Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from Sir Roger Tomkys

The Author

I was Ambassador to Bahrain 1981–1984. After studying Arabic in Lebanon I served in Arab postings in Jordan, Libya and Syria (Ambassador 1984–1986). In the FCO I was Head of Near East and North Africa Department (1977–1980) and Deputy Secretary, Africa and the Middle East (1989–1990). Since retirement in 1992 I have been based in Cambridge (Master, Pembroke College 1992–2004), serving as President of the British Society for Middle East Studies (1994–2000) and Chairman, of the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce (2004–2010). I have been a regular and fairly frequent visitor to Bahrain and the Gulf for the last 30 years.


This submission is primarily about Bahrain and British-Bahraini relations. It is a personal assessment: I have not rehearsed, for example, the findings of the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review or the Bahrain Government’s response. These are available to the committee; how they are assessed is disputed between the Bahrain Government and the Opposition.

The points I wish to make are:

1.The historic relationship between Britain and Bahrain is exceptionally close and positive, with benefits to both parties.

2.Despite limited oil and other natural resources, Bahrain has prospered under the Al Khalifa, to the benefit of all parts of its society. It is relatively liberal and open. The Human Development Index has recognised its qualities: education, public health, freedom of worship and the status of women are among the best in the region.

3.Bahrain has a long term structural problem. The Ruling Al Khalifa family are of Sunni, Arabian tribal origin; the majority population (the Baharna) are descended from indigenous, sedentary Arab Shia stock. This problem is exacerbated by Iranian pretensions to Bahrain and trouble making at every opportunity.

4.Bahrain is economically and politically dependent on Saudi Arabia. So long as the House of Saud rules in Saudi Arabia there is no good alternative in Bahrain to Al Khalifa rule.

5.The need for reform is recognised on all sides. The divide between regime and opposition is not simply sectarian. There is a lively civil society. The role of Bahrain’s friends should be discreetly to encourage and support reform, not to grandstand as though the “Arab Spring” validated attempts to overthrow existing regimes throughout the region; each Arab State is unique. Britain’s close links with Bahrain and its rulers are not something of which to be ashamed.

1. Britain in Bahrain and the Gulf

Bahrain with Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE emerged as Independent States in the modern era because of the protection extended by Britain under Treaties going back to the first half of the 19th century. These commitments effectively prevented encroachment by the major powers of the region, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq (earlier the Ottoman Empire). Britain was still engaged militarily in this commitment in the 1950’s (Abu Dhabi under pressure from Saudi Arabia), and 1961 (Iraqi threat to Kuwait). Saddam Hussain’s invasion of Kuwait in1990 challenged the integrity of the system we had helped establish when we withdrew from East of Suez in 1971. The 1991 operation under UN auspices to expel Iraqi forces and restore Kuwaiti sovereignty was substantially orchestrated by Britain with the US.

Bahrain was, of the Gulf Shaikhdoms, the closest to Britain from at least the 1920’s when, in addition to a Political Agent, a Political Adviser, Sir Charles Belgrave, employed by the then Ruler Shaikh Hamad Al Khalifa, helped develop the infrastructure, modernise the legal system and improve education (including secondary education for girls in 1928). Bahrain became a hub for the Gulf, including early Imperial Airways services. After the Second World War the British Residency in the Persian Gulf was transferred from Bushire to Bahrain; Both the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force had important facilities in the country.

In this process the Bahraini population became accustomed to working with the British. Bahrain had limited resources and the pearling industry, the principal source of wealth, was virtually wiped out in the interwar years by recession and the development of cultivated pearls in Japan. Although oil was discovered in the 1930’s, the quantity was very limited. Bahrain, therefore, learned to live on its wits and the skills of its relatively advanced and educated labour force to provide services to the region and the British presence in the islands.

This close association has proved durable. The then Ruler, Shaikh Isa, father of the present King, tried to prevent British withdrawal in 1971. After Independence, with the British military presence and the British Residency gone, the British community in the Eighties when I was Ambassador was still, at some 10,000, far larger than any other Western nationality, and enjoyed a special prestige in the eyes of the Bahrain Government and ordinary Bahrainis. The Bahrain Monetary Agency (now the Central Bank) was set up under the tutelage of the Bank of England; telecommunications were established in partnership with Cable and Wireless. British Banks had a privileged position. Personal relations between Bahrainis and the British community were exceptionally close, socially as well as in business and commerce.

