Marc Owen Jones, Political Repression in Bahrain (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Marc Jones (MJ): I had started my PhD at the beginning of 2011, just before the Bahrain uprising began. Initially my plan had been to study the use of social media in Bahrain, but this changed abruptly as the scale of regime brutality became more evident. Having grown up in Bahrain, it felt wrong to not to try and understand more about what my privilege had perhaps insulated me from during my childhood. I remembered the 1990s intifada, but it felt very peripheral to my lived experience—I was also very young. I was also revulsed by the extent of violence and statecraft being used by the regime; police brutality, torture, sectarianism. The whole gamut of tactics, from violence to propaganda, shocked me, and the notion of “state repression” resonated as a term that helped make sense of what has happening.

While I started exploring historical context, I became more and more curious about the repeated episodes of contention in Bahrain. The existence of certain constants over the past one hundred years, such as familial rule and the fact Bahrain was always subject to some sort of imperial overrule (British Empire, US hegemony, Saudi power), made the “Arab Spring” in Bahrain—so often touted as exceptional—less exceptional. I wanted to explore the patterns, methods, and explanations for repression in a small country like Bahrain, which had historically lacked its own sovereignty.

While I was obviously excited by the academic endeavor, on a personal level the book was an important process of unlearning for me, in which I come to terms with a reality that so many people like myself are shielded from in Bahrain.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MJ: Area studies, like other disciplines, tend to develop their related nomenclatures and terminologies. Paradigms of sectarianism, democratization, and authoritarianism seem to be in ascendency. The Persian Gulf in particular seems to have been dominated by literature motivated by transatlantic security concerns. It can be hard to break out of this paradigm; even if these are useful essential and important concepts, I think it is always useful to depart from what sometimes become disciplinary echo chambers and to turn also to social science literature that exists outside of Middle East studies. By using the framework of repression, I felt somehow I was eschewing disciplinary traditions and constraints without disingenuously claiming to reinvent the wheel. It was also an opportunity to add to studies of repression, which have often focused on quantitative and co-variate analysis, as well as historical and qualitative research.

This journey was tricky, not least because repression is a concept that spans multiple disciplines. Consequently, the book dips into aspects of criminology, critical legal studies, communication, political science, history, and social science. The reason for this eclecticism stemmed really from trying to best answer certain questions about why repression had occurred, and what methods constituted repression. Such questions rarely respect disciplinary boundaries. Indeed, as Charles Tilly once noted, repression almost deserves its own history. Like any specific conceptual lens, focusing on repression naturally led me to some interesting discoveries.

In this regard the book is also revisionist (like any novel history should be, really). It offers interesting insight into the “legitimators” of repression, those people heavily involved in defining repressive policy. As such it reveals the often-disturbing role of British and al-Khalifa officials in facilitating certain methods of repression, whether it be against trade union movements or Arab nationalists. The book explores various episodes of contention from the 1920s to 2011. As such, it compares how the al-Khalifa regime has repressed a wide variety of movements, from the fledgling democratic and nationalist movements of the 1930s and 1950s, to the increasingly left-wing movement of the 1970s, as well as the more Islamist movements beyond the 1980s. From examining the specific roles of figures ranging from Charles Belgrave to the prime minister, to exploring how town planning was executed in order to limit opposition, the book digs deep into structures of oppression and control.

The concept of repression is often understood as very specific—the use of state violence—but actually it is an umbrella term. It can mean any strategy used to disrupt the existence, effectiveness, and organization of social movements. Fundamentally, the book is a history of Bahrain but it is mediated by the concept of “repression”—broken down into four separate broader categories: statecraft, personal integrity violations, legal controls, and information controls.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MJ: My work has generally focused on various forms of power and control. I think what I like about the book is that it attempts to articulate a broader conception of repression, allowing for a wide ranging and (hopefully) engaging read. My current work is not solely focused on Bahrain, but the wider Middle East. It does, however, more or less concentrate on the more narrowly defined role of information control and digital “authoritarianism.”

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MJ: I had always hoped that the book would be a key primer on Bahraini politics and modern history. There are some excellent books on Bahrain, but I wanted this work to be bound together by elements that would be of concern to those living and resisting in Bahrain: namely resistance and political repression. The existence of such structures is so fundamental to understanding the intersection of capitalism, oil wealth, British imperialism, Saudi power, tribal rule, and sectarianism. I think anyone interested in social movement studies, general politics, and the Middle East will find this book interesting. It will also appeal to international relations scholars, historians, political scientists, and those looking at how repression is impacted by multiple factors, including changing suzerains. The repression framework I create in the initial chapters should also be useful for anyone studying forms of control, as it is a schema developed from inductively looking at Bahrain and also the broader literature on repression.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MJ: Currently, I have a contract with Hurst on “Digital Authoritarianism and Deception in the Middle East”—planned for early next year. The work relies on a lot of my own empirical work and research into various disinformation operations within and involving the Middle East. From automated-hate speech, to the murdering of Khashoggi, to the creation of dozens of fake journalists, the book documents multiple case studies of digital deception. I am also elaborating on some of these investigations (and their methodological aspects) and turning them into journal format. On top of these activities, I would like to launch a project in creating audio archives of meaningful sounds across the Middle East.

