Bahrain’s struggle and Britain’s responsibility

Demonstrators in Sitra, Bahrain 2011

By Steve Bell

In February 2011, the people of Bahrain rose up to demand the end of the royal family’s dictatorship. Inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the youthful opposition called for a day of rage. February 14th was chosen because it marked the tenth anniversary of the National Action Charter when King Hamad bin ‘Isa Al Khalifah accepted the opposition demands for a parliamentary system, and the ninth anniversary of the King overturning this by amending the constitution to reduce parliament to a consultative body.

The day of rage was to demand the end of the regime and establishment of popular rule.

“14 February 2011, the Day of Rage, arrived. Protests began very early that morning across several villages with hundreds of citizens participating. They were met with tear gas and birdshot. By the evening, the protests had spread into the capital Manama and its suburbs. By nightfall, news and images of the first death emerged: ‘Ali ‘Abdulhadi Mushayma’, 21 years old, shot in the back with birdshot. The next day, during his funeral, another participant, Fadhel al-Matruk, was again shot in the back. The funerals turned into massive protests and mourners, having just buried Mushayma’ in the village of Al-Daih, turned their sights to the Pearl Roundabout that happened to be just one kilometre away. A mixture of good timing, luck (given the location of funeral), and the imaginings posted earlier on Bahrain Online came together to unite people in an unplanned march towards the Pearl Roundabout. As they marched, news spread and others spontaneously left their cars to join in. Approaching the Roundabout, or al-dawar, as it later became known, the crowd chanted ‘silmiyya, silmiyya’ (peaceful, peaceful) and ‘the people and the land are furious, our demand is a contractual constitution (dustur ‘aqdi)’. (1)

An encampment was created at the Roundabout. Security forces attacked protests, four people were killed three days after the initial protest. Despite the repression, the camp was maintained and expanded. Much like the Egyptian experience in Tahrir Square, the camp became a focus for protest, debate, education, organisation and artistry.

The key issues included: “…an accountable executive (elected prime minister and cabinet), a fully empowered legislature, equal representation (one person one vote), fair distribution of wealth, an end to anti-Shi’a discrimination, an end to political naturalisation, and an end to corruption.” (2)

The mobilisation was proportionately one of the largest risings in modern history. Bahrain’s population in 2011 was 1.2 million. Bahrain, like other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states has a high proportion of an expatriate population – 51%. So the citizens’ body that underlay the rising was just under 600,000. (3) Yet over 100,000 took part in the largest actions of the rising. A proportionately comparable action in Britain would see over eleven million on the streets.

Obviously this was dangerous for the Al-Khalifa family dictatorship. But it was also perceived as a threat by the other monarchical regimes in the GCC. In particular, the Saudi and Emirati regimes were already intervening across the Arab world to limit the progress of the “Spring”. In Bahrain they were able to intervene directly in defense of the Khalifa regime.

On March 14th, under the rubric of the GCC Peninsular Shield Forces, Military personnel drove across the causeway bridge linking Bahrain to Saudi Arabia. These forces arrived in military vehicles purchased from Britain. Their sole purpose being to save the regime from the justice of Bahrain’s people.

The government, appointees of the royal family, introduced the State of National Safety.

“This law, which was passed by decree and not subject to ratification by parliament, allowed the authorities broader scope in dealing with dissent without democratic oversight… This decision not only lacked any binding consultation between the state and society but also between the ruling family and society. Unsurprisingly, the law was passed the day after 2,000 Saudi soldiers from the Peninsula Shield entered Bahrain to ‘defend Bahrain as a bulwark against perceived Iranian expansionism’.” (4)

This allowed the repression to have a ‘legal’ character. Twenty-one opposition leaders were tried and given sentences ranging from five to twenty-five years for peaceful political activity, after being subjected to torture. 3,000 people were arrested under the new law. The regime demolished the Pearl Roundabout, symbolising, it hoped, the destruction of the popular movement. Yet, for the past twelve years, the Bahraini people have refused to abandon their leaders or give up the struggle for their freedom.

Britain’s involvement in Bahrain

The British government maintains close and warm ties to the dictatorship in Bahrain. The reasons for this lie in the history of the British Empire, and the ambitions of the “Empire2.0/Global Britain” enthusiasts who dominate the British government and parliament today.

Bahrain’s modern fate had been to be a hinge in the struggles of Europe’s mercantile and capitalist powers for dominance in trade in the growing world market. From the Portuguese mercantile power to the end of British Empire, Bahrain figured as a key port.

