Main content


Adam Curtis

Tagged with:

Bahrain, along with Syria, has become a symbol of the failure of the Arab Spring to deliver real democracy and freedom across the Arab world. The media in Britain portray a rigid, oppressive almost feudal elite who are stubbornly holding out against the inevitable wave of modern freedoms and political justice.

But what is hardly ever mentioned in the press and TV reports is that this very system of oppression, the rock against which the dreams of democracy are being dashed, was largely created by the British. That, throughout most of the twentieth century, British advisers to the Bahraini royal family, backed up by British military might, were central figures in the creation of a ruthless system that imprisoned and sometimes tortured any Bahraini citizen who even dared to suggest the idea of democracy.

The same British advisers also worked with the rulers of Bahrain to exercise a cynical technique of divide and rule - setting Shia against Sunni in a very successful attempt to keep Bahrain locked in an old, decaying and corrupt system of tribal and religious rivalries. The deliberate aim was to stop democracy ever emerging.

The Bahrainis know this, practically everyone else in the Arab world knows this - the only people who seem to have forgotten are the British themselves.

So I thought I would tell the story of Britain's involvement in the government and the security of Bahrain over the past 90 years. Especially as the present King of Bahrain is coming to have lunch with the Queen on May 18th.

It began in the summer of 1925 when a young administrative officer in the British Colonial Service called Charles Belgrave read an advertisement in the middle of the "Personal Column" in the Times. It said:

Belgrave answered the mysterious advertisement and was then summoned to an interview in a West End hotel. His interviewer turned out to be one of the heads of the India Office - the government department which ran that part of the British Empire.

What Belgrave was offered was the job of being the British "adviser" to the new ruler of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. The precise nature of the job was a bit murky (a murkiness that was going to run through this whole story). On the surface Belgrave would be completely independent of the British government - but what was also clear was that he was being sent there to deal with growing demands for reform and modernization that might threaten Britain's interests.

Ever since 1820 the British had dominated Bahrain. The Al Khalifa family ruled, but in reality it was protectorate whose affairs were "guided" by the British. In 1923 the previous ruler had gone berserk and started terrorising his people - so the British had removed him and installed his son. It was clear to Belgrave what his job was - to create a more centralised form of control in Bahrain and to manage the instability created by the previous ruler's reign of terror.

Belgrave took the job. And here is a picture of him sitting happily in "the Adviserate drawing room"

Belgrave soon became very powerful - and by the 1930s he was in effect running the government of Bahrain. The thing that gave him a supreme ability to manage any dissent was the fact that he ran the courts. Bahrain had no legal code - which allowed Belgrave as judge enormous power. Belgrave described it in his autobiography:

"I found that there was no written code in Bahrain so judgements had to depend on common sense alone. It was rough and ready justice, but it had the advantage of being speedy.

I sat three days a week with a minor Shaikh who was deaf, dull and averse to making decisions. When I asked his opinion he invariably replied, 'I think the same as you Excellency; I agree with whatever you say."

Many Bahrainis soon became convinced that Belgrave was using his power to make sure that the status quo was maintained and to prevent a modern, democratic political system developing. And in the 1950s this anger with Belgrave burst out in a dramatic and violent way - a popular revolt and demands for democracy uncannily like the events unfolding in Bahrain today.

It started in 1953 when a Shia religious parade was stoned and then a Shia neighbourhood attacked by groups of Sunni fanatics. Many believed that it was a deliberate provocation - to create sectarian divisions. People noticed that among the attackers were members of the ruling family including the brother of the Sheikh.

If it was a provocation - then it succeeded. For two years Bahrain was torn by Sunni vs Shia violence. In private Belgrave sympathised with the Shias, but as the public face of the Law in Bahrain he was ruthless. He handed down sentences that were far tougher on Shia rioters than on their Sunni counterparts. And this in turn led to even more rioting.

