Bahrain’s Contemporary History
Bahrain’s contemporary history is the story from the 1990s to the present. Bahrain’s history of independence in 1971, and even more so in the 2000s, reflects deeper social and clearer political contradictions than in most other Gulf states. Increasingly, the contradictions have also emerged through conflict between the ruling Sunni elite and a Shia- dominated opposition challenging the Sunni dominance. These contradictions were less evident until 1971, when Bahrain was still a British protectorate. The tensions have repeatedly led to riots, both in the mid-1990s and during the Arab Spring when there were also riots in Bahrain, 2011–2012.
Bahrain does not officially distinguish between Sunnis and Shi’ites in the population, and does not publish figures on the size of groups. This is a pertinent question, all the while power is concentrated in a minority of Sunnis, while the majority (Shi’as) feel overruled and underprivileged. Estimates of the proportion of Shiites in the Muslim part of the population are between 55 and 75 percent. The King’s House has sought to increase the proportion of Sunnis by granting foreign, immigrant Sunnis citizenship.
Although the uprising in 2011 was not a pure Shia issue, but a struggle for democracy, the consequences are particularly felt to hit Shias and their organizations. This is not least because the authorities are accusing the activist part of the Shia opposition of being backed by Iran. In doing so, the contradictions that come to the surface in Bahrain are also linked to the struggle for political, cultural and economic influence between the two regional powers of the Gulf of Persia: Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Bahrain regime is closely associated with Saudi Arabia in social, political, economic and military terms, and has become a staple in the major political game in the Gulf.
Already in 1994-1996 demonstrations were demanding democratization. The protests were against the National Assembly not reopening, after being shut down by the Emir in 1975. The government responded by deploying security forces against the protesters; backed by the Saudi National Guard. This handling of the conflict led to increased violence and sabotage over the next few years. Among other things, several bombs exploded in the capital Manama in 1996.
The 1994 uprising started in Shia villages outside Manama. In addition to protests against Shi’ite discrimination, the demonstrations were aimed at complex political and social conditions – and an authoritarian regime, with the absence of civil rights as well as widespread public corruption. Religious Shia leaders were central to promoting reform demands, and the Bahraini government sought to link the opposition to the Shia regime in Iran, thereby discrediting it and using it as a pretext to attack it. In 1996, the government announced that it had uncovered a coup plot planned by an Iranian-backed group, Hezbollah- Bahrain.
When the emir since independence in 1971, Sheikh Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, died in 1999 and was succeeded by her son, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, new political reforms were implemented. These included the preparation of a new constitution, which was passed after a referendum in 2001, when women were allowed to participate in an election for the first time. The Constitution came into force in 2002, and meant that the country became a constitutional, hereditary monarchy, and the emir declared himself king.
Several old regulations were repealed and parts of the security regime were dissolved. Greater freedom of speech was introduced and amnesty for political prisoners was adopted. Political parties remained banned, but political associations were allowed, and in effect operated virtually as close to parties. Voluntary organizations, including human rights groups, grew up. A first opposition newspaper, al-Wasat, was also allowed.
The parliamentary elections in 2002 were the first since the disputed dissolution of the National Assembly in 1975. For the first time, women were eligible, and about ten percent of the candidates were women, but none was elected until the next election, in 2006. In 2000, the Emir had the first once appointed women to the Consultative Council, which worked during the period when the country was without a national assembly. The first female prime minister was appointed in 2004.
As a result of the 1999 democratization, Bahrain was highlighted as a model for political reform in the Arab world. This picture changed when new demonstrations came to light in 2004-2005. Again, violent clashes between protesters and security forces came. The reason was dissatisfaction that the political changes that were to be implemented as a result of the new constitution were not followed up by the king. In particular, a fully elected parliament was called for, which further strengthened the political tension in the country.
A prominent feature of developments in the first decade of the 2000s was a clear marginalization of the Shia population, and a consequent radicalization of it. This became even more apparent during the 2011 uprising.
