Bahrain: a century of reform promises

Bahrain's ruling family has a long history of promising reform, and a long history of failing to deliver. We saw it most recently in connection with the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, where key recommendations are still to be implemented. But that's nothing new: arguments about reform been rumbling on for almost a century.

In a post on Twitter the other day, Troy Carter highlighted a once-secret document from 1923 which is now lodged in the British National Archives. Bahrain at the time was under Britain's "protection" and the document is a letter from Lieutenant-Colonel Trevor, the British Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, to the ruler of Bahrain, Shaikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa. 

Although written 90 years ago, the letter's content has a familiar ring:

To: His Excellency Shaikh Isa bin Ali
Bushire, October 27, 1923 

After compliments.

I have received the petition signed by Your Excellency and certain other Sunni Arabs. Your Excellency is under a misapprehension as regards the reforms at Bahrain. These are not initiated by the personal wish of Major Daly or even of Colonel Knox. The High Government has been forced to order them to be put in hand, as after prolonged enquiry and patient watching they found that the state of affairs in Bahrain absolutely necessitated reform.

Your Excellency will remember that very many times you have been requested by the High Government to reform your administration, one of the last occasions being in March 1922 when under instructions from the High Government I personally visited your island and called on you to take action. On another occasion in April 1922 when your Shia subjects could no longer bear the tyranny to which they were subjected and became restive and petitioned me and the High Government, you yourself undertook to introduce some reforms to ameliorate their condition.

But my friend you have never introduced any reform either at the urgent request of the Government or in fulfilment of your own promises. And as the tyranny and oppression in your island had become a public scandal it became necessary for the High Government to take action, and hence the action by Major Daly and Colonel Knox to which you take exception. Your Excellency I feel sure knows all this, but as you ignore it in your petition I feel bound to inform you again.

I have to inform you that it is my duty as it was Colonel Knox's to carry out the orders of the High Government and proceed with the reforms, the object of which is to secure fair and equal treatment and even-handed justice for all. I am accordingly resolved to proceed with the reforms and I wish Your Excellency and the gentlemen who signed the petition to realise this once for all.

It is to be regretted my friend that you did not listen to my advice or to the Political Agent's and introduce suitable reforms yourself.

The upshot of this was that Lieut-Col Trevor forced Shaikh Isa to abdicate and from 1923 onwards the British authorities regarded his son, Sheikh Hamad as Bahrain's ruler. Bahrainis, on the other hand, rejected the abdication and viewed Sheikh Hamad only as viceroy until his father's death in 1932.

Unfortunately Trevor's letter does not provide details of the complaints against Shaikh Isa beyond the generalities of "tyranny", "oppression" and broken promises (any readers who have more information please post it in the discussion thread). It's interesting, though, that this episode seems to have been omitted from the current official portrayals of Bahraini-British relations.

Judging by the king's remarks during a visit to Britain earlier this month, Bahrainis were/are so happy with British involvement in their country that they didn't/don't want it to end:

“The first Treaty of Friendship was signed in 1820, nearly 200 years ago, and it remained until replaced by a new one in 1971 on Britain’s withdrawal from the Gulf – a unilateral decision of 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.

"So I am happy to say that the relationship is as strong as ever – perhaps even stronger. We have the closest cooperation across a wide range of activities and 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."

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 21 May 2013