A group of leading middle-class Bahrainis set up the Higher Executive Committee. It was composed equally of Shias and Sunnis - and it called for Belgrave to go. He was helping foment religious hatred and imprisoning innocent people, they said, in order to keep Bahrain as a tribally controlled regime. They demanded instead democracy and a code of law.

Here is a picture of the Committee.

Things came to a head when in 1956 the British foreign secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, flew to Bahrain for a visit. There was a large, violent demonstration with hundreds of Bahrainis trying to tell Lloyd to remove Belgrave - because he was standing in the way of making Bahrain a modern democracy.

The riots and the demonstration made the news in Britain - and Panorama came out to investigate. The report - by Woodrow Wyatt (later to become one of Rupert Murdoch's closest advisers) - is really good.

Wyatt interviews Belgrave who has a great quote about the demonstration - "it's anti-British, anti-Sheikh, and anti-me." But Wyatt also goes and talks to people on the street, almost all of who want Belgrave to go. One of them standing on the back of a truck sums it up neatly: "Belgrave is not just an adviser - he is the judge, and when he goes to the court he is also the police commandant. He is everything in Bahrain, he is not an adviser."

Faced with this instability the British government moved troops in at the end of 1956 and crushed the revolt. Three of the leading members of the committee were put on a Royal Navy ship and taken and imprisoned on the island of St Helena in the middle of the South Atlantic. The same place that Napoleon had been dumped in 1815. One of them was Abdul Aziz Al Shamlan who is the committee member interviewed in the Panorama film.

This is a picture of their prison, plus a map - the purple blob shows where St Helena is.

But Belgrave had also outlived his usefulness - and the same year he too was dumped by the British (and by Sheikh Khalifa). He came back to Britain and wrote a self-serving autobiography which ends up suggesting that the Arabs aren't "ready" for democracy yet.

And things quietened down in Bahrain.

Until 1965 when another popular uprising began. It began in the oilfields but quickly spread to general strikes. Again the British sent in troops to crush the revolt - and many of the leaders were yet again deported.

But it didn't do much good for the British government - because both press and television in Britain began to ask what exactly was this weird feudal state that we were supporting? And why?

Across the Arab world people had been inspired by the new ideas of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the President of Egypt, and they wanted freedom from the corrupt old Shaikhs and Kings who were propped up by the west. And in 1966 the BBC went out to Bahrain again and made a Panorama programme that tore into the hypocrisy of what Britain was doing in that country.

It didn't pull its punches - the reporter, called John Morgan, says to the camera at the end:

"If one of the tests of a society's health is a citizen's willingness to speak his mind freely in public then Bahrain belongs in the class of a Communist or a Fascist country - and we are deeply implicated in order to preserve our oil and foreign policy."

In the face of this the British government decided the only solution was to find another "adviser". The idea was that on the surface he would appear to be a freelance mercenary who was employed by the ruling Khalifa family. But in reality he would be chosen and placed there by the British Foreign Office to manage the internal security of Bahrain. His job was to prevent the instability that political change would inevitably bring - and the consequent threat to British interests.

The man the British chose was called Colonel Ian Henderson. He had been a colonial police officer in Kenya in the 1950s and had played a major role in suppressing the Mau Mau rebellion. The Kenyans were convinced that Henderson had been involved in ordering both torture and assassination during the rebellion - and the moment the country achieved independence in 1964 its new leaders threw Henderson out.

Here is Henderson being interviewed at Heathrow the day he flew back. I think you can get a very good sense of what he is like - especially in his slightly frightening matter-of-factness. Speculating on the reasons for his expulsion he says, with a faraway look in his eyes:

"What I did many years ago as a police officer during the emergency is today not seen as something very desirable."

Well - yes.

