Bahrain's National Day: A Celebration of an Absolutist Monarchy
Why does Bahrain celebrate National Day on Dec 16, and not Independence Day on Aug 14? Well, the answer is certainly depressing.
“Bahrain is situated in a strategic location in the middle of the Arab Gulf.” Every student in Bahrain will have read this sentence once a year for twelve consecutive years during the mandatory Arabic Social Studies course as required by the Ministry of Education in all schools public and private. The sentence opens the course’s textbook, published by the Ministry each year and distributed to every school in the country. In fact, every child that grows up in Bahrain will have to memorize this sentence as a correct answer to a class test.
Yet despite the name, the class does little to teach students about the actual history of Bahrain. Rather, we learned a medley of basic geographic facts and numbers combined with the ancient history of the region. Curiously, history as taught to Bahraini students pauses with the arrival of Islam to the island in the 8th century AD. Skimming past several centuries worth of events with the most cursory of glances, Bahraini history resumes at the turn of the millennium, with the death of Emir Isa bin Salman al Khalifa and the succession of his son Emir Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa.
Ignoring the more controversial period at the end of the 20th century, the focus lay with the National Action Charter of 2001, whereby Emir Hamad reconstituted the country into a constitutional monarchy with himself as king, and implemented some reforms including the re-writing of a constitution in anticipation of parliamentary elections in 2002. King Hamad also issued a mass pardon of political prisoners, allowing many exiles to return home after years abroad. If the Ministry issued textbook is to be believed, the Charter passed a referendum in 2001 with 98% of the vote, and Bahrainis live happily ever after. However, as today December 16th is National Day in Bahrain, I want to re-examine some presumptions regarding this sterile propaganda we were taught and delve into the missing decades between the fight for independence from Britain in the mid-20th century and the death of the first Emir of an independent Bahrain, Isa bin Salman of the House of Khalifa.
Following the end of World War 2, the British Empire finally admitted its own decline, and began preparing to withdraw from what was left of its myriad colonies, protectorates, and mandates. Despite what some believe, however, this was not done out of the goodness of British hearts. Rather, independence movements across the world found renewed momentum amidst a war weary British public. In Bahrain, the leftist National Union Committee was formed with deep ties to organized labour. Strikes, labour stoppages, and riots were a frequent hallmark of this period as the NUC demanded an end to British colonial presence.
The NUC’s resistance to Britain climaxed with the March Intifada of 1965. A mass layoff of workers at the Bahrain Petroleum Company (BAPCO) triggered protests and demonstrations. The British, through their Khalifa clients, responded with force, escalating the violence. Over the next month, mass strikes and riots happened almost daily under the slogan “down down with colonialism”. Though the uprising was crushed, British colonialism in Bahrain has been shown to be untenable, and as with many other colonies, the British decided to cut their losses and leave.
As a result, in 1968, Britain announced its intentions to end its treaty relationships with its protectorates in the Persian Gulf. These included Qatar, Bahrain, and the Trucial States - a set of tribal confederations which would later form the United Arab Emirates. Iran, then under the Pahlavi dynasty, immediately laid claim to Bahrain as its territory.
Negotiations between Iran and Britain led to a United Nations-sponsored referendum in 1970 in which the Bahraini people were asked if they preferred independence or merging with Iran. According to the UN Special Representative sent to the island, Bahrainis overwhelmingly desired independence. Thus, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 278 on 11 May 1970 stipulating that Bahrain be granted independence according to the wishes of her people. Bahrain was then offered a chance to join with Qatar and the Trucial States to form a confederation of sheikhdoms, but by early 1971, the terms of such a union were still disputed, and both Qatar and Bahrain chose to withdraw from what would then become the United Arab Emirates.
On August 14, 1971, Britain formally departed and Bahrain achieved full independence. Four months later, on December 16, 1971, Isa bin Salman al Khalifa formally ascended to the throne as Emir of the State of Bahrain. On the same day, Emir Isa announced that Bahrain will be organized as a constitutional state, with a constitution to be written by a Constituent Assembly. The assembly would be split between 22 elected delegates and 20 delegates appointed by the Emir. Elections for the 22 delegates were held in December 1972, and a constitution was drafted accordingly.
The 1973 Constitution of Bahrain proposed a single chamber National Assembly consisting of 30 elected representatives alongside 14 royally appointed members. The Assembly would act strictly as a consultative legislative organ, with little political power of its own. The Emir retained the power to appoint the Prime Minister and Cabinet, which he duly did by giving the former position to his brother, Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa. The key cabinet positions - the Interior, Defence, Foreign Affairs, and Justice - all went to members of the House of Khalifa too. Meanwhile, suffrage was restricted to male citizens over the age of 20.Isa ratified the Constitution by decree in December 1973, allowing for an election that same month for the National Assembly. Thus, 1973 closed with what seemed to be a relatively optimistic note for Bahrainis dreaming of political freedom.
Sadly, it was not to last. Bahrain’s National Assembly convened for only two sessions before it was dissolved by decree from the Emir. Isa had drafted a State Security Law in 1974, which among other things contained measures stipulating that individuals can be arrested and detained without trial for a renewable period of three years if deemed a threat to Bahrain’s state security. The Assembly predictably refused to ratify this law. Consequently, Isa ratified the law by decree and on August 25, 1975, he dissolved the Assembly. Bahrain’s experiment with nominal democracy lasted just about two years.
Emir Isa went on to rule Bahrain until his death on March 11, 1999. The SSL was used extensively to suppress all dissent. The State Security Court was established with a special mandate from the Emir to try individuals under the SSL, with no chances of appeal. Notable opposition figures either went into exile or were arrested. Bahrain was effectively an absolute monarchy.
