Year of the Nationalists, Part 3: the Suez Crisis

Part 2 of Year of the Nationalists can be read here.

Events in Bahrain were not happening in a vacuum. The Bahraini nationalists were part of a broader movement that was taking the entire Arab world by storm. 1954, the year in which the Committee first formed, also saw the start of the Algerian war of independence from France and the ascendency of Gamal Abdel Nasser as Egypt’s uncontested leader. It was in October of that year that the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to assassinate Nasser during a speech being broadcast over radio to millions of Egyptian and Arab listeners. The gunman fired eight shots at Nasser, but missed every time. “Let them kill me; it does not concern me so long as I have instilled pride, honor and freedom in you.” Nasser’s voice declared through the radio to his listeners, “If Gamal Abdel Nasser should die, each of you shall be Gamal Abdel Nasser.”

In 1956, Nasser’s internal policies hit a major hitch. Much of his government’s domestic policy revolved around the construction of the Aswan Dam, which was expected to create jobs, improve agriculture and generate energy for the country. But Egypt could not fund its construction, costing an estimated $1 billion, on its own. For financial aid, the Egyptian government negotiated a $200 million loan from the World Bank and a commitment from the United States and Great Britain to lend another $200 million.

The intention of the Western powers was to buy influence in internal Egyptian matters, something they sorely needed. This was the height of the Cold War, and there were strong fears that Egypt (part of the Non-Alignment Movement) would fall into Russia’s sphere of influence following a recent purchase of aircrafts and tanks from the Soviet Union. The US tried to make the loan contingent on an Egyptian commitment to stop buying arms from the Soviet Union, but Egypt refused. Nasser dearly wanted to keep his country outside of the Cold War and firmly independent; he would not bend to the whim of either the Americans or the Russians. Indeed, he had only purchased arms from the Soviet Union because they, unlike the Americans, were willing to sell Egypt weapons with no strings attached.

Perhaps the plan was to put Egypt in a panic that would force Nasser to come under America or else risk a revolution to overthrow that of his own. On 19 July 1956 and with no prior warning to the Egyptian government, President Eisenhower announced that all American financial aid was being withdrawn from the Aswan Dam project. Nasser had to act quick to save the project. Exactly a week later, on 26 July, he announced that the government was nationalising the Suez Canal.

The Canal, built with the backing of French investors in the 19th century, was a public company listed in France. Its largest shareholder was the British government. As Nasser pledged the Canal’s extensive revenues (£35 million per annum) for the the Aswan Dam project, the once-great powers furiously plotted vengeance. The day after nationalisation, the French minister of defence called his counterpart in Israel and invited him to participate in a tripartite attack on Egypt for a return of the Canal in French and British hands. Shimon Peres, then director-general of the Israeli Ministry of Defence, was not in a position to commit Israel to war, but gave an encouraging reply and took the matter to those higher up the chain of command. With the phone-call between the two ministers of defence concluded optimistically, the French approached the British with their plan.

* * *

In Bahrain, the Committee of National Union was quick to come out in full support of Nasser. They held regular meetings through August showing their support for Nasser and called for a strike on 16 August in demonstration against the “London conference” (one assumes this was a publicised event in the unfolding of the Suez Crisis).

In the oil company, BAPCO, a Mr Galloway wrote to the British Agency requesting that “Her Majesty’s Government take all measure appropriate and necessary to assure the security of the Company’s installations and property in Bahrain and the lives and property of its employees” in light of recent events which “indicate the possibility of disturbances in Bahrain beyond the control of normal agencies of the local Government”.

And the British officials seemed to expect it too – the strike would coincide with the 10th of Muharram, that cathartic day of mourning amongst the Shia, which on that year was observed on 17 August (in the city, Manama) and 18 August (in the villages). Bernard Burrows, British Resident, expressed the police’s readiness to “deal with any attempts at violence which might result from the meetings or strike” and that “they are confident of being able to do so and at last have a riot squadron, which has had short training in the use of tear gas and batons and would go into action supported, if necessary, by quite a large force of armed police.” Clearly, the Bahraini police force was morphing into a very different creature from the ill-trained, ill-equipped force that awoke a crisis at the start of the year.

Burrows was also busy placating the royalty. In a letter to the Ruler, Sheikh Salman, he warmly “noted with satisfaction the decisions of Your Highness’s Government to continue its course of gradual administrative progress and reform. [Her Majesty’s Government] value the long standing friendship of Your Highness”. The reply from Sheikh Salman expresses happiness for the British support – a change from the friction that characterised official British-Bahraini relationship just a short while ago. Sheikh Salman’s happiness and gratitude for British support must have grown immensely by the year’s end, because the British were growing increasingly anti-Committee.

They had some reason too, as the Committee was becoming more radical than the British found acceptable. In early September, Burrows reports of a meeting he had with 3 top members of the Committee, those being Ahmed Fakhro, Mansur al Orrayedh and Abdulaziz Shemlan:

Fakhroo pressed [Shemlan] to say whether he really wished to obtain gradual constitutional progress or to overthrow the Bahrain Government. Shemlan replied that he was quite ready to overthrow the Government if necessary and that if only the British would stand aside for twelve hours he could bring this about. This had profoundly shocked Fakhroo and Orrayedh, and they described Shemlan’s attitude as treasonable.

Burrows expresses concern that the “considerable inertia” of the Ruler and Bahrain’s government is a danger to the state’s security and, unless progress in administrative and judicial reforms could be shown to be made soon, “moderate elements will begin to lose patience again and the extremists be given further cause for agitation”. Shemlan’s conviction for the overthrow of the regime – an objective that seems to make its first modern appearance here – would certainly suggest that Burrows had real cause to worry.