J: What are your reflections on positionality?

MJ: The reason I pose this question is not simply due to the contemporary obsession with an author’s provenance, but rather because, as a third culture kid (and now adult), I have been troubled by the ascendency of often exclusionary identity politics. I recall sometimes in 2011 being told simultaneously the contradictory, “you are a true Bahraini” and “you are a traitor to Bahrain.” The two statements neatly encapsulated how identity is entirely subjective, and that its ascription by third parties is a manifestation of an inherent arbitrariness to those categories. It was also a strong reminder of the fickleness of identity, the transient nature of its definition, and the absurdity of people thinking they have the right ascribe it.

The book reflects the fact I consider myself, among other things, Bahraini, the definition of which is not fixed. To be Bahraini to me, and to many others I know, may only be partly related to nationality. Formal citizenship, as I discuss in my book, is ultimately a system of rewarding those loyal to a ruling family. Belonging is something else, and my brain was shaped by my upbringing in Bahrain. Systems of privilege in Bahrain are complex, and I, like many others, was privileged according to various aspects of my status and background, whether it be my whiteness, nationality, my mental illness, or my working class parents. I think it is important to acknowledge intersecting elements of identity when there is still an alarming tendency towards identity politics, especially as a “third culture kids,” who have specific paths of psychological and social development. The demographic makeup of the Gulf produces many of us, and we often sit uncomfortably between different worlds, struggling to adjust rather than feeling that we belong.


Excerpt from the book 

From Chapter 4: Torture, Arrests and Other Personal Integrity Violations

Eight political detainees were killed in custody between 1976 and 1986. Amnesty International as well as the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group reported that at least six of those were believed to have been killed as a result of torture. This means that deaths known to be caused by torture began following Independence. The British, who had excellent contacts in the police through Ian Henderson, discussed some of these killings. The first so-called ‘Shiʿa martyr’ was considered to be Jamal ʿAli, who was killed in police custody in 1980. The local English newspaper, the Gulf Daily News, reported that Jamal ʿAli had died of kidney failure as a result of bad health. (Similarly, in 2011, the Bahrain News Agency noted that Karim Fakhrawi, who was found to have been tortured, also died of kidney failure.) British officials were not convinced by the GDN’s reporting. In fact, they acknowledged that ʿAli was likely an ‘innocent party’, was ‘electrocuted’ and was ‘beaten up in custody’ where he later ‘died of his injuries’. Civil society groups were also not convinced by the government’s official line. The Bahrain Workers Union (BWU) claimed that Jamal ʿAli was arrested and tortured for his trade union activities. Despite British knowledge of his torture, the BWU’s complaint about Ali’s death to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 1981 was dismissed in part due to the government’s story that ʿAli was being treated in Salmaniya hospital for a ‘diseased and defective kidney condition’. Inevitably, the BWU could not substantiate their claims without evidence.

In most cases of deaths by torture, there was no investigation, internal or otherwise. In three of the cases between 1976 and 1986, investigations found that the deceased had died of suicide or medical illness – a common excuse used to absolve the security services of accountability. For the most part, the government sought to conceal their actions. In 1981, twenty-three-year-old Muhammad Hassan Madan was beaten to death by three policemen in Muharraq police station. The circumstances of his death prompted a public outcry. In the ensuing protests, police ran over and killed nine-year-old ʿAdel Hasan Khoki. It is said that the bodies of both Madan and Khoki were buried in secret graves,190 and that the Khoki incident was deliberately not reported for fear of stirring up more anger. Indeed, there is perhaps no clearer example here of how torture breeds anger, which breeds further repression.

A number of factors can best explain the rise of torture. In addition to an increased sense of vulnerability brought about by Bahrain’s Independence in 1971, there was a notable shift in power at the Ministry of Interior that empowered hard-liners within the ruling family. Harold Walker, the British ambassador at the time, singled out these hardliners as the prime minister and a merchant elite that included the al-Muyyad and al-Zayani families. The coercive disposition of this elite towards opposition actions was highlighted in 1974, when ‘the government and the merchant class thought it was time to take a firm hand’ against any unrest.