A little while ago a Scottish journalist called Neil Mackay uncovered secret Foreign Office documents that show that the senior British diplomat in Bahrain in 1966 - Antony Parsons - worked on the ruling Sheikh Khalifa to persuade him to appoint Henderson as head of what was called the Special Branch - and to give Henderson a free hand to reorganise it into an efficient, modern covert surveillance "anti terrorist" organisation.

To begin with Henderson presented himself a a new breed of security chief. He freed all the prisoners from the 1965 uprising and announced that the country would now be ruled by proper law, not arbitrary detention. He also persuaded the Khalifas to welcome back militants from protest movements like the Bahrain National Liberation Front and the Popular Revolutionary Movement.

It was all very nice, but many Bahrainis now believe that what Henderson was also doing was building up an intricate system of infiltrators and double agents inside the protest movement - in preparation for the day when Britain pulled out of Bahrain and gave it independence.

That came in 1971 and for a moment ordinary Bahrainis had a modern political system of democracy. In 1973 the ruling Amir - Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa - approved a constitution for the country, and the first parliamentary elections took place.

But then something very sinister happened. Within a year Colonel Ian Henderson proposed a new law he called the State Security Law. It said that any Bahraini could be held for three years without charge or trial on just the suspicion that they might be a threat to the state. It was known as 'the precautionary law'.

It caused an outrage - because it meant that anyone could be imprisoned just on the imaginative suspicions of Colonel Henderson and his State Security acolytes. Parliament rejected the bill in June 1975 and there was a standoff with the regime, and with Henderson.

The Amir solved it in the simplest way - he suspended those articles of the Constitution that guaranteed freedom to the people, and he suspended parliament.

And in August 1975 Henderson went to work. His men began to fill up Bahrain's jails with activists - and among them were members of the now deceased parliament. And for the next twenty five years Henderson ran a ruthless system of repression that kept the al Khalifa family in power and stopped any movement towards democracy.

Opposition activists and human rights groups have repeatedly alleged that this repression has involved widespread torture, the rolling imprisonment without trial of thousands of people, deaths and assassinations. Henderson denies this. In the face of the charges Ian Henderson has repeatedly said that he has never been involved in torture nor has he ever ordered his officers to torture those who have been arrested.

One of the key questions is whether this repression was still in Britain's interest? On the one hand you can argue that it protected the flow of oil, that it kept Bahrain as a bulwark first against communism and then from the 80s onwards against Shia Islamist revolution - plus that Bahrain also became the home to the American Fifth Fleet.

But you can also argue that by inserting Ian Henderson into the Bahraini system of power and security in 1966, the British created an infernal machine that just kept on running after they left in 1971. That machine had been told to prevent any political protests that might destablise the country - and that's what it proceeded to do. The Al Khalifas loved the machine because it kept them in power - and as a result hundreds and thousands of Bahrainis were left stuck with a vicious ghost from the failure of the British empire.

And true to form the British in the 1970s ignored the repression and the torture going on around them. Here are a selection of films the BBC made about Bahrain in the 1970s

First is an extract from a film made about the town of Awali - where all the British oil workers lived. It is an extraordinary place because in the middle of the desert the British have created a copy of a Surrey suburb where they live in blissful separateness from the rest of the country.

Except at the end - when a British couple being interviewed suddenly start describing how strange it is - they say it's like "living in a cotton wool world. I think it is really bad to live here in a world without responsibility. This place steals your life away"

And here are some extracts from one of the oddest arts programmes the BBC has ever shown. It follows a musical composer called David Fanshawe (and collector of Arabian folk music) as he creates his new work called "Arabian Fantasy" in various locations around Bahrain.

He does this by banging oil pipes and machinery in the oilfields, by assembling lots of oil tankers and signalling them with flags to blow their hooters, all interspersed with helicopter shots of him playing his synthesizer in a prog-rock kind of way in all kinds of locations around the island state.

It's made even odder by the appearance of Fanshawe's sidekick who had built his own very complex synthesizer that treats and distorts all the noises. He's called Adrian Wagner - and is a descendant of the famous composer.

