As protests continue to sweep across the region, large-scale demonstrations in the Shiite majority Gulf state of Bahrain represent a serious, direct challenge to the more than 200-year rule of the country’s ruling Sunni Al-Khalifa family. Sparked by the recent upheavals and revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and fueled by domestic discontent, the protests have forced Bahrain’s ruling family to acknowledge the changing socio-political face of the region and its implications for Bahrain’s future. Should Bahrain’s protesters, who are struggling for their political, social and economic rights, ultimately be unsuccessful in attaining their demands, they will have nonetheless set a new tone for political and civic engagement not only in Bahrain, but also in the oil-rich Gulf states, which many have believed to be immune to the current political upheavals in the region. In light of the Bahraini demonstrations, ruling families across the Gulf must realize that the doling out of cash payments to their citizens in insufficient to stave off domestic discontent. Rather, Bahrain has forced the Gulf nations to undergo significant policy changes that embrace a more progressive agenda, without which the long-term stability and prosperity of these countries will remain questionable.

Understanding Bahrain: Straddling an Arab and Iranian Heritage

In order to begin understanding the various motivations and issues at play in the Bahraini protests, a brief look at the country’s history is necessary. The Kingdom of Bahrain is a tiny Arab nation composed of an archipelago of 33 islands, between Qatar to the southeast and Saudi Arabia to the west. The Bahraini population comprises little over 1.2 million, of which 54 percent are expatriate workers (mainly from South Asia). Of the 568,000 Bahraini citizens, approximately two-thirds[] (nearly 375,000), are Shiite Arabs, of which 100,000 are Ajamis, ethnic Iranians who have been “Arabized” over generations. The remaining 190,000, from which the Al-Khalifas stem, are Sunnis[].

Bahrain is, and has always been, a vital strategic point along the trade routes of the Persian/Arabian Gulf. The islands of Bahrain have been ruled and influenced by different empires[] throughout their long and complicated history, constantly sought after by the various tribes and dynasties peppering the Gulf. The reign of Iran’s Abbas I of the Safavid Empire had the most influence on the country’s historical development. After expelling the Portuguese in 1602, the Safavids administered the island as a part of the Iranian state, making Shi’ism the islands’ official religion as they had done in Iran a century before. By 1783, however, the Safavids’ control over the island had weakened and the Bani Utbah tribe, originating from the Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula, under the leadership of Sheikh Isa bin Tarif, took hold of the islands, shifting control into the hands of Arab tribes for the first time in Bahrain’s modern history. Iran’s connection to Bahrain, for religious, ethnic, and strategic reasons, however, remained strong, with Bahrain’s rulers confirming their loyalty to the Iranian state and seeking its military support until the late 19th century when British control over the island became complete.

The Al-Khalifa tribe moved to Bahrain from Kuwait in 1797 and, within twenty years, ruled the tiny grouping of islands. With Britain’s growing interest in the region in the early 19th century, the tribe cemented its control over Bahrain through treaties with the British throughout the 1800s, in particular in 1820, 1880 and 1892/ These treaties recognized the Al-Khalifa tribe as official rulers of Bahrain and gradually transformed Bahrain into a British protectorate, officially severing the island’s political connections with Iran. For the Al-Khalifa tribe, alliance with the British resulted less from any particular desire to distance Bahrain from Iranian influence, and more from British pressure on the country to accept protectorate status at a time when a weakened Iranian government could do little to help the Al-Khalifas avoid this fate.

Regardless, the Al-Khalifa family’s rise to prominence in the country had more to do with external influence, sponsorship first from the Shiite Iranian state and then the British government, than with support from the country’s indigenous population, a circumstance made somewhat inevitable by the Sunni tribe’s reign over a majority Shiite citizenry. During its alliance with the Iranian state, the Al-Khalifa’s reign over the country was peaceful. However, after British domination of the country was solidified following the 1892 treaty, the relative stability of the Bahraini state came under regular threat.  In 1895, a popular revolt broke out against Sheikh Isa bin Ali Al-Khalifa, the first Bahraini ruler lacking any relations with Iran and depending entirely on British military support to maintain his control. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Bahrain became an epicenter for trade – attracting Arab, Persian, and Indian merchants. As the merchant class grew, so too did its confidence in challenging British control and influence, coming to a head in 1911, when a number of merchants called for an end to British rule. The response by the British was swift, with the challengers and their supporters quickly exiled from the country.

