Bahrain has the dubious honor of having the world’s longest serving Prime Minister, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa. He has been in power since Bahrain gained independence in 1971. Given that lack of dynamism in any political structure is often a recipe for stagnation and regression, it makes sense to explore the Prime Minister’s historic and current role in security and policing policy. Indeed, could his continued presence in office be a contributing factor to Bahrain’s failure to reach political compromise? More specifically, to what extent has his presence, or indeed his personality, created an increasingly sectarian policing policy that has sought to exacerbate communal strife in Bahrain for the purpose of executing a divide and rule strategy?
While it is perhaps difficult to ascertain the Prime Minister’s role behind the recent crackdown, a look at the historical records of Bahrain suggest he was perhaps more involved in policing policy than has previously been stated. This was particularly true following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when much was made of how Shia religious activists in Bahrain represented a ‘fifth column’ that wanted to export the Revolution to Bahrain. Followers of today’s uprising will be aware how the Bahrain government portray the uprising as an Iran-backed plot in order to discredit those who want political reform.
The Prime Minister himself has stated openly that the opposition in today’s uprising are acting on Iranian orders. In an interview he gave to Der Spiegel in 2012, he stated
This movement is supported by Iran and Hezbollah…. The king has gone a long way in making many offers to them [the opposition], but in the end they told us they had to wait to see what Iran would tell them.
Shifting Authority within Internal Security
So how might the Prime Minister have been more actively involved in policing policy? Well, following Bahrain’s Independence from Britain in 1971, the head of the police and special branch were both both British. These were James Bell and Ian Henderson respectively. The FCO documents suggest that both Henderson and Bell had begun to have less influence over internal security policy as early as 1973. State Department documents posted by wikileaks today corroborate this, stating that Bell and Henderson are moving into more of an ‘advisory’ position. In fact, they indicate that the Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior (Shaikh Muhammad bin Sulman Al Khalifa) began to call the shots. Robert Tesh, British Ambassador to Bahrain in 1975 writes to the FCO
Two years ago the Chief of the Police and the Head of the Special Branch, both British, came directly under the Prime Minister and were regularly and visibly in close and constant touch with him. Now they hardly ever see him, but work to a Bahraini Minister of the Interior who is fortunately conscientious and hard-working. The Chief of Police is now ‘Director-General of Public Security’, advising and administering from the background rather than exercising direct executive control. He has lost much of his power, and rather sadly accepts this. The Head of Special Branch – which is now, at the top, wholly expatriate – is no longer allowed to detain or interrogate; his intelligence network must therefore function by other means, and the power of deterrence has dwindled. On the other hand the Government is far less exposed to the accusation of ‘imperialist repression’ than it was: and provided it does not become complacent and over-confident the new arrangements should work. The risk of complacency is not too serious as long as the present Prime Minister is in power.
Although Henderson’s changing role does not imply anything about his complicity in carrying out torture, it does have important implications for the potential rise in cases of torture. Indeed, following the crushing of leftist groups such as PFLOAG and the NLF in Bahrain, the latter of which had, according to a report by Bahrain Special Branch, been ‘penetrated at all levels by Bahrain Security Forces’ in 1968, the opposition vacuum was filled by the ‘Shia threat’ in the late 70s and early 80s. As such, large swathes of Bahrain’s population became a potential criminal threat, not because of their political beliefs per se, but because of the religious leanings. Naturally when you begin to potentially criminalise over half of the population, there will inevitably be an increase in arrests and, as a corollary, torture.
Despite the significance of the Iranian Revolution, it was the Iran Iraq conflict and Shia opposition to Iraq rather than the toppling of the Shah that was the catalyst for the Government’s crackdown on Bahrain’s Shia. According to British Ambassador Harold Walker (1980), support for Khomeini since the outbreak of the Iran/Iraq conflict had been negligible:
Since the Iran/Iraq conflict began there have, as you know, been virtually no visible signs of support among the Bahraini Shia for the Imam Khomeini’
Incidentally, Harold Walker seems to have changed his tune. In a 2011 article for the Conservative Middle East Council, Walker acknowledges that although the BICI report found no evidence of Iranian involvement, Iran had been the single most important factor in fragmenting Bahraini society and injecting religion into opposition politics.
Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, the impact of Iran has been the single most important factor in fragmenting Bahraini society and injecting religion into opposition politics.
