The 1950s was a difficult decade for Bahrain. Many Bahrainis were tiring of their government, ruled as they had been for 30 years by the tireless and authoritarian Charles Belgrave. The decade saw the rise of a nationalist movement, galvanised by Nasserism in Egypt and sectarianism at home. Events would come to a head in 1956, when the political situation in Bahrain would crack. By the end of the year, the nationalists would be broken, Charles Belgrave would be leaving – and Bahrain would be transformed.
It illustrates […] the two chief weaknesses of the Bahrain Government, its slowness to move and almost unbelievable facility for doing the wrong thing.
Sir Bernard Burrows, Political Resident, 1956
Muharram, the first month of the Muslim calendar is a holy month of grieving for Shia people across the world. The tragedy of Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and fourth Caliph of the Muslim state, and the tragedy of his son Hussein are related in mosques and maatams, mourning houses. It is a time of great emotion and grief. The men march through the streets of the villages in a procession, beating their chests and chanting religiously. Some will even cut themselves with swords and knives, the bloodshed bringing them closer to their fallen hero. On the tenth day, Ashura, this religious fervour reaches its height as the Shia mark the anniversary of Hussein’s death, killed by the army of the Caliph Yazid.
The political upheavals Bahrain would experience in the course of the 1950s would have their roots in the Muharram processions of 1953. That year, the march through Bahrain’s capital Manama saw an explosion of sectarian feeling between the Shia and Sunnis of Bahrain.
There was a nasty scrap going on. Arab [Sunni] spectators and Shias from the procession were fighting, using sticks and stones and broken bottles, while the women on the roofs threw things indiscriminately on to the people in the street. When I appeared, riding on a lorry, many of the people cheered and some of the men who were fighting took to their heels, but there had been a good many casualties, though none of them fatal. […] The Shias accused the Sunni spectators of deliberately provoking a disturbance, and the Sunnis declared that they were attacked by the Shias.
Charles Belgrave, Personal Column
Belgrave, the Advisor to the Ruler, would later find in an enquiry into the matter that it had all started with an argument between two men in the procession which spectators joined in on. But things had long spiralled out from there.
A curfew was imposed following the ‘scrap’, and the next day few Shia went to work at the oil company, while the Sunnis, worried that the Shia would attack their homes while they were at work, left early. The police intercepted several buses of workers leaving the oil fields, finding many of them armed with make-shift weapons – iron bars and hammers – and claiming they would defend themselves against Shia. On the island of Muharraq, an isolated Shia community was attacked by a mob which was dispersed by the police. The situation would be diffused when Belgrave “sent for some of the leading Sunnis and Shia and arranged with them that they should go out in pairs, one Sunni and one Shia, to the villages to calm the people.” This would help the situation for the rest of 1953, but tensions would once again flare up in 1954.
In June of that year, another petty dispute between a few young Sunnis and Shia outside the oil refinery escalated and resulted in one Sunni’s death. Around a dozen men, mostly Shia, were sentenced to imprisonment, and this once again intensified the sectarian feeling in the country. A demonstration outside the prison inflamed tensions further when a policeman fired his gun into the air. It was to scare the protesters into dispersing. Instead it angered the protesters and other policemen began to fire on the crowd, now thinking they were doing so in self-defence. After that, a strike was called and over 2000 Shia workers stayed home from working at the oil company. “A group of young Shias had told people that it would be dangerous to go back to work” and the “young Arabs [Sunnis], on their part, appeared with guns and revolvers at the offices where they worked”.
Crowds of Arab tribesmen, hereditary retainers of the Ruling Family, flocked out to the Rafaa palace where the Shaikh was living to offer their services. Though most of them had been living in towns and villages for generations they were still referred to as ‘the Bedouin’ and many people, especially the Shia villagers, were afraid of them. When I went to see the Shaikh I found the Bedouin performing war dances in the courtyard of the palace
The administration managed to briefly relieve tensions once more. The courts found that the Shia demonstrators had attempted to storm the prison and condemned the use of firearms by police officers, who had fired without orders. After a few days, the strike ended and workers began returning to work.
It was following this that a group of Shia and Sunnis banded together and formed what would, by the end of 1954, be calling itself the ‘Higher Executive Committee’. Inspired by the great blaze of Arab nationalism that the Egyptian Free Officers revolution of 1952 lit and that Gamal Abdul Nasser embodied, this group crossed sectarian boundaries. Led by four Sunnis and four Shia, the Committee strove to represent all the people in Bahrain. It was the nucleus of a political party, the first of its kind in the Gulf emirates.
