Country Profile: Bahrain

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An overview of the key moments from the history of interaction between the British and Bahrain, as illustrated through the India Office Records.

The Kingdom of Bahrain is an archipelago nation in the Gulf, situated off the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Previously an Emirate, it has been a Kingdom since 2002, when the country’s current ruler, Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, declared himself King.

Bahrain’s capital, Manama, is located on the largest island of the archipelago, Bahrain Island (also known as Awal Island). Muharraq City, situated opposite Manama on Muharraq Island, was the country’s capital until 1923.

Letter recognising need for appointment of an officer (agent) at Bahrain from the Deputy Secretary to the Governement of India to the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf. IOR/R/15/1/330, f. 7
Letter recognising need for appointment of an officer (agent) at Bahrain from the Deputy Secretary to the Governement of India to the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf. IOR/R/15/1/330, f. 7

The Al Khalifa family, originally from the Nejd region of what is now Saudi Arabia, have ruled Bahrain since 1783, when they captured the archipelago from the Al Madhkur family. The Al Madhkurs ruled Bahrain from their base in Bushire on behalf of the Qajar dynasty of Persia. Bahrain had been ruled from Persia since 1602 when forces of the Safavid Empire occupied the islands and forced out the Portuguese who had held them since 1521.

Throughout the nineteenth century, as Great Britain strengthened its hegemonic presence in the Gulf, the Al Khalifas signed a series of agreements with Britain. The first of these was the General Maritime Treaty of 1820, followed by subsequent agreements in 1856, 1861, 1880 and 1892. Although throughout the period Bahrain remained nominally independent and was considered a British-protected state – rather than a protectorate – as a consequence of these agreements the Al Khalifas signed away their right to wage war at sea and handed over control of foreign relations to the British in return for protection.

Britain’s position in the country was formalised in 1900 with the creation of the post of Political Agent A mid-ranking political representative (equivalent to a Consul) from the diplomatic corps of the Government of India or one of its subordinate provincial governments, in charge of a Political Agency. in Bahrain, a post that lasted until 1971. In 1926, a British official named Charles Belgrave was appointed as an adviser to Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Belgrave served in this position until 1957 and was an enormously influential figure in the country throughout this period.

 Printed copy of correspondence between the Political Resident and Political Agent Bahrain discussing the rationale for replacing Shaikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa. IOR/R/15/1/337, f. 1
Printed copy of correspondence between the Political Resident and Political Agent Bahrain discussing the rationale for replacing Shaikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa. IOR/R/15/1/337, f. 1
'Bahrein: The Tombs', from an album of tour of the Persian Gulf by Rev. Edwin Aubrey Storrs-Fox, 1918. Photo 496/6/30
'Bahrein: The Tombs', from an album of tour of the Persian Gulf by Rev. Edwin Aubrey Storrs-Fox, 1918. Photo 496/6/30

Influential, too, was the discovery of oil in 1932. Crude oil was exported for the first time in 1934 while pearl diving, which had previously formed the most important sector in the Bahraini economy, declined rapidly.

Bahrain became independent from Great Britain on 15 August 1971.

Key moments from Bahrain’s history in the India Office Records include

1820: Signing of the General Maritime Treaty (IOR/R/15/1/21-IOR/R/15/1/24)
1900: Creation of the post of Political Agent A mid-ranking political representative (equivalent to a Consul) from the diplomatic corps of the Government of India or one of its subordinate provincial governments, in charge of a Political Agency. in Bahrain (IOR/R/15/1/330 & IOR/R/15/2/51)
1901: Formal recognition of Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa as heir apparent (IOR/R/15/2/65)
1923: Forced abdication of Shaikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa and the installation of Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa as ruler of Bahrain (IOR/R/15/1/337)
1926: Appointment of Charles Belgrave as Adviser to Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa (IOR/R/15/1/362)

Confidential letter from F. B. Prideaux, POlitical Resident in the Persian Gulf to the Foreign Secretary to the Government of India mentioning Charles Belgrave's appointment as Financial Adviser to the Shaikh of Bahrain, 1925. IOR/R/15/1/362, f. 10
Confidential letter from F. B. Prideaux, POlitical Resident in the Persian Gulf to the Foreign Secretary to the Government of India mentioning Charles Belgrave's appointment as Financial Adviser to the Shaikh of Bahrain, 1925. IOR/R/15/1/362, f. 10

Suggested reading

Charles Belgrave, Personal Column (London: Hutchinson, 1960)
Mahdi Abdalla Al-Tajir, Bahrain, 1920–45: Britain, the Shaikh and the Administration, (London: Croom Helm, 1987)
Nelida Fuccaro, Histories of City and State in the Persian Gulf Historically used by the British to refer to the sea area between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. Often referred to as The Gulf or the Arabian Gulf. : Manama since 1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)
Rosemary Said Zahlan, The Making of the Modern Gulf States Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989)
Simon C. Smith, Britain’s Revival and Fall in the Gulf: Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the Trucial States, 1950–71 (London: Routledge, 2013)
James Onley, The Arabian Frontier of the British Raj: Merchants, Rulers, and the British in the Nineteenth-Century Gulf (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)