A mysterious 80 year old document which recently surfaced in our collections emphasizes the geopolitical significance of Bahrain. But what is it doing here?
In October of 1940, the Italian air force launched a daring nighttime strike on the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain. Flying over 2500 miles from a base in the Mediterranean Sea, the Italian planes dropped eighty-four bombs on the country’s important oil refinery. While the government had considered the possibility that the refinery might be attacked, the fear was sabotage, not bombardment. Brilliantly illuminated at night to deter intruders on foot, it was the perfect aerial target.
While mostly forgotten today, the bombing–Bahrain’s most direct experience of World War II– thrust the island nation into the international spotlight. With rule over the territory passing between Iran, Portugal, and various Arab dynasties for centuries, Britain formalized its control in 1892. In subsequent decades, and especially after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, the British position in Bahrain, and throughout the Gulf, seemed unshakable.
However, the Russian emigre intellectual, scholar, and political analyst Basile Nikitine saw the Italian attack as an important turning point. Sitting down at his desk in occupied Paris, Nikitine drafted an article, intended for publication in the French press, underlining Bahrain’s overlooked geopolitical significance. The islands, he wrote,
have been completely ignored by public opinion. Situated somewhere in the Persian Gulf, far from the arena of major politics, who would really be interested in them, apart from a few rarified specialists? However, quiet though it may be, this small dot on the map of the Middle East, is an important link in the chain of Great Britain’s imperial network. Access to India, aviation, oil, politics in Iran and in Arabia–all these elements are intertwined in Bahrain.been completely ignored by public opinion. Situated somewhere in the Persian Gulf, far from grand politics, who could be interested in them, really, aside from a few rarified specialists? However, obscure though it may be, this small point on the map of the Middle East serves as an important link in the imperial system of Great Britain. Access to India, aviation, oil, politics in Iran and in Arabia–all these elements are intertwined in Bahrain.
In the wake of the historic peace accord between Israel and Bahrain, the Gulf nation, and its ties to regional politics, has gained a new prominence in the minds of Israelis. Now is the perfect time to reconsider Nikitine’s essay–and to try to solve the riddles it contains. Never published, the text, three dense, loose-leaf pages written in French and accompanied by a pen and ink map, is preserved in the National Library archives. Who was Basile Nikitine? And how did this bit of Bahrain’s history make its way to Jerusalem?
Born in 1885 in Poland, then part of the Russian Empire, Nikitine studied Arabic, Persian, and Turkish in Moscow, Paris, and Saint Petersburg, practicing his language skills during frequent trips to the region. After graduation, he joined the Russian Foreign Ministry and spent the majority of his diplomatic service in Iran, traveling widely throughout the country. With the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, Nikitine left Tehran for Paris, pursuing a career as a scholar and writer, where he would remain until his death in 1960.
Nikitine’s scholarship focused on Kurdish language, culture, and history, and he made numerous important contributions to the field. Due to his diplomatic experience, he was also intimately familiar with modern Iranian arts and letters; his memoir, The Iran that I Have Known, recounts his friendships with the country’s leading writers and thinkers.
However, along with his academic research, from 1920 on Nikitine also wrote for the popular press. His articles covered a host of topics, from Soviet spying on the Russian emigre community, Afghanistan in international politics, Japan’s economic potential, the potato in Russian folklore, and more. Employed at the Banque Nationale Francaise du Commerce Exterieur, his freelance journalism served to supplement his income, and this extra cash only became more essential after the Nazi occupation and the installment of the Vichy regime in 1940. Nikitine remained in Paris and in his job at the bank, and continued writing for now pro-German French newspapers.
This background helps explain the character of Nikitine’s essay, written only a few months after the fall of France in June. The tone is overwhelmingly anti-British. Nikitine argued that British influence in Bahrain, and the Persian Gulf overall, was weakening and predicted the ultimate end of British supremacy in the region. The most serious challenge to the British position came in the wake of the failed Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919, never ratified, which would have turned all of Iran into a British protectorate. Nikitine argued that this overreaching was instrumental in the 1921 coup d’etat that saw the downfall of the Qajar dynasty and brought the former army colonel Reza Shah Pahlavi to power in 1925. In the wake of the coup, Reza Shah pursued ties with other European powers; on the eve of World War II, Germany was the country’s biggest trading partner.
Against this backdrop, Nikitine saw Bahrain as a critical point of conflict. In 1927, Iran appealed to the League of Nations to assert its sovereignty over Bahrain, a claim that the British strongly rejected, saying that the island was under imperial protection. “It is well known that Great Britain always finds its ‘irrefutable’ arguments,” Nikitine wrote, dismissing the British arguments as cynical and guided by the narrow interests of securing its naval power, “above all if it sees salt water in abundance.”