This did not end popular opposition from below. Notably, on February 1922, an uprising erupted over the arrest of a villager, forcing major markets to a standstill. Protestors demanded better treatment, due process for prisoners, an end to forced labor, and other curbs on the monarchy’s powers. The Al-Khalifas promised reform and reconciliation, yet faltered on these guarantees by the beginning of 1923.

By May 1923, the British had deposed Sheikh Isa bin Ali, in part for his support of Iranian attempts to renew sovereignty over the islands as well as his failure to end the unrest, and had replaced him with his son Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa. The local population’s hostility towards the Al-Khalifas and their British sponsors intensified when the British heightened its crackdown on the country, utilizing violent tactics, as well as a divide-and-rule policy, to quell the unrest. Britain’s divide-and-rule strategy aimed to ferment disunity by actively bringing in Arab and Sunni laborers to manipulate the country’s ethnic make-up, a tactic that would come to be utilized repeatedly over time by both the British and the Al-Khalifa family.

With the discovery of oil in 1932, Bahrain’s modernization and dependence upon the British increased exponentially. Yet, riots in Bahrain continued as anti-British sentiment spread throughout the region after the Second World War. Uprisings continued over successive decades, coinciding with renewed Iranian interest in the country – an interest that peaked in 1957, when the Iranian Parliament declared Bahrain the Fourteenth Province of Iran. The move alarmed the Al-Khalifas and neighboring Gulf Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, all of which had an antagonistic relationship with the Iranian state. The dispute was officially put to rest in 1970, when a UN mission was sent to determine whether a popular referendum was needed to settle the issue of sovereignty. The UN Security Council and the Iranian Parliament accepted the report, which concluded that the majority of Bahrainis viewed their country as an independent nation. In 1971, Bahrain officially became an independent state, separate from both Iranian and British control. Yet, the fear of Iranian dominance remained a concern for the Al-Khalifa family and the various Gulf states, a fear that influenced the government’s increasing political, social, and economic discrimination against Bahrain’s Shiite population.

Throughout the 1970s, the oil boom and the Lebanese Civil War ensured that Bahrain became a financial hub for the region. The boom brought cosmetic attempts at political reform, with the establishment of a parliamentary system and a constitution in 1973. Bahrain’s National Assembly contained 44 seats, with 14 appointed by the ruler and 30 subject to popular election. Various political parties sprouted up in Bahrain, ranging from secular, leftist pan-Arab parties to religious parties, and even included a Maoist faction. Nevertheless, the National Assembly lacked comprehensive legislative powers, with Bahraini law by and large established by royal decree. Ultimately, Bahrain’s first attempt at parliamentary government was to be short-lived. The Parliament lasted for two years only, after which it was dissolved by the Emir dissolved as members of the Assembly refused to pass a controversial State Security Law.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution sent shock waves throughout the Gulf, especially in Bahrain. Inspired by the Iranian experience, in 1981, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain staged an unsuccessful coup. Sporadic violence continued to flare up within the island nation throughout the 1980s and 1990s, initiated mainly by Islamic organizations. It was, however, in March 1999, with the rise of Emir Hamad ibn Isa Al-Khalifa after the death of Emir Isa bin Salman, that the seeds of the current revolt were planted.

A Decade of King Hamad ibn Isa Al-Khalifa and the Lead Up to the 2011 Uprising

At first, the reign of Emir Hamad ibn Isa Al-Khalifa brought hopes for a new era of political openness in Bahrain. Wide-ranging reforms were initiated, such as the removal of the State Security Law and State Security Court[], extending voting rights to women, the freeing of political prisoners, and the reinstatement of the parliamentary system. These policies were presented under the guise of the National Action Charter , which received overwhelming popular support in a referendum held on Feb. 14, 2001, and was ultimately adopted in the form of a new constitution. In addition, Bahrain was renamed the Kingdom of Bahrain, and Emir Hamad ibn Isa Al-Khalifa was proclaimed king.

Despite these developments, hopes for comprehensive change gradually faded, as it became exceedingly clear that the promised reforms would remain illusory.  Heavily dominated by MPs linked to the king, the new parliamentary system did not appear to be genuinely representative of the people’s will. Shortly after its establishment, a major dispute arose over the Shura Council, the higher body within the country’s bicameral legislative system. While the National Assembly’s 40-member lower house was popularly elected, the 40-member Shura Council was directly appointed by the King and possessed veto power over all legislation emanating from the lower house – the King also enjoyed total veto power over all laws passed by the parliament. Thus, to many, Bahrain’s legislative system did not permit true political representation and re-enforced political marginalization. As a result of the dispute, the major Shiite party, Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, and three other oppositional political parties[], decided to boycott the first elections held in 2002.

