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Bahrain - literally “two seas” in Arabic - is an island nation in the Arabian Gulf. The Khalifa family have ruled the country for more than two centuries, albeit as a British Protectorate until 1971, and the King continues to rule as the supreme political authority. A number of serious human rights violations are ongoing in Bahrain, and human rights defenders operating in the country do so in a hostile environment and have been subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, ill-treatment, threats and harassment.
Bahrain literally means “two seas” in Arabic. The archipelago lies in the Arabian Gulf, bordering Saudi Arabia to the west and Qatar to the south east. Bahrain is a hub to the Gulf, providing convenient access to visitors from the region and around the world. The country's capital is Manama.
Population and language
Bahrain is home to over 1,234,571 people of whom an estimated 40 per cent are expatriate workers. There are approximately 226,000 children under the age of 18.
The population are predominantly Muslim - around 70 per cent. Around 60-70% of Bahraini Muslims are Shi'a, with around 30%-40% Sunni - the latter group, while smaller, have been politically dominant for much of recent history. Other minorities include Christians, largely Orthodox; Hindus, particularly amongst the expatriate workers and a tiny but active native Jewish population.
Arabic is the official language, but English, Persian, Urdu, Hindi and Malayalam are are also spoken - largely amongst the expatriate workers, but also in the countries bustling market places.
Islam is the religion of the Kingdom and the legal system is based on the Islamic Shari’a, codified systems and the English common law. The Islamic Shari’a is the major source of legislation, followed by custom, natural law or principles of equity and good conscience.
History and Politics
Historically, Bahrain has been a site of contest for much of its history. Once occupied by the Persian empire, it became dominated by the British. Despite the demands of the Persian Empire's successor state, Iran, Bahrain remained relatively independent under the Khalifa family, though under heavy British influence. With Britain's decline in the region, however, the Kingdom of Bahrain achieved independence in 1971 and rose to prominence as one of the key Gulf states, undergoing dramatic socio- economic changes. It was one of the first countries in the Gulf region to benefit from the oil boom and to build the infrastructure of the economy, workers were encouraged to come to the country from abroad. The treatment of these workers, however, has been very variable and at times incredibly exploitative. At the same time, though the ruling classes were largely Sunni, the majority of the population were Shi'a. During the British period, to try and limit Persian influence over the country, Shi'a groups had been excluded from the political process. Driven by concerns over Iranian interference in the country, this process continued through independence, leading to significant tensions between the sects.
Sheikh Hamid bin Isa Al Khalifa, who has ruled since 1999, has adopted a limited reform agenda toward some expansion of democracy - to this end, in 2000 he called for the establishment of a national committee to write a new National Charter. In February 2001, Bahraini voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum on the National Action Charter which was ratified in 2002, making Bahrain a constitutional monarchy and officially enfranchising women. Parliamentary elections were held in October 2002 and again in 2006. During the 2000s, relations with the US and with neighbouring Arab states improved, as Bahrain became an important part of the GCC, along with fostering greater ties with Saudi Arabia.
During 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring, Bahrain saw a number of protests, particularly focussed on improving the situation of the Shi'a majority and either reforming or abolishing the Khalifa monarchy. Protests particularly focussed around the Pearl Roundabout in Manama where, on 17 February 2011, security forces launched a night time raid that lead to four deaths and more than three hundred injuries. A few weeks later, in the face of continued process, the Bahraini government invited Saudi forces into the country to help suppress the protests. Since then, regular protests have continued with further deaths, including torture and killings by security forces.
The Executive branch of government consists of the King, who is head of state, and an appointed Prime Minister and Cabinet of Ministers. The National Charter outlined an independent judiciary and the creation of a bicameral national legislature.
Today, the country faces a number of economic challenges. Declining oil reserves reinforced the need for Bahrain to diversify into other economic sectors, mainly banking and tourism.
Human rights and children's rights
Human rights defenders in Bahrain are facing increasing challenges. Despite provisions for basic rights in Bahraini law and the fact that it has ratified a number of international human rights treaties, the enjoyment of civil and political rights is limited in practice. Human rights defenders have been subjected to arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, fabricated judicial proceedings, threats and harassment.
Law 21/1989, which regulates the establishment and functioning of civil society organisations, restricts freedom of association and is viewed by most human rights defenders as one of the main obstacles hindering the work of NGOs.
A number of human rights defenders have been subjected to trial under anti-terrorism laws. They have been charged with collaborating with foreign organisations and circulating false information. They have also been accused of forming terrorist networks, destruction of public and private property and defaming the authorities.
Bahrain's Shia population has long demanded greater political representation. Certain groups, in particular the Shia, suffer from discriminatory treatment and afforded opportunities, and discrimination with respect to economic, social and cultural rights.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) entered into force in Bahrain on 14 March 1992. The country acceded to the Optional Protocols on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, and on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography in September 2004. Shari’a governs the social status of children, which is shaped by tradition and religion.
- Hauser Global Law School Program, Globalex, "The Constitutional Law and the Legal system of the Kingdom of Bahrain"
- UNDP Bahrain Country Profile
- World Bank Bahrain Country Profile
- BBC Bahrain Country Profile
- UNICEF Bahrain Country Profile
- Frontline Defenders Bahrain Country Profile
- CIVICUS: Bahrain
- Universal Periodic Review documents for Bahrain