This conflict over Bahrain, he continued, could spell the end of British dominance in the Gulf. “Politically, the position of Great Britain is no longer unassailable,” he wrote. Fascist Italy was seizing territory on the African coast of the Red Sea, leaving important British positions, like Bahrain, vulnerable. Nikitine predicts that “Arabia, which has been carefully maintained in the British orbit, could detach itself, especially if one considers the fact that Aden, the key to British strategy, is more and more exposed to Italian attacks.”
In the end, history did not align with Nikitine’s analysis: in August 1941, following the German invasion of the Soviet Union that June, the USSR and Great Britain jointly occupied Iran, overthrew Reza Shah, and installed his son on the throne. Britain, and later America, remained overwhelmingly influential in Iran and the Gulf for decades to come.
Nikitine stayed in Paris throughout the war and until the end of his life. There seems to be no indication that he came to Israel or was involved in the National Library in any way; this is the only document written by him in the Library’s archives. The essay likely arrived at the Library in 1962 or 1963, just a few years after the author’s death. However, the precise date is a matter of guesswork; the Library’s catalogue does not record exactly when the essay entered the collection, who donated it, or under what circumstances. The mystery of how Nikitine’s work came to Jerusalem remains unsolved.
Here is the complete translation of the article:
The British Empire: Threatened in the Bahrain Islands
Without fear of exaggeration, it is fair to say that the Islands of Bahrain, the target of a recent visit by Italian bombers, have been completely ignored by public opinion. Situated somewhere in the Persian Gulf, far from the arena of major politics, who would really be interested in them, apart from a few rarified specialists? However, quiet though it may be, this small dot on the map of the Middle East, is an important link in the chain of Great Britain’s imperial network. Access to India, aviation, oil, politics in Iran and in Arabia–all these elements are intertwined in Bahrain.
First and foremost, a few words to acquaint the reader with Bahrain’s geographic and ethnic setting. One of an archipelago of islands including Bahrain, Moharraq, Omm Na’san, Sitra, and Nabi Salih, it is situated on the southwest coast of the Gulf, in the rift separating Qatar from Asia; 552 square kilometers, a hot and humid climate, with no rain. There are a 100,000 inhabitants, three-quarters of whom live in cities: Manama (25,000), Bodayya (8,000), Moharraq (20,000), and Hadd (8,000). Arabic is the only spoken and written language (L’annuaire de Monde Musalman). [The inhabitants are] pearl fishers and farmers.
Within this framework (which due to its latitudes involuntarily evokes a novel by Josef Conrad) let us see how the political events that today are worthy of having a few lines dedicated to them, have come about.
Without going too far, one can distinguish two phases in the modern history of Bahrain: undisputed British supremacy from 1900 to 1927, and its weakening after this date. This chronological division corresponds to the general evolution of British interests in the Middle East. The predominance of Great Britain, before its decline, rested on its privileged position in Persia, which, even after the Anglo-Russian treaty of 1907, gave Albion influence over the entire southern zone of the country to the Gulf, since the Arabian coast, divided up into numerous small principalities, was also ruled according to a system of concessions and protectorate treaties, some more formal than others. From the beginning of the twentieth century, obtaining an oil concession in Iran depended on these links to Great Britain. This was so much the case that His Majesty’s Consul General in Bouchir was also the English Resident for the Gulf, with the status, de facto, if not de jure, of a Viceroy. As with all the consular agents in southern Iran, he was a high-ranking military officer, with links to the Crown of India rather than the Foreign Office.
As for Bahrain, the succeeding sheikh, in accordance with the treaty of 1880, put it under British protection with a political agent subject to the Resident of Bouchir, alongside himself. Since 1923, the Sheikh of Bahrain has been Hamd, the son of Isa-ben-Ali. (He visited London in 1936).
Yet, even during the time of its uncontested supremacy, British susceptibility was upset by the grand project of the German Baghdad railway that planned its terminus in Kuwait on the Gulf, an area that Great Britain had always considered its “hunting grounds.” This time it was only a warning, and Great Britain retained it position – reaffirmed after the Great War by bringing Iraq under its mandate and by the creation of an Arab kingdom in Mecca (the fruits of Lawrence’s efforts).
