Old Greybeard of Bahrain

From the Archives is a blog series about Bahrain and its history. The stories told are drawn primarily from the records, documents, correspondences kept at the British National Archives and India Office archives.

This week, a smaller piece on the 1920s, with more to follow as a I read through the period. Enjoy this vignette.


The first eighty years of the Al Khalifa dynasty’s rule in Bahrain was chaotic and messy, a non-stop war. Mainland enemies threatened to invade the islands and take it from the Al Khalifa, who had themselves only wrestled it from the Persians in 1783. Once the dynasty’s lordship over the islands was finally, begrudgingly accepted by other rulers and states, it was not long before the fighting turned inwards, as it broke out between the ambitious brothers and cousins of the Sheikhly family.

That warring ended in 1869 after the latest bout of fratricide saw the murder of the latest Ruler, Ali bin Khalifa, at the hands of his brother and cousin. The British Political Agent intervened by enforcing a strict law of primogeniture (i.e., eldest son inherits) and propping up Isa, the young and orphaned son of the murdered Ali, as Ruler.

And Isa bin Ali ruled uncontested. Fifty-four years on though and the regime had reached an impasse. The British had been pressing Sheikh Isa to instigate reforms for a year and a half now: in late 1921, a deputation of Shia villagers handed the Political Agent, Major Daly, a petition demanding that something be done about the tyrannical feudal laws. Major Daly had duly sent it on to his superior, the Political Resident of the Gulf, Lieutenant-Colonel Trevor. Reform was necessary, it was decided by the British, but it would be far cleaner if the Bahrainis did it themselves. Together they had been trying to get a home-grown reform movement going. Continue reading

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Post Script & Bibliography

I didn’t intend it to be this long. I started the blog in May and just as I was getting into it, was hit by the pressure of the last weeks of university. When I was freed up, I wanted to jump straight in with something I had the material for, and I have a wealth of notes on 1956. It seemed natural to write the story and I thought I could fit it all into a single post at the time. Then I realised that I couldn’t talk about 1956 at all until I covered 1952-through-55, and one post became two, then three – it finally ended at five, but a sixth did threaten to be written.

It’s been interesting to write in ways in which I did not expect in the first week of June, when I mashed the first one out – perhaps that’s why I feel compelled to write this post script. The first post was clunky and not my best work: stick in quotes, prop them up with exposition and call it a day. From Part 2 onwards, the narrative starts to take a much more natural feel, no doubt helped by the fact that I had more contemporary sources to draw on now as well as the influence of Marc Morris, whose The Norman Conquest I was reading at the time. Part 3’s narrative came just as easily, but it was there that I reached a hitch. Once the story got to November 1956, I was stuck for information. It took me a month to go back to the archives and satisfy myself that the story was not available there – a story which in itself is interesting in its own right.

And now, with Part 5 it comes to a satisfactory close – all the more so as I managed to tie it back to the beginning of Part 1. My writing style and ability has developed more than I would have guessed it would, as has my understanding of planning. I certainly don’t intend to write another muti-part series again without making sure I’ve got all the necessary information beforehand first.

With all that said, it’s time to start planning out the next blog.


The National Archives (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO) FO 371/120544 Internal Political Situation in Bahrain

TNA: PRO FO 371/120545-49 Internal Political Situation in Bahrain

TNA: PRO FO 371/126893-95 Internal Political Situation in Bahrain

TNA: PRO FO 1016/468-70 Bahrain: Internal Political Situation

TNA: PRO FO 1016/551 Internal Political Situation: Bahrain

TNA: PRO FO 8/2180 Internal Political Situation in Bahrain

Papers of Charles Belgrave, 1926-1957

Belgrave, Charles, Personal Column, Librairie Du Liban, Beirut 1972, 1996

Khuri, Fuad, Tribe and State in Bahrain, University of Chicago, 1980

Nakhleh, Emile, Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernising Society, Lexington Books, Plymouth, 1976, 2011

Rogan, Eugene, The Arabs: A History, Allen Lane, London, 2009

Al Wasat News, Important Figures in the Times of the Committee, 14/10/2004 (link) accessed 18/07/2013

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Year of the Nationalists, Part 5: Uncomfortable Peace

From the Archives is a blog series about Bahrain and its history. The stories told are drawn primarily from the documents, notes and correspondences kept at the British National Archives and India Office archives.

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

* * *

Court was held in a small, cramped room. Five men of the National Union Committee stood defending themselves before a special tribunal of three. Only fifteen could fit into the public gallery, such as it was in the makeshift courtroom above Budeya Police Station. The Manama Court, the largest in the country, should have been the set piece of this landmark trial. But it was felt that for “reasons of public order”, this small room above a police station would serve as a better courtroom.

