Bahrain is an island nation off the north east coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf. During the 19th century, Britain made treaties with the rulers of Bahrain, so that it virtually became a British protectorate, exchanging independence in foreign policy for British protection.

Britain signed a treaty with the Ottoman government in 1913, which recognised the independence of Bahrain, but it remained under British protection. Bahrain’s leader during the war was the long reigning Sheikh Isa ibn Ali Al Khalifa (1848–1932), who had ruled since 1869. A British political agent was resident in Bahrain throughout the war years.

Bahrain during the war

ADM 344/1230

View of Bahrain by C T Maud, 1917 ADM 344/1230

Although the British presence in Bahrain was small and the archipelago was not directly involved in the war, it did see some changes during those years. In October, Bahrain prepared to provide accommodation for 5,000 troops of the Indian Expeditionary Force, which was en-route to Mesopotamia to fight the Turkish Army. In 1916, the British authorities established a wireless station on the island, thus strengthening its communications in support of the Mesopotamia campaign (FO 371/3269).

At the end of the war, the British government considered the benefits of establishing a formal protectorate. It decided against this because it might be considered by the allies a prelude to annexation. The British authorities instead waited until the peace conference to argue its ‘special interests and prescriptive position’ in the Persian Gulf before establishing a formal protectorate in 1919 (FO 371/3420).

While the people of Bahrain did not actively support the allies, Sheikh Isa remained loyal to Britain throughout the war. He became a Companion (in 1915) and Knight Commander (in 1919) of the Order of the Indian Empire (FO 371/4210).

At that time, the economy of Bahrain was largely based upon pearl fishing. In 1917, the British political agent at Bahrain, Captain Lock, reported that, in 1916, the harvest of pearls was 50% larger that the previous year and that the industry was thriving. Nevertheless, considerable hardship was experienced in Bahrain because of wartime food shortages and the ban on the export of rice from India (FO 371/3269).

A small number of German nationals were living in Bahrain at the outbreak of war. In January 1914, a German ship, SS Markomannia, ran aground in Bahrain harbour, after the position of the buoys there had been altered. This provoked a complaint to the German consul in Bushire (FO 371/2133).

The Hamburg trading firm, Robert Wönckhaus and Company, had a trading branch and warehouse in Bahrain. At the beginning of the war, five German employees of the firm, together with the German consul at Basra, were interned and sent to the prisoner of war camp at Ahmednagar in India.

One of these, George Harling, had left to join the German Army but had returned on the orders of his company. British officials suspected him of passing information to the German consulate in Persia. He protested, with little avail, to the American Consulate at Bombay on the grounds that his arrest was illegal because Bahrain was an independent and neutral country (FO 383/46).

Key documents

ADM 344/1232

Photograph of ship 'Sindhi' stationed off Kais Island 1918 ADM 344/1232

  • Foreign Office political departments: general correspondence relating to Persia FO 371/3269
  • Foreign Office political departments: general correspondence relating to Turkey FO 371/3420
  • Foreign Office political departments: general correspondence relating to Turkey FO 371/4210
  • Foreign Office political departments: general correspondence relating to Turkey FO 371/2133
  • Germany: Prisoners, including repatriation of German and Austrian subjects: question of HM Government paying expenses FO 383/46