It should be noted however that the high point of British success, was the beginning of a succession of failures. First there was the failure in Tehran, where the treaty making Persia a thinly disguised protectorate, that was agreed upon by Sir Percy Cox (who had become a minister after having been the Resident at Bouchir, where the German consul Wassmuss had given the English a hard time) and Vossug-ed-Dowleh, could never be ratified. It is fair to assume that this attempt contributed to the polarization of patriotic sentiments and created an atmosphere, where it was enough for one coup d’etat that took place in 1921 by a military officer, to ensure that Iran, guided by the man who became its future sovereign (in 1925), would resolutely follow the path to political independence. This caused a change in the balance of power and Great Britain was obligated to abandon its positions in Iran, one after the other: the privilege of issuance [a banking term] at the Imperial Bank of Persia, the extraterritoriality of the Indo-European telegraph line; capitulations; customs facilities; etc. At the same time, the state of affairs in the Arab states was worsening: In Iraq–the mandate caused nothing but troubles and it searched for another formula; in Arabia–Ibn Saud removed the English representatives from Mecca. The latter immediately hastened to conclude a treaty with him in Jeddah, in 1926.
It is here that the question of the Bahrain islands comes back to the fore. One of the stipulations of that treaty could be understood to mean that Great Britain had some rights in Bahrain. Tehran did not accept this and lodged its protest with the League of Nations. Alas, this act, which like so many others in Geneva, only has symbolic value, was never followed up in terms of the Persian claim. This was repeated, however, in 1930, when Standard Oil was granted an oil concession in Bahrain. Persia (Iran after 1935) argued by standing up for its rights from the 18th century, when it exercised sovereignty over Bahrain. Great Britain responded that since then, the dynasty of sheikhs that were vassals of Iran was evicted by another group coming from the Arabian Peninsula, and that in general, the policing necessary for the Gulf (traffic in arms and slaves) could not be guaranteed by anyone except for His Majesty’s navy, etc. The intention here is not to judge the judicial proceedings. It is well known that Great Britain always finds its “irrefutable” arguments when the topic is a place “acquired” by it on any point on the globe, above all if it sees salt water in abundance.” [sea]…On the contrary, it should be noted that Iran did not allow itself to be rebuffed by this negative reaction and was not long in exacting its revenge. In 1931 Tehran revoked the right of British aircraft to fly over Iranian territory. Imperial Airways was thus obliged to abandon its airport in Bouchir. At the same time, Tehran revoked the contract with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, and brokered a revised contract with much more advantageous terms. Finally, Tehran ordered warships from Italian shipyards. These warships would henceforth form the nucleus of the Iranian navy in the Gulf, where policing would be effected by the sovereign power in its territorial waters. Is it necessary to add that that the Persian character of the Gulf is singularly reinforced by the fact that the Transiranian which starts at the north end of the Caspian Sea flows to its southern endpoint in the Gulf at the bay of Khormoussa where a port — Bandar Shapur — was built? For its part, Great Britain was forced to establish a new itinerary for Imperial Airways with a stopover at Bahrain and Sharjah. In addition, in 1935 Great Britain removed its naval stations at Basidu and Henjam near the Iranian coast. In 1938, for the first time in British maritime history, the grand naval exercises took place in the Gulf. The theme was…the defense of Bahrain.
All that remains to be said is a word about oil. In 1938, Standard Oil of California, together with Texas Oil, formed a company called Cal-Tex for exploiting the oilfields and the refinery (25,000 barrels a day). The question has always been, why the oilfields prospected by an Englishman, Major Holmes, were not made an English concession? Maybe the presence of an American company in Bahrain, whose sovereignty was under discussion, did not displease Great Britain – it was procuring Yankee complicity, and at the same time, most of the managers were English and production (from 45,000 tons in 1934 to 1,100,000 tons in 1939) was under British control.
There is one certain thing that emerges from this most complicated affair, and it is with this that we will conclude. Politically speaking, the position of Great Britain in the Persian Gulf is no longer unassailable. This started due to the firm attitude of Iran, as we have just seen. Tomorrow, [the political status of Great Britain] could be even less stable as a result of strategic events that could unfold in the Red Sea or because of the extraordinary Italian exploit (a flight of 4500 km) that could foreshadow options that were unimaginable up till now. Arabia, which was carefully kept within the orbit of Great Britain, could detach itself, especially if one also considers the position of Aden, the key to British strategy, which is becoming more and more exposed to Italian attacks.
But, with the Persian Gulf breaking away from the English sphere of influence, it is the supply of petrol from Iraq (already threatened in Haifa) and from Iran, which would be completely disrupted. There is no need to emphasize the gravity of this hypothesis.
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