Information from Annual Survey for 2012
Bahrain is an archipelago of 33 islands in the Gulf. There is a causeway linking Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, and a causeway to Qatar is planned (carrying a road and a gas supply pipeline).
Bahrain has the highest population density of all the Gulf countries. The nationals, who comprise approximately half the population, are 35% Sunni and 65% Shi’ite, though it is the Sunnis who hold both economic and political power. Many Shi’ites have long felt frustration and discontent because of their marginalisation, though some have prospered. This discontent led to unrest during the 1990s. Relative calm was then maintained until 2011, aided by the permanent deployment of riot police in known trouble spots. The fact that these forces are foreigners (e.g. Pakistanis) caused significant bitterness amongst some local people.
The present King came to the throne on the death of his father, the late Sheikh Isa, in 1999. In 2002 Bahrain changed from an Emirate to a Constitutional Monarchy. It has a 40-member elected parliament established in 2002 in addition to the appointed Shura – i.e. advisory – Council that now serves as the upper chamber. The King retains control, including appointing the cabinet. The King’s extended family holds all key political and military posts. His uncle is the long-serving Prime Minister and his son is the Deputy King, Crown Prince and Commander-in-Chief of the Bahrain Defence Force (and, from March 2013, Deputy Prime Minister). These three are frequently pictured and mentioned together in the media. However, the media portrayal of them as a united triumvirate is considered by some to mask deep seated differences, with the Crown Prince taking a different, more moderate, position to the other two. However, is scope for effective pursuit of reform is limited.
Major protests started in February 2011, calling for political reform and greater equality. In September 2012 it was reported that at least 60 people had been killed.
In 2011 the protesters adopted the iconic Pearl Roundabout as the focal point of protest activity, with a tented camp being established. The majority of participants were eager to point out that these were not viewed by them as Shi’ite versus Sunni. This view became increasingly difficult to sustain as the government promoted divisiveness to bolster their Sunni support base.
Violence was used against protesters in February 2011. However, the government then offered talks led by the Crown Prince. Political prisoners were released and an opposition leader living in self-imposed exile abroad was welcomed back. Protests continued, most of them peaceful. However, on 15th March 2011 a “State of Emergency” was declared. Troops from GCC partner countries were deployed (ostensibly) at the request of the government in March 2011, in order to guard key facilities. Subsequently, protests were suppressed with reports of serious violations of human rights, including the denial of medical treatment to injured protesters and the physical abuse other protesters and medical staff attending to the injured. The Pearl Roundabout camp was demolished, and the iconic statue dismantled. Those opposing the government were dismissed from public sector employment and from government owned firms, and some foreigners who criticised the government were deported. The State of Emergency was lifted on 1st June 2011. However, sporadic protests continued, as did the use of tear gas. Sunni-Shi’a relations deteriorated markedly, with deep divisions emerging in many parts of Bahraini society. There was widespread humiliation of Shi’a, including within work-places and educational establishments. All Shi’a background MPs (who held 18 of the 40 seats) resigned in protest at the government’s handling of protests. By-elections were held in September 2011, with Sunnis being victorious due to a widespread boycott by Shi’a parties and their supporters. At the end of 2011, the situation remained tense, with intense security and denial of basic rights for many. In January 2012 there were further calls for political reforms.
In November 2011 the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, chaired by an Egyptian law professor, published a report of the violent treatment of protesters. It was surprisingly honest, acknowledging “instances of excessive force” and “mistreatment of detainees”. The government, who had commissioned the report, welcomed the findings and promised that “all those responsible for abuses will be held accountable”. However, during 2012 such rhetoric was not fulfilled and violent suppression of protests continued, together with human rights abuses. A number of police officers were injured in bomb attacks, including four in one incident in April and another following an incident on 19th October.
Throughout 2012, and continuing from 2011, there was concern amongst some Bahrainis that regional tensions, notably between Iran and Saudi Arabia, were being played out within Bahrain. The overt use of Saudi Arabian military units exacerbated such fears. There is considerable fear about what the future might hold, notably due to repeated discussion in some international circles of a possible military strike on Iran.
A parliamentary election was held in October 2010. The result was similar to the 2006 election, with the main Shi’a opposition party winning 18 of 40 seats. The remainder were won by Sunni parties and independents, mostly loyal to the monarch. Of note is that the constituencies vary in size considerably, with constituencies in predominantly Shi’a areas having many more electors than those in Sunni areas. There was a government crackdown ahead of that election, in which 200 were arrested including Abd al-Jalil Singace, head of the Shi’a-dominated Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy. Terrorism charges were placed against some.
There were tensions between the King and the previous parliament, with the latter pushing a more Islamic agenda, e.g. legislating to make the importation of pork illegal in early 2009, and introducing a ban on alcohol sales in lower-grade restaurants and hotels, and at the airport.
In recent years there has been a growing recognition of the need to enhance the rights of women, politically, economically and domestically. In December 2010 it was announced that Alice Samaan was to be appointed as the country’s ambassador to a European country. She is the first Christian to be appointed as an ambassador. In October 2008 she successfully fought off long-standing challengers for her position as Second Deputy Chairperson of the Shura Council. She was the first woman to chair a Parliamentary session in the Arab world when appointed to this role in 2006.
Economically, Bahrain’s proven oil reserves are virtually depleted, but new discoveries are being made. In the medium term, the oil industry is expected to expand. However, Bahrain continues to diversify its economy. Iranian President Ahmadinejad visited Bahrain on 17th November 2007. The two governments signed agreements on increased cooperation in the areas of fishing and natural gas and on avoiding double taxation of individuals and companies doing business in both countries.
During 2007 the government initiated a series of employment law changes, including the introduction of unemployment benefit. Unemployment was estimated to be in the range 15-25% at the time. This, and underemployment, creates much poverty among Bahrainis. The accompanying dissatisfaction and unfulfilled expectation drive a yearning for political accountability, for corruption to be tackled, and for improved moral practices, fuelling political tensions.
The following remain significant:
q Bahrain continues to be the home base to the US Fifth Fleet, bringing 3,000 US military personnel to the island, an arrangement that began 30 years ago
q A free trade agreement with the USA was signed on 15th September 2004 and became effective in June 2006. The agreement included the condition that Bahrain end its economic boycott of Israel. However, this has not been implemented. The agreement allows the duty-free movement of consumer and industrial garments as well as 81% of agricultural products between the two countries.
q Private schools abound, with many locals attending local and expatriate private schools, and the number of private universities is growing. However, several Shi’a owned institutions were suppressed, notably by not being allowed to enrol new students, which will, in due course, force them to close.
Many Saudis continue to visit; attractions include cinemas, the availability of alcohol and the freedom for ladies to drive and to shop without being fully covered; another has been the availability of prostitutes, though that has been reduced significantly by government action initiated in 2007. The number of visitors declined significantly due to curfews imposed to restrain protesters
 A referendum on the change was held on 14th February 2001; protests started 14th February 2011, ten years later, to the day.
 This happened very close to the time when Saudi Arabia was proving instrumental in the Arab League’s support for a NATO led military intervention in Libya. Many commentators suggested that Saudi Arabia negotiated a de facto free hand to intervene in Bahrain in exchange for its agreement to intervention by others in Libya.
 One eye-witness account described a Shi’ite being made to walk round in a circle chanting “I am a donkey”.