The history of British involvement in Bahrain's internal security

John Yates is only the most recent Briton to be given a public role in Bahrain's internal security. Since founding the Bahraini police force, the British influence is as strong as ever.

Marc Owen Jones
8 August 2013

Britain has played a prominent role in protecting Bahrain’s government and its Ruling Family from internal and external threats ever since Bahrain became an informal protectorate in 1861. This protection has ranged from overt strategies, such as direct military intervention, to subtle ones, such as the export of surveillance technologies for use by Bahrain’s Ministry of the Interior. Even after Bahrain’s Independence in 1971, Britain has continued to play an important, albeit less direct role in Bahrain’s internal and external security.

As recently as 2012, an agreement concerning military cooperation was signed between the two countries. In 2011 ex assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police John Yates was brought in to reform the Bahrain police after they brutally repressed the pro-democratic uprising of 2011. But Yates is only the most recent Briton to be given a public role, albeit as a private citizen, since Bahrain's independence. The British relationship was foundational for Bahrain's security sector, and is as strong as ever: perhaps less direct, but no less insidious.

From protection to intervention

In order to secure their domination of trade routes to India, the British conducted a series of treaties with tribal leaders along the Persian Coast in the 1800s. The first of these agreements was the General Maritime Treaty of 1820, and it recognised the Al Khalifa as the legitimate rulers of Bahrain. A subsequent agreement, the ‘Perpetual Truce of Peace and Friendship’, turned Bahrain into an informal protectorate of Britain in 1861. However, in exchange for control over Bahrain’s foreign policy, Britain were now bound to protect the Bahraini government from external aggression.

Despite the so-called treaty of ‘friendship', most British administrators despised the Ruling Family, with one official describing them as ‘uneducated, vain, lazy, and inclined to oppress’. Britain’s relationship with the Al Khalifa grew progressively worse in the 1920s, when the Ruling Family’s oppression of the indigenous Shia Baharna increased. Persia, incensed by the maltreatment of their Shia co-religionists, threatened to go before the League of Nations to complain how British protection allowed the Al Khalifas to oppress with impunity.

In an attempt to address this disquiet from Persia, at that time an important ally, Britain took increasing responsibility for Bahrain’s internal security policy, and imposed a number of reforms – including the creation of a police force. Britain also deposed the recalcitrant ruler of Bahrain, Sheikh Isa bin Ali Khalifa, and put Isa’s weaker son Hamad on the throne. Hamad was given a force of mostly Baluchi troops to deter Isa and his allies from engaging in further acts of oppression against the Baharna. This force promised to be a more efficient security solution for the British, whose coercive methods prior to the 1920s revolved around the use of gunboats to intimidate belligerent tribal elements.

Although the police force, commanded by British officers, and Hamad bin Ali Khalifa’s private army reduced the need for gunboat diplomacy, the British still periodically flexed their military muscles to put down dissent. This was particularly true after the 1950s, when Arab nationalism and rising anti-colonial sentiment were threatening British hegemony in the Gulf. In 1956, British troops were deployed at least twice, once to restore order following riots that broke out over the bombing of Suez, and once again after people attacked British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd’s motorcade. In 1965, a Royal Navy helicopter was even used to drop tear gas on protesters who had joined a strike over layoffs at the Bahrain Petroleum Company.

Methods and tactics

British policing methods could be equally crude. Charles Belgrave, a British official who worked in Bahrain between 1926 and 1957, and whose multiple roles included financial advisor to the Ruler, commandant of the police, and judge, used torture on detainees in a number of high profile cases, as did his British colleague Captain Parke. Methods included beatings, sleep deprivation, and on one occasion the placing of lighted pieces of paper between the toes of a detainee. Allegations of torture against British officials continued until the 1990s, when Colonel Ian Henderson, head of Bahrain’s notorious Special Branch, was accused of personally torturing detainees during the government’s quashing of the 1990s Intifada.

Nonetheless the British response to internal security problems was often haphazard; it was frequently the weakness of the police rather than their strength that defined their approach to security problems. In the 1950s, the British-led Bahrain police force were no match for the Committee of National Union (a populist nationalist movement); the British decided not to arrest its leaders for two years while the police force was strengthened. Ultimately, the British Political Resident, Bernard Burrows, thought it best to radicalise elements of the movement in order to turn moderate public opinion against the nationalists. This would legitimise a crackdown.

The tactics worked. After a highly political summary trial, in which a British CID officer acted as government prosecutor, three leaders of the CNU were illegally deported to the British Island of St Helena. Even Belgrave acknowledged that a lot of the evidence was ‘inadmissable’, yet political and security concerns were deemed more important than the execution of impartial justice.

After the bolstering of the security forces in the 1950s, Bahrain was left with a bloated and inefficient police force. This prompted further reforms, and policing became more intelligence-led rather than purely reactive. Ian Henderson was instrumental in this shift, and brought his experience of crushing the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya to Bahrain. Henderson would reportedly co-opt and recruit dissidents and former exiles into ‘pseudo-gangs’, which were then used to infiltrate movements in order to create a network of informants.

Henderson was joined by fellow Briton Jim Bell, who became head of the Bahrain police during the 1970s. However, both Bell and Henderson’s influence in dictating internal security policy diminished after Bahrain’s Independence in 1971, when the Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, began to take more control. This was especially true when it came to dealing with the ‘Shia threat’ after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when even Henderson tried to temper the Prime Minister’s draconian approach to security.

