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.
Mapping the Events
But first, a brief history of Bahrain up to that point, to contextualise the main points of this story: the Safavid Empire conquered Bahrain in 1602 (with some naval assistance from the British East India Company) and ruled the islands until 1717, when Oman successfully invaded and conquered the islands. Oman’s rule was short-lived, and their main contribution to Bahraini history would be to plunge the islands into a century of political crisis, war and economic deprivation as successive regional powers fought for its strategic ports and lucrative pearl fisheries. In the latter half of the 1700s, the Persians – now under the Zand dynasty – re-established some semblance of control over the islands.
Then, in 1783, the Bani Utub chiefs of Zubara, a town on the Qatari coast, conquered Bahrain from the Persian governors, establishing themselves in Muharraq and Rifaa, and putting to prominence the Al Khalifa family over this new territory. I will be referring to “Bani Utub”, not Al Khalifa, though the Al Khalifa were the rulers from the start. This is because our sources at the time identified the tribe as the major political unit, not the family.
The Bani Utub conquest did not end the game of musical chairs over Bahrain’s sovereignty, but it does mark the beginning of the third act of this story, in which the question of the Treaty of Friendship is set. At the time of the Bani Utub conquest, their control of Bahrain would not have seemed secure. Chief rivals for the archipelago were the Omanis and the First Saudi State, which was then reaching its greatest extent. In 1800, the Omanis successfully invaded Bahrain, expelling the Al Khalifa back to Zubara, but the Bani Utub retook Bahrain the following year with the help of the Saudis. According to British writers, the Saudis used this opportunity to turn the Bani Utub into vassals. In 1810, the Ottoman Empire went to war against the First Saudi State – a war which would lead to the latter’s dissolution – and Oman used the opportunity to attack Zubara and Bahrain. In the ensuing crisis, the Bani Utub re-established control over both territories, but their situation remained uncertain.
This brings us to the two hundred year mark, 1816. Around that time, the Imam of Oman launched his fourth attack on Bahrain. In a Chronological Table of Events Connected with the Uttoobee Tribe of Arabs (Bahrein), written in 1844, the following entry is recorded for 1815-16:
1815-16 | The Imaum attacks Bahrein. His troops land at Arad, and are signally defeated, with great loss, two of his relations and principal Sirdars being killed.
That’s quite brief. Where’s the Treaty of Friendship? Did the British officials writing some 30 years after this treaty not bother to record it? After this entry is one from 1816, related to tensions between the Saudis and Rahmah ibn Jabir, the implacable rival of the Al Khalifa family.
The next entries relevant to Bahrain after the above-recorded are summarised:
- 1819 – the rulers of Bahrain release 17 Indian women captured by “pirates” from Ras Al Khaima, ending a minor political debacle.
- 1819-20 and February 1820 – Rahmah ibn Jabir sets sail against Bahrain, with some Persian backing and against British warnings, but the expedition comes to an end when he is shipwrecked.
Then, in January 1820, the General Maritime Treaty is signed between the British government and the “Pirate Coast” – Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman and Umm Al-Quwain. The emirates, alongside Ras Al Khaimah and Dubai, came to form the “Trucial Coast”, later re-termed the United Arab Emirates after independence from Britain in 1971.
Bahrain signed the treaty a few months later, and here’s the record from our 1844 chronology:
April  | Ramah bin Jaubir refuses to become a member of the General Treaty, under the plea of his being the servant of the Persian Government. The Governor of Bushire engaging to be responsible for his future peaceable conduct, the excuse is admitted.
After the capture of Ras-ool-Khyma by the British expedition, the Shaikh of Bahrein delivers up the vessels belonging to the piratical powers, which were in his harbour.
The General Treaty is first signed at Ras-ool-Khyma by the Vukeel of the Uttoobee Shaikhs, and subsequently by themselves in Bahrein.
