notes and correspondences kept at the British National Archives and India Office archives.

Part 4 of Year of the Nationalists can be read here.

* * *

Court was held in a small, cramped room. Five men of the National Union Committee stood defending themselves before a special tribunal of three. Only fifteen could fit into the public gallery, such as it was in the makeshift courtroom above Budeya Police Station. The Manama Court, the largest in the country, should have been the set piece of this landmark trial. But it was felt that for “reasons of public order”, this small room above a police station would serve as a better courtroom.

The trial took place on 22 and 23 December, a month and a half following anti-imperialist riots and the arrests of the Committee leaders. The men on trial were Abdulrahman Al Bakir, the Secretary; Abdelaziz Shemlan, the Acting Secretary; Abd Ali Alaywat, the Representative of Country Districts; Ibrahim Fakhro, the Treasurer; and Ibrahim bin Musa, Representative in the Town of Hedd. Against them stood three judges of the ruling family, including the Ruler’s uncle Shaikh Abdullah bin Isa and Shaikh Daij, his brother.

Abdulrahman Al Bakir spoke alone for all the defendants. He urged that the trial be moved to the Manama Court, where such trials were meant to be heard. To have it in Budeya, he claimed, was to make it a secret trial – a claim the Al Khalifa spokesmen no doubt rebutted by pointing out the fifteen men seated in the makeshift public gallery. The government claimed that Budeya police station had been chosen because they did not want public order to break, to which Al Bakir asserted that not only did the government have the necessary forces to keep order, but that he would also personally guarantee that there were no disturbances. The tribunal ignored him. Continue reading

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Year of the Nationalists, Part 4: The Hidden Intervention

From the Archives is a blog series about Bahrain and its history. The stories told are drawn primarily from the documents, notes and correspondences kept at the British National Archives and India Office archives.

Part 3 of Year of the Nationalists can be read here.

* * *

It had already been a historic year for Bahrain. The National Union Committee (henceforth “The Committee”) had been officially recognised in March by the Ruler, Sheikh Salman, making them the first legal political party in Bahrain and the Gulf region. That same month, the bungling police brutally fired on an angry crowd, killing many and heightening the tension in the country. The year also saw the first elections of any importance for the Health and Education councils. But this minor process of democratisation was ruined when at the last moment the ruling family selected a certain Shaikh Abdullah to be head of both councils, with veto powers. The Committee boycotted the councils and it was the last attempt at democracy until independence. 1956 also saw the inflammatory rise of anti-British and anti-colonial demands by the opposition: Selwyn Lloyd, the British Foreign Secretary, was attacked by a mob; and the demands that Charles Belgrave, the autocratic Adviser, should leave grew louder and louder.

And then the Suez Crisis happened. Nasser, Egypt’s president, nationalised the Suez Canal to help fund his infrastructure projects. In retaliation, Britain and France, who had owned the Canal, concocted a mad plan. On 29 October they made their move when Israel, their partner in this endeavour, invaded the Sinai Peninsula. Britain and France intervened as a peace keeping duo with a secret mission: to take back the Suez Canal.

The Arab world was in an uproar and general strikes were held across the Middle East and North Africa. In Bahrain, the protest marches would turn violent and anti-British rioting ran wild. In the ensuing chaos, the leaders of the Committee were arrested and quiet was restored to the country. It was British military intervention which allowed such a peace to return.

The story is there, but something is missing. Exactly what happened in November 1956? We know the general outline, as summarised above. But the British national archives are amazingly sparse about it. As I will explain, a lot of information is just not there, and its absence is striking. My main source for these articles has always been the documents and correspondences of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office kept in the National Archives in Kew, London. In particular I’ve been drawing on a series of six files, “Internal Political Situation in Bahrain”, series code FO 371/120544 through to FO 371/120549. I’ve referred to them extensively in telling the story of the “Year of the Nationalists”.

Continue reading

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A Chasm without Karama

From the Archives is a blog series about Bahrain and its history. The stories told are drawn primarily from the documents, notes and correspondences kept at the British National Archives and India Office archives.

* * *

December 21, 1921 was a momentous, now forgotten day. On that day a large deputation of Shia Bahrainis marched to the offices of the British Political Agency and there presented a petition to the Agent, Major Daly. Daly, the most senior British colonial official on the island, was also pretty new to the job. He’d been around for no more than a year, but it seems that what he saw, and what was said to him, affected him. Much of what he did in his years as Political Agent would be shaped by the petition handed to him at the start of his tenure.

The Bahrainis had a simple demand: that the British protect them from their overlords, who had made their lives unbearable. Major Daly dutifully sent it onwards to his superior in Bushire (today the town of Bushehr along the Iranian coast), the Political Resident – or as the Bahrainis called him, the “Chief of the Gulf”. The translation of this desperate petition survives in the documents of the India Office:

Praise be to God who had made Kings as spacious shadows to which the refugees from heat take refuge and which is the resort of the helpless at the time of calamities, and who made their justice a cause of bliss. If a King acts cruelly times change, and any wise man should take lesson of the conduct of his predecessor. Look at the Tasm, Faroahs and Tobba (sic) of whom there is no trace, and look how justice lasts long. The British Government (for instance) has not lost her name and her honour does not decrease. God has blessed His creatures by strengthening that Government and the talk of that Government’s justice is prevalent. Her justice has superseded that of Anawsherawan (sic). The people have seen the justice of the late Queen Victoria who would administer justice to an oppressed even against herself in order to safeguard the interests of her subjects and her honour. After her came the Great King Edward and after him the present King George whose justice has spread over all the world. Continue reading

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