During the following elections, held in November 2006, the Al-Wefaq party fielded candidates, but gained only 17 seats, with the majority of lower parliament seats going to Sunni and pro-government parties. Shortly before the 2006 elections, the Gulf Center for Democratic Development published , a UK national and adviser to Bahrain’s Ministry of Cabinet Affairs, alleging plans by Bahraini government officials to rig the then-upcoming elections in order to prevent the Shiite parties from winning a parliamentary majority. As a result of these accusations, Al-Bandar was charged with “illegally seizing government documents and theft” and deported from the country.  As a result of the 2006 elections, popular unrest amongst Bahrain’s Shiite majority, which had occurred only sporadically since 2002, became widespread across the country.

Over the course of King Hamad’s rule, Bahraini Shiites not only faced increasing political marginalization, in the form of limited representation within the National Assembly’s lower house, but also heightened economic and social marginalization. In contrast to the country’s Sunni minority, the Shiite have received minimal financial support from the Bahraini government. They have experienced discrimination in obtaining government housing and in receiving high-ranking private and public sector jobs, particularly in the security and military industry. The Shiite have also faced a number of other social and political restrictions, including prohibitions against practicing their faith, limitations on their freedom of speech and the press, inadequate funding of health and educational services and reduced food and fuel subsidies.

Though per capita income in Bahrain is an impressive $25,420, in large part due to the country’s massive oil boom since 2001, the Shiite majority has remained mostly poor and unemployed. Poverty amongst the Shiite has largely been attributed to income inequalities “driven by crony capitalism that has also lead to enrichment of a small elite”, including large-scale state-sponsored land reclamation projects that have earned huge profits for the regime. The land-reclamation projects have, in fact, received widespread criticism and are seen as one of the driving forces behind the country’s economic and social problems.

Amongst the monarchy’s most controversial anti-Shiite policies, echoing British divide-and-rule practices, has been its efforts to attract Sunni Arabs from countries like Jordan, Syria, Yemen, as well as Sunni South Asians to work in the country, especially within the security and military sectors. Amongst Bahrainis, these groups have been viewed as forces “imported” to protect the regime. Furthermore, the government has been accused of conducting large-scale naturalizations of these foreign-born Sunnis, in order to dilute the country’s Shiite majority.

Discontent with the Bahraini regime has not, however, been limited to the Shiite majority. A significant number of Sunni Bahrainis have also been negatively affected by the government’s land reclamation policy and aggravated by the regime’s decision to fill the country’s security forces with foreign recruits. Like their Shiite counterparts, Bahraini Sunnis have been concerned that “privileges and positions [within the government] are given to the loyalists of the ruling family”, sometimes regardless of sect. Historically speaking, Sunnis and Shiites have also united several times to oppose the government, a situation that began as early as the 1920s, increased during the 1960s-1970s through secular and leftist movements, and then faded with the rise of sectarian religious movements in the subsequent decades. However, the uprising in 1994, which calling for the restoration of the constitution, national elections, women’s right to vote, and economic reforms, reinforced cross-sectarian ties and witnessed a resurgence of cooperation between the two groups.

From 2006-2007, heavy protests, which were occasionally violent, occurred within the country, centered mainly outside Manama, Bahrain’s capital and largest city, and predominately within Shiite areas. The security forces used excessive force to quell the demonstrations, and mass arrests of protesters, including certain prominent Shiite activists and leaders, ensued. In the aftermath of these demonstrations, evidence surfaced of brutal torture and beatings of detainees. In 2007, the arrest of three men – Abdul Hadi Al-Khawaja, the President of the Bahrain Center for Human rights, Hassan Mashaima, head of the Al-Haq party, a Shiite party[] that rejects the 2002 Constitution, and Shaker Mohammed Abdul Hussein, a member of the Unemployment Committee – fueled larger demonstrations. The protests subsequently led to the King’s decision to pardon and release the men. Nonetheless, discontent amongst the masses continued to fester. Additional protests and riots, and concomitant repression by the security forces, ultimately ensured that tensions within the country would remain alive.

In the fall of 2010, 23 Shiite activists, included a prominent blogger, Ali Abdulemam, were arrested under charges of forming a “terror-network” and conspiring to overthrow the government. It was within this context of unease that parliamentary elections took place on October 23, 2010. While the Al-Haq and Al-Wafa’ Islamic Movement parties, both opposition Shiite parties, chose to boycott the elections, the Al-Wefaq party ultimately decided to participate, after much internal debate. Once the results were tallied, Al-Wefaq was reported to have won only 18 seats, a gain of a mere one seat for its parliamentary bloc, with Sunni[] and various other candidates[] winning the remaining positions. Given these results, as well as the government’s refusal to allow international observers to monitor the polls, accusations of election fraud arose, with many pointing to the various, recent arrests as an attempt to weaken the opposition under the cover of the “war on terrorism”.

