Recently it was reported that British police threatened to taser a Bahraini prince for his drunken antics on a British Airways flight to Bahrain. Apparently the prince attempted to ‘storm the cockpit’ and complain to the captain about the poor service. Although the Daily Mail and the Sun are hardly the most credible news sources in Britain, they are probably more so than Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority, who claimed that the prince was neither drunk nor a prince. Instead they claimed that the man had had a bad reaction to medication, and attempted to enter the cockpit to speak to the captain after flight crew forbade him from flying (Note to self: should I ever miss work because of a hangover, try the medication excuse).
While most of us are prone to moments of excess, such brattish behavior is far more vulgar when carried out by members of the privileged classes. We expect more from ‘them’, and it is only exemplary behavior on their part makes their wealth and power remotely palatable. Unfortunately, it is often one rule for the elites, and another for everyone else.
Although headline-grabbing, the drunken antics of a prince pale in significance compared to alarming accusations leveled against Prince Nasser, the King of Bahrain’s son. He is accused by a number of opposition figures of actively carrying out torture during last year’s demonstrations. He is not, however, the first prince in Bahrain to be accused of abhorrent behavior, and it is interesting to delve into the history books to compare Nasser’s behavior with that of a ‘prince’ who lived 100 years ago. I am in fact, talking about the infamous Sheikh Abdulla bin Isa Al Khalifa, son of Sheikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa, who ruled Bahrain from 1869 – 1923. Such a comparison highlights the historical grievances that many Bahrainis, and in particular the indigenous Baharna, have with the ruling Al-Khalifa family. This exercise is particularly useful when pro-government rhetoric and PR aims to remove any historical context from Bahrain’s politics, choosing instead to justify continued authoritarian rule by using terms like ‘new beginnings’, ‘both sides made mistakes’, and ‘democracy takes time’.
His Highness Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa (born: 8 May 1987)
Bahraini activist Mohammed Hasan Jawad (Parweez) claims that Sheikh Nasser flogged, beat and kicked him and fellow prisoner Mohammed Habeeb al-Moqdad whilst they were detained in a Manama prison. Nasser was also criticized for launching a vindictive campaign against those Bahraini athletes who engaged in anti-government protests. Last year he tweeted that all athletes in detention should be given life imprisonment, a ludicrous statement for so many reasons, not least because any rational person might suppose they deserve to be tried before sentencing in considered. Nasser was also quoted as saying on Bahrain TV (the country’s state-run television channel)
“Anyone who called for the fall of the regime, may a wall fall on his head. Whether he is an athlete, socialite or politician — whatever he is — he will be held accountable . . . Bahrain is an island and there is nowhere to escape”.
In light of the severity of the accusations leveled against him, William Hague alluded to the fact that Prince Nasser would be closely assessed before being granted entry to the UK. Given that it would not be ‘proper’ to deny a visa to the son of the King of Bahrain – an important UK ally, it was highly unlikely that Prince Nasser would be denied entry. This did not stop Nasser deleting all his tweets though (a futile act given most of them are archived and can be read here). Unsurprisingly, Nasser was granted a visa, and it was reported that he was actually in the UK from about mid-June.
Sheikh Abdulla bin Isa Al Khalifa
Sheikh Abdulla was the youngest son of Sheikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa, and not technically a prince since Bahrain had no king back then. Major Clive Kirkpatrick Daly ( Britain’s Political Agent in Bahrain from 1921 – 1926) made numerous notes pertaining to Sheikh Abdulla’s crimes. In 1921 Daly writes that ‘Bahrain is in a constant state of unrest owing to the Political intrigues of a small party under the leadership of Sheikh Abdulla’. He also provides a brief overview of the oppression carried out by the ruling family, which included ‘illegal seizure of property, wrongful imprisonment with cruelty, and political murders, for which no one has been brought to trial, and no effort made to enforce justice’. What is also interesting about Sheikh Abdulla is that, despite the accusations made against him, he later became a judge sitting on the court of appeal responsible for trying members of the HEC committee that threatened Al Khalifa hegemony in 1956.
Daly then writes a separate document detailing a selection of the crimes perpetrated by Abdulla. I have included a few of the reports (taken from the India Office’s records on Bahrain), as they make fascinating reading. Some are so outlandish – it feels like watching an episode of Bab al-Hara.
The Prostitute Scam
3. Shaik Abdulla keeps a prostitute named Masoodeh, a jewess whom he seduced, and who was for a time his mistress. He has had an arrangement with this woman whereby she lures young men of respectable families to her house. There they are raided by Abdulla’s fidawis [armed retainers] and sums of money are recovered from them under threats of exposure and imprisonment. A considerable sum of money is said to have been realised in this way.
Abdulla, Pimps, and Forced Sex
5. Sheikh Abdulla is ruler of the village of Jidhafs. His Wazir there one Abdulla bin Razi and his wife, act as procurers for Sheikh Abdulla. Several women have been compelled to visit Sheikh Abdulla at the Wazir’s house. The daughter of Bin Marhun was abducted and kept there for some days, as also was the daughter of Syed Qasim. In each case the parents were threatened and as they would get not justice in any case, endeavoured to escape the ignomy of public exposure. These two girls have since been sent to Qatif each year when it is the season for Abdulla to visit Jidhafs.
12. The daughter of Bin Suweileh of Houreh was abducted by Sheikh Abdulla and subsequently turned adrift as a prostitute.
8. A plot of land with some dwelling premises belonging to Abdul Rasool bin Haji Hussain of Sinabis had been seized without pretext by Sheikh Abdulla and given to one of his mistresses, who now lives there.
