Year of the Nationalists, Part 2: National Union

Part 1 of Year of the Nationalists can be read here.

BBC report on anti-Belgrave sentiment in Bahrain

After the murderous events of 11 March 1956 in the Manama souq that saw several killed and more injured, the High Executive Committee called for a general strike. The Bahraini economy was at a standstill as the Committee entered a series of discussions with the government during. The week culminated with a meeting with the Ruler of Bahrain, Sheikh Salman, on 18 March.

On that day, in front of the Ruler, Sheikh Salman, the High Executive Committee agreed to change their name to the to National Union Committee as part of an arrangement to continue operating within Bahrain. This ‘new’ National Union Committee is a landmark as having been the first political party within the Arabian Gulf emirates recognised by the state’s Emir. As part of this process however, Abdulrahman Al Bakir, the influential leader of the Committee, was forced to leave Bahrain for a period of five months. He would spend his exile in Egypt.

It was through these meetings that several issues were agreed upon: that the Committee be officially recognised (this would lead to their rebranding); that a board of inquiry be formed to identify those responsible for firing upon the crowd in the Manama souq. More demands were left unsatisfied though. These were calls not to bring police from Iraq, to instead recruit local police, to deport all illegal immigrants and a call for the resignation of Charles Belgrave.

However, in the colonial offices, the British Agency was indeed in the process of bringing over experienced police officers from Iraq, then still a pro-British monarchy. An open secret, the importing of police officers was leaked to the BBC within days. But the British were planning to bring over a bit more than that. According to Abdulrahman Al Bakir, they were in the process of calling in reserves from Iraq, Cyprus and Sharjah to bring order to Bahrain when Bahraini notables intervened and requested that the Ruler Sheikh Salman put an end to the crisis. Sheikh Salman duly handed this responsibility back to the British and asked that they mediate, the baton now passing in full circle but the threat of military intervention apparently over.

But the political situation was still very tense. Though the rebranded National Union Committee called for the strike called following the Manama souq shootings to end, there were many who thought they were not doing enough. Some accused the Committee of acquiescing to the government’s will too easily.

During this time, the government also announced that he would be setting up an Administrative Council, the first of its kind and a precursor to a government cabinet. Four members of the royal family sat on the council alongside three prominent, loyal citizens and Belgrave’s secretary. A fully appointed board, the Committee complained that it was not the democratic institute they had been campaigning for. The government’s official line was that this Administrative Council was a temporarily appointed body and that the institution would be democratised once the crisis had been overcome.

In Cairo, Abdulrahman Al Bakir was not sitting idly by. On 30 March he held a press conference where he set forward the Committee’s grievances and demands to the Arabic press and present ambassadors. These issues included employment within the Bahrain Petroleum Company (BAPCO) – the Saudi Arabian Oil Company paid workers three times more, and no Bahraini had been given a senior job at BAPCO; the civil courts, in which “extraordinary anarchy” reigned; and the deep distrust harboured against the British (‘the imperialists’) and Belgrave, who he insisted once again should leave the country.

Later in Al Bakir’s exile, he would also meet with a diplomat of the British Embassy who was “so impressed by his realism and moderation that he had almost suggested to him that he should go to London and discuss things with Her Majesty’s Government rather than stay here in Cairo.” One wonders how the British government would have acted had such an journey to London occurred.

On the British side, their policy regarding Bahrain would take shape over the next two months. A confidential file from the Commonwealth Relations Office to the Foreign Office written in late April reports that “the United Kingdom Government have decided to adopt a middle-course policy of trying to persuade the Ruler to go a little faster and the reformists a little more slowly along the path of constitutional advance.” The file further adds, in an indictment to the state and royal reaction to the current events, that “the Ruler’s attitude to this reform movement is feudal. He tends to regard even reasonable constitutional demands as tantamount to rebellion and he is encouraged in this by his family.”