Tunisia, Egypt… Bahrain?

In Bahrain, activists and the public at large keenly followed the dramatic events in Tunisia and Egypt. Mimicking the tactics of the Tunisians and Egyptians, Bahraini activists established a Facebook page and called for large-scale protests on February 14th – a date chosen for its symbolism, as it fell on the tenth anniversary of the National Action Charter referendum with its promises of wide-ranging reform. The demands outlined by the youth for this Day of Rage echoed similar calls made by those in Tunisia and Egypt: an end to corruption, political and economic representation, major reforms across government sectors, and national unity.

On February 11, as pressure grew in advance of the protests, the Bahraini monarchy attempted to appease demonstrators by announcing a stipend of 1,000 Bahraini Dinars (US$2,650) for every Bahraini family, increased spending on social programs, and the release of some political prisoners. Unfortunately for the Al-Khalifas, the announcement coincided with the ousting of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, an event that energized and galvanized activists in Bahrain and undercut the government’s attempts at appeasement.

On Monday February 14, the protests in Bahrain slowly took shape. Thousands of protesters, who were predominately Shiite, peaceably took to the streets, chanting in support of unity and reform and equal and fair representation for all citizens. The Bahraini police responded brutally, charging into the crowd of protesters, using tear gas and live fire. By the end of the day, two protesters had died, with more than 25 injured.

On Tuesday February 15, King Hamad appeared on state television, apologizing for the deaths and promising an investigation. Nonetheless, the protesters maintained their momentum, with large numbers of demonstrators joining the funeral processions of those killed the day before, while many others descended upon and occupied the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, clearly inspired by the actions of Egyptian protesters in Cairo’s now iconic Tahrir Square. In turn, the Al-Wafeq party suspended its participation in the parliament. The security crackdown intensified the next day, as military tanks entered the streets and more reports surfaced of live fire being used against protesters around the country.

On Thursday morning February 17, at approximately 3:00 am, police forces stormed the protesters’ camp at Pearl Roundabout, killing five and injuring many others and clearing the area of demonstrators within an hour. In particular, the security forces targeted doctors and other medical personnel tending to injured or dying protesters within the roundabout, and prevented ambulances from entering the square. In response to these actions, the protests moved to areas surrounding the Salmaniya Hospital, where the dead and injured had been gathered, and were soon joined by the hospital’s medical staff.  For the demonstrations, the events of February 17 were a turning point, as protesters’ demands transformed from calls for political and economic reform into a hardened position calling for no less than an end to Al-Khalifa rule. For many, the government had lost its legitimacy. In the days that followed, protesters came out in even larger numbers, galvanized by images and videos that spread throughout the Internet and international media, showing security forces using live fire against the peaceful protesters.

With the number of deaths mounting, by Friday February 18, international pressure on the Al-Khalifa family had grown, resulting in a televised appearance by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa calling for calm and dialogue, which was rejected by the protesters and various opposition political parties. On Saturday, February 19, Prince Salman ordered security and military forces to pull back to the outskirts of the city, allowing more than 50,000 protesters to reoccupy the Pearl Roundabout.

Since then, the Bahraini government has continued making various concessions, such as releasing numerous political prisoners, including the 23 individuals arrested in the Fall of 2010, as well as allowing high-profile opposition figure Hassan Mashaima to return to the country. Additionally, the regime has attempted a reshuffle of the cabinet, removing a number of ministers two of whom were members of the royal family. Nonetheless, these moves have fallen short for many protesters, who have demanded the removal of the Prime Minister, Sheik Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has held the post since 1971. Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman, who is the uncle of King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, is considered to be directly responsible for the brutal crackdown.

The standoff between the government and protesters has continued, with only limited dialogue taking place between members of the opposition and government. Much uncertainty as to the results of these events remains, as many continue to demand the outright removal of the monarchy. Notably, the protests’ strength stems from the absence of sectarianism; while Shiite Bahrainis make up the majority protesters, a less than surprising circumstance given that they also form a majority of the Bahraini population, Sunnis have also joined the demonstrations. In fact, one of the most popular chants throughout these protests has been We are Bahrainis – not Sunni, not Shiite. As with the 1994 uprising, the protests’ pursuit of universal aims, such as equal political representation, economic equality, and respect for human dignity, has brought all Bahrainis together.