The chronology explains the problem we’ve got here. Had there been a Treaty of Friendship, it should certainly have been mentioned by the contemporary British writers of the time (record-keeping is sadly scant among the 19th century Gulf Arabs). Our 1844 writer was noting a chronology close to his own time, and he would have surely taken note of a new bi-lateral relationship with a new territory. I say territory because it is difficult to speak of statehood – the tribes of the Gulf were at constant warfare with each other, with constantly shifting boundaries. The reign of Sheikh Abdulla bin Ahmed, the second Al Khalifa ruler of Bahrain (and senior co-ruler with first his brother and then his nephews), was characterised by a constant struggle just to hold on to Bahrain. The Utub often paid tribute to the Imam of Oman, the Saudis and the Persians, buying off potential invaders and purchasing support against the threat of the day. Statehood only began to emerge following the first treaties with Britain, which elevated certain families to clear leadership in each tribal territory (by virtue of being the signatories) and which eventually established a colonial relationship with the various emirates. None, barring perhaps Oman, were subjected to more British colonial influence than Bahrain. Had there been a treaty in 1816, that would have marked the beginning of colonial influence – and the origins of Bahrain not just as a tribal territory of the Bani Utub but as a state in its own right.
That history of statehood does not start in 1816 though. Having given a brief outline of the chronology, let’s delve back into the years 1815-16, in search of the Treaty of Friendship. Does it exist, and does it have any bearing on the General Maritime Treaty in 1820?
There’s another source to draw on : The Historical Sketch of the Uttoobee Tribe of Arabs (Bahrein) From The Year 1716 to the Year 1817, by Francis Warden, another 19th century record.
1816: Bruce visits Bahrain
Warden notes first that the Bani Utub of Bahrain, in an apparent act of appeasement, had offered in 1813 to send a fleet and 2,000 men to join the Imam of Oman’s expedition against Ras Al Khaima. The British writers frustratingly fail to say what occurred next in this narrative – whether the expedition even took place for one thing – but it is clear that by the next year, relations between Oman and Bahrain had broken down again and the Imam was preparing to attack the islands.
On 19 July of either 1814 or 1815, the British Resident in the region, William Bruce, visited Bahrain “for the purpose of ascertaining more correctly the engagements and views the Arabs of Bahrein and the Joasmees [Qasimis] had towards the Imaum, who was on his way with a large expedition to reduce those Arabs to his allegiance.”
Upon meeting Sheikh Abdulla, the ruler, Bruce found that the Bani Utub were under the impression – given to them by Oman – that Britain was backing Oman’s expedition “to the utmost”. Sheikh Abdulla explained his situation in the war to Bruce, then asked the British officer “in a direct manner”, whether they are to be considered “friends or enemies”.
On Mr. Bruce’s saying, why should he doubt our being friends, he replied that the Syud had given out we had taken up his cause, and intended to join him with four or five ships, to assist in reducing the island; that he was not conscience of ever having done anything towards us, contrary to the strictest rules of friendship, or would they ever do so; that he was exceedingly happy Mr. Bruce had arrived, as he was on the eve of sending over to Bushire, to ascertain if there was any truth in the Imaum’s reports …
Sheikh Abdullah then “confessed candidly” to Bruce that they could handle Oman, but would not be able to cope with Britain militarily. He even admitted to considering adopting “piracy” with the Qasimi tribe of Ras Al-Khaimah. Sheikh Abdulla told Bruce that his ports were “ever open” to Britain and aid would be given to British ships, and asked that Bahraini ships be allowed to continue trading in India.
Here Warden states:
On Mr. Bruce replying certainly, he was overjoyed, and said he now did not care anything for the Imaum, as this was the most he had at heart.
What Bruce says next begins to answer the question of the Treaty of Friendship:
To convince him the more fully of our friendly disposition, Mr. Bruce said he would, although not authorised by Government, draw out a few articles of agreement, which we would exchange, and had no doubt but that they would be approved of, and be sanctioned by the British Government. He [Sheikh Abdullah] was highly satisfied with this.”
Is that our treaty? Well, unfortunately, it does not seem that any such treaty was every drawn up – the writer, Francis Warden, explicitly points out this was promised without authorisation from the central government in Bombay. I haven’t be able to ascertain whether any proposal was ever actually sent to the government.