An important political development took place. Some of the Shias made an alliance with a group of young Sunnis […] this Sunni-Shia combination formed a committee which held meetings in mosques, ostensibly on religious occasions but actually to provide a platform for political speakers. They put forward a number of demands, some of which were reasonable and some which were manifestly unreasonable. They asked for an elected council, of which they, presumably, would be the members, which would rule the country. They demanded reforms in the courts, where they objected to all the judges except the Shia Kadhis being Sunnis, and they asked for a code of law.
When Belgrave tried to introduce compulsory third-party car insurance in 1954, the taxi drivers of Bahrain went on strike. The issue was resolved by the burgeoning nationalist elite when they set up an insurance fund run by taxi drivers, with a certain Abdulrahman Al Bakir as the fund’s chairman. Al Bakir would relate in a press conference two years later that “the Advisor to the Government was of the opinion that the scheme would fail because the people of Bahrain had not yet reached a high enough standard to handle an insurance company.” The National Insurance Scheme “functioned perfectly” and made a net profit of £15,000 in its first year. “So the Advisor’s prophecy was proven false.” The insurance company quickly turned from a place of business to a place of politics.
Amongst the leaders of the High Executive Committee was Abdulaziz Shemlan and the previously mentioned Abdulrahman Al Bakir. According to Belgrave, Shemlan was a senior clerk at the Bank of the Middle East and had studied in Beirut, having come from small and foreign beginnings – his father was of slave origin and his mother an Indian. Abdulrahman Al Bakir was, Belgrave claimed, a political refugee from Qatar. Belgrave describes him as a ‘fat, unhealthy, light-complexioned man, unreliable and excitable’. But whatever the bureaucrat thought about these men, they would prove to be the most influential amongst the Committee and the public.
Charles Belgrave tried to crack down on nationalists, declaring Al Bakr a non-Bahraini and revoking his citizenship, but this only served to strengthen their cohesion. In response to Belgrave’s actions the nationalist elite met at a mosque in Manama as a protest. After discussing the predicament, they agreed to meet again the next week at a Shia mourning house, the Maatam Al Khamis in Sanabis. It was there, on 13 October 1954 and before a large gathering of people that they announced the formation of the High Executive Committee, composed of four Shia and four Sunnis and backed by 100 personalities from both communities in Bahrain. Over the next few weeks they would meet at both Shia and Sunni mosques, further solidifying their credentials as a group above sectarianism and garnering public support in both the city and the villages.
In December they published their first demands for reform and called for a strike. Under a lot of pressure, the government brought a legal expert, Mr Peace, to come and write the first criminal code in Bahrain and to reform the judiciary. They also appointed a committee to reform education, health, courts and police. But the High Executive Committee declared these moves insufficient.
It is unsurprising to find that Belgrave had bitter thoughts for the Committee, as one of their major demands was for his resignation from office. Though he states in his memoirs that he could understand some of their demands, he also points out that many demands – such as the introduction of a written law – were things that his government was already in the process of implementing. He did not think too highly of the men leading the Committee, and this clear dislike, his known friendship with the royal family and his own place as essentially the head of government makes any of his comments on the character of the committee unreliable. Still, his memoirs make for interesting commentary on the Committee, particularly where he does concede positive remarks regarding them.
Considering their characters and reputations it never ceased to astonish me that they gained such an enthusiastic following […] I believe that certainly one and possibly two of the eight men were genuinely seeking reforms; the rest had nothing to lose and were out for what they could gain.
Regardless of Belgrave and his misgivings, the Committee was ascendant. In February 1955, they boycotted municipal council elections. At the end of Ramadan, they demanded that all shops be closed for the two days of Eid and asked the Sunnis and Shia to visit each other and share in their affections. There was a huge positive response from the community.
Though they were unable to successfully get the parliament that they campaigned, they gained some concessions. February 1956 would see the elections for the Education and Health consultative councils, of which four seats would be elected and four appointed. The Committee participated with this one and the British Agency reported an 80% voter turnout.
The Committee supported a number of candidates; they were not impressive individuals, but no independent Arabs could be found to oppose them. […] after some time three very mediocre persons were persuaded to stand against The Committee’s candidates. The result was a foregone conclusion.