If the British found Sheikh Salman’s attitudes and actions frustrating, they certainly weren’t alone. About a month after the Committee’s rebranding as one of National Union and following continued dialogue with the Ruler and the Advisor, the opposition had “begun to despair of cooperation with the present Ruler”, writes Sir Bernard Burrows, Political Resident. Perhaps hinting at the possibility for a coup, the Committee had mentioned to Burrows that they had great hopes for Sheikh Da’ij, one of the Ruler’s brothers, as a more cooperative Ruler. “We naturally refused to listen or to comment on any suggestion of a change,” writes Burrows. However he later adds in the same document that “we had independently come to the view that Da’ij would be one of the better candidates available for succession when the time came.” It seems that British interests lay, if not in an increasingly democratic Bahrain, then at least one in which the social contract between Ruler and Bahrainis was more agreeable with the Bahrainis than it currently was. But their political game was one of a slower and subtler pace than the one being played out between the nationalists and the Ruler and his Advisor.

Ramadan fell squarely on the month of May that year, and the political stituation was still high-strung. The Committee would see some small gains in their regular meetings with the Ruler where, in mid-May, agreement was reached that no member of the ruling family would be appointed to sit on the Health and Education councils – those half-elected councils which had been boycotted by the Committee in February following the appointment of unworthy men and a veto-wielding member of the royal family as chairman. It was agreed also that the Committee would in future be able to elect their own chairman, though this achievement would never be effected. Even if it had been, this achievement was small in any case, as the councils in question were consultative and not legislative. In fact it may have been the Ruler who was the ultimate beneficiary of this agreement. Bernard Burrows notes that “the Ruler is in relatively good position since at the first meeting he made several important concessions, and can therefore claim to have shown goodwill.”

Outside of the lengthy meetings in stuffy governmental offices, the Committee was beginning to lose popular legitimacy. Although strikes had been one of their greatest weapons (their roots as an organisation, after all, lay in the taxi drivers strike of 1954), the Committee was adverse to calling another one as it would be unwelcome both to the merchant class and the farmers, whose produce would be unsold and lost if strike action was to occur just then. There was also the worry that the Administrative Council, appointed after the Manama souq riot, might have been stealing the Committee’s popular base from under their noses. “I understand,” writes Bernard Burrows, “that the Committee of National Union are apprehensive at the number of people who are turning to the Council for help.” He suggests in another despatch that this is perhaps because the Administrative Council was actually effective enough in dealing with local grievances to undermine the Committee’s power as the opposition.

A third issue that may have been present for both the Committee and the Government – the British Agency certainly thought it would be a problem – was that “the more extreme supporters of the Committee, nearly all Shias and from certain villages well-known for their turbulence, may try to force the Committee’s hand, or provoke trouble in some way.”

Bernard Burrows recognised it as a “real risk”, and the reasoning behind this assessment lies in another of his cables from May. Again worrying about the potential extremist or breakaway factions from the Committee, Burrows notes that “in the event of further serious trouble the choice will be between locking them up, as the Ruler will probably wish to do, and strengthening them by giving them additional political responsibility in the hope that they would thereby be enabled to obtain control over the more extreme factions. Action on these lines might well involve a change of Ruler.” No wonder, then, that Sheikh Da’ij and other brothers of the ruler keep popping up in conversations and letters – a succession dispute really seemed to lurk around the corner. 

It was under such circumstances of a “real risk” that the British brought a military company over during Ramadan (May), expecting something to kick off following the Eid al-Fitr celebrations at the end of the holy month. Though nothing in number quite like the reserves Abdulrahman Al Bakir claimed were arranged to enter Bahrain back in March, but it shows clearly the British fear, perhaps justified, that the uneasy peace would finally be broken (it is unclear how many soldiers were brought in: Bernard Burrows reports that one company entered Bahrain for a brief period, with another company in Aden, Yemen ready to fly out to Bahrain, but the BBC report, as embedded above and the exact date of which is unknown, states that two companies were stationed in Bahrain after March, while Al Bakir suggests that more than two were intended to have been brought in).

