How camels led to murder and sectarian tension in Bahrain

It was interesting to read today that Bahrain was thinking of bringing back camel racing, which apparently ‘died off as the animals slipped out of regular use’. The announcement of this camel racing followed a 2-day meeting in which all things camel were discussed, including an initiative to map all the camel herds in Bahrain. Presumably the idea of camel racing was a scheme concocted to encourage tourism in Bahrain. Formula Camel if you will. While I do not mock the humble camel, nor deny its ‘iconic’ status in the region, Bahrain’s history with the camel is actually quite interesting. Indeed, far from being seen as a potential tourism boon, they were the bane of many people’s lives a century ago. So much so, that laws had to be created to rid Bahrain of the camel scourge…

A Camel, Shaikh Khalid and the ‘Sitra Outrage’

 ‘Attack on Bahrain Shiahs’ was the title of a confidential telegram sent by the Political Agent in Bahrain to the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf in 1923. The telegram documents how a Bahraini villager in Sitra was killed and a number of houses looted by a gang of servants working for Sheikh Khalid ( Sheikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa’s brother). The reason? A camel belonging to Sheikh Khalid had been found wounded near Sitra. The Political Agent writes:

The large herds of camels which the Shaikhs allow to wander into gardens and destroy the dates have been a fruitful source of trouble for years. It is reported that on hearing this [about the wounding of the camel], Shaikh Khalid then said a Bahraini should be killed for it.

Camel Laws

The above incident marked a culmination in the frustrations of many Baharna farmers,  who were tired of camels destroying their dates –  (an important part of the Baharna’s staple diet). The camels also  destroyed vegetable crops grown by many Baharna farmers. The extent of this destruction was so great that many farmers stopped growing vegetables, forcing Bahrain to become dependent on vegetables imported from Qatif in Saudi Arabia. When discussing the camel problem,  Political Resident Knox writes in 1923 (pg 133)

It is presumed that these large herds of camels are of no particular use and are merely maintained by the Shaikhs at great expense to themselves and others, with some shadowy sentimental notion of maintaining the fiction that the Al Khalifeh are Lords of the Desert.

Knox goes onto describe how the camels are an ‘economic evil’ to Bahrain, and a constant source of ‘quarrel leading, as in the present case, to actual bloodshed between Sunni landlords and Shiah tenants’. Not one to mince his words, Knox added that the camels should be ‘taxed to extinction’. He believed that this would eliminate a ‘fruitful source of quarrel’ between the two sects.  In order to do accomplish this ‘extinction’, Knox proposed the following laws:

(1) Absolute prohibition of further importation of camels into the islands (2) Registration of the animals. (3) Imposing taxation three, four or five times, as may be deemed advisable, of the present scale. (4) Establishment of pounds by which camels found straying in the vicinity of gardens and villages can immediately be confiscated to the state; and as a corollary to the above, arrangement for the conveyance of speedy information to headquarters of the impounding of such animals with a view to precautions being taken by official agency to guard Shiah villages where such animals have been impounded, from retaliatory outages.  (5) Heavily penalising the wounding, maiming or killing of such animals as an offence against the State.  (6) Earmarking all funds raised by such taxation for the efficient carrying out of the measures detailed above.


In addition to the introduction of these laws, an investigation was carried out. It transpired that Shaikh Khalid had indeed ‘enouraged and approved the attack’, while his son Ali bin Khalid had masterminded it. The political agent believed that the Ruler Shaikh Isa and his wife had probably encouraged the attack in order to bring Sheikh Hamad’s ‘administration into ill-repute’. Their bitterness stemmed from Hamad’s recent accession, which was done in  ‘obedience to the orders of the British government’ (Knox, 1923).

Given the high position of those involved in the attack, the British administration worried that no punishment would take place against the guilty parties.  Daly writes:

The Al Khalifah family have never had a reputation for ability to take strong action, especially in cases in which their own family are concerned, and I fear that unless some pressure be brought to bear on Shaiks Hamad and Abdulla, little or no punishment will be inflicted on the guilty in the present case, and outrages of this nature will continue until we shall be forced to take action.