But the elections were a disappointment for the Committee. The two councils each had six elected members and six appointed. Some of those appointed were the losing candidates of the elections and two of them were of the royal Al Khalifa family. Crucially, the Ruler’s own uncle, Sheikh Abdullah bin Isa, was appointed head of both councils and carried a tie-breaking vote. The British Agent notes that the Committee objected to this set up “because they feared that it would mean their side, the elected members, would thereby always be outvoted”. The elected members refused to attend council meetings, disproving of the men the Ruler, Sheikh Salman, had appointed. “A position of deadlock had thus been reached.”
As though the political situation wasn’t tense enough, two events in March would really light the fire. The first was a visit by Selwyn Lloyd, the British Foreign Secretary, to Bahrain on 2 March. A crowd had gathered at the road into Muharraq where the procession of cars leaving the airport would be driving through. As the cars ferrying Selwyn Lloyd, the Ruler and his Advisor passed by, the Bahrainis began to shout in Arabic, “Down with the Imperialists!”, “Down with Belgrave!”
There is a sharp corner at the end of the Muharraq sea road where the road joins the causeway which spans the sea between the two islands […] As we approached it I saw big crowds on each side of the road, which was usual, for when there were processions the people of Muharraq assembled here to watch them pass […] the men who lined the street saw me sitting at the steering wheel; but all that happened was that some of them banged on the door with their hands. Later, when I heard what had happened to other cars in the procession, I realised that I had been lucky.
The crowd’s excitement grew rapidly as the procession passed and when the car of the Ruler, Sheikh Salman passed, it was severely dented by kicks and blows. Two buses on their way from the airport were also attacked, with one getting through with its windows smashed and another abandoned entirely. It wasn’t until well after midnight that the crowd was finally, fully dispersed.
The Committee was quick to come out and distance themselves from the actions of the rioters, but amid louder calls for Belgrave’s resignation, the government – which was, in effect, the two men Sheikh Salman and Charles Belgrave – was being pressed to take action against the Committee. Belgrave’s writings give away his distaste for the nationalists once more.
[The Committee is] strongly supported by Egypt, but not, at present, by the Saudis who are nervous of their advanced ideas permeating into Saudi Arabia. The situation is complicated for while they applaud Egyptian anti-British policy they disapprove of Saudi Arabian feudal rule, though they approve of her foreign anti-Western policy. What they aim at is to reduce the Shaikh to a nonentity and to remove all British officials and to run the country themselves. A pleasant prospect!
Charles Belgrave, in a letter to the British Agency
In private correspondence, the British Agency and Foreign & Commonwealth Office discussed replacing Belgrave. One idea was to infiltrate a British assistant to Belgrave who could take over the Advisor role after the ageing man’s retirement. Another was to find an Iraqi to do the job, and a third plan would see Belgrave’s role split in two, with an ‘Occidental Secretary’ and ‘Chief Secretary’ to run the Bahraini government.
Oblivious to the precise plans to displace him being hatched in the British Agency but certainly aware that they wanted him gone, Charles Belgrave continued in his job and tried to reach out to the Committee. Discussions at the Advisor’s office ensued regarding the workings of the Education and Health Committees (to make them favour the elected members, not the appointed ones) and a rebranding of the Committee into an organisation the Ruler would be more willing to cooperate with. It seems Sheikh Salman felt that the ‘High Executive Committee’ was a name that carried too many pretensions with it, and indeed, on 16 March, the Committee would go through process of officially changing their name to the National Union Committee – though at the cost of exiling Abdulrahman Al Bakir, its leading member. Meaningful concessions were being made and a peaceful settlement between state and opposition may have been reached, had the next crisis not occurred.
On 11 March, just over a week after the disastrous visit by Selwyn Lloyd, an argument erupted in the Manama souq which would rock Bahrain. A Shia vegetable seller had set up shop outside the designated market area. When a policeman asked him to move his stall, the seller refused. The policeman hit him. An enraged crowd chased and trapped the police in their local municipality building and the police, frightened and untrained in crowd control, shot their guns into the air in an attempt to scare and disperse the angry mob. The gunfire killed at least five and left more injured. A peaceful settlement would not be reached.
Police had only received tear gas for the first time in the beginning of March but were not yet trained in using it.
Sir Bernard Burrows, Political Resident.
Part 2 of Year of the Nationalists can be read here.