by Emile Nakhleh
A Fulbrighter Goes to Bahrain Emile Nakhleh As the first ever Senior Fulbright Research Scholar in Bahrain, I spent the academic year 1972-1973 studying the making of the new state of Bahrain after the country became independent in 1971. The Sunni a-Khalifa family has ruled over the Shia majority for almost two centuries. Before independence, al-Khalifa were either controlled or heavily influenced by the British government. Over the years, senior British officials, including Charles Belgrave and Ian Henderson, served as senior and powerful advisors to the ruling family and ran the country’s internal security service and police.
I was privileged for the opportunity to watch the al-Majlis al-Ta’sisi or Constituent Assembly being formed and to attend all of its open sessions. The Majlis debated and drafted the new constitution and established the governing structure of the country. I interviewed all the members of the Assembly, both elected and appointed by the Amir Shaikh Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa and his brother the Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa. The constitution was promulgated by the Amir in 1973 but was dissolved less than two years later in 1975. Since then the Amir was replaced by his son the new Amir and now King Shaikh Hamad bin Isa. Khalifa has retained his position as the head of the government, which makes him the longest unelected Prime Minister in the modern history of the world.
After I arrived in Bahrain, I visited the Speaker of the Majlis and asked him for a badge to attend the sessions. As he was unaware of the Fulbright program, he asked me what I was planning to do. I told him I would do research, interview people, examine records, and then write. He turned to his secretary and told her, “He writes, he must be a journalist, give him a press card.” So I attended all the open sessions of the Majlis as a “Journalist”! As the debates inside the Majlis became more heated and the media became more animated, the Prime Minister’s anxiety grew. He accused me of interacting with the members too closely and of “giving them ideas.” He called the US Ambassador, then located in Kuwait, and threatened to declare me persona non grata and terminate my stay. He got particularly incensed after I requested an interview with Ian Henderson about internal security. Henderson told me he worked for the Prime Minister and would not grant me an interview without his approval. Needless to say, it didn’t happen. But I did stay!
On a humorous vein, after I began my research at Government House, one day I asked for several specific documents. I was told “inshalla bukra” (God willing, tomorrow). Naively, I went back “tomorrow” to get the documents. The person in charge smiled and told me politely that “tomorrow” didn’t mean a precise time! When the following day I relayed the story to the foreign minister, Shaikh Muhammad bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, who was in charge of my Fulbright program, he chuckled and sent a note to Government House saying, “No inshallah bukra for Dr. Nakhleh!”
While I never got to meet Ian Henderson, on the flight out of Bahrain, I asked a British security officer sitting next to me about the beatings of a journalist’s son. He had already had a few drinks, and freely acknowledged the story and told me, “Yes, we do interrogations but we do not torture; Arab mercenaries do that!” By “mercenaries”, he meant the Arab expats who worked in his department.
My Fulbright research resulted in a book titled Bahrain: Political 1 Development in a Modernizing Society, which was published in 1976. It was banned for decades, but 30 years a reformist Bahraini NGO was able to translate it into Arabic and print it. The publisher of the original republished it as is in 2011 following the start of the Arab Spring because in the publisher’s view the grievances I talked about in the 1970s were still there 40 years later! My Fulbright in Bahrain was a superb experience. I made life-long friendships and enjoyed my stay immensely. Bahrain still occupies a soft spot in my heart. Bahrainis—Sunnis and Shia—have always wanted to live in peace and dignity, but also in freedom. It’s a shame the ruling family has been unable to share power and enhance its legitimacy in the eyes of its own people. The al-Khalifa rulers have yet to learn the lesson that repression is never the answer to civic peace and social harmony.