To a certain extent, this pressure succeeded, though the sentences against members of the Al Khalifa were lenient. Sheikh Khalid, who encouraged and approved the attack, was merely deprived of his property in Sitra, required to pay 2000 Rupees blood money,  and forced to move to Manamah – hardly a severe punishment given the fact he would have been able to prevent his son carrying out the attack.

His son Ali bin Khalid, who ‘masterminded’ and attended the attack was sentenced to banishment from Bahrain for life. What actually happened was that the political agent requested (on Sheikh Hamad’s suggestion) that Ali instead be banished to India for 10 years, conditional on good behaviour. It was also suggested that he be given a monthly allowance of 250 – 300 Rupees per month. Despite the sentence, the Political Agent felt Hamad’s response was the best that could be expected, and an important assertion of Hamad’s desire to ‘maintain order’.

The servants who were among the attackers, but did not murder the deceased, were given three years imprisonment in Lahore. The fact that the lowest ranking of those involved were the only ones given prison time is indicative of the way in which justice was carried out in Bahrain.  As giving any of the Al Khalifas prison time was too politically provocative, and likely to cause further hostilities among already disgruntled members of the Ruling Family, Daly’s acquiescence to Hamad’s plea for a reduced sentence was done primarily to maintain unity within the ruling family. The Political Resident in Bushire, S.G. Knox, agreed with Daly’s action, and was perhaps even more vocal in his desire not to ruffle too many powerful feathers. (In the end, the Khalids snuck back into Bahrain, and after being given a retrial, were let off.)

At the time, Knox believed that the steady introduction of legislation was better than drastic punishment of individuals. As  the camel laws only effected the Al Khalifas, Knox’s philosophizing seemed to be an eloquent way of justifying leniency on those in a position of authority. Indeed, although the Al-Khalifa family were often the cause of  dissent, they were also under British protection. This put the British in an unusual situation, as they had to address Baharna grievances within specific parameters, namely parameters that did not involve the wholesale removal of the Al Khalifa regime. For this reason, the introduction of such legislation was a way of addressing grievances without being too forceful with the Ruling Family.

Concluding remarks

It does seem unusual that such a seemingly benign creature was the course of so much political animosity. Given Bahrain’s overall move away from agriculture, the reintroduction of camel racing does not seem like such a big deal. But it’s important not to forget such lessons in history. Indeed, camels were the privilege of a ruling family who frequently displayed a callous disregard for the local population. While the point of this blog post is mainly historical curiosity, and while camels are not an issue today, similar attacks on more traditional industries still exist.

Recently, for example, Bahraini fishermen organised a mass strike to protest for the ‘scrapping of new maps demarcating fishing and shrimping sites and to allow access to coastal areas being grabbed for urbanization schemes’*. Despite this, the suggested solution by a market trader was to make up any shortfall in supply by importing it from Saudi Arabia – just as vegetables had to be imported from Saudi due to the rampant camels. This flippant dismissal of the plight of the fishermen brushes aside the source of their grievances, which include the development of coastal areas and fisheries. Although some might argue that this is the cost of ‘development’, it is important to understand who actually benefits from these urbanizaton projects. I, for one, would be interested to see who is behind a lot of these urbanization schemes, and whose pet projects they are. In some ways, they are the modern day camels…

*Urbanization schemes, which frequently involve the reclaiming of coastal land, have long been a source of contention for Bahrain’s fishermen. In addition to over fishing, 13 of Bahrain’s 18 fisheries were handed over to Qatar as part of the ICJ’s resolution of the Hawar dispute .  In 2010, this led to one Bahraini fisherman being shot and injured by the Qatari Coastguard for fishing in Qatari waters. A  year earlier, another Bahraini fisherman drowned after he was rammed by the Qatari Coastguard. Recently, 22 Indian fishermen working for a Bahraini firm were arrested and subsequently released by Qatari authorities for straying into Qatari waters. (What is sad about this final point is that once again, we see migrant workers taking considerable risks while the local sponsor profits. The article mentions that the captain and crew of the vessel were fined, though whether or not they were reimbursed by the firm is not stated). Reclamation projects have led to a decline in the number of fishing communities in Bahrain.  It is also important to note that the upper house of parliament in Bahrain blocked a decision to declare to fashts (natural habitats) as protected reservations.


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