- Bahrain from the Twentieth Century to the Arab Spring
Anyone who cannot make the trip to Britain to explore the documents preserved at the Public Record Office (PRO) in Kew (now confusingly called the National Archives) may find useful tidbits of information about the history of Bahrain’s relations with the United Kingdom and United States in Miriam Joyce’s new book. The 127 pages [End Page 140] of text manage to cite 26 pages of end-notes, almost all of which refer to reports and memoranda drawn from the PRO and the US National Archives. Many vignettes border on the mundane. In June 1934, for instance, “Shaikh Hamad wrote to Political Resident Colonel T.C. Fowle: ‘I hope that [the British government] may be protected by the Almighty God against all harm and that our ties and friendly relations may continue for ever [sic]’” (p. 5); in November 1961 “Sir William [Luce] advised that HMG should immediately recognize the new Ruler, Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifa” (p. 26).
Other stories are more telling. When Libya’s leader came to visit in July 1979, the US ambassador in Manama noted that “the diplomats serving in Bahrain were offended ‘by the dress and table manners’ of Colonel Qadhafi’s aides’” (p. 85); as popular discontent escalated during the fall of 1976, the Foreign Office’s Ivor Lucas “suggested that given Gulf circumstances, traditional family rule might be more appropriate than ‘Westminster-style’ democracy” (p. 72); and after it became clear that Egypt and Israel intended to sign a peace treaty in the spring of 1979, Bahrain’s ruler told Washington that “he hoped the treaty would be signed quickly, but that he was unable to say so in public prior to checking with Saudi Arabia” (p. 83). Successive episodes in the history of the US naval flotilla based on the islands, the Middle East Force, receive a great deal of attention (pp. 27, 36–37, 42–43, 45, 52– 60, 62–65, 70). More often than one might expect, observers on the ground inform their superiors that “the Bahrainis are friendly and cheerful” (pp. 63, 112, 113).
Few explanatory propositions get advanced that might help to tie the narrative together. Whatever analysis there is comes straight from British and American officials, and reflects their underlying biases and interests. In what may be the single most intriguing sentence ever written about Bahrain-US relations, Joyce observes: “Although before Shaikh Salman’s death no American circus was invited to the shaikhdom, Washington’s interest in the region continued” (p. 27).
One wonders at just what audience the book is targeted. It would be tempting, given its pervasive just-the-facts-ma’am style and tone, to recommend it to secondary school readers. But the famous Egyptian president is repeatedly called “Abdul Gamal Nasser” (pp. 20–21), the prominent jurist who supervised the inquiry into the regime’s response to the 2010–2011 uprising becomes Basioni (pp. 125–126) and terms like majlis (p. 11) and Ashura (pp. 103–104) are deployed without ever being defined. Furthermore, the years from 1980 to 1995 are accorded no more than five pages (pp. 105–109), and these deal largely with the Iraq-Iran war. Consequently, the bulk of the events covered in this brief survey of modern Bahraini history has been explicated more cogently elsewhere.
Fred H. Lawson is Lynn T. White, Jr. Professor of Government at Mills College.