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Last updated : Nov 2009
Bahrain History
Bahrain History - TravelPuppy.com
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 time being.