He looked very unhappy, and so did Sheikh Khalifa bin Selman: indeed the latter almost manoeuvred me into advising the Bahrainis not to be so rash. But Sheikh Mohammed bin Mubarak held the others to their decision; and after more than an hour of repetitious floundering, the Ruler dosed himself heavily with aspirin and gave up. Never has a man approached sovereign independence more miserably.
GG Arthur, diplomatic report on the independence of Bahrain
It had been 3 years since the Arab emirates had first come together to discuss a union of states. In the ’60s, the Labour Government in Britain had set 1971 as their deadline to remove themselves as a colonial entity from the Gulf region. Now it was August 1971, and the question was of dire importance. In Dubai, the rulers and emirs of Bahrain, Qatar and the 7 Trucial States (amongst them Abu Dhabi and Dubai itself) gathered to sign the agreement of the Federation of Arab Emirates: a political body that would represent all 9 states in the post-independence order.
But talks were falling apart. Bahrain, the most distant of the emirates geographically, was simply not coming to agreement with the others. They were wanting for complete independence, but feared reprisal from Saudi Arabia. King Feisal al-Saud was pressuring the states to collude together, and the small Sheikhs of Bahrain were not keen to try their luck and ignore the wishes of their most powerful neighbour. For the Ruler, Sheikh Isa, to declare independence – from both the federation and from Britain – was to play a dangerous game, for how would Saudi Arabia react?
He found it hard enough to face the end of British protection, not to mention the known hostility of King Feisal of Saudi Arabia to a move which would finally kill the idea of a union of all the nine Gulf States
Bringing up all the courage they had, Sheikh Isa and his brother, Sheikh Khalifa decided to act on the 10th of August. It was on that day that they called up Mr Arthur from the British Agency to announce their decision. The move had not been entirely their own. Significant internal pressure in the form of a “combination of Shi’ites and the younger people on the State Council, who had no love for the Saudis and who threatened their timid leaders with an explosion of public opinion” had finally swayed the ruling Sheikhs of Bahrain to break away from the talks of an Arab Federation: better to weather the storm of foreign disapproval than face revolt.
The next few days were busy days for all of us except perhaps for the Ruler, whose chief contribution was an obbligato of lament at the passing of British protection. Indeed at one stage he asked wistfully whether I could remain as Governor-General when Bahrain become (sic) independent, as sometimes happens in former colonies. […] The Egyptians promised their support, and promptly made good their promise through action at the United Nations; the Shah demonstrated his friendship in a manner which greatly impressed the Bahraini emissary; even King Feisal, though he could not bring himself to smile, did not frown too menacingly; and everybody seemed relieved that after three years’ payment of lip service to an increasingly unlikely Union of Nine, there need be no more cant and no more doubt about the status of Bahrain.
So went the process of declaring independence. Despite this lapse into depression, Sheikh Isa composed himself for the issuing of a public declaration of independence on 14 August. It was a game of saving face. He stated that Bahrain had done her ‘utmost’ in achieving a Federation of Arab Emirates, but that disagreements between Bahrain and its fellows over essential, basic principles stood in their way.
Bahrain believes […] in the need for drafting a modern constitution based on the principle of the separation of powers and the distribution of authority between governmental organs. This would give to the citizens political and civil rights and liberties and guarantee the setting up of a central government for the Federation which would possess wide powers in the running and administration of various matters concerning the government of the Federation on both the international and internal level. It would also guarantee the development, progress and well-being of the people of the Federation in its various territories without distinction or differentiation between citizens. All this without infringing the constitutional rights of the citizens which are connected with the principle of representation in a national parliamentary council genuinely elected on the basis of the population of the member Emirates of the Federation.
In calling for the political and civil rights of all citizens and a representative parliament, it sounds almost like Bahrain was calling for a democratic Federation, though such a word seems to have been distinctly avoided. But, he goes on to say, these basic principles could not be kept to by the other emirates, and so Bahrain pulled out. It seems a rather convenient telling of the story, one where Bahrain comes out as a champion of its people.