The Regional and International Dilemma

Regional and international interests further complicate the events in Bahrain. For the United States and the Gulf states, the protesters’ challenge to the Al-Khalifa regime represents a direct and substantial threat to the interests of these nations. For the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, a more politically representative government in Manama portends improved relations between Bahrain and Iran and may fuel domestic opposition to the Gulf regimes. For Saudi Arabia, concerns over the domestic effects of the Bahraini revolt are particularly salient, as the country’s vital oil-rich eastern province is home to a predominately Shiite population.[] Additionally, any change to Bahrain’s absolutist monarchy may encourage citizens in neighboring Gulf countries to challenge their own political and economic systems; within the all-powerful Gulf monarchies, democratic principles have either been rejected or applied in a restrictive manner, making the Gulf rulers particularly apprehensive of any possible democratic openings in Bahrain’s political structure. Some commentators have suggested that if the situation in Bahrain unravels further, the Saudis, and other Gulf States, may intervene militarily, a hypothesis that has been further fueled by King Hamad’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia to discuss Bahrain’s current unrest.

For the Americans, a dramatic change in Bahraini rule could affect the status of the U.S. Fifth Fleet naval base in the country, which represents an essential lynchpin of U.S. regional security by ensuring the continual flow of oil and acting as a major deterrent vis-à-vis Iran. As such, the uprising in Bahrain has been particularly sensitive for the Americans, who have been forced without appearing to support political repression by the Bahraini state.

Because of the country’s importance as a financial center and oil producer, the unrest in Bahrain has also affected international markets. Any changes in its ability to refine petroleum would surely raise oil prices even further. In addition, the protests have had a dramatic effect on Bahrain’s domestic economy, particularly its lucrative tourism sector. Bahrain receives more than two million tourists every year. As a result of the protests, the season-opening race for the Formula One Grand Prix, which was to be held in the country on March 13 and costs more than US$100 million, was scrapped.


The situation inside Bahrain remains volatile, with the results of the demonstrations still unclear. What is certain is that the events in Bahrain will likely have a significant effect on the future direction of the Gulf, reinforcing the notion that a new power dynamic has been established not only in North Africa, but also in the Gulf region. In this new reality, where old power structures and relations have become unsustainable, the Al-Khalifa family, as well as the rulers of the other Gulf nations, have little choice but to support far-reaching political, social, and economic changes, if they are to survive. As the examples of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have shown, any attempts to crush the protests in Bahrain or elsewhere in the Gulf will only delay, rather than prevent, these inevitable changes.

[UPDATE: Mar 4 – opposition groups have tentatively agreed to hold talks with Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa. According to one report “One of the other major discussion points during talks will be the opposition’s earlier stated demand that the current government be replaced in response to the killing of protesters who turned out in mass demonstrations which began on February 14. Earlier attempts at talks with the ruling family had been rejected by the opposition, who said this key demand must be met and that the ruling family should apologise for the killings.”]

[] Exact figures are unknown. The last census that accounted for sect was taken in 1940.

[] A few Jewish and Christian families still reside in the country, though their numbers are miniscule. Notably, Bahrain’s ambassador to the United States, Hoda Ezra Noonoo, belongs to the country’s small Jewish minority.

[] Before becoming a British protectorate in the late nineteenth century, Bahrain had been ruled, in turn, by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Arabs, and the Portuguese.

[] These laws contained measures that allowed government and security forces to practice arbitrary detention and torture. The laws were frequently used to crush unrest, with many women, men, and children detained and mistreated, as a result of its provisions. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the laws facilitated the routine use of torture and mass detentions.

[] The three opposition groups, which also boycotted the 2002 elections, were the leftist National Democratic Action Society, the loosely Ba’athist Nationalist Democratic Rally Society, and the Islamic Actions Society. The latter party had been formed by members of Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, who had been pardoned after their unsuccessful 1981 coup.

[] Although the party is predominately Shiite, a number of its members hail from non-Shia communities, including Ali Qasim Rabea, a leftist-secular nationalist and the Sunni cleric Sheikh Isa Al-Jowder.

[] The Sunni parties winning seats in the election included the Al-Asala Political Society, an exclusively Sunni Salafist organization, and Al-Minbar Al-Islami, Bahrain’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

[] While these groups represent a variety of political ideologies, they are all Sunni organizations.

[] In this context, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah announced a massive financial and welfare package for Saudi citizens. Nonetheless, Saudi activists have called for protests in the country to be held on March 20.

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