| Bahrain was once considered
by ancient Sumerians to be an island of paradise
to which the wise and brave were taken to cherish eternal life.
The Gulf started to open up to European traders during the 15th
and 16th centuries, and Bahrain was influenced by Portuguese from
1521 to 1622.
Before the al-Khalifa clan took power over the island, Bahrain had
been invaded by national groupsand several
different tribes for over 100 years. The clan required
the British protection, and the country was a British Protectorate
from 1861 to 1971, supposedly self-governing but with the British
in charge of foreign and security policy.
The 1913 agreement between the British and the
Ottoman empire established its position within
Britain’s sphere of influence. The discovery of oil in 1931
set Bahrain on a path of expansion that would see it become 1 of
the world’s wealthiest countries.
In 1971, in the wake of Britain’s ‘East of Suez’
strategic extraction, Bahrain’s protectorate status was surrendered
and Bahrain became self-governing under the rule of Sheikh Isa al-Khalifa.
Both United States and British military forces have been allowed
to use Bahraini airfields and ports, which were crucial to the prosecution
of the 2 Iraq wars and the 2002 Afghan war.
Bahrain’s pro Western stand was united through membership
of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), a 6 nation
body designed to improve economic and security co-operation between
the Gulf States. The GCC has also handled territorial disagreements
between members, primarily ownership of the tiny but potentially
oil rich Hawar Islands, which are claimed by both Qatar and Bahrain.
Bahrain’s economic progress has not been
matched by equivalent development in the political
sphere. Bahrain is still an infinite monarchy in which dispute is
barely tolerated, its moderately liberal reputation is based completely
upon casinos and alcohol availability (much enjoyed by rich Gulf
potentates who cross the causeway to indulge).
An elected forum, the majlis, provided an arena
for the expression of popular opinion until its suspension by the
Sheikh in 1975. The opposition was mainly of a nationalist or socialist
tendency until the turn of the 1970's. The 1979 revolution then
happened in Iran, a Shia Islamist movement emerged in Bahrain. (The
bulk of the population is Shia, while the ruling al-Khalifa clan
and their principal allies adhere to the Sunni faith, the other
principal branch of Islam.) The government believes that much Shia
agitation is fostered by Iran and has taken firm measures to suppress
Shia movements on many occasions.
In March 1999, Sheikh Isa died. He was followed
by his son, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. While
the new Sheikh has retained eventual control over the Bahraini political
system, there undoubtedly have been considerable moves to open up
the political system. Among Sheikh Hamad’s 1st actions was
to declare an amnesty for political opponents.
Then, in February 2002, he declared Bahrain a constitutional
monarchy with himself as Head of State and proclaimed that
majlis elections would be held. These took place in October 2002.
Women were allowed to stand as candidates for the 1st time, provoking
complaints from traditionalist Islamists, while Islamist candidates
were themselves allowed to stand for the 1st time.
A small majority was protected by a bloc of independent and secular
candidates. The 1st woman to be appointed to head a government ministry
was Nada Haffadh in 2004, who was made health minister,
a symbolic turn of events that hinted at genuine progress in women's
rights in Bahrain.
An important opposition figure, Majid al-Alawi,
lately returned from exile, was appointed to a ministerial post
in the new government. Early in 2003, there were further protests
against the imminent war against Iraq, and Bahrain’s role
in hosting American and British forces.
In May 2003, 1,000's of victims of alleged torture petitioned the
King to cancel the law that restrains them from suing suspected
torturers. These protests prompted a general concern for security
in Bahrain, and in 2004, the protests against fighting in Iraqi
cities once again materialised.
However, the King dismissed his Interior Minister
after the police tried to restrain the protests. These kinds of
moves seem to make the country more stable and Sheikh Hamad appears
to have achieved in reducing the Shia opposition, at least for the