10. Shaikh Abdulla siezed the house of Haji Ahmed bin Shaaban in Sinabis on a false pretext, and still remains in it.
A Truly Tragic Tale of Kidnap, Extortion and Death
11. Sheikh Abdulla’s servants abducted a girl a native of Fars. her parents after searching for her for some time returned home and left behind one Muhammed Abdulla to continue the search. He discovered that she was being kept by Shaikh Abdulla. The latter then passed her on to an arab of Zallaq receiving Rs 400 (Rs = rupees). Muhammad Abdulla on behalf of the parents made efforts to recover the girl. He did so on payment of Rs 500 and on condition that he himself married her. She was pregnant and subsequently died in childbirth.
21. Shaikh Abdulla sent for the daughter of one Ali Basri. Her parents refused to send her. Abdulla’s Mother, who has recently assumed the title of Queen of Bahrain ordered the mother to send the girl at once or leave Bahrain. The girl was subsequently induced to marry one of Shaikh Abdull’s [sic] servant but has been put in one of Shaik Abdulla’s houses and is kept as a mistress
22. Some men grazing camels belonging to the Rulers [sic] wife, recently seized a small boy outside a village and committed unnatural offences. The villagers protested and said they would complain to the “Queen”. When they did so, that lady imprisoned about 12 of the leaders and detained them in prison. She refused to send the case to the Qadhi [judge] and subsequently released them after payment of Rs 250.
Abdulla’s Uncle Khalid
19. Another sources [sic] revenue of this member (Sheikh Khalid) is to demand labour from the Shaih subjects during the period of 7th – 10th of Muharram, during which time it is forbidden by their religion to work. If they decline, as they must do a cash fine in lieu is realised.
Interestingly, Charles Belgrave (Personal and Financial Advisor to both Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and his son Salman from 1926 – 1957) described Abdulla in entirely different terms. Belgrave writes of Abdulla;
He was handsome, always well dressed, witty and shrewd. He was a man of the world, with a keen sense of humour and a roving eye.
While it is highly doubtful that Belgrave was ignorant of Abdulla’s exploits, the difference between his and Daly’s accounts are on a par with the differing perceptions we see in Bahrain today. No doubt many believe that the King’s son is incapable of carrying out such atrocious acts, yet such naivety is often dangerous, for it presupposes that such behaviors are not the actions of modern men, but simply those of fictional princes or historical caricatures
Some Closing Observations
Abdulla never faced any sort of justice for the crimes he was accused of, and it is naive to believe that Prince Nasser Al-Khalifa will be investigated by the Bahrain authorities. On the contrary, the Al Khalifas and the ruling elite have enjoyed immunity through their tenure as the ruling family. They have repeatedly engineered strategies to keep themselves and their allies out of prison, including the National Safety Law, Royal Decree 56, the State Security Law and the BICI report.
The role of the British and now American protection should also not be underestimated. Even Major Daly acknowledged the detriments of Bahrain’s deal with the British government, which allowed the Al Khalifas to terrorise the population with little or no consequence. In 1921, Daly writes
It is said to me that, if we extend our protection to the Bahrain government, so that it is immune from outside danger, we should use our influence effectually, in order that the inhabitants be not unduly oppressed, and that they should have a reasonably efficient Government in comparison with other Arab states. ‘Failing this’, I am asked, ‘Why do you not remove the British protection, then we should at least have the redress usually resorted to by Arabs. We should appeal to another Arab ruler to take over our country and treat us better.’
Ninety years on, Toby Craig Jones writes
Most importantly, its (the American base) presence enables regional allies to act recklessly. Saudi Arabia would almost certainly not have sent its troops into neighboring Bahrain – a sovereign country – if the Saudi and Bahraini leaderships did not assume they were protected by their patrons in the U.S. military.
The purpose of this comparison was to vividly highlight erroneous assumption that ‘modernity’ brings with it an improvement in things like human rights, compassion and justice. It is patently evident that many things have not changed, and even more obvious that Bahrain’s elite have escaped justice for centuries. The fact we are inundated with rhetoric such as ‘reform’ and ‘moving forward’ belies the continued existence of the one common variable in Bahrain’s unrest – the refusal of many within the Al Khalifa family to relinquish their hold on the nation’s power and wealth.
What’s more, the British and Americans have, through direct or indirect means, continued to offer support for a regime whose legitimacy is in tatters. Even now, John Yates (former assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police) and John Timoney (former head of Miami Police) are attempting to offer a fig leaf of legitimacy to a police force who are, in many ways, a modern day incarnation of the fidawis.
Addressing or investigating the crimes of the Al Khalifas would threaten the fundamental logic of their existence, which is to protect the integrity of the tribe from outside incursion. This tribal logic will always resist a fair and just legal system, for rule of law is inevitably subverted when it threatens to harm the interests the Al Khalifas. Obviously I am not saying all Al Khalifas are criminals, but when they are, what are the odds of justice being done?
Finally, it is interesting to see that Daly saw the Al Khalifas themselves to be among the main sources of unrest in Bahrain. He even stated that the oppression carried out by Sheikh Abdulla and his cronies to be tantamount to ‘terrorism’. I do wonder then, what Daly would think if he was alive today? Would he be so quick to call those throwing Molotov cocktails terrorists and thugs, or would he see their resistance as an understandable reaction to a legacy of injustice?
*The President’s Office actually made a legal complaint against the Guardian after they published an article highlighting the accusations against Prince Nasser).