Today, with the development of Bahrain as an international financial centre and the vastly increased numbers of Western and other high level expatriates throughout the Gulf, these links have become less exclusive, just as Bahrain’s position as a hub for the region is greatly diminished. On the other hand many more Bahrainis now have residences in Britain and regard London as a second home.

Bahrain is a small country with no more than 600,000 nationals and total population of some 1,200,000. But the relationship with Britain is not all one way. When Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990 I was called at once to see the Bahrain Prime Minister, Shaikh Khalifa, who happened to be in London. While other GCC leaders were hesitating Shaikh Khalifa said simply: “this must be stopped and we look to Britain to play its part; whatever facilities you need in Bahrain, we will provide”. Bahrain was as good as his word, and so were we.

2. Bahrain Under the Al Khalifa

Bahrain is not an oil rich state but has earned relative prosperity by provision of services and industry in an oil rich region. The formula has been an alliance between the ruling (now Royal) family, aligned with Britain and the West but close to the House of Saud, an active entrepreneurial merchant class, majority but not exclusively Sunni and of diverse origins around the Gulf, and a labour force, predominantly Baharna Shia with substantial numbers of Indian Subcontinent expatriates. The Al Khalifa have kept overall control, and especially administration of Foreign Affairs, Defence and Internal Security. Economic Development is achieved through cooperation between the Government and the merchant community. Infrastructure projects and agriculture are largely in Baharna hands. All are represented in Cabinet. Generally the Shia are not discriminated against but the Royal Family and their allies are favoured.

The outcome is a close knit and relatively open society made up of disparate elements who are not segregated but remain separate. They rarely intermarry (the Al Khalifa marry almost always within their own family). While there are many rich Shia, the bottom of the social pile are the poorer, working class, Baharna, many of whom live in Shia villages with few of the amenities of Manama. Responsible Bahrainis of all backgrounds are conscious of the need to provide employment opportunities for this working class, especially its young men. This has always been a principal preoccupation of the Government.

Among Arab States, Bahrain has rated highly on the Human Development Index. Education, public health, the status of women and freedom of worship are all advanced for the region. It is a notably liberal and tolerant society. Prior to 2011, although periodic discontent among the Baharna with their position and Al Khalifa rule was of long standing, the atmosphere was notably relaxed. Both Western expatriates, with their families, and other Arabs found Bahrain an agreeable base for work or leisure. International Financial Institutions operate in a well regulated environment, to the economic benefit of all sectors of Bahrain society.

To put in perspective the prevailing image of Bahrain as a society divided on antagonistic religious lines, where Sunni rulers and oppressed Shia never meet, let me record my own experience in the 1980’s. It was my practice as Ambassador to attend the family mourning assemblies whenever any prominent figure died. On several occasions at mourning for a member of the Shia community, I found the then Ruler or his brother the Prime Minister, present on the same errand to pay his condolences; there was no pomp, circumstance or security. In some respects it was still like a small village community, with much of the mutual respect that implies.

3. The Systemic Problem

Nevertheless, there is a long term systemic problem which is simply that the Royal Family, with their close adherents took over Bahrain in the eighteenth century as incomers from the tribal, nomadic society of Arabia, and have ever since ruled over the indigenous, sedentary Baharna majority. That the Al Khalifa are Sunni and their subjects Shia makes matters worse but is not the prime cause of friction, which is the natural dissatisfaction of a majority permanently excluded from supreme power, together with resentment at the privilege of the ruling class. Over time the level of discontent has fluctuated and for long periods the Al Khalifa have coopted the support of the majority. But it was natural that events in Tunisia and Egypt should trigger (not cause) a crisis in 2001.

This systemic problem is made worse by historic Iranian claims to sovereignty over Bahrain. This claim, withdrawn by the Shah in 1971, was reactivated by the Islamic Revolution in 1979, with the added factor of Iranian aspirations to defend Shia communities throughout the region. The Gulf Arab response was to establish the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a common shield against Iranian (and in another context, possible Iraqi) encroachment. Even so, there was a failed assassination/coup attempt in December 1981, shortly after my arrival; the background was never clear but the Government blamed Iranian subversion.

