In the 1950s and 1960s, dozens of Bahrainis fleeing repression in their country sought refuge in nearby Kuwait. There, they joined a cosmopolitan community of Arab activists including Palestinians, Algerians, Omanis, and Yemenis, a milieu that spawned movements such as Fatah and the Dhofari revolutionaries. Like these contemporary movements, the Bahraini exiles capitalized on Kuwait’s relatively open environment, adopting it as a base in their struggle against British colonial rule in Bahrain.
Although Kuwait features as a backdrop to the histories of various political groups, its status as a regional center for anti-colonial activism has yet to be analyzed in its own right. Using the Bahraini activists’ experience as a case study, this paper argues that this tiny monarchy at the periphery of the Arab world played a comparable role to the much better-known anti-colonial hubs of Cairo, Algiers, and Aden. It engages with the growing literature on anti-colonial hubs, which focuses on colonial metropoles and post-colonial African capitals. It thus extends the study of anti-colonial movements and decolonization to the largely neglected Arabian Peninsula.
Adopting the framework of “translocality” (Freitag and von Oppen), whereby the study of mobility across boundaries is combined with attention to local contexts, the paper begins by detailing the various interconnected developments that made Kuwait a hospitable environment for regional activists beginning in the 1950s. These include internal political dynamics, especially the rise of the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN); the exploitation of oil and the resultant increase in migration; Kuwait’s emergence as a regional educational center; the rise of Nasserist Egypt; and British imperial policy. The second part of the paper uses British archives, the Kuwaiti press, and activists’ memoirs to chart the formation of the Bahraini exile community, its anticolonial activities, and its interactions with other actors in Kuwait. The first exiles arrived following the British-backed crackdown on the opposition Higher Executive Committee in 1956, while subsequent waves were formed largely of Bahraini MAN cadres. With the support of the Kuwaiti MAN, other nationalist elements, and sympathetic ruling family members, the Bahraini MAN members turned Kuwait into a media and operations center. This activity culminated with the March Intifada of 1965, a major anti-colonial uprising in Bahrain that was partly directed from Kuwait. By 1966, however, a combination of political developments led to the eviction of most Bahraini activists from the country, ending a seminal chapter in Kuwait’s story as an anti-colonial hub.