Whatever the reason, Bahrain was declaring itself independent – from everybody. All political and military treaties with the British government were duly terminated, Bahrain was declared an independent Arab state, and the Sheikh asked for friendly recognition by Arab and Islamic states and the UN. By 18 August, just four days later, the UN Security Council was declaring its support for the independent state. “Rarely indeed has an international question which at times seemed to be very complicated been resolved so amicably,” announced the Syrian representative. The UK, USA, USSR, Japan and France were among the many who expressed optimism for Bahrain’s future and an enduring friendship with the state.
Bahrain’s future was not all rosey though. GG Arthur, in his report to the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office, proved to be prescient in his forecast of the coming years:
[The Sheikh’s] ancestors occupied Bahrain in 1783 and the Al Khalifah family have ruled it ever since; but for many years they have been completely dependent on us for their immunity both from Iranian claims and from internal pressures. By comparison with the rest of the Gulf States Bahrain has often seemed idyllic: it has a beauty and a presence which is shared by Muscat alone. Kuwait, Doha and Abu Dhabi are ugly and give an impression of impermanence; Dubai is the prosperous entrepot of the ’70s and may well share the fate of Qais, Hormuz and Siraf. There will always be a Bahrain. But how long will it be at peace with itself and how long will Al Khalifah rule it?
These are the questions which the Bahrainis and many others are now asking themselves; for Bahrain is less stable than it appears at first sight. One of the several objections which the other Gulf Rulers raised to the inclusion of Bahrain in a union was their fear of subversion from a complex urban and village society in which clubs and organisations abound and conspiracy is only kept in check by perpetual vigilance. There is no doubt that Bahrain harbours the destructive forces which we can observe in all modern societies; and on top of that it is divided almost equally between Sunni and Shi’a – a division which is in itself a factor of instability. It is therefore tempting to conclude that the harmony of the last few years was deceptive and will soon give way to strife and revolution when the British forces finally go.
So it may be. But Bahrain society strikes me as closely knit and tough; the proportion between Shi’a and Sunni may be close enough to hold in precarious balance; […] we have given the State an excellent start in life. But the survival of Al Khalifa as effective rulers is very problematical. Most of the large family take no part in the political and economic life of the State and will come to be regarded as parasites at best, as fodder for revolution at the worst. The active few, and their supporters from outside the family, have many virtues which make contemporary Bahrain a pleasant place for the European to live in. They are more polished, more charming, more humane, and less xenophobic than the other Ruling families of the Gulf: it is a pleasure to meet them, to talk to them, and to do business with them. They are almost certainly the best Rulers that Bahrain is likely to get, and their regime is beyond doubt the best for British interests in Bahrain. They probably have less flaws than their neighbours, but the flaws they have are likely to prove fatal to them. They lack seriousness, and they are unusually averse to prolonged effort.
Bahrain would go on to set up a democratic parliament in the coming years. It would also end as quickly as it started. When Emir Isa was confronted with the fact that he could not rule absolutely and democratically both, as he seemingly tried to do, he opted to dissolve parliament in 1975. This inability of Emir Isa to operate a proper democracy would cause great opposition to the Bahraini regime. The fragile peace of Bahraini political society was broken, and the friction between state and citizens would only be exacerbated by the sectarian agenda of the state against the Shi’a beginning in the 1980’s in reaction to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The Al Khalifa family wasn’t toppled, as Mr Arthur mused they might. But Sheikh Isa’s floundering attempt at democracy would open the gates to a debate that has never been closed since: what are the limits of Al Khalifa’s powers and how lofty are the heights to which a citizen might reach in the governance of the state?
The early optimism for an independent Bahrain was indeed the calm before the storm that Mr Arthur predicted.
But all that was to come later, after independence and after the departure of the British. In the meantime, the people of Bahrain and the people who once ran Bahrain could both bask in the sunshine, however brief it may have turned out to be.
Our relations with the engaging and infuriating Ruler and people of Bahrain are as happy as ever. It is sad to watch the fire sink on this dune and headland, but it was exhilerating to serve as the last Political Agent. This has not, after all, been a matter of sounding a semi-quaver in the dirge of Empire, but of helping our protégé to take the final step to full nationhood: a rewarding operation completed with, I believe, affection on both sides.
Farewell letter from Mr Stirling, Political Agent, 15 August 1971
Sources: FO 1016-898, FO 1016-899 (National Archives)