Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The Bahraini Three on St. Helena, 1956-1961

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

The Bahraini Three on St. Helena, 1956-1961

Article excerpt

Until 1971, Britain remained a presence in the Persian/Arab Gulf, defending the small Shaykhdoms of the region, at the same time, of course, protecting British economic and political interests. It was inevitable, therefore, that as the Shaykhdoms developed and their populations benefited from education, conflicts between competing interests occurred, conflicts that led to perplexing problems for the Rulers of these small states and for the British Government. Such was the case in Bahrain, where in the decade of the 1950s, Bahraini nationalists seeking modernization collided with their Ruler. As a result, three Bahrainis were imprisoned on the British Island of St. Helena. The British role in the exile of the Bahraini three embarrassed Her Majesty's Government and served to illustrate the archaic nature of Britain's role in the Gulf.

In March 1956, demonstrations and a general strike disrupted the British protected state of Bahrain. On 2 March, the Bahraini public heard news reports stating that Jordan's King Husayn had fired his long serving British military adviser, Lieutenant General John Bagot Glubb (Glubb Pasha). That day, British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd arrived in Bahrain for what was initially planned as a brief visit. At 7:00 p.m. Minister Lloyd and his party landed at the RAF/BOAC airport in Muharraq. The Ruler, Shaykh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, was present to greet him. Lloyd's entourage consisted of 28 persons, among them 13 women. The male members of the group left the airport in a line of cars; the visiting women followed in taxis. The procession traveled from the airport via a road along the sea-front. Crowds lined the route, shouting anti-British slogans. Some in the crowd began to throw sand; others threw rocks. "The mob, though behaving riotously, did not appear particularly menacing."1

The male members of the Foreign Secretary's party reached the Royal Palace, where they dined. The Ruler was a perfect host and Foreign Secretary Lloyd had "an agreeable conversation" with him. Shaykh Salman told his British guest that he only wanted relations with the British government, not with any other government.2 Nevertheless, concerned about the anti-British protests, the Ruler's British adviser, Sir Charles Belgrave, referred to the dinner as the most trying social function he had ever attended.3

Meanwhile, excluded from the dinner, the women in the Foreign Secretary's party had safely arrived at the Residency. However, two buses carrying the British aircrew were severely damaged, and crewmembers, including a stewardess, were injured. Initially the Foreign Secretary and his staff had been scheduled to depart Bahrain for New Delhi at 11:00 p.m. However, it was difficult for authorities to regain control of the road to the airport. Foreign Secretary Lloyd's party did not reach the airport until early 2:00 a.m. But no one informed the women at the Residency that their departure had been delayed. Hence, they left for the airport on schedule. Their taxis had to negotiate streets still lined with jeering crowds; one car had every window broken. "Fortunately again no one was injured, though it must have been an unpleasant experience for the ladies."4

According to the Political Residency, Arab nationalists from outside the country contributed to the unrest, but local factors were the major cause of the disturbances. For thirty years the Government had been largely controlled by the Ruler's Adviser, Belgrave. The British Adviser dominated all departments of Government, including education, health, and police. Bahrainis who now enjoyed the benefits of access to health care and education wished to take a larger role in their own government. Adviser Belgrave appeared to be an obstacle to democratization. Thus, for weeks after the Foreign Secretary's departure, demonstrations and strikes continued.5 Later, Sir Bernard Burrows, who had served as Political Resident in Bahrain from 1953-58, wrote:

From a rather cynical point of view it was perhaps advantageous to us that the presence of Belgrave and the hope that he might be got rid of to some extent acted as a buffer between the anti-foreign elements in the popular movement and the British authorities themselves. …

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