Over the last 30 years a significant number of Americans and other Westerners have developed some knowledge of Bahrain and the impressive economic and social progress which this small country has made. Their experience, however, is limited to the Bahrain of the present emir, Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifa, whose tenure since 1961 makes him one of the world's longest-reigning chiefs of state. It is Sheikh Isa who has led Bahrain into full independence (in 1971), through the unusually good times of the Gulf oil boom and through the troubled regional atmosphere of the last decade or so.
By contrast, few Westerners, even the British, are still around with direct knowledge of an earlier Bahrain, which from 1861 had been, in the official British view, "an independent Arab State under the protection of His Majesty's Government, but not a British Protectorate." The English language writings on Bahrain in the middle third of this century are limited, and perhaps the most popular source of information is Personal Column, the memoirs of Sir Charles Belgrave, the Britisher who long served as political adviser to the Al-Khalifa sheikhs. Thus limited Western attention has focused somewhat dimly on the present emir's grandfather, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa, emir from 1932 until his death in 1942. Indeed Sheikh Hamad had been in de facto control as deputy ruler since 1923, an arrangement apparently engineered by the British to evade the obstacle posed by the traditionalist views of Hamad's ancient father, who had become emir in 1869. Sheikh Hamad is generally remembered as the gracious and generous prince who had the good fortune to rule when Bahrain first experienced oil riches and the good sense to use that new wealth to benefit the health, education and general welfare of the people of Bahrain. I have often heard the present emir described as being in the image of his grandfather.
In between these two generally admired figures is the relatively obscure Sheikh Salman bin Hamad, whose reign from 1942 to 1961 encompassed the difficult days of World War II and the political troubles of the 1950s. Insofar as Sheikh Salman has an image among Westerners it has tended to be that of a conservative and uncharismatic leader somewhat uncomfortable, like his grandfather, with progress. Andrew Wheatcroft's book is an effort to set the record straight and to give Sheikh Salman his proper place in history.
The author wants us to see Emir Salman as a dedicated, hardworking ruler determined to move Bahrain down the path of progress on which his father had set it. He stresses the emir's concern for the welfare of the people, especially with assuring adequate food supplies, during World War II. He notes Salman's vision of developing Bahrain as a regional air-transport center, which came into reality with the establishment of Gulf Air. Wheatcroft details the emir's concern for developing the infrastructure, the health services and the education system in Bahrain and gives an interesting account of the substantial progress in these areas under Salman's rule. He devotes some detail to the emir's dogged, successful pursuit of a larger state share of the revenues from oil activities in Bahrain. He also notes Salman's skilled diplomacy with Saudi Arabia in 1958 to define marine boundaries and give Bahrain a share of the income from what would become the lucrative Abu Safa oil field. Wheatcroft gives Salman credit for recruiting a circle of talented commoner advisers and aides who set what has become a tradition of effective public administration in Bahrain.
The author has some difficulty in justifying the emir's performance in the 1953- 56 political unrest, most noted for the 1956 riots during the visit of British Cabinet Minister Selwyn Lloyd. His account is perhaps a timely reminder of the difficulties the hereditary Al-Khalifa rulers have in coming to grips with recurring popular demand for democracy in Bahrain. Wheatcroft also notes Sheikh Salman's unbending insistence on Bahraini sovereignty in the Al-Khalifa ancestral home of Zubara in what is now the State of Qatar. This Al-Khalifa claim is the core of the offshore territorial disputes which continue to damage relations between two otherwise harmonious Gulf Cooperation Council partners.
To describe Wheatcroft's treatment of Sheikh Salman as sympathetic is an understatement. Indeed the reader is well advised to start the book at the end, for in "A Summation" the author sets forth what he has been up to more clearly than he did at the beginning. Thus the reader will be better prepared to cope with the unstinting justification of a prince who could do no wrong. Throughout the book this praise of princes grows annoying to the point that the reader is tempted to question the author's selection of white hats and black hats, without being able to challenge the choices. But the controversies described were long ago in terms of modern Bahrain, and having to swallow the "pro-Sheikh-Salman" version of events is a small price to pay for an interesting account of Bahrain's progress in the middle third of this century.
Most of the "controversies" involve Wheatcroft's central theme and the primary merit of this book. He does an excellent job in discussing the inherent tension when two quite different sorts of people with quite different perspectives about Bahrain and where it fit into the world scheme of things-British officials and Al-Khalifa sheikhs-are in effect sharing rule over a small island state. According to Wheatcroft, whose research of official British documents was extensive, Sheikh Salman, unlike his father, did not yield easily to British advice (even from Belgrave, who was in his employ) and therefore came across in official British correspondence as "stubborn" in the best of times and a downright nuisance in the worst. Thus, according to Wheatcroft, did the emir acquire the tarnished image which he has set out to polish.
Equally fascinating is Wheatcroft's account of the impact in Bahrain of Americans: oil executives resident or visiting, quasi-resident naval officers and visiting diplomats. He suggests that their view of Sheikh Salman and his leadership was more positive than that of British officials charged with responsibilities for governance and that suffering their presence tested British courtesy.
The book is enhanced by 56 pages of fabulous photographs of Bahrain in the old days. It is a quite worthwhile read, especially for those who have generally positive views of two centuries of Al-Khalifa stewardship of the islands. Those hungering for an indictment of Al-Khalifa rule should look elsewhere.