“…the ‘grand imperial design’ was stabilized, established on the basis that whoever wanted control over world trade in the Indian Ocean must gain control over three straits which dominate it: (a) The Straits of Malacca, leading eastward toward China and the East Indies (b) The Strait of Hormuz, leading to the Arab Gulf and Persia on the one hand, and the Mesopotamian Valley on the other (c) The Bab el-Mandeb Straits (i.e.,Aden), leading to the Red Sea and from there to Egypt and the Levant.” (5)

In this arena, the contentions of the European powers were finally resolved in favour of Britain by the end of the eighteenth century. The British state then embarked upon a process of consolidation in domination of the Gulf. In 1820 the powerful naval forces of the Qasimi tribal confederacy were finally defeated. The major sheikhs in the region capitulated, including Al-Khalifah in Bahrain, agreements were signed with the British.

“…known as the General Treaty of Peace: each sheikh bound himself to abstain from ‘piracy’ on land and at sea. By the same token, Britain made it clear that it had no territorial or political ambitions in the area, and that it would not interfere in local affairs. The General Treaty of Peace constituted the genesis of the Gulf states as separate political units: and of their sheikhs as independent rulers, for that is how they were reflected in their new relationship with Britain. The Gulf states had thereby entered into ‘treaty relations’ with Britain.

The extent of these separate political units – and consequently how far the authority of their rulers extended – was not considered until over a hundred years later when the oil companies became interested in the region. In the meantime, British interest focused on the coastal areas because of the sea route between Britain and India.” (6)

The expansion of British capitalism and its Empire required a stronger lock upon the region, in line with more complex British economic and political interests.

“The Gulf coast was integrated further into the sphere of British informal empire in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Anglo-Persian war of 1856-7 and the Indian Mutiny of 1857 consolidated the British military presence in southern Iran. The fear of an Ottoman occupation of Bahrain, which by then had become the basis of British commercial operations in the Gulf, prompted the Government of India to stipulate exclusive agreements with Gulf rulers. The first was signed with Bahrain in 1880, followed by what became known as the Trucial States in 1892, including Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the al-Qasimi strongholds. Kuwait and Qatar entered treaty negotiations in 1899 and 1916 respectively. The newly acquired control over the external relations of the Gulf principalities coincided with a new phase of British imperial expansion in the Ottoman Middle East, culminating in the military occupation of Egypt in 1882. The new global era of ‘steam and steel’ …transformed the Gulf into a maritime station for British shipping to and from India.” (7)

Changing relations between the principalities were not confined to Britain’s greater control of their external relations. Now it became a matter of supervision over the internal developments, least any instability might bring less compliant domestic forces to power.

“By the early twentieth century, then, Britain had obtained a position of dominance in the Gulf which was to last formally until 1971. Although at first its main interest in the region had been commercial, this was eventually supplanted by a policy whose objectives were purely political. Its early dealings with the rulers of the Gulf states had been undertaken by the British government of Bombay. After 1873, responsibility for Gulf affairs was transferred to the British government of India. The region was administered locally through a Political Resident who was stationed at Bushire in southern Iran until 1946, when his headquarters were moved to Bahrain. Subordinate to him were Political Agents who at different times were stationed in Kuwait, Bahrain, Sharjah and Muscat. After India became independent in 1947, the British government of India was dissolved. Thereafter, responsibility for Gulf affairs was assumed by the Foreign Office in London. The system of Political Resident and Agents remained in force until 1971 when treaty relations were terminated.” (8)

The role of the British political Agent in Bahrain, and elsewhere, was of great significance. The regime relied upon the British for protection, and in consequence deferred to British interests. Where the ruler failed to comply, they faced losing power. For example, in 1923 Shaikh ‘Isa failed to handle communal clashes in the manner to Britain’s liking. Two British military vessels arrived carrying the acting Gulf Political Resident Major Knox. He forcibly deposed ‘Isa and installed his son, Hamad as Shaikh.

The rise of Arab nationalism, and the general spread of the anti-colonial revolution, meant that direct British control of the Gulf states became increasingly untenable. Indian independence undermined the whole rational for extensive engagement in Gulf affairs. Maintaining Britain’s economic interests in the region was much more simply achieved through the effective functioning of the world market, now under the domination of US imperialism.