Torture of Jamal Ali Muhsin Al ALi and Escalation of Tensions
In fact the Shia threat was always overstated, and the government knew this. In fact, both the British and the Bahraini authorities appeared to be entirely relaxed about the potential for trouble in 1980. Although there were demonstrations, some of which turned violent, they were poorly attended and few in number. One such demonstration took place in April 1980, following Iraq’s execution of cleric Mohammed Baqr al-Sadir. After securing permission from the authorities, thousands of people marched in protest at the killing, though some people reportedly deviated from the arranged route and started burning tyres and throwing stones. 64 people were arrested, including Jamal Ali Muhsin Al Ali, who authorities accused of attacking and wounding two Bahraini Army Intelligence officers in the Souq. Sadly, Al Ali was reportedly tortured to death*. British First Secretary Christopher Wilton mentioned Al Ali’s ‘well photographed wounds inflicted by the Bahraini Police’, and described him as the ‘first Bahraini Shia martyr’.
In an attempt to counter the rumours about Al Ali’s torture, the Ministry of the Interior issued a statement that was reported in the Gulf Daily News. They said that Al Ali had died of ‘kidney failure’. Those following the Feb14 Uprising will probably remember that the Ministry of the Interior attributed the death of Karim Fakhrawi to ‘kidney failure’. In actual fact, Karim Fakhrawi was tortured to death by the Bahrain Security Forces. (It is interesting to see the continuities of propaganda). One thousand people reportedly showed up to collect Jamal’s body from the hospital. Although the burial was peaceful, some members of the crowd then proceeded to burn tyres in the Souq.
More demonstrations occurred on the 18th and 19th June, when Hadi al Mudarrasi (exiled Iraqi cleric residing in Tehran) called on Bahrainis to mark the 40 day anniversary of Jamal’s death. According to FCO documents, only 200 people took part in these demonstrations. It was about this time the FCO and the Chief of Staff began to complain about the influx of propaganda pamphlets produced by the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain. Most of these pamphlets (one of which you can see above) appeared to focus on political corruption and Bahrain’s relationship with the US and Britain. On the other hand, propaganda from the Islamic Martyrs Movement was far more militant, pledging support for Khomeini and calling for death to Al Khalifa.
The Crackdown on the Shia
Despite these demonstrations, the authorities predicted a peaceful Ashura. Harold Walker writes in November 1980:
‘no necessary reason why the Ashura celebrations should lead to political disturbances any more than they have over the last decade. But they cannot exclude the possibility that tempers might flare up on account of some quite accidental occurrence such as pressure on the Shia crowd by unwise spectators’
Irrespective of whether Ashura was peaceful or not, the Prime Minister seemed keen to adopt a more draconian and sectarian internal security policy with regards to the Shia threat.
The Police have orders to intervene as little as possible – though the Prime Minister said that firm action would have to be taken once Ashura was out of the way. (Walker to FCO, 17th November 1980)
As was predicted, Ashura passed peacefully. Interestingly, when trying to ascertain why Ashura had passed by so quietly, the British thought the authorities might have spread a rumour that Saudi troops were in the country in order to scare the Shia.
There was a rumour, which may or may not have been inspired by the authorities, that Saudi troops were in Bahrain; this certainly had some effect as the Saudis inspire considerable fear among the Bahraini Shias.
Despite the fact Ashura had passed peacefully, the Prime Minister was true to his word and ordered the arrest of 650 people. This was in addition to the 200 people who had been arrested beforehand. The fact Ashura had been peaceful actually ‘encouraged’ the Prime Minister to order widespread arrest of Shia. Furthermore, the Prime Minister’s reason for moving against the Shia was reportedly to demonstrate to them that the ‘Bahrain Government were true Arabs’. Apparently even Ian Henderson disagreed with the decision to order this crackdown, as it would ‘probably have the opposite effect from that desired’. The information here is from a message written by Kevin Passmore of the Middle East Department. He was reporting a conversation with Christopher Wilton. Here is the full message.
