Middle East

The Kingdom of Bahrain consists of about 33 islands of which Bahrain Island is the main centre of population with evidence of inhabitation going back at least 6,000 years.

The most lasting of the early civilisation on the island was the trading empire of Dilmun which lasted from around 3,000 B.C. to 1,000 B.C. It appears to have come under the sphere of influence of the Babylonian Empire before that was absorbed into the Achaemenid Empire in 539 BC. Then from the 3rd Century B.C. to the 7th Century A.D. it was part of the Parthian and then the Sassanid Empires. During this period it was known by the ancient Greeks as Tylos.

Christianity was the religion of choice in the 3rd and 4th Centuries A.D. but Islam arrived on the islands in the 7th Century A.D. The new religion was quickly embraced and it was a series of Islamic dynasties that ruled the islands for the next few hundred years including the Qarmatian Republic, the Uyunids, Usurfids and Jabrid dynasties.

Bahrain was always a centre for pearl production and this along with fresh water springs attracted the Europeans, especially the Portuguese. By the mid-1500s the Portuguese were in full control until they were driven out in 1602 by a popular uprising. The vacuum was filled by the Persian ruler Shah Abbas I and it remained under Persian Safavid rule until 1717 when Oman invaded Bahrain.

The new Shah of Persia decided to take back Bahrain under Persian rule in 1730 and, with the help of British and Dutch forces the islands were recaptured. The Al-Khalifa family which now rules Bahrain arrived in the area in the mid-1700s. Originally from Kuwait they settled in Jaww but only after a long series of battles with Omanis and others did they manage to conquer the area and finally settled there in 1820.

Immediately the Al-Khalifa family entered into a treaty with the United Kingdom which, at that time, dominated the Persian Gulf. The treaty recognised the Al-Khalifa family as the rulers of Bahrain and in return bound Bahrain into an alliance with the British. The Al-Khalifa family also entered into the ‘Trucial System’ which bound them further with Britain and meant that they could not sign agreements with other countries or host foreign agents without the agreement of the United Kingdom. Inevitably this was not to everyone’s liking and the first revolts took place in 1895.

Nevertheless the ‘special’ relationship between the two countries continued (and to a degree still does today) and especially so with the discovery of oil in 1932. The British navy moved its Middle East Command from Iran to Bahrain in 1935.

Bahrain joined the side of the allies in World War Two but after the war there were a series of anti-British riots and then strikes which led to the ‘March Intifada’ in March 1965 with a number of deaths during the violent clashes between police and rioters.

In 1968 the British announced that they would end their treaty relationships with the Trucial States (now the United Arab Emirates) along with Bahrain and Qatar. This led to Bahrain declaring independence on 15th August 1971. With independence the British navy left its base in Bahrain and soon after the naval dockyards became the headquarters of the United States Fifth Fleet.

Bahrain benefitted from rising oil prices as a consequence of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and in 1975 it benefitted from the Lebanese civil war as it became the new financial centre of the Middle East.

In 1973 Sheikh Isa ibn Salman Al Khalifa, the Emir of Bahrain, developed a new constitution which enshrined the hereditary leadership on the Al-Khalifa family and established a 44 member National Assembly. As the National Assembly strived for more powers the arguments continued and in August 1975 the Emir dissolved the parliament.

It should be noted that the Al-Khalifa family are Sunni Muslims but the majority of Bahrainis are Shia Muslims. In 1981, with the Iranian revolution and Iran wanting to spread the revolution across the Middle East, a Shia group calling itself the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain attempted a coup d’état – they were unsuccessful but it highlighted the difference between the Royal family and the majority population.

It was Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa who introduced a 30 member Consultative Council in 1992. But demonstrations continued for an elected parliament and in 1999 the Emir acquiesced with reforms that gave women the right to vote, freed all political prisoners and led to new parliamentary elections along with local elections (for the first time) in 2002.

Further elections took place in 2006 with the Shia Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society winning 17 of the 40 seats in the Council of Representatives. The Sunni Al Menbar National Islamic Society and Al Asalah took seven seats and one seat apiece. There were 11 independents.

In 2010 Al Wefaq won again with 18 seats and Al Asalah taking three seats. The Sunni Al-Menbar Islamic Society took two seats, the rest were independents. As with the previous two elections the main opposition parties boycotted the elections and riots accompanied the poll.

By 2011 more protests seeking greater political freedom and respect for human rights broke out. Although originally not intended to target the Royal family, the moves were partly a reaction to the so called ‘Arab Spring’ taking place in Tunisia and Egypt but as the protests turned nasty the calls changed to the abolition of the monarchy. More than 100 civilians were killed and over 3,000 were injured. The protests, although much more low key, are continuing with up to 300,000 people taking part at various times. Al Wefaq resigned from its 18 seats in parliament in protest at the violence of the authorities and in elections to replace them in 2011 all 18 seats were won by independents as the major parties boycotted the elections.

Fresh elections are to be held on 22nd November 2014 but again they will be boycotted by the major opposition parties including Al Wefaq.

King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifah is Head of State.

The bicameral parliament consists of the Consultative Council (Majlis al-shura) with 40 members appointed by the King and the Council of Representatives or Chamber of Deputies (Majlis an-nuwab) with 40 members directly elected to serve four year terms.

The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Bahrain at joint 70th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 43 (where 100 is least corrupt).