By no means all Baharna are opposed to Al Khalifa rule and not all opposition activists are Shia. In an older generation young men from all backgrounds might be Nasserite or Baathist firebrands and later became pillars of the establishment. Now their successors are Salafist Sunni, whose wish to end Bahrain’s liberal ways threatens the economy but this is a wider issue for the Islamic world, not endemic to Bahrain. Meanwhile, a substantial educated middle class are keen to see better, more accountable Government, but are fearful of Islamic enthusiasm and its implications.

4. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the GCC

Solidarity within the GCC and support from Saudi Arabia are not cost free. With close family and social links, Bahrain is economically dependent on its major neighbour but they are very different societies. While liberal, inclusive, religiously tolerant Bahrain has turned these differences to its economic advantage, Saudi financial support and access to Saudi oil at a preferential rate remain essential. This comes at a price.

Saudi Arabia has its own problem with a Shia significant minority in the Eastern Province. This minority and the Baharna are historically close. Their situation is exacerbated because for the religiously hard line Wahhabi Saudis, Shiism is anathema; and because the despised Shia live and work in the oil producing region. There is no way the Saudi Government would allow the Al Khalifa, even if they so wished, to introduce full Western style democracy power in Bahrain; the risk of knock–on to the Eastern Province would be judged unacceptable and some form of Saudi takeover of Bahrain would almost certainly follow.

There is also the Saudi attitude to the “Arab Spring”. Setting aside the proxy war in which Saudi Arabia and Qatar are covertly engaged in Syria against Iran (which is about regional power, not religion, let alone Democracy or Human Rights) Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have set their faces against any but the slowest, incremental change in their form of Government. They are already alarmed at the difficulties faced by Kuwait consequent on democratic advance in one Gulf State. Saudi Arabia will insist on caution in Bahrain, and will have the tacit support of Qatar and the UAE.

Bahrain has done well to retain its independence and liberal way of life. In my time the Ruler resisted pressure from the Saudi religious establishment to close Bahrain’s churches. With the causeway to facilitate access, Saudi influence in all fields has become much easier to apply.

5. Implications for British Policy

There is no realistic alternative to Al Khalifa rule that would improve the lot of the Baharna, so long as the House of Saud rule in Arabia. Radical democratic reform in Bahrain would not be tolerated by Riyadh. If direct Saudi control were asserted there would be little economic role for Bahrain without its liberal “unique selling point” and all Bahrainis would suffer. The best outcome from the recent crisis would, of course, include real reform measures to improve government accountability and to prevent abuse of police powers. The Bahrain Government accept this; King Hamad began his reign with democratic advances and 2011 saw an impressive list of commitments entered into in response to the crisis.

It is vital that there should be credible interlocutors on the side of the opposition if reform is to succeed. Not all the opposition is Shia and not all the Shia want the fall of the Al Khalifa. Past unrest has been Nasserist; more recently Sunni political Islamists have tried to hijack the infant democratic institutions and to end Bahrain’s liberal customs. Moderate voices need to be heard.

The Bahrain Government get a bad press. The excellent report by Edward Mortimer commissioned by the BBC following criticism of its coverage of the “Arab Spring” is essential reading. The “Arab Spring” became one story of the rise of people power against arbitrary Government and the differences between what was happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and now Syria could become lost as correspondents rushed from one crisis to another, caught up in the excitement of another Tahrir Square. The opposition everywhere got its story across best, and in Bahrain this was widely resented by expatriates and Bahrainis alike. Most of us share a bias for democracy and freedom, but the media (not only the BBC) got carried away.

HMG are not responsible for media coverage. In Bahrain they have rightly given support for police reform etc. I have no doubt that they offer advice and help both to the Government and to responsible opposition figures on the need for reform but also for realism. Britain still has a special status in Bahrain which carries responsibilities in times of need. When the Press run the story of Royal invitations withheld or declined, or when the Bahrain Ambassador is excluded from the Labour Party Conference, no Minister stands up to say out loud that we have good strong bonds of friendship with Bahrain, that Bahrain’s future depends on the stability of the Monarchy, and that we will do all we can to help that stability as well as the process of reform to which the King is committed.

HMG were prepared to declare that Qaddafi and Assad must go; they should make it equally clear that Bahrain’s Monarchy must stay.

2 November 2012

Prepared 19th November 2013