Fanshawe is doing all this because he grew up in Bahrain as a boy when his uncle was the naval commander of the British fleet there in the 1950s - and there are bits of him wandering nostalgically round empty expat swimming pools. He's quite annoying - and he seems to like funk music as well.

Then in 1979 the Queen of England came to visit Bahrain - and I've stumbled on the unedited rushes of her visit. Here are some of them. I've listened through to all of her and Prince Philip's overheard conversations with the ruling Amir - and she doesn't seem to mention any of the repression, imprisonment without trial, or killings.

But she does have to suffer a rather strange dance which is apparently expressing how the rights have women have been progressing in Bahrain. At least that's the only thing she had to suffer - unlike many Bahrainis.

And Bahrain had other uses for Britain in the 1970s. In 1979 the BBC made a very creepy documentary film about how Bahrain had become a central hub for the new supersonic jet - Concorde. The truth was that at that time practically no other country wanted Concorde because of the very loud sonic booms it made - and the Al Khalifa family stepped in to save British Airways.

This is a section from the documentary where the British Airways manager Tim Phillips goes to see the Amir at the regular Majlis - where people come to petition and lobby their ruler. Phillips seems to be convinced that the Majlis is almost a better form of democracy than we have in Britain. It is followed by the very creepy scene when he gets to talk one-to-one with to the Amir, and the scene sums up in a nutshell Britain's relationship with this weird state.

Ian Henderson soon became the Dr Evil of Bahrain. He was hated because he was seen as the man whose security law had helped destroy the Constitution and democracy in the country.

In response a new protest movement began to grow which united the secular left and Islamists around the simple, dramatic demand that the constitution and parliament should be restored. It grew slowly at first - but in 1994 it emerged as The Constitutional Movement - and it set out to confront Henderson.

It was the biggest revolt yet seen in Bahrain and it had widespread popular support that crossed across the Shia - Sunni divide. Henderson and his security forces responded viciously. The opposition accused them of using the same tactics of divide and rule that had been seen in the 1950s, deliberately fomenting sectarian hatreds. Henderson's forces were also accused of imprisonment and torture on a scale not seen before.

And - just as in 1956 - at the very heart of the Constitutional Movement's demands was the removal of the British "adviser" who they said was the mastermind behind the terror that was engulfing the country. In the words of the opposition:

"Security and special branch chief General Henderson, along with a bunch of British mercenaries who are in control of the security apparatus bear full responsibility for the deterioration of relations between people and regime and for the festering political crisis - by their policy of sectarian discrimination, by waging large scale arrests and killing campaigns, and by fabricating plots designed to alienate the masses from the movement."

And finally the British noticed. Here is a really good report made for the BBC in 1996 by the brilliant reporter Sue Lloyd Roberts. She uses secret filming and blurred interviews to show what was really going on and evoke the fear that the rolling repression was creating for hundreds of thousands of Bahraini people.

And just like in the 1950s the publicity became too much. In 1999 a new member of the Al Khalifa family took over the leadership of Bahrain - and he decided to finish with Ian Henderson's services.

Henderson returned to Britain where various human rights groups and MPs persuaded the Home Secretary to get the police to investigate whether Henderson could be prosecuted for ordering torture. But the police found that the Bahrain government refused to give them any evidence. So they gave up.

The new Amir also abolished Henderson's hated State Security Law - and announced there would be elections to parliament. At first it all seemed to be a genuine return to the democratic dreams of 1973. But it wasn't. By 2010 it had become clear that the new parliament had practically no real power.

Then came the events in Tunisia at the beginning of 2011 - and it reactivated the opposition in Bahrain. They occupied Pearl Roundabout in Manama - but on the night of the 17th of February the protestors met the full force of the Bahraini security forces.

Ian Henderson might have gone away - but the ferocious system that he helped build hasn't and it haunts the Gulf still today.

Tagged with:

More Posts