Two events in particular broke the back of British domination in the Gulf. Firstly, the national struggle in Iran to secure control of its oil and resources, culminating in the CIA/MI6 coup in 1953 against the elected President Mussadeq. The coup was successful but US involvement broke Britain’s monopoly in Iran, with the Shah becoming one of the pillars of US power in the Gulf and wider region. Secondly, the debacle of the Suez war in 1956 demonstrated the incapacity of Britain for independent initiative, even when in alliance with France and Israel. This marked the definitive achievement of the US as dominant external power in West Asia and North Africa. The debate leading to Britain’s ultimate withdrawal began in the higher reaches of the state.

“Sir Roger Stevens and Sir Michael Wright, British Ambassadors in Tehran and Baghdad respectively, were the principal sceptics. Wright warned that the British role in the Gulf was perceived in the Arab world as “imperialistic” and “anachronistic, while Stevens questioned its whole basis. ‘With the liquidation of our Indian Empire,’ he maintained, ‘the traditional reason for our presence in the Persian Gulf ceased to exist: and our positions there became stations on a road leading nowhere’.” (9)

As usual with British foreign policy, inertia and nostalgia delayed effective action. But rising Arab nationalism became a growing problem, in Bahrain the army was deployed to clear the streets in 1956. In Yemen the armed liberation struggle was fighting the British military occupation to a standstill. Eventually it fell to the Labour government of Harold Wilson to act effectively.

“As early as 1961, a Treasury official had insisted that ‘If we no longer held Aden, the cost of a seaborne defence policy would be very large, and a reappraisal would be necessary.’ The likelihood of such a review ultimately pointing to a British withdrawal from the Gulf was increased by one of Harold Wilson’s first acts, the restriction of defence spending… Defence Secretary Healey recalled: ‘no government should cut a military capability without cutting the political commitment which made that capability necessary’. With such sentiments in mind, the Wilson governments of the 1960s engaged in an almost perpetual reappraisal of Britain’s overseas commitments. The key moment… was the July 1967 decision to withdraw from East of Suez by the mid 1970s, itself the culmination of an ongoing review of Britain’s world role.” (10)

In 1971, Bahrain, along with the other Gulf colonies, achieved its independence. The Sheikh expressed his regret on seeing the British leave. But help was at hand.

“As Pax Britannica formally came to an end in the Gulf, the ruling family became more assertive locally, although British influence continued to play a significant role, particularly in supervising internal policing matters. A new ally appeared for the regime in the shape of the United States of America, which chose the islands to station its navy’s Fifth Fleet. The influence of Sa’udi Arabia also began to loom large on its smaller neighbour. Consequently, the newly independent regime was firmly anchored within the US-Sa’udi alliance in the emerging global order of the Cold War.” (11)

Today and tomorrow – with the people or the autocracy?

The regime after independence was obliged to establish a new political framework which appeared to be a constitutional monarchy. In reality, the regime was determined not to let its power slip. In 1975 it dissolved the parliament, and ever since has acted against the establishment of a popular democracy of the Bahraini people.

Most recently, parliamentary elections were held in November 2022. The main opposition parties, Al Wefaq and Wa’ad, have been banned. Members of previously dissolved parties were banned from standing. Media not aligned to the regime has been banned since 2017. Thirteen opposition leaders, jailed for their role in 2011, remain in prison today – including Hassan Mushaima, Abdulwahab Hussain, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and Dr. Abdel-Jalil al-Singace. The opposition organised an effective boycott of this farce.

Repression continues. Executions of political detainees resumed in 2017, and currently twenty-six remain on death row – some with no evidence other than confessions obtained through torture. There are over 1,200 political prisoners in this tiny country – many denied adequate medical care.

Despite the repression the people continue to mobilise. This year, to mark the twelfth anniversary of the rising there were actions across Bahrain. Popular protests took place in more than twenty towns and cities, lasting more than a week. Inevitably the regime hit back, jailing a number of young protestors.

Nor is this a narrow movement. In recent times the people have mobilised widely against the regime’s arbitrary decision to sign the Abraham Accords with Israel. Equally, the population risked repression to organise street protests on January 26th 2021, against the Saudi/UAE led war and siege of Yemen.

And what has the British government being doing since 2011? The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office report “Human Rights and Democracy” published late 2022, states “Bahrain took positive steps in 2021”, an assessment made regularly in these annual reports. Further we read, “The UK continued to raise our concerns around freedom of expression”, another hardy perennial of these reports. In fact, the British government knows what is going on in Bahrain, but continues to pretend that the regime is undertaking a ‘reform’ of its dictatorship.

