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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Year of the Nationalists, Part 1: Prelude to Crisis

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. Continue reading

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“They Wanted Me Dead.” The Trials of a Tortured Doctor

In March 2011, Bahrain faced a humanitarian crisis when the largest public hospital came under military control. Tens of doctors and hospital staff were detained and tortured in the gravest humanitarian crisis of the 2011 uprising. Dr Nader Dawani is a consultant paediatrician and neonatologist who was imprisoned between April and September 2011.

"We were in dark, dark days."

“We were in dark, dark days.”

Salmaniyya hospital had been under the control of the army. It was more militarised than the actual military hospital. I knew that several doctors had been arrested before me, though no one knew where they’d been taken. Our bosses couldn’t guarantee us safe passage in and out of the hospital, so I stayed at home.

It was the middle of the night on April 1st. Over 40 people entered my house with machine guns, hand guns, all sorts of weapons. Some wore masks, some didn’t, some in army uniforms, some just in normal clothes. They assaulted my home. And they wanted me.

They took me in my car, sat me in the back with one of them and another one driving. They swore at me and began beating me until we arrived at a place where they blindfolded and cuffed me. It seemed to be a hospital. Continue reading

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Review: After the Sheikhs, Christopher Davidson

Christopher Davidson does not shy from controversy. “Most of these regimes – at least in their present form – will be gone within the next two to five years” he contends on the very first page. A bold statement to be sure, but Davidson’s words have more weight to them than most who would dare to make this remark. He’s the author of several books on the Gulf including The United Arab Emirates: A Study in Survival, Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success and The Persian Gulf and Pacific Asia: From Indifference to Interdependence. He’s also a United Nations expert on the politics and developments of the Gulf monarchies and currently a reader in Government and International Affairs at Durham University.

All this to say that Davidson’s detailed analysis of the Gulf monarchies in his latest book, After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies, is not one to be ignored. As a map charting the development of the monarchies in recent decades and their future, it is unmatched. The text begins with an explanation of the formation of the six states (Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar) and their development in the 20th century before Explaining Survival. This header is split in two, with one chapter explaining domestic factors and another explaining external factors. Continue reading

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