The fear of greater trouble in Bahrain was only further inflamed by the Report of the Committee of Enquiry into police misconduct in the Manama souq, which would be released in early June. Burrows must have read an early copy of the report, as he predicted in late May that it would “add fuel to the flames of Shia discontent”. The report would be released on 8 June and prove to be disappointment but, fortunately, the military contingent was never needed and most (but not all) of the soldiers were returned to the bases they had come from, according to Burrows account.

It is easy to see how the report would spark more anger amongst the Bahraini crowd. Judge Haines, the chief of the enquiry, found that “the circumstances were not such as to justify the opening of fire by the police”, that it was “grossly excessive” although most of it had been “unaimed and directed into the air” and that none of the Police Inspectors present at the Manama municipality where the shootings had occurred had given the order to fire.

Yet despite this succinct explanation of police misconduct, the report states that “most of the policemen did not have an intent to do grievous bodily harm or to kill” and that they “did not aim their rifles at any person.” Despite this implicit acknowledgement of manslaughter on the part of the police, Haines recommended that “no criminal proceedings be commenced against the policemen”. However, individuals in the crowd who threw stones at the police were “liable to criminal prosecution”, despite the fact that “no police were injured”.

Whatever might have been the public opinion on the street is obscure, as the British sources fail to mention it, but one can easily imagine the anger and frustration the average Bahraini must have felt when he heard that the stone-throwers of Manama would be punished more severely than the killers – accidental or otherwise – of the police force. In July, the Committee published their own response to the Haines enquiry. These were their conclusions:

  1. The Government neglected the reorganisation of the police force and failed to supervise properly the incidents of July 1st, 1954 (the police fort shootings) and March 11th, 1956, for which it must take full legal responsibility.
  2. The standards of the police force have declined.
  3. The Committee of Enquiry was inefficient.
  4. Judge Haines’ comments on the decision of the Committee of Enquiry’s investigations on the incident of March 11th, 1956, do not appear to be impartial.
  5. The Comments of the Government on the decision taken by the Committee of Enquiry are disappointing, in view of the necessity, which has now become urgent, for the reform of the Government machine, as befits a noble people, after recurrent, unjustifiable massacres.

Back in the meetings between the Committee and the Government, talks were falling apart. The final meeting between the parties were meant to be held on 10 June, but for reasons the sources do not mention, the Committee chose to pull out of the discussion, stating that they would submit a detailed memorandum to Sheikh Salman instead. The Government jumped on the opportunity and declared that the Committee had shut the doors to discussion which, so far as they were concerned, were still open. Discussions would never continue, and the Government never missed an opportunity to pin the blame on the Committee for this. Despite some strengthening of the Government’s position, Sheikh Salman and Charles Belgrave still remained in an insecure position. Belgrave had up to this point ignored all calls to leave the country and, on Sheikh Salman’s part, he was paranoid that the British were supporting this rebellion. In July he wrote to Selwyn Lloyd, the British Foreign Secretary.

This movement against our Government derives its strength from the general belief that it is supported by Britain and the British Authorities in Bahrain have at no time made it clearly known to the public that the movement does not have their support. […] Is it the wish of the British Government that we should allow the Committee to take over our authority?  

Sheikh Salman’s frustration with the British is further apparent when he mentions in the same letter that “the members of the Committee of National Union are always in communication with the British Authorities in Bahrain and are fully informed of all that takes place between us and the British Authorities – sometimes the British Government policy regarding local affairs is made known to the Committee before it is made known to us.”

Selwyn Lloyd’s reply to Sheikh Salman is of interest, as the files in the National Archive include both his draft and the finalised reply. “Your Highness’s Police have been regrettably unable to repress hostile political demonstrations”, he writes, “Your Highness would be well advised to make such administrative reforms as appear justifiable.”