We’ve uncovered the origins of the “Treaty of Friendship”. A key thing to take note is that the word “treaty” appears nowhere here, as there was no treaty in the end. At best, we may call it what the British themselves called it – “friendly neutrality”. Lorimer’s Gazette, 1915, makes the following remark on page 846:
In 1819 … it was resolved to inform the ‘Atbi Shaikh [Sheikh Abdulla of Bahrain] that, so long as he restrained his subjects from piracy, he would reap the advantages of a friendly neutrality on the part of Britain, whereas, should a piratical spirit manifest itself in Bahrain, the same measures of coercion would be applied to the ‘Utub’ as to the Qawasim [Qasimis]. The conclusion with the Shaikh of “an engagement similar to that negotiated by Mr. Bruce in the year 1816,” which would assure the the ‘Utube of the benevolence of British intentions, was also contemplated by Government.
The quoted paragraph, as it happens, is subtitled “British policy of neutrality in regard to Bahrain.” A note on the year of Bruce’s engagement: there is a lack of clarity of the sources when exactly this was – 1814, 1815, or 1816. Francis Warden suggests either 1814 or 1815, but does not clarify, while Lorimer, writing a hundred years after the event but perhaps drawing on different materials, puts the meeting to 1816. This is ultimately a moot point: relations between states aren’t dated to the first time one person spoke to another, but to the date treaties are signed. And no treaty was signed in 1814, or 1815, or 1816.
When William Bruce visited Bahrain, he was operating as a British representative, an ambassador in effect, making promises and policy decisions he wasn’t actually authorised to make. This is only the first unauthorised decision he would make on Bahrain – in 1822, he concluded a legal agreement with the governor of Shiraz recognising Persia’s right to Bahrain as a territory. The Government in Bombay reacted swiftly, voiding the agreement and firing Bruce from his job as Resident. Bruce’s rogue actions left a stormy legacy on Bahraini politics, contributing directly to 150 years of Iranian claims on Bahrain. These claims, which hinged on this agreement as proof of their legitimacy, were only dropped in 1970, continue to haunt Bahraini politics to the present day.
Days after Bruce’s visit on 14 July (1815 is perhaps the likeliest year), Oman’s forces landed at Arad, where they suffered a significant loss, as recorded in the 1844 chronicle. The expedition was called off soon after.
Bruce’s goodwill to the Sheikh Abdulla dissipated in 1817, when he made his second trip to Bahrain. Though the Utub did not engage in “piracy” like other emirates of the Gulf coastline, in Bahrain they hosted a large market for bootleg goods sold rice, dates and other supplies to the “pirate” traders.
The subsequent unfriendly conduct of the Sheikh of Bahrein, when he defied our power, is entirely irreconcilable with the friendly spirit that distinguished it on his interview with Mr. Bruce.
The new unfriendliness of Sheikh Abdulla and their refusal to stop dealing with the “pirates” made it “impossible … to look on Bahrein in any other light than that of a piratical port”:
… although they may not individually commit piracies in their own vessels, the assistance they afford to those freebooters operates to the same end, and, in fact, considerable numbers of the crews of the pirate boats are actually composed of the inhabitants of that island, who proceed to Ras-ool-Khyma, and enter on board for a cruise. If successful, they return to their homes; if not, they continue there until their avarice is satisfied.”
So Francis Warden ends his Historical Sketch, with an ominous distaste for the Arab people.
1820: The General Maritime Treaty
I began this narrative with a focus on the Bahrain-Oman conflict, which had continued on and off since 1717, and nigh-relentlessly since around 1800. That conflict – which only ends in 1829 with the signing of a peace treaty – brought Bahrain to the attention of the British government in a significant way for the first time. But Bahrain was peripheral to British priorities in the Gulf. Britain was not there to sign treaties of friendship in the region. They were there to police “piracy” and establish their hegemony.
Arab “Piracy” is a contentious issue. Richard Gott describes “piracy” as “a customary term of abuse during the eary years of the nineteenth century given to any small nation that had ships of its own to challenge British control of the seas.” What the British considered piracy, the Arabs of the region considered their economic model. The coastal Arab tribes placed a toll on all naval traffic through their waters. This toll was backed up by arms: if a ship did not pay, the Arabs would raid it. British ships categorically refused to pay the toll, completely ignoring the system. In response, the Arabs raided them – and the British termed this piracy.