The prime minister himself exhibited a personal antipathy towards the Shiʿa, feelings that were no doubt significant in increasing repression especially against the country’s bahārna population. The shift in power to these hardliners was accompanied by a corollary diminishing of British influence in the security apparatus. By 1973, it was reported that the prime minister had the last word on matters of internal security and basic foreign policy’ and kept police and Special Branch ‘closely under his own control’. The British were still well represented in the Bahraini police, yet this seemed to have little impact on moderating torture. Foreign Office correspondence, corroborated by US State Department cables from the 1970s, both acknowledge the declining influence of the British heads of police, Jim Bell and Ian Henderson. The British embassy reported that:

“Two years ago the Chief of the Police and the Head of the Special Branch, both British, came directly under the Prime Minister and were regularly and visibly in close and constant touch with him. Now they hardly ever see him but work to a Bahraini Minister of the Interior who is fortunately conscientious and hard- working. The Chief of Police is now ‘Director-General of Public Security’, advising and administering from the background rather than exercising direct executive control. He has lost much of his power, and rather sadly accepts this. The Head of Special Branch – which is now, at the top, wholly expatriate – is no longer allowed to detain or interrogate; his intelligence network must, therefore, function by other means, and the power of deterrence has dwindled.” (R. M. Tesh, 1 March 1975, FCO8/2415, The National Archives)

As a result, Henderson and Bell were ‘excluded from various private lines of command influence’. However, they were still seen as an ‘inestimable advantage in practical terms’, as they did, according to one British official, offer some assurances about the maintenance of law and order despite the renewed force of Al Khalifa conservatism.

This shift to hardliners was solidified further in 1976. The murder of newspaper editor Shaykh ʿAbd Allah al-Madani in the same year signified the real overturning of Henderson’s influence and the rejection of a surveillance-led policy that had hitherto restricted interrogation and torture. The Bahraini authorities used al-Madani’s murder to justify a crackdown on leftist political groups in Bahrain. They also used it to overturn a policy that had previously prevented targets of subversion from being arrested and therefore tortured. As Edward Given noted, ‘the “murder” removed the restriction on the interrogation of Popular Front suspects and enabled the police to acquire a clearer picture than before of its ramifications and activities’. Prior to this, ‘the absence of interrogation of suspects meant that the police received only the amount of intelligence which their sources in the NLF cared to give them’.

The impact of this change in policy was immediate. Two Bahrainis, Muhammad Ghulum Busheri and Saʿid al-ʿUwaynati, were killed as a result of torture following their arrest. Although the trial of the remaining living suspects in the murder case was entirely unsafe, it was used as a pretext for clamping down on political opposition. The trial also came at a time where the ruling family were reportedly ‘closing ranks’ and concentrating in their hands both politically sensitive posts such as security as well as posts relating to social affairs. Again, this had gone on in opposition to the recommendations of the Turnbull Report, which had advocated ‘removing direct control from members of the Ruling Family’. In short, the 1970s represented a tightening of grip by hardliners over the security apparatus, a factor that correlated with, and more likely caused, the increase in torture.

The legislative provisions of the State Security Decree introduced several years previously also facilitated and incentivized the torture of prisoners in Bahrain. Detainees could be held incommunicado for months, or even years, isolated from the outside world, with no access to legal counsel until the time of their trial and only infrequent visits from their family. Provisions governing trial before the Supreme Civil Court of Appeal also allowed the court to base its judgment solely on confessions given to the police, or even on police testimony alone (even in the absence of witnesses). In the 1980s, confessions were allowed as the sole basis for a conviction, even if uncorroborated. In this regard, the incentive of using torture was increased for the police. It was an efficient means of getting convictions in a timely manner. There were few safeguards ensuring that such evidence would or could be discarded in the courts. Combined with the new State Security Law, the al-Madani affair consolidated a shift from an intelligence-gathering approach to one that encouraged the interrogation and torture of suspects. While this shift reflected a difference of opinion in tactics between Henderson and the Al Khalifa, it eventually became routine, thus ending what had been described by Given as a ‘lack of a coherent policy’ on dealing with political opposition. What had previously vacillated, according to Given, ‘between inactivity and excessive zeal’, now erred more on the side of excessive zeal.

Following the increase in torture, the British Embassy in Bahrain wished to impress upon the Bahrainis that such a method was not only ‘morally undesirable’ but also self-defeating. They used the example of SAVAK (the secret intelligence-gathering organization of Iran known for their brutal treatment of dissidents) to get their point across. How- ever, the British were also reluctant to upset the Al Khalifa by criticizing their methods of policing. This reluctance reflected a lack of influence, and led to a bifurcation of labour between the British and Arab police.