October 11, 2010 § 2 Comments

bahrainWho lives there?: About 800,000 people – 20% of whom are immigrants or seasonal workers. 33 islands make up the Bahrain archipelago. About 200,000 live on the largest and most populous island: Bahrain Island. Of these almost all live in the capital Manama. Bahrain is one of only four countries in the world that have a majority Shia Muslim population – although its leadership are Sunni.

As of 1986 Bahrain Island is linked to Saudi Arabia by a 25 mile long section of causeways and bridges. A similar, 40 mile long, project to link Bahrain Island and Qatar was due to start last year but is now on hold. This video of the project is hugely corporate but kind of cool:

How does the system work? (the theory): Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy – where the monarchy are still the most powerful force. The executive is made up of a Prime Minister and cabinet appointed by the King. Moreover, the King still has a great deal of executive power in his own right. Currently 80% of the cabinet are members of the Royal Family, including the Prime Minister, who is the King’s uncle and has been in power since he was appointed by his brother in 1971. However, the legislative has the power to remove individual cabinet members by a vote of no confidence.

The executive is bicameral. The lower house, the Council of Representatives, consists of 40 Members elected by first past the post in two rounds. Any candidate who does not win 50% of the vote in their constituency in the first round faces second round runoff election against the second placed candidate.

The equally powerful upper house, the Consultative Council, is wholly appointed by the King and also has 40 members.

Bahrain has local government ,which is given responsibility for the provision of local goods and services. Bahrain is split up into ten councils, each electing ten councillors and with a chairman appointed by the King. The same system of two round first-past-the post is used to elect councillors. Previously local power was exercised by five appointed local governors, in five governorates. These governors and their governorates still exist, although their powers have been reduced.

How does the system work? (the practice): Whilst the monarchy are very clearly still in control, Bahrain had previously held a reputation for tolerance, freedom and respect for human rights. That started to change this year with the arrest of senior members of opposition parties, the first active attempts at censorship in several years, and the resultant boycotting of this month’s upcoming election by many of the main opposition groups.

How did we get here?: Bahrain is one of a number of independent city states, or emirates, which line the Persian gulf. However, unlike the rest, Bahrain had a short period of Portuguese occupation and a longer period of Persian occupation. Under the latter, the majority of the population (but not the ruling Emirs) converted to Shia Islam.

As with most of the emirates, Bahrain came under British protection/occupation as a result of a number of treaties. In the 1940s, under both pressure for independence and pressure from Iran to absorb the islands, Britain placed the islands under UN arbitration. This eventually resulted in an independent Bahrain – but not until 1971 when a UN plebiscite confirmed Bahrainis wish to be an independent, Arabic, nation. As such Bahrain missed the boat on joining the United Arab Emirates – although it is likely that Bahrain would have in any event chosen to got it alone, as Qatar did.

Bahrain had two major constitutional changes. The 1974 reforms introduced democratic representation, brought in a single parliament with a democratically elected majority but removed womens’ right to vote (which they had previously enjoyed in the plebiscite). The 2002 reforms freed political prisoners, introduced freedom of speech and right to assembly laws and restored womens’ rights to vote. However it also introduced a bicameral parliament – in so doing removing the democratically elected majority from the legislative.

Whilst figures are deliberately not kept, it is clear that there is a Shia majority in Bahrain. This has led to tensions with the Sunni leadership. There was an attempt at a violent Shia coup in 1981 and Shia rioting threatened to topple the Government in 1994.

Who’s in charge?: King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, his uncle Prime Minister Khalifa ibn Salman Al Khalifa, and the Khalifa Royal Family are still very much in charge. They had a reputation as progressives and moderates, particularly King Hamad, but this reputation has taken a  knock in recent years. In the large part their principal opposition comes not from any one  specific party but from the political movement as a whole.

The largest opposition group is the Shia Islamist Al Wefaq. Having previously boycotted elections, their first campaign was a model of targeting efficiency – they stood candidates in 17 seats and won every single one. At the last election they increased by 1 but remained short of an overall majority.

17 independent, Sunni, broadly pro-government, candidates dominated the last election. These included the re-election of the first ever female candidate – who was elected unopposed. However the first woman ever to stand against a man in a  seat narrowly lost. In the past independents have joined together to form an independent bloc – the future bloc. This may happen again and if it does they could likely become the major power in Parliament.

The leadership of Parliament is normally left to two to Sunni parties who, broadly speaking, support the monarchy. However, whilst with independent support these parties still technically have a majority they were both delt massive blows in the last election – losing 5 seats each. 3 seats were won by the mainstream Al Alsalah and 2 by the Salafist Al Menbar.

The elections were yet another electoral disaster for the liberal and secular groups that contested it (they had been more successful in the early 00s). All the liberal and communist MPs failed to win seats and the centre-left National Democratic Action lost their only seat.

Bahrain parties new


However possibly the most powerful political group is the Haq Movement. A moderate Islamist and radical reformist group, Haq have managed to span Bahrain’s sectarian divide and attract Sunni, Shia and secular support. This year several of the most prominent members of Haq were arrested after speaking out about human rights and their website has been barred. In response Haq boycotted the elections – which they felt they could not contest fairly.

Similarly, the National Justice Party: a secular nationalist party with a primarily Sunni support base, have given up on running for election after claiming that the constant arresting of their candidates on trumped-up charges in the run up to each election made winning impossible.