Though Emir Isa ruled as monarch, a special mention must go to Ian Henderson. Known in some circles as the Butcher of Bahrain, Henderson was the chief architect of the State Security Law. Henderson gained fame as a colonial police officer in Kenya during the Mau Mau Uprising, whereby he played a crucial role in capturing leader Dedan Kimathi and thus ending the uprising in favour of the British. Following Kenya’s independence in 1957, Henderson moved to Bahrain, where he took up the position of head of the Security and Intelligence Services in 1966. When Bahrain gained independence in 1971, Henderson stayed as SIS chief. For the next three decades, Henderson oversaw a vast and cruel regime of torture, disappearances, and murders in the service of Emir Isa al Khalifa. Any political opposition or dissent was thoroughly crushed. Henderson retired in 1998, a year before Emir Isa’s death, and died in 2013. He left as his legacy the brutal security apparatus of the Bahraini state, which continues to repress dissent to this day.
Upon the death of Emir Isa, his son and heir Emir Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa ascended to the throne. As part of a wide swathe of reforms, Hamad pardoned political prisoners and invited exiles to return with guarantees of safety and freedom. This was part of Hamad’s strategy of diffusing the tension resulting from a particularly violent period of dissent in the 90’s known as the 1990’s Intifada or the 90’s Uprising. Over 40 people died and hundreds were injured due to either bomb attacks from anti-government blocs or police brutality. Thus, Hamad saw his ascension as a chance to turn a new page and engage in modest reforms to quell the militant opposition.
The cornerstone of Hamad’s reforms lay in the National Action Charter. Put forth by Hamad in 2001, it was a political document that proposed restoring the 1973 Constitution, extending suffrage to women, instituting an independent judiciary overseen by a Supreme Court, and establishing a legislative assembly comprised of 40 members to be selected in elections. A national referendum was held for the NAC on 14 February 2001, resulting in 98.4% votes in favour from a turnout of 90.2% of eligible voters.
Consequently, a year to the day on 14th February 2002, Bahrain formally transitioned from a state (Dawla) into a Kingdom (Mamlaka), with Hamad now titled King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, and his son became the Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa. Local municipal elections were held in May of 2002. Parliamentary elections for the National Assembly - known now as the Council of Deputies - were held in October of that year, yielding the expected 40 MPs despite boycotts from the major opposition political parties who saw the reforms as not adequate enough and parliament as not having sufficient political power. The crux of the boycott revolved around the Council’s inability to appoint a Prime Minister or Cabinet. The largest opposition party - the Shi’a Islamist Wefaq Party - as well as the leftist Wa’ad Party were those who boycotted the 2002 elections, among others. As a result of the boycott, turnout was an underwhelming 53.48%, in stark contrast to the turnout for the NAC referendum.
Fast forward to 2011, and the cautious optimism of the Bahrani people that accompanied the NAC has long dissipated into dust. The Council of Deputies remained politically impotent, lacking any real political power. The King retained the sole authority to appoint and dismiss the Prime Minister, and he retained his uncle Prince Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa. At this point, Prime Minister Khalifa had become the longest-serving Prime Minister in the world, having been at the post for 38 years by 2011. Sectarian discrimination towards the Shi’a majority had been rife over the the past decade, with notable exclusions from jobs, housing, and education opportunities. As the Arab Spring exploded in Tunisia and spread eastward, Bahrainis took to the streets demanding a true representative government with an elected parliament and cabinet, along with calls to respect human rights and freedoms of speech and assembly. Without going too much into the weeds of Bahrain’s Arab Spring (that will be a topic for another piece altogether, and perhaps an episode on Radio War Nerd or Das Criminal podcasts should time and chance allow it), the government responded with brutal force.
Moreover, Prince Khalifa called his counterparts in Saudi Arabia, requesting aid, and the Saudis answered. Two thousand troops from the GCC’s Peninsula Shield force, ostensibly a cooperative effort but realistically driven by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, crossed the border into Bahrain to secure key government locations and free the Bahraini police to fan out and besiege Shi’a towns and mass arrest political dissidents. The result was a total eradication of any organized political opposition. Political leaders fled into exile (again) or were arrested and tried in kangaroo courts. Many were given long sentences, some were given life sentences. Thousands were injured in clashes with the police, and 93 protestors died. As I write this today, in December of 2020, the House of Khalifa remains in firm control of the government and security organs. Prince Khalifa died on 11 November of this year, but King Hamad quickly moved to appoint his son, the Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad as the next Prime Minister. The notable opposition parties - Wefaq and Wa’ad - are banned, as is the only anti-government news publication in Wasat. The Council of Deputies remains, but boycotts to elections means that the assembly is stacked with loyalists to the government, effectively acting as a rubber stamp to the cabinet.
All of this is to say that Bahrain’s National Day, observed on the 16th of December annually, is in fact a commemoration of an autocratic monarchy led by a small handful of individuals of the House of Khalifa. Dates and days are symbolically important. They represent the social and political priorities of those in power, and reflect the underlying relations of power. The House of Khalifa would be loath to celebrate Independence Day on August 14. That would give too much credit to the labour movement that organized against British colonial rule, and undermine the legitimacy of the monarchy. Conversely, celebrating National Day on December 16 every year reaffirms the total political hegemony of the House of Khalifa on the island. It is an effective reminder that power lies with King Hamad and Crown Prince Salman and their coterie of sibling, cousins. and uncles, along with a select few allied families. Perhaps one day we will celebrate a revolutionary Bahrain Day, glorifying the people and their sacrifices, but until then we must contend with a feudalistic royal family and a corrupt elite looting Bahrain dry. So, happy Bahrain Feudal Monarchy Day, readers!