Although Henderson retired in 1998, he stayed on as a special adviser to the Minister of the Interior, and his previous position was filled by another British ex-serviceman Colonel Thomas Bryan. Other British officers to have recently held command positions in Bahrain include Alistair McNutt, who retired from his job as a colonel in the Ministry of the Interior in 2002. Little is known about the extent or nature of their involvement in Bahrain.

In addition to influencing policing, British legal advisors helped to define Bahrain’s laws and first penal code. Yet while the penal code was demanded as early as the 1930s in response to the arbitrary nature of tribal justice, the British were also seeking to expand the legal control apparatus in order to exert proper legal form on anti-government agitation. In 1956, an ordinance was issued that forbade public gatherings. This became the Public Safety Law in 1965 and the State Security law in 1975. Despite their different names, all these laws essentially gave the authorities broad powers of detention and arrest. The British supported all of these decrees, despite the fact that they showed little respect for the human rights of Bahrain’s citizens. British legal advice continued through the 1990s, when solicitor David Jump acted as legal adviser to the Minister of the Interior.

The failure of consent

The ability of the police to maintain public approval and respect and thus minimise the need for repressive force has always been difficult in Bahrain. This failure to secure consent stems from the fact that the police in Bahrain’s primary function was to defend British interests and insulate the elites from anti-constitutional agitation rather than to serve the population in a just and impartial manner. A group of Bahrainis complained about this problem in the 1940s: Bahraini houses could be raided without warrants whereas police required a warrant from the Political Agent if they wished to raid the house of a foreigner. The police also turned a blind eye to elite crime. In 1954, when the Ruler’s son, Mohammed bin Salman Al Khalifa, accompanied by a group of Bedouin, broke into a Baharna’s house and beat up the resident, Charles Belgrave went round to persuade the victim not to make a complaint.

This bifurcation in the rule of law seriously threatened the legitimacy of both the police and the legal system. British attempts to address the issue were unsuccessful, as police reform tended to focus only on increasing the coercive capacity of the police. For example, in the 1930s, a nascent nationalist movement prompted Belgrave to double the strength of the police. Similarly, in the 1950s, when the Committee of National Union (CNU) threatened Al Khalifa hegemony, the British brought in troops from Iraq and loyal tribal militias from al-Hasa to maintain order.

The British tradition of recruiting strangers to police strangers continued into the 1960s when the British commandant of the police went to Pakistan to recruit ex-servicemen. The Bahraini government still continues to recruit Sunni police officers from Syria, Yemen, Jordan and Pakistan. Bahrain’s Shia population are generally excluded from the upper echelons of the security forces, and require a certificate of good behaviour before getting a job. It is hardly surprising then that the security forces are branded ‘mercenaries’ by many Bahrainis. However, this security arrangement is unlikely to change, as a loyal, easily-dispensable security apparatus allows the Al Khalifas to maximise their ability to hold onto Bahrain’s resources.

The historic lack of police accountability only confirms that Bahrain’s police force is a tool of control, not service. In the 1950s, two separate incidents in which the police fired on and killed civilians tested the British attitude to police accountability. Two inquiries were launched; in the first instance, the ruler exonerated the policeman found responsible. In the second, the British were worried that criticism would lower police morale further, reduce their efficiency, and subsequently increase the possibility of the intervention of British troops – a situation the Foreign Office was keen to avoid. As a result, the report did not recommend any legal proceedings against the police, even though it appeared to indict Colonel Hammersley, the British third in command of the Bahraini police. Similarly, Ian Henderson never faced his accusers in court, despite a short-lived inquiry by Scotland Yard.

Such efforts to hide the inadequacies of the police have stymied potential reform; in fact considerable efforts were made to censor any criticism. The British imposed stringent visa regulations on journalists as early as the 1930s, and given that Charles Belgrave was the local correspondent for the Times, press coverage of Bahrain was inherently biased. Britain even tried to silence potential whistleblowers. For example, when Major William Little (a former police officer of the Bahrain police) submitted to the British parliament a pamphlet criticising the police, the Foreign Office considered threatening to sue him for libel in order to shut him up. Indeed, the British have always acknowledged the relationship between censorship and security, although nowadays it is British PR companies and reputation management firms that play a key role in minimising anti-government sentiment or negative coverage.

From then to now

The end of the British colonial order has been replaced by a more neoliberal form of colonialism, one in which direct state intervention has been replaced by an influx of private British citizens or companies who perform vital security functions yet obscure formal state responsibility. Indeed, Bahrain’s internal problems have simply expanded commercial opportunities for British firms, who are selling weapons, PR services and spyware to the Bahraini Government. British attempts to ameliorate the situation have been questionable, and the arrival of John Yates to ‘reform’ the police should not be seen as a benevolent move, but rather it repeats a pattern of increasing the repressive capacity of Bahrain’s security apparatus under the euphemism of ‘police reform’. Even the relatively recent development of community policing under British guidance should not be seen as a move towards significant police reform, as it does not alter the political system that enforces Bahrain’s sectarian security policy.

Whereas in the 1920s Britain and Persia were allies, prompting reforms of a kind, the current tension with Iran means that Bahrain’s strategic value has increased. It is unlikely that Britain will jeopardise the relationship with their Bahraini ally by pressing for significant constitutional reform. Indeed, the limited official rhetoric demonstrating concern for human rights in Bahrain is merely a hollow reminder of Britain’s hypocrisy, for Britain created Bahrain’s security service as a means of offering security assistance to the autocratic Al Khalifa regime.

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