As one would expect in a country where so much power is vested in the word of the king, much of the actual politics in Bahrain takes place outside of Parliament, and there are a number of powerful factions and sections. Below is a guide to some of them but there are doubtless more.

Academics, journalists and business leaders have come together to form a civic forum known as Al Muntanda to campaign for greater liberalisation and the protection of personal freedoms. They enjoy quite a deal of power in civil society and enjoy good relations with the King. As a result they receive most of the seats in the upper house – much to the irritation of Islamists. They occasionally contest elections under the sobriquet Al Meethaq, but they are not a mass organisation and do not enjoy mass support. As such they prefer to concentrate their efforts on the more effective method of lobbying through civil society.

Many clerics, even those outside of Bahrain, hold a great deal of political sway. On the Shia side, this means Grand Ayatollah Sistani; and it was on his instructions that Shia candidates and voters boycotted the 2002 elections but participated in the 2006  and 2010 elections. On the Sunni side the cleric with the most clout is probably Adel Mouwada (a salafist) but there are others, as well as organisations such as the Islamic Scholars Council.

Bahrain is perhaps the only country in the world with a left leaning business community. This is largely out of concern that Islamist parties might drive away investors or seize assets. Previously the business community’s strategy had been to support the National Democratic Action Party. However, following their disappointing showing in 2006, large Bahrain based businesses decided that, rather than supporting specific parties, the business community would be better off collectively lobbying the winners and the monarchy.

There is a strong Bahrain women’s movement – although it has thus far been more successful in its dealings with the monarchy than as a democratic force. Most are associated with the Supreme Council for Women: an organisation comprising several women’s rights groups chaired by the Queen which advises the government on women’s issues. However there are other movements that claim the Supreme Council for Women is an exercise in distraction which actually handicaps the furthering of female equality. Ghada Jamashar is the most famous and successful Bahraini advocate of women’s rights, and is a firm holder of the latter view.

What does it look like?: Bahrain is a series of rocky desert islands. There is a fertile strip along the northern coast where dates and pomegranates grow, but in the main Bahrain has always fed itself from the sea. The south eastern collection of Hawar Islands – off the coast of Qatar – are a World Heritage Site due to their rare bird life and coral formations. Despite its relatively small population Bahrain hosts some of the world’s tallest buildings and there is a plan (currently on hold) to build the tallest building ever – a 1081m high monstrosity – over the next few years.


What are the issues?: Bahrain was the first country in the middle east to discover industrial quantities of oil so it is perhaps not surprising that, of the countries who had significant reserves, it is likely to be the first to run out. Oil reserves are expected to last about another 15 years. Whilst Bahrain has tried to diversify its economy in recent years it is still very dependent upon petrochemicals. One of the problems is that it lags a long way behind other emirates such as Dubai (which never had much oil to begin with) and Qatar (which has a larger population base) when it comes to preparing for plan B: tourism and relocating businesses. The economic downturn hasn’t helped either and Bahrain finds itself highly dependent upon marquee events like the Grand Prix to spur the economy.

The other major issue, which we touched upon above, are the interlinked issues of the role of democracy, the role of the monarchy, the role of women and the role of Islam. There are factions that firmly believe every possible alliance of these four forces are united in an attempt to thwart the others. The most popular narrative was that Islamic groups were using democracy to suppress freedoms, whilst the monarchy were the bastion of freedom and equality. This was seen as simplistic and a poor fit even before the recent clampdown on freedoms by the monarchy.

A rival view would be that the political parties are actually very respectful of human rights, that the laws the politicians passed only infringed liberties in minimal and silly ways (a ban on scantily clad female mannequins, a ban on bras being hung on washing lines), and that encouraging political empowerment is the next logical stage in Bahrain’s liberalisation. That too is an oversimplification (political parties tried and failed to pass a law introducing racial segregation) but is possibly closer to the truth.

An unadressed issue is that of compensation for the once thriving Jewish community, who were driven out in a series of vicious lootings and riots in 1948. So successful were these attempts to drive the community out that only 37 people of Jewish origin remain on the islands. However one of these 37 is a  member of the upper house and together with members of the expatriate community they have been lobbying for compensation.

A good source of impartial information is: There was a strong free press; but press freedoms have taken a knock of late and you are unlikely to see articles directly criticizing the human rights record of the country. Gulf Daily News is the largest English language news source. However, there are not many alternatives – Qatar based Al Jazeera was the best independent news source in the region but have been banned from Bahrain on the laughable pretext of its “Zionist bias”.

However the good news is that human and womens’ rights campaigner Ghada Jamshir has a blog and that it is primarily written in English. However, it is not updated that frequently; she writes roughly one article a month.

A good book is: I’d be interested to know if anyone can recommend one. First Light: Modern Bahrain and Its Heritagewas written by the current King before he took power. It is by all accounts a comprehensive account of Bahraini politics with gives interesting insight into the King’s own views. However as he was commander of the armed forces at the time, it does overly concern itself with military and strategic matters. It is also 15 years old and a little dated. Bahrain: The Modernization of Autocracy (Profiles/Middle East) is supposed to be very good but is now very dated. The only work of Gadha Jamshir available in the UK seems to be Bahraini Activists: Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, Ghada Jamshir, Houda Nonoo, Faisal Fulad, Mahmood Al-Yousif, ISA Al-Jowder, Hasan Mushaima which is a collection of writings by various Bahraini critics, and could be very interesting.

When are the next elections?: Legislative elections are due in a couple of weeks.


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