However he also states that the British Agency is content with measures which the government is taking (albeit at a painfully slow pace) “represent a reasonable stage of development for present-day Bahrain” and that they have “no sympathy for the Committee’s attitude of demanding further major steps before they make use of those already available and we support the Bahrain Government in refusing to accept these unreasonable tactics”. Revealing the Agency’s intentions to cripple the Committee, he notes that “we are also taking every opportunity to advise members of the merchant and middle classes to stand together to resist the demands of the Committee for financial contributions and for acquiescence in further strikes.”

Perhaps in a similar act to stifle political mobilisation, the oil company granted a large pay hike (15%) to its “blue-collar” employees – that is, the labourers of south Asian and native Bahraini backgrounds, allegedly on the grounds of the rise of living costs. Whether this was truly the case is unclear. Considering the letter by a high-level BAPCO employee asking for greater protection from politics and violence, it may have been a tactic to buy silence off their Bahraini employees. In either case, other companies in the private sector would quickly follow their lead.

* * *

Abdulrahman Al Bakir, the leader of the Committee who in March had been exiled as part of the party’s negotiations with the Ruler, returned to Bahrain on the 27th September to the enthusiastic greetings of his supporters. Hundreds came out to see him, but he refused to make a speech on his arrival, saying that he wanted talk to people individually. Some members of the ruling class breathed a small sigh of relief at his return. Al Bakir, they believed, would be the moderating voice needed to silence the “more extreme elements” of the opposition. Indeed, he was denying many of the (often anti-British) things he had said during his stay in Cairo and was advising against any more strikes.

Sheikh Salman, the Ruler, was more apprehensive though. He and other, older members of the Al Khalifa wanted nothing more than the arrest and deportation of Al Bakir. The Ruler wanted to see Al Bakir and Shemlan removed from the Committee and have them replaced by some more “favourable” people. But Sheikh Da’ij, Sheikh Salman’s younger and “most effective” brother, counselled that they should wait to see what moves Al Bakir will make before they play their hand. Sheikh Da’ij’s wisdom won out, and by the end of the year, Sheikh Salman’s thirst for his imprisonment and exile would too.

If Al Bakir had moderated his mouth in the days following his return, he quickly returned to rhetoric no doubt refined by his stay in Cairo, where he would have seen and heard first hand the actions of Nasser’s Egypt against the forces of the imperialistic West. In an interview with Al Mizan newspaper that October, he stated that “the Government and people of Egypt, and above all the Arab leader, President Jemal Abdul Nasser (sic), regard the people of Bahrain as the pivot in the liberation of the Arab Gulf from imperialism.” In a speech later that month, he stated that “we here declare that the imperialist should pick up his staff and go. He must change the policy which he adopted a hundred years ago.”

* * *

Meanwhile, the Anglo-French-Israeli alliance had drawn up plans for the recapture of the Suez Canal: Israel was to invade Egypt and provoke a new Arab-Israeli crisis that would put the Suez Canal at risk; the British and the French would then call for the cessation of all hostilities and, after being ignored, they would send an Anglo-French army to intervene and occupy the Canal Zone. Never was the United States consulted on the matter – all three parties knew that the Americans would never agree to their borderline-delusional plans sketched straight from the colonial era, an age that was now passing.

On 29 October, Israeli tanks rolled into the Sinai peninsula and began the march towards the Canal. The next day, Britain and France demanded that both the Egyptians and the Israelis withdraw by 10 miles from their respective banks of the Canal. It was an ill-timed move; the Israeli forces were still 40 miles from the Canal and not one batallion had even reached it yet. Mohammed Heikal, journalist and associate of Nasser, would later write that “Nasser just could not bring himself to believe that (British Prime Minister Anthony Eden), with all the knowledge he claimed of the Middle East, would jeopardise the security of all Britain’s friends and Britain’s own standing in the Arab world by making war alongside Israel on an Arab nation.”

And jeopardise Britain’s standing in the Arab world it did. A strike was called for throughout the entirety of the Arab world on 29 October. In Bahrain, this was “partially observed” and there were no “untoward incidents”, but the anti-British sentiment was not far from boiling over.

On 1 November, a mob attacked a block of flats housing expatriates. One woman wrote angrily to the British Residency: after evacuating the building they were consoled that they’d be able to return to home safely, but instead found that “our homes were first looted and then set on fire and completely destroyed, with the result that my husband and I, also all the families in this particular block of flat, through the apparent ineptitude and indifference of the Authorities here have lost everything that we possess.”

The Bahraini people were becoming furiously anti-British. So too was the National Union Committee. The British agency and the Bahraini nationalists had been supportive of one another earlier that year: it suited their interests to work together to remove Belgrave, and the Committee was a useful force to drive the modernisation of Bahrain. But as they strove to modernise Bahrain faster than the British (and the Bahraini government) would allow them to, and as the anti-imperialist zeal of Arab nationalism took hold of their minds and mouths, the British turned against them.

As the United States furiously put Britain and France back in their place as secondary Western powers, Britain put the Committee down. The sun may be have been setting on the British empire, but they weren’t about to let the Bahrainis undermine them.

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

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About alialjamri

Young journalist, blogger, trying to make sense of the world we live in.
This entry was posted in From the Archives and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Year of the Nationalists, Part 3: the Suez Crisis

  1. Pingback: Year of the Nationalists, Part 4: The Hidden Intervention | Islander's Oasis

  2. Pingback: Year of the Nationalists, Part 2: National Union | Islander's Oasis

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