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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British Parliamentary Committee meets Bahrain activists

The British parliamentary foreign affairs committee met with Bahraini activists to discuss the relationship of the two countries. The committee questioned whether Britain has done enough as a friend of Bahrain to help move reform along or not.

Ali Al-Aswad, representing the political society Al Wefaq, said that “the UK’s reputation has been damaged in Bahrain by their response to [the crisis].” Of particular concern is the cold attitude of the British ambassador Iain Lindsay to human rights activists. Maryam Al Khawaja, representative for the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, pointed out that “human rights activists have a lot of difficulty meeting the British embassy. I have colleagues who have been told flat out by the ambassador that he will not meet with them.”

And the embassy’s hostility towards human rights activists doesn’t end there. Al Khawaja said told the committee that “When Human Rights Watch put out a report about there being no progress and reform in Bahrain, the ambassador said that they was exaggerating amongst other things. When they responded to that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office here came out in support of the statement by their ambassador, and then afterwards had a different statement. But that is very telling of the situation on the ground when the British ambassador is attacking an international organisation that is documenting violations on the ground.”

Al Aswad and Al Khawaja urged parliament to take a more public approach at criticising Bahrain. Al Aswad said, “If the British regime says that the Bahraini regime is their ally, it’s a greenlight for Bahrain to abuse the people more. What is more effect is the public statements … we need more public statements from Britain.”

The parliamentary committee meeting is available to watch on here. It also heard statements by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and human rights lawyer Nigel Rodley, who participated in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, which collected data on human rights abuses in 2011 and put forward recommendations to resolve issues.

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From the Archives: Goodbye Pax Britannica and Onwards to Independence

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

GG Arthur

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. Continue reading

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Parliamentary Committee on British relations with Saudi and Bahrain held

The UK Foreign Affairs Committee met today (14 May 2013) with Bahraini activists Maryam Al-Khawaja (Bahrain Centre for Human Rights), Ali Al-Aswad (Al Wefaq representative) and Sir Nigel Rodley (participant lawyer involved in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry). Representatives of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were also present.

The video of the full meeting can be viewed here.

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British military to deploy in Arab Gulf states

A report by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), published April 28, has laid bare the renewed British military interests in the Gulf. It states that the UK intends to build a small but ‘smart’ presence in region with military facilities and defence agreements “for forces that aim to be more adaptable and agile as they face the post-Afghanistan years from 2014”.

Though they do not intend to have an”imperial-style” presence, the scale of this military deployment is reportedly ‘significant’. In particular, Dubai is marked for the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a long-term overseas base and the Royal Navy is ‘taking a more active interest’ in Bahrain. Senior army personnel are also keen to build strong links with Oman and Qatar as well.

The article states that “this would greatly enhance our ability to support allies as they contain and deter threats and, with our naval presence in Bahrain, air elements in the UAE and Qatar, and traditional but potentially enhanced roles in Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, would make us a regional ally across the spectrum”.

Two years on from the Arab Spring, which did not see the toppling of any Gulf governments as it did in North Africa, this military deployment may be seen by the British government as more tacit support of authoritarian states that have been accused of numerous human rights violations by many non-governmental organisations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The report notes that these closer political and military ties between the UK and Arab Gulf states is “without a doubt” controversial. It also acknowledges that the UK government “may prefer not to plunge into a public debate about it.”

The report’s information adds more context to Bahraini King Hamad’s words on Sunday 12th May. Speaking at the Royal Windsor Horse Show, King Hamad recalled his father Emir Isa’s lamentation of the British departure following the island nation’s declaration of independence in 1971: “Why? No one asked you to go!” Further cementing the long relationship the UK and Britain have enjoyed, he stated that he is “seeking to expand the British presence in our country to mutual advantage.”

The report, A Return to East of Suez? UK Military Deployment to the Gulf, can be found online here.

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King Hamad talks the British-Bahraini relationship [ENGLISH]

A speech held after horse races in England on Sunday 12 May which King Hamad was present for. It’s an interesting talk harkening back to the long relationship Bahrain and Britain have enjoyed. Propaganda, surely, but an interesting speech. Certainly, there are some interesting points he seems to suggest:

On Britain’s withdrawal from the gulf – a unilateral decision – which my father said: “Why? No one asked you to go!” In fact, for all practical and strategic purposes, the British presence has not changed and it remains such that we believe we shall never be without it.


What exactly is King Hamad saying here? Is he suggesting that Bahrain is still directly under the influence of Britain? Again he mentions:

Especially in the field of Defence, where we are each seeking to expand the British presence in our country to mutual advantage.  To that end, we signed a new defence-cooperation accord in October last year.


Then there is:

At the same time there are some 9000 permanent British residents in Bahrain, making a major contribution to the prosperity of the kingdom, as they have always done. Indeed, I am proud to say that by due legal process, we have granted Bahraini nationality to 240 British citizens as they themselves had requested, and whose loyal service had more than justified.


240 British residents have been granted Bahraini nationality. It is a clear sign of the friendly relations between Britain and Bahrain.

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Week’s Briefing 13 May 2013

Al-Wefaq Participates in London Conference


Note: The conference, held by the Next Century Foundation, was set to include many pro-state and state-official panellists including a few members of the royal family. A campaign against it in the Bahraini paper Al Watan calling the conference a Zionist affair saw almost all pro-state participants pull out of the conference.

UK company’s spyware ‘used against Bahraini activist’, court papers claim.


‘Israel opens diplomatic mission in unnamed Gulf state’


Escape from Bahrain: Ali Abdulemam Is Free


Bahrain Online founder Ali Abdulemam breaks silence after escape to UK


Blogfather Mahmood Al-Yousif wins International Media Award in ‘Outstanding Contribution to New Media’
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Statement of Purpose

This blog is a place for my thoughts and a place from which I hope to share Bahrain and the surrounding region with readers. To that end, I’m writing this statement for those curious of what’s to come and for myself, to keep my own objectives fresh in my mind. The site will be updated 3 times a week – Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays:

Monday: Week’s Briefing. An overview of the news of the last week regarding Bahrain especially and the Gulf region generally.

Thursday: From the Archives, political and social history/stories drawn from the British national archives, British library and various other sources.

Sunday: The Review. Each week I’ll review a book regarding the Arab/Islamic world, history and politics.

The first ‘real’ post will be tomorrow with the first of what I hope to be very many weekly briefings. Stay tuned.

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