Christopher Wilton, 1 sec in Bahrain at present home leave, told me on 1 DEcember that the Bahrain authorities had decided to move against the Shia. Ashura (18/19 November) passed off peacefully. Encouraged by this, the Prime Minister, Sheikh Khalifah, had felt confident enough to order widespread arrests of Shia. Before Ashura some 200 had been arrested; now the total was 850, all of whom were to be detained without trial for an indefinite period. Ian Henderson, the Head of the Bahrain Security Service (who was Mr Wilton’s informant) had advised the Bahranis strongly against this course of action, saying that it was likely to lead to more Shia ‘martyrs’and would probably have the opposite effect from that desired. Sheikh Khalifa, however, had felt that the time had come to show the Shia that the Bahrain Government were ‘True Arabs’. (It is not entirely clear what he meant by this, but he probably refers to the open support given by many Bahraini Shia to IRan in the current conflict.) (KJ Passmore to Mr Palmer, Mr Miers – 3rd December 1980)
Of course one might dismiss this as being a fairly elaborate scheme to protect the British from accusations of excessive involvement in internal affairs. However, it does raise a number of important questions? Namely, did torture increase in Bahrain following 1975. This is, after all, the approximate date when Human Rights Organisations began to record torture in Bahrain*. Or does 1975 simply reflect the fact organisations such as Amnesty began to better document such cases? Afterall, brutal methods of interrogation were used in police custody as far back as the 1930s by the likes of Charles Belgrave and Captain Parke in attempting to extract information from prisoners, political or otherwise.
Having said that, is it possible that the Prime Minister’s increased control over internal security policy prompted a punitive sectarian crackdown thats sheer scale inevitably led to an increase in prisoners, and thus an increase in torture? To what extent did the influx in Shia ‘religious’ prisoners exacerbate sectarian tensions between prisoner and police officer, leading to more harsh treatment? How did the crackdown, and the torture of prisoners simply serve to radicalize religious opposition and thus attract them to more extreme causes (Afterall, policing policy in the 1950s very much relied on sewing divisions within the CNU in order to radicalise and fragment them – thus generating wider support for a crackdown)? How credible was the alleged 1981 coup attempt that aimed to install a theocratic government?
Indeed, to what extent was crackdown on Shia simply a redux of Al Khalifa divide and rule policies that existed before increased British involvement in the 1920s? Afterall, discontent with the Al Khalifa in the 1980s was not just the preserve of the Shia – ‘moderates’, leftists and students all had grievances. The possibility of all groups uniting to oppose the regime was a very real one, so maintaining disunity by exaggerating the Shia threat would work to isolate those groups who feared that Bahrain would turn into a theocratic state. Indeed, such divide and conquer have worked seamlessly well in the recent uprising.
But why have a crackdown when the Ruling Family and, as Harold Walker jokes, the Al Zayyanis and Al Moyyads, could have broadened their support by reviving the National Assembly dissolved by the Prime Minister in 1975. Well, to resurrect such an assembly so soon after dissolving the last one would have been a sign of weakness, one that may have emboldened political leaders to demand more than the Ruling Family were willing to concede. Perhaps a divide and conquer strategy was simply a better way of preserving a kleptocratic autocracy that had little desire for accountability and power sharing.
Obviously I do not wish to overstate the case of the Prime Minister’s power. After all, to do so would to be sideline other members of the Ruling Family, which itself runs the risk of emphasizing that Bahrain’s draconian security policy in Bahrain is the result of a few bad apples. Indeed, much was made recently of the role of the Khawalid in undermining King Hamad, an argument that tends to absolve Hamad and the PM of their responsibility by painting them as victims of an Arabian Nights esque political saga. I also do not wish to understate the role of the British, who were keen to nip protests in the bud so as not to alarm ‘banks and board rooms’. After all, it was the British who supported the 1975 State Security Law (although it is interesting to note that even the Butcher of Bahrain (Henderson) may have opposed the Prime Minister’s decision to move against the Shia en masse). While British concerns for internal security had been a dominating factor of British involvement in Bahrain, emphasising Henderson’s role in torture was still a useful sponge that could deflect criticism from the ruling family onto the imperialist oppressor. Indeed, Shaikh Salman in the 1950s frequently told the CNU that he would love to initiate reforms, if only the British allowed him to.
Anyway, I digress slightly. The Prime Minister is perhaps Bahrain’s most experienced statesmen, and it is hardly surprising given Bahrain’s political structure that aspects of a dominating personality may manifest themselves in security policy. Is it not possible that part of the Prime Minister’s modus operandi is simply the reassertion of what Abdulhadi Al Khalaf describes as the Al Khalifa’s ‘legacy of conquest’, one that was diminished by increasing British involvement in Bahrain during the 1920s?
Note: This post is a work in progress, and I wrote it somewhat in haste as I was going through notes I took several months ago. As always, comments are welcome!
*Karim Al Hibshi was also tortured to death by Security Forces in July 1980
** Strangely, the Americans claimed that there was no ‘plausible’ evidence of torture in Bahrain in 1976. This was despite reports to the contrary issued by Amnesty International in 1974 and 1975