May 31 marks the 153rd anniversary of Bahrain’s signing of the “Perpetual Treaty of Peace and Friendship” in 1861. Here, we consider this treaty’s significance for allowing Bahrain’s emergence as an independent and sovereign state:
At the time when the Al Khalifa family from the Arabian Utub tribe were establishing their rule in Bahrain in the eighteenth century; Bahrain’s status as an independent state was far from secure.
For around 900 years – from the time of Islam until the Portuguese invasion of 1521 – Bahrain had not just incorporated the group of islands that encompass modern Bahrain; but also most of the Arabian coast from Basra down to the Oman border.
Parts of this “Greater Bahrain” region had at different times fallen under the influence of a variety of kingdoms; including Hormuz, Oman and Persia; as well as control by a range of Arabian tribes.
From 1602 the Persian Safawi empire sought to stake its claim on Bahrain; but lacking a navy and facing internal collapse and Afghan invasion, effective Iranian control was mercifully brief.
Bahrain’s pearl wealth and its importance as a trade hub in the centre of the Arabian Gulf made Bahrain a very valuable prize.
So by the year 1800 a bewildering array of powers were staking their claim on the islands of Bahrain: The Ottomans, Oman, Egypt, the Wahhabis, Persia; as well as major colonial powers all at various times asserted that Bahrain belonged to them.
As Britain expanded its influence in the Arabian Gulf, it initially gave mixed signals about whose claim to Bahrain it would support; at different times various officials seeming to sympathize with the Wahhabis, the Omanis and the Persians.
Bahrain was invaded no less than three times by Oman in the early nineteenth century and Iranian demands that Bahrain belonged to them continue up to the present day.
Even after the General Maritime Treaty of 1820 (signed by Britain and numerous Gulf Principalities, and recognizing Al Khalifa as the legitimate rulers of Bahrain); Britain’s willingness to protect Bahrain’s sovereignty against the many claimants seemed uncertain.
In 1838 the Egyptians attacked the Wahhabis and occupied much of Arabia. The Egyptian invaders (unsuccessfully) demanded tribute from the rulers of Bahrain and Britain briefly considered sending troops to Bahrain to counter the Egyptian threat.
Britain once again considered responding with force when news was received in 1842 of a Persian threat to invade Bahrain; although the invasion plans came to nothing.
Given this situation; most reasonable Middle Eastern experts in the mid-nineteenth century would have been sensible to predict that Bahrain would be likely to end up as a forgotten backwater of Saudi Arabia; a Persian archipelago; or a minor part of some artificial federation of semi-autonomous states.
Bahrainis shouldn’t take for granted that they have their own independent state; or that the sovereign state of Bahrain is the most socially progressive and culturally enlightened location in a region overflowing with various species of Islamic fundamentalism and intolerance.
Once the Al Khalifa family had established their rule in Bahrain and succeeded in fending off these various foreign invasions and illegitimate claims; they carefully managed their relationship with local and global powers, to secure a precarious balancing act of domestic sovereignty and regional security.
Bahrain could never hope to possess the mightiest army of the biggest navy; but by asserting its independence and cultivating its allies Bahrain’s geopolitical position became increasingly more secure.
Formal recognition of Bahrain’s independent status came with the “Perpetual Treaty of Peace and Friendship” signed on 31 May 1861 between Britain and Bahrain.
This for the first time formally recognized Bahrain as a sovereign and independent nation, which no other states could make territorial claims against; and acknowledged the Monarchy as the legitimate rulers of independent Bahrain.
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