Human rights violations in Bahrain have steadily worsened over the past 100 years because of assistance by countries like the UK. The Al Khalifa regime gave up their foreign policy in return for Britain’s protection – this was the regime that was persecuting Bahraini people at that time. They appointed Shaik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and gave him the right to most of the revenues of the land – later including oil revenues – in return for a promise to share it with the ruling family and keeping them in order. This UK complicity is really where the story started.
Over the years, Bahraini people have protested this relationship and this theft of their country’s assets, and each time Britain has helped to put them down.
In 1954, four protesters were shot by British-trained police. A commission of inquiry found no-one guilty and blamed it on the crowd. Two years later another six people died after British-trained police opened fire on a crowd in the market. Another commission found no-one accountable. Two months later, leaders of a popular cross-sect uprising were illegally deported to the island of St Helena (off the West Coast of Africa). What has emerged is that Britain actually considered supporting this democratic group of Bahrainis, the National Union Committee, but documents show that they weren’t sure a democratic government would support British interests in the Gulf, whereas the repressive Al Khalifas were more reliable.
In 1965, there was a strike at the Bahrain Petroleum Company, mainly about the treatment of immigrant workers, and when this was crushed, a new uprising took the form of General Strikes. Royal Navy helicopters dropped tear gas on crowds while British-trained police shot another half a dozen dead – this time there was no inquiry.
In 1971, Bahrain became nominally independent, but the British continued to train the Bahraini police to ensure the Al Khalifa family remained in power as well as selling them weapons. They also sent in an ‘advisor’ – Colonel Ian Henderson, infamous for crushing Kenya’s Mau-Mau movement and implicated in torture and assassination – and he headed the secret police. Under Henderson and the Prime Minister, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa (still PM after 45 years), deaths and torture increased dramatically. Documents show that British officials in Bahrain actively colluded to hide evidence of torture from the British parliament. For example, in the late 70s, two men were tortured to death for the alleged murder of a newspaper editor. UK Bahraini activists raised interest in the case among British MPs, but evidence now shows that British Embassy officials edited letters to deny they knew about the murders.
The cover-up is emblematic of the present day. We know the situation in Bahrain. We know that John Yates, the Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner (who resigned over hacking inquiry and Murdoch links), went to Bahrain to provide “technical assistance” under the guise of ‘reform’. But human rights abuses continue unabated against Bahrain citizens, and as described in the film, families of UK-based activists have been imprisoned, tortured, and used as hostages to try and prevent peaceful protest here.
The UK has sold £82 million worth of weapons to Bahrain since the brutally crushed 2011 popular uprising, when Saudi troops (again with British weaponry and training) were invited into the country to quell street protests by around half the population.
Colonialism is alive and well, and the King of Bahrain’s visit to sit next to the Queen at the Royal Windsor Horse Show is an affirmation of that colonial power and continued support for this evil, undemocratic and violent regime.
Thanks to Dr Marc Owen Jones
Lecturer in History of the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, Exeter University