The trial took place on 22 and 23 December, a month and a half following anti-imperialist riots and the arrests of the Committee leaders. The men on trial were Abdulrahman Al Bakir, the Secretary; Abdelaziz Shemlan, the Acting Secretary; Abd Ali Alaywat, the Representative of Country Districts; Ibrahim Fakhro, the Treasurer; and Ibrahim bin Musa, Representative in the Town of Hedd. Against them stood three judges of the ruling family, including the Ruler’s uncle Shaikh Abdullah bin Isa and Shaikh Daij, his brother.

Abdulrahman Al Bakir spoke alone for all the defendants. He urged that the trial be moved to the Manama Court, where such trials were meant to be heard. To have it in Budeya, he claimed, was to make it a secret trial – a claim the Al Khalifa spokesmen no doubt rebutted by pointing out the fifteen men seated in the makeshift public gallery. The government claimed that Budeya police station had been chosen because they did not want public order to break, to which Al Bakir asserted that not only did the government have the necessary forces to keep order, but that he would also personally guarantee that there were no disturbances. The tribunal ignored him. Continue reading

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Year of the Nationalists, Part 4: The Hidden Intervention

From the Archives is a blog series about Bahrain and its history. The stories told are drawn primarily from the documents, notes and correspondences kept at the British National Archives and India Office archives.

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

* * *

It had already been a historic year for Bahrain. The National Union Committee (henceforth “The Committee”) had been officially recognised in March by the Ruler, Sheikh Salman, making them the first legal political party in Bahrain and the Gulf region. That same month, the bungling police brutally fired on an angry crowd, killing many and heightening the tension in the country. The year also saw the first elections of any importance for the Health and Education councils. But this minor process of democratisation was ruined when at the last moment the ruling family selected a certain Shaikh Abdullah to be head of both councils, with veto powers. The Committee boycotted the councils and it was the last attempt at democracy until independence. 1956 also saw the inflammatory rise of anti-British and anti-colonial demands by the opposition: Selwyn Lloyd, the British Foreign Secretary, was attacked by a mob; and the demands that Charles Belgrave, the autocratic Adviser, should leave grew louder and louder.

And then the Suez Crisis happened. Nasser, Egypt’s president, nationalised the Suez Canal to help fund his infrastructure projects. In retaliation, Britain and France, who had owned the Canal, concocted a mad plan. On 29 October they made their move when Israel, their partner in this endeavour, invaded the Sinai Peninsula. Britain and France intervened as a peace keeping duo with a secret mission: to take back the Suez Canal.

The Arab world was in an uproar and general strikes were held across the Middle East and North Africa. In Bahrain, the protest marches would turn violent and anti-British rioting ran wild. In the ensuing chaos, the leaders of the Committee were arrested and quiet was restored to the country. It was British military intervention which allowed such a peace to return.

The story is there, but something is missing. Exactly what happened in November 1956? We know the general outline, as summarised above. But the British national archives are amazingly sparse about it. As I will explain, a lot of information is just not there, and its absence is striking. My main source for these articles has always been the documents and correspondences of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office kept in the National Archives in Kew, London. In particular I’ve been drawing on a series of six files, “Internal Political Situation in Bahrain”, series code FO 371/120544 through to FO 371/120549. I’ve referred to them extensively in telling the story of the “Year of the Nationalists”.

Continue reading

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A Chasm without Karama

From the Archives is a blog series about Bahrain and its history. The stories told are drawn primarily from the documents, notes and correspondences kept at the British National Archives and India Office archives.

* * *

December 21, 1921 was a momentous, now forgotten day. On that day a large deputation of Shia Bahrainis marched to the offices of the British Political Agency and there presented a petition to the Agent, Major Daly. Daly, the most senior British colonial official on the island, was also pretty new to the job. He’d been around for no more than a year, but it seems that what he saw, and what was said to him, affected him. Much of what he did in his years as Political Agent would be shaped by the petition handed to him at the start of his tenure.

The Bahrainis had a simple demand: that the British protect them from their overlords, who had made their lives unbearable. Major Daly dutifully sent it onwards to his superior in Bushire (today the town of Bushehr along the Iranian coast), the Political Resident – or as the Bahrainis called him, the “Chief of the Gulf”. The translation of this desperate petition survives in the documents of the India Office:

Praise be to God who had made Kings as spacious shadows to which the refugees from heat take refuge and which is the resort of the helpless at the time of calamities, and who made their justice a cause of bliss. If a King acts cruelly times change, and any wise man should take lesson of the conduct of his predecessor. Look at the Tasm, Faroahs and Tobba (sic) of whom there is no trace, and look how justice lasts long. The British Government (for instance) has not lost her name and her honour does not decrease. God has blessed His creatures by strengthening that Government and the talk of that Government’s justice is prevalent. Her justice has superseded that of Anawsherawan (sic). The people have seen the justice of the late Queen Victoria who would administer justice to an oppressed even against herself in order to safeguard the interests of her subjects and her honour. After her came the Great King Edward and after him the present King George whose justice has spread over all the world. Continue reading

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I have to apologies as there is no new Year of the Nationalists, as I said there would be today. A serious issue has come up regarding my research into the closing months of 1956. Particularly, large scale demonstrations against the Anglo-French intervention in Egypt led to British intervention in Bahrain and the arrests of multiple members of the National Union Committee. While I have notes about everything after these arrests, I can’t find any contemporary documents relating to these important November events – without which I’m afraid I can’t do the story justice. So it is that I’m delaying the post by a week while I rush back to the archives and try to find this segment of the story that’s remained hidden from me.