Key among the “pirates” of the Gulf were the Qasimi tribe of Ras Al-Khaimah, whose descendants still rule both there and in Sharjah. The Qasimis – our above-quoted British sources variably anglicise them as “Joasmees” and “Qawasim” – were at constant loggerheads with the British fleets transiting through the Gulf on the journey to and from India. This is why we saw references to the Al Khalifa almost being driven to join the Qasimis in “piracy” when they thought they were at war with Britain in 1815, and the frustrations of William Bruce in 1817 when Bahrain refused to stop trade with the Qasimis.
As stated, the principle foreign policy of Britain in the Gulf throughout the 1810s was to secure military control of the Gulf and end Arab “piracy”, and the premiere “pirates” of the region were the Qasimis of Ras Al Khaimah.
In December 1819, the British practiced the most textbook-definition example of gunboat diplomacy as you will ever find, sailing a navy with support from Bombay down the Gulf to bombard Ras Al Khaimah, destroying the town and its fortifications. The British then burned the Qasimi fleet and deposed the ruler in favour of his more pliable uncle. In January 1820, in the smouldering ruins of the once-thriving port town, they had the Qasimis sign the General Maritime Treaty, which stipulated: “there shall be a cessation of plunder and piracy by land and sea on the part of the Arabs, who are parties to this contract, forever.”
As well as the Qasimi rulers of Sharjah and Ras Al Khaimah, signatories included the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Ajman. An agent of the Utub of Bahrain signed too, and Bahrain formally acceded to the General Maritime Treaty in February 1820, with additional articles forbidding the sale of any pirate goods in Bahraini markets.
This treaty, the first of its kind between Britain and the coastal Arab emirs, marks the beginning of relations between Britain and Bahrain (and, of course, the United Arab Emirates). It is a beginning steeped not in friendship or comradery, but imperialism, bigotry, and violence.
For the next 150 years, British and Bahraini relations would be defined by imperialism and violence. The General Maritime Treaty proved an ineffective document and was followed up by more treaties over the 19th and early 20th centuries. British imperial rule in the region was largely informal, but strongly felt in Oman and Bahrain.
Imperial ambition for control would come to a head in 1869, when the British burned Bahrain’s fleets and imposed the young Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa as ruler of Bahrain. In 1923, when the British colonial agency found themselves no longer able to control him, they forced his abdication. At the public ceremony introducing Isa bin Ali’s son, Hamad, as the new regent-ruler, the British official there advised him in the most condescending way (“Now I tell you – O Hamad – that your conduct on this occasion was absolutely rotten”). Three years later, in 1926, a British ‘Adviser’ to the Ruler of Bahrain, Charles Belgrave, was recruited: over the next 30 years, he brought the government, the police, and the judiciary, under his own personal remit. When, in the 1950s, a nationalist movement was borne from the frustrations of colonial policies and mismanagement, the British turned a blind eye to their unfair prosecution and aided in their punishment, exiling them to the island of Saint Helena.
151 of the 196 years – not 200 – of British-Bahraini relations were marked by imperial motivations for control of the Gulf. It has not, as is rosily painted, been marked by much friendship. This relationship has had lasting consequences – some of them positive, but many of them negative, such as Bruce’s direct impact on Iran’s claims on Bahrain. The myth and celebration of the Treaty of Friendship is a disservice to the intertwined histories of both Britain and Bahrain.
Davies, Charles, The Blood-Red Arab Flag: An Investigation into Qasimi Piracy 1797-1820, 1997.
Gott, Richard, Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt, 2011.
Al-Qasimi, Sultan Mohammad, The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf, 1986.
Selections from the Records of the Bombay Government, No. XXIV, New Series, 1856, pp. 140-152 and pp. 361-325; India Office Records: R/15/1/740; Lorimer’s Gazetter of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia, Vol. 1, 1915, p. 846 from Tuson, Penelope, Records of Bahrain: Primary Documents 1820-1960 Archive Edition, 1993.