Attitudes of British Officials to the Al Khalifa Family Between 1920 and 1954

King Hamad recently rocked up at the first Windsor International Endurance Festival, where he gave a speech in which he described Bahrain’s historic relationship with Britain as one of ‘cooperation and friendship’. Hamad then expressed sadness at Britain’s withdrawal from Bahrain in 1971, quoting his father as saying;

“Why? – No one asked you to go!”

King Hamad’s desire to surround himself in the UK with other people who love horses does not detract from the fact that Bahrain’s relationship with Britain has been one of mutual convenience as opposed to true friendship. Indeed, despite this so-called ‘friendship’, the attitude of many British officials to the ruling Al Khalifa family was one of disgust and frustration. A selection of quotes attributed to various British officials on the subject of the Al Khalifa is included below. Before I am accused of historic muck raking, I should point out that such comments are important in contextualizing Britain’s relationship with Bahrain, and erode the veneer of legitimacy that horse-based events and other efforts at ‘High Society Diplomacy’ attempt to confer upon this so-called friendship. Also, sometimes these things are just plain interesting.

This blog post is focused more on the historic attitude of British officials towards the ruling family in general as opposed to specific cases. The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights have documented scandals perpetrated by the Ruling Family by collating all the examples mentioned in the papers of Charles Belgrave – financial adviser to the Ruler of Bahrain between 1926 and 1957 . Similarly, I have blogged or written about various other acts of oppression or political crime performed by members of the Ruling Family, so often aided and abetted by the British. Some of these are listed at the end of this blog.

Attitudes of Some British Officials to the Bahrain Ruling Family between 1920 and 1956.

In 1923, Political Resident Lieutenant Colonel A.P. Trevor wrote about Salman bin Hamad – Bahrain’s ruler between between 1942 and 1961:

Selman bin Hamad has all the worst qualities of the Al Khalifa family. He is totally uneducated, vain, lazy, and inclined to oppress and tyrannize over anyone who is powerless to resist. Selman is absolutely unfit to succeed is father as ruler.

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Colonel Knox (who seemed to entertain an equal disdain of all Bahrain’s communities) wrote in 1923:

Gentlemen of the Al Khalifa: I am afraid that looking to the past is my duty to warn you that you must not expect that because you have taken the trouble to be born you ave therefore a right to live on the rest of the community , whether by allowances from the revenues of these Islands or by preying on the poor and helpless

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C.C.J. Barrett, the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf wrote in 1929:

The family – the Al Khalifa – were uneducated savages with a veneer of town manners

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Charles Belgrave wrote in 1926 (21 August):

The Khalifa family is the Royal Family of Bahrain, & very much so. They are paid allowances by the Govt & do nothing apparently considering it infra dig to do any work, they are lazy conceited oppressive people for the most part, living on being royalty.

Charles Belgrave wrote in 1929:

With a few exceptions the Khalifa family are lazy, almost illiterate, and entirely without public spirit.

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Bahrain’s Political Agent Captain C. G. Prior  wrote in 1929:

…apart from these all adult Al Khalifa are nonentities, incapable or vicious or all three.

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Charles Belgrave wrote in his diary in 1954.

…now nobody has any opinion of the Khalifah, they are drunken, dotty & dishonest & have entirely lost the little prestige that they once had. The only one of them who people in any way respect is HH & they are rapidly losing their respect for him.

Acting Political Agent J.E.R. Little wrote in 1955:

…the ruler has donated a quarter of a million rupees to education, health and public protection. Other members of Al Khalifa apparently are impervious to the promptings of conscience.

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Rape, Booze and Torture: The Princes’ Diaries

Scrutizing the Civil List in Bahrain  

How the Al Khalifas Took a Quarter of Bahrain’s Wealth

Bahrain’s History of Political Injustice 

‘Oppression of Bahrain Subjects by the Ruling Family in Bahrain in the early 1900s: The Full List

How camels led to murder and sectarian tension in Bahrain

Who Really Tried to Assassinate Shaikh Hamad?

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10 comments

  1. Hardly relevant in 2013 BESIDES if my memory is not playing tricks on me, the British had an empire that covered a fifth of the world surface and ruled over a third of the world population. The crimes of that empire make the bumblings of a few Sheikhs in 1923 pale into insignificance.

  2. Jan Ryan says:

    A very relevant article. Expats who have recently been in Bahrain are aware that nothing has changed. Al Khalifa “palaces” dot the island. Huge Al Khalifa ruling family images adorn high rise buildings. I am in awe of the generational perseverance of the citizens of Bahrain. Why this country has not disintegrated into violence is a testament to the stoic persistence of the opposition’s peaceful mantra. I having nothing but admiration for the people of Bahrain who are attempting to bring a mature and fair political system to this country.

  3. As Red Willie said above Hardly relevant! plus you can never trust anything the BCHR says and funny that they quote Charles Belgrave!! Does show how little they know or it’s just what they wanted the readers to believe.

    Anyway it would be nice to read the full letters not just the quotes.

  4. Hi Ali. Thanks for your comment. Would you surprised if a number of the British officials disliked the ruling family?

  5. alialjamri says:

    This is a fascinating part of the somewhat bizarre ‘friendship’ between Bahrain and Britain. The British officials never seem to miss a chance to privately express their dislike of and exhasperation with the royal family, even in the same letters in which they’ll go on about their longstanding friendly ties as well.

    Interestingly there is some suggestion in some of the records that the diplomats found themselves in awkward intellectual positions: they were personally supportive of the ideals of democracy during times of civil unrest, but bound by the nature of their job to ultimately maintain their relationship with the Al Khalifa. You get the feeling from reading some of these documents that some of the men at the political agency felt uncomfortable in their position.

    • Yeah you are right Ali. I think too a lot of orientalist notions are evident amongst the British officials. I always think of Knox when it comes to this, as he seems to entertain an equal disdain for everyone in Bahrain. Belgrave’s diary is certainly peppered with generalisations about the ‘Arab mind’. I am particularly interested by Prior, who in the 30s believed Belgrave and Weightman (the agent) were wrong about the need for an Advisory Council. He believed reforms ought to be made sooner or rather than later, as it would prevent further unrest.

      • alialjamri says:

        I think I fall into a mental trap where, because the British tend to always talk about the ruling class (since the oppressed class plays a relatively though not strictly more passive role in politics), I forget that they often viewed all Arabs in a negative/critical light, with all the common orientalist perceptions they carried in that era. I may sometimes be quick to think highly of the British agents.

        I’m unfamiliar with the details of the 30s – who was Prior, one of the Political Residents in that decade?

  6. Prior was was the Political Agent in Bahrain for a while in the twenties, he then became the Resident. I think there was definitely a conflict between personal belief and the demands of the office – particularly the Government of India, who were the most reluctant to ever interfere in local affairs. I am particularly interested in Major Daly. I found a comment on Mahmood’s den from over 5 years ago about how someone thought Daly created sectarianism in Bahrain. Now I wonder where that person got that info. I imagine historically, people have passed down partisan stories of their views of Daly, who was popular with the Baharna but not with the ruling elite.

  7. alialjamri says:

    I wasn’t aware Daly and his legacy have been subject to that sort of partisan interpretation, though it doesn’t surprise me. The relationship between Britain and Bahrain never ceases to fascinate me – the relationship with a colonial power was both a benefit and detriment to Bahrain in different ways, and picking apart and making sense of that legacy is intensely interesting.

  8. […] 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 […]

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