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Foreign Affairs Committee hears witnesses on UK’s relations with Saudi and Bahrain

The sixth and final session of the Foreign Affair’s Committee’s on the UK’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain was held today.

The first witness in this session was Dr Andrew Murrison MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Security Strategy. He was questioned as to the morality of the UK-Saudi Arabian relationship in relation to the fact that Saudi Arabia ranks as one of the top countries for concern regarding human rights violations. Asked if defence sales were being used as a bargaining chip, Dr Murrison replied that they were not and that they made up an important part of British-Saudi Arabian defence arrangements. Continue reading

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الاستشاري البحريني الدكتور نادر دواني يروي محنته في الاعتقال: كانوا عازمين على قتلي

في اوقات كثيرة من الضرب الذي كانوا يضربوني كنت اغيب عن وعيي

في اوقات كثيرة من الضرب الذي كانوا يضربوني كنت اغيب عن وعيي

أجرى اللقاء: علي الجمري (يونيو 2013)

في مارس 2011، واجهت البحرين أزمة في مجمع السلمانية الطبي، اذ اعتقل عشرات من الأطباء والعاملين في المستشفى الذين تعرضوا للتعذيب في أخطر أزمة إنسانية بعد اندلاع انتفاضة العام 2011. الدكتور نادر دواني هو استشاري طب الأطفال وحديثي الولادة، وقد اعتقل وعذب في الفترة بين أبريل وسبتمبر 2011، وكان معه هذا اللقاء الخاص:

 متى اعتقلت، واين كنت انذاك؟ 

في فجر يوم الجمعة 1 أبريل 2011 أحاط رجال أمن كثيرون جدا منزلي في سار.لم اقدر ان احسبهم، أحاطوا بيتنا، وامتلأ المكان بسيارات حول السور الخارجي. أكثر من 40 شخص دخلوا علينا البيت بالاسلحة الرشاشة وبالمسدسات.بعضهم كان مقنعا، آخرون من دون قناع، بعضهم كان لابسا بدلات الجيش، بعضهم كان لابسا بدلات بلون اسود، ألوان مختلفة من البدلات والأقنعة و بعضهم كان باللباس المدني. جميعهم هجموا على البيت يريدون اعتقالي.

هل كانت لديهم مذكرة اعتقال او تفتيش؟

لم تكن لديهم أي مذكرة للتفتيش او الاعتقال، ومن ثم اخذوني بسيارتي وامروني بالجلوس في الخلف مع أحدهم، بينما كان شخص اخر يقود سيارتي.  ومباشرة منذ دخولي في السيارة بدأ من كان بجنبي يضربني ويشتمني. ومن ثم وضعوا على رأسي غطاء. توقفت السيارة واخرجوني الى مكان قالوا انه للفحص الطبي. 

قبل ذلك، انزلوني في مكان وجعلوني واقف معصوب العينين ومقيد اليدين للخلف وفي كل دقيقة وأخرى يمر أحدهم بالقرب مني ويشتمني ويضربني إما على رأسي أو ظهري أو يركلني في رجلي. استمر ذلك الى ما بعد أذان الصبح حتى سمعت صوت آهات اثنين من الأخوة وهم د. عبد الخالق العريبي والسيد مرهون الوداعي وكان صراخهما بسبب التعذيب.

ماذا حدث لك عندما اخذوك للفحص الطبي؟

كانت هناك ممرضة،  سألتني اذا كانت لدي مشاكل طبية، وشرحت لها ان لدي السكري والضغط. قامت بقياس ضغط الدم، وبينما كانت تسألني وتفحصني كان هناك من يضربني. اجلسوني على الكرسي من أجل ان يقيسوا الضغط، وفي الوقت ذاته كانوا يضربونني على رأسي ويركلونني. كل ذلك وأنا معصب العينين ومقيد اليدين للإمام.

سألوني عن الادوية التي يجب ان أتناولها، واخبرتهم بها، فأحضروها في كيس، نقلوني الى مكان للتعذيب،  وبقيت لمدة عشرة ايام من دون ان يسمحوا لي بتناول الدواء. كانوا عازمين على قتلي. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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