Current British policy on Bahrain contains an element of routine – supplying arms and training to security forces, limited trade relations and warm diplomatic relations (especially between the Windsors and the Al Khalifah family). But there is also a new element, utilizing Bahrain as a staging point in support of the US new cold war against China. This involves an historic reversal, British imperialism has definitely returned “East of Suez”.

When the US, under President Obama, commenced its “pivot” to Asia the ruling class in Britain was determined to fulfill its role as sub-contractor to the US empire. So in the “Global Britain” documents, published by the government in 2018, we read: “…our long term objective is to see the Middle East return to stability… Central to this will be maintaining strong relationships with stable countries in the region, particularly in the Gulf.”

To match this rhetoric, bases for the Royal Navy have been established in Bahrain and Oman. Alongside this, the “Declassified” website revealed that the UK has permanent bases for its military in Qatar, Bahrain, UAE and Kuwait. It also has 16 bases in Oman, and 15 in Saudi Arabia. To utilise these facilities, in actual pursuit of US goals, the government has commissioned two new aircraft carriers capable of carrying strike fighters to a conflict with China (or Iran).

The priority is stability – rather than the pursuit of democracy, freedom, etc. Relations with these regimes are the definition of stability. Successive British governments have maintained state to state relations with the same families in Bahrain, and Oman, for over two hundred years. So much more reliable than messy republics which may actually reflect popular opinion.

British policy here is obviously based on class interests, with no evidence of ethical considerations. However, this pursuit of global influence, endorsed by both the Tory government and Labour’s Front Bench, is a very, very expensive phantom. The US government will never determine its policy on the basis of British compliance and enthusiasm.

There has been a recent demonstration of this rather obvious fact. When the US government withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021, the British government was neither effectively consulted, nor listened to. Prime Minister Johnson – conscious presumably of the obvious debacle for NATO – attempted to persuade EU powers to support an extension of the intervention. Of course his efforts were doomed. The EU “partners” knew that it was US action, not British bluster, that was decisive.

Still, British politicians were like beached fish. In the Commons debate, Johnson, typically, insisted that failure was success. For Labour, Angela Rayner implied there was grounds for staying :”If we leave without putting a plan in place to ensure that Afghanistan does not go back to the conflict and violence of the past, we will have failed those who have given so much over the past 20 years.” To be so obviously powerless was an uncomfortable experience for the “liberal interventionists” in the Commons. All those fabulously expensive nukes, aircraft carrier strike groups, and associated weaponry counted for absolutely nothing.

Bipartisan support for the new empire adventure in the Gulf can only cost British society huge resources and create future conflicts. If unchanged it means that the Bahraini people will receive no aid from a future Labour government. It is therefore vital that activists in the peace, trade union and labour movement challenge government efforts to render pretty the ugly dictatorships in the Gulf. Today, and tomorrow, we must support the Bahraini people’s struggle for freedom.

Notes from the Author

(1) “Bahrain’s Uprising”, Ala’a Shehabi & Marc Owen Jones (eds.), Zed Books 2015, P.4

(2) ibid, P.15The regime after independence was obliged to establish a new political framework which appeared to be a constitutional monarchy.

(3) Figures taken from “Transit States: Labour, Migration & Citizenship in the Gulf”, Abdulhadi Khalaf, Omar AlShehabi & Adam Hanieh (eds.), Pluto Press 2015, P.18

(4) “Political Repression in Bahrain”, Marc Owen Jones, Cambridge University Press 2020, P.213

(5) “Society and State in the Gulf and Arab Peninsula”, Khaldoun Hasan al-Naqeeb, Routledge 2012, P.32

(6) “The Making of the Modern Gulf States:Kuwait,Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman”, Rosemarie Said Zahlan, Ithaca Press 1998, P.14

(7) “Histories of City and State in the Persian Gulf: Manama since 1800”, Nelida Fuccaro, Cambridge University Press 2011, P.50

(8) Rosemarie Said Zahlan, Ps.16-17

(9) “Britain’s Revival and Fall in the Gulf: Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the Trucial States, 1950-1971”, Simon C. Smith, Routledge 2013, P.14

(10) Simon C. Smith, Ps.152-153

(11) “Contested Modernity:Sectarianism, Nationalism, and Colonialism in Bahrain”, Omar H. AlShehabi, One World Academic 2019, P.225

Image used: Demonstrators walking through the main area of Sitra, Bahrain, on February 18th, 2011, Al Jazeera English – Bahraini flags, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The above article was originally published here by Labour Outlook.