The draft has the words ‘repress’ and ‘reforms’ crossed out by one Selwyn Lloyd’s secretaries and replaced with ‘prevent’ and ‘changes’ respectively. The finalised letter, sent to Sheikh Salman, included these changes. The letter that reached Sheikh Salman was on the whole more diplomatic. “Political movements of the kind now active in Bahrain appear sooner or later in almost all communities. The appearance of this movement in Bahrain bears witness to the advances which the people of Bahrain have made under the guidance of the Al-Khalifah.”

Perhaps Selwyn Lloyd was the type to view opposition groups in the colonial world as ‘hostile’, or perhaps he still had in mind his short visit in Bahrain earlier that year, when the  Muharraq crowd attacked his procession of cars leaving the airport. In any case, the letter shows the official middle-course policy of the British government once again and their attempts to mediate the gap between the Sheikh and the opposition. In this case mediation appears in their suggestion that the Committee is a product of the cultural advancements the Al Khalifa family has brought to Bahrain.

The issues within Bahrain lay not as much with the Sheikh as they did, ultimately, with Charles Belgrave, the Advisor. Abdulaziz al Shemlan, one of the leading members of the Committee, told the British Residency in one instance that he would have difficulty persuading people to call off strike action should the Committee call for it because of how strongly they felt Belgrave was blocking reforms. The Bahrainis wanted him to leave.

And the Advisor was also detrimental to the British. Mr Gault, the British Agent, explains in one telegram that “far from Belgrave’s going being a blow to British influence in this area, his remaining becomes a far greater liability to us.” It is this antagonism to Belgrave which linked the British and the Committee together, not in any official form of an alliance, but the British were certainly sympathetic to the cause of the Committee as long as Belgrave stood in the forefront of the Bahraini administration.

So if it was only Belgrave which united the British and the Bahraini nationalists, then the tenuous link between the two would be broken irreparably when, on 11 August, Charles Belgrave formally announced his resignation to his friend and employer Sheikh Salman. Belgrave, it was agreed, would remain in Bahrain into the following year to tie up any loose ends. A victory cry could undoubtedbly have been heard from the Committee’s headquarters.

I was now sixty-one years old and had served the Shaikh and his father for thirty years, and Marjorie and I had been considering for some time when we should leave Bahrain. I had told the Shaikh that iwas about time that I retired, but he urged me to stay on for a while, so I suggested to him that I should leave in the autumn of 1957. He knew that the British authorities would like me to leave as soon as possible, fearing that my presence might provoke more active aggression from The COmmittee. He deeply resented having his hand force, but the pressure from the British was sstrong, and in August he was obliged to make public the fact that I was retiring

Charles Belgrave, Personal Column

One gets the impression that Belgrave was by now a tired old man. He had lost the great energy that he had brought with him to Bahrain back in the spring of 1926. Retirement must have been on his mind even before the cries for resignation grew to be as loud as they were in the summer of ’56. However he had dreamt to spend his final years in Bahrain, they were dreams undoubtedly cut short by the united calls by the British and the nationalists to leave. “Old man, this,” one Bahraini told the BBC in broken English, “Go to home.” And now, finally, he was.

But this is where the mutual interests of the Committee and the British ended. Two weeks before Belgrave announced his retirement, the President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalised the Suez Canal, itself previously under British control. The relationship between Egypt, Britain and the United States, already tenuous, was very quickly deteriorating and war was on the horizon. In Bahrain, the National Union Committee came out in staunch defence of Nasser, himself the embodiment of Arab nationalism. The Committee adopted an openly anti-British tone in the months that followed, and it would prove to be their undoing.

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

About alialjamri

Young journalist, blogger, trying to make sense of the world we live in.
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2 Responses to Year of the Nationalists, Part 2: National Union

  1. Pingback: Year of the Nationalists, Part 1: Prelude to Crisis | Islander's Oasis

  2. Pingback: Year of the Nationalists: the Suez Crisis | Islander's Oasis

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