A political gesture from the new emir in 1999 was to release political prisoners. Eventually, exile politicians were allowed to return and establish organizations; including al-Wefaq, led by Sheikh Ali Salman, who became a leading force in the opposition. Prior to the 2010 elections, Shia opposition leaders were arrested, accused of planning to overthrow the monarchy. The opposition in Bahrain gradually divided into two blocks. One, with al-Wefaq, worked for changes through parliament; the other, al-Wa’ad, brought together radical groups that have advocated open confrontation, including in the form of demonstrations.
Democracy rebellion in 2011
At the same time as the political uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, demonstrations also began in Bahrain in early 2011, but unlike the other countries, the Arab Spring was defeated here. The demonstrations that started on February 14, 2011 in several cities also had roots in recent Bahraini political history.
Participants in the uprising were divided into two camps: the established, legalized opposition in one, and youth and unregistered groups in the other. In parallel, contradictions appeared within the royal family. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa wanted reform, but a tougher line, promoted by, among others, Conservative Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, emerged. The Crown Prince initiated informal talks with the leading opposition group al-Wefaq. The talks stopped when radical groups challenged the monarchy itself by wanting to abolish it. The royal house was also under pressure from Saudi Arabia, which has significant economic and political influence over Bahrain.
On March 14, 2011, one month after the uprising began, the Gulf Council responded positively to Bahrain’s request for military assistance through its Peninsula Shield force. Around 4,000 soldiers from Saudi Arabia, supported by Kuwait naval vessels and United Arab Emirates police were deployed, and the uprising broke down.
After the Arab Spring
Following the uprising in 2011, King Hamad set up an independent commission to investigate what had happened. With international experts as members, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) presented its report that year. It showed that 46 people had been killed and more than 1,600 people had been arrested; most Shiites. The commission found no basis for the allegations that Iran had been involved in the uprising. It criticized the regime’s use of power, and the human rights violations. Then, in 2012, the government presented a reform agenda, and a national dialogue was launched in February 2013.
Opposites also organized demonstrations in 2012–2013. When one of al-Wefaq’s leaders was arrested and charged with terrorism, the five groups in the opposition alliance National Democratic Opposition Parties (NDOP) withdrew from the national dialogue. It was officially suspended by the government in January 2014.
Because of the long-standing discrimination against the Shia population, considered by the regime as a possible fifth column, the Bahrain conflict has an element of sectarian contradictions. However, it is as much a struggle for political rights and social conditions, with opposition to an elite, including the royal family, which has retained extensive power and is Sunni. While Shi’ites and Sunnis joined in on political reform at the start of the uprising, Shi’as have always led to the demands, and the conflict has helped to intensify the contradictions in Bahraini society.
Demonstrations continued in 2014, with clashes in particular between Shias and security forces. The Shia-dominated opposition, with al-Wefaq in the lead, boycotted the election for a new national assembly in the fall of 2014. At the 2010 election, al-Wefaq gained 18 representatives, but these withdrew as a result of the 2011 uprising. the total of 40 seats occupied by independent representatives; the other three were elected from the two Islamist parties al-Asalah and al-Menbar. Al-Wefaq was prevented from posing, and in 2016 was ordered to be dissolved by the authorities. Al-Wa’ad was banned in 2017, partly because it had criticized al-Wefaq’s compulsory dissolution the previous year.
After the 2011 uprising, a more militant opposition to the regime has emerged in Bahrain, with Shia groups using bombs to attack security forces. When this increased in 2014–2015, the government explained it with increased recruitment and training of Iranian regime opponents, and the participation of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia group from Lebanon. The government has since maintained and reinforced this explanation.
Several militant groups have emerged, including Saraya al-Ashtar. It is alleged to be backed by Iran, and the US government put it on its list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2018. Bahraini regime opponents have been trained in militant resistance in Iran, Lebanon and Iraq, as well as in Bahrain. Cases of confiscated weapons charges from Iran are reported to be on the way to Bahraini oppositionists.
After a gradual tightening of political freedom, there was no coordinated or real opposition to the candidates who supported the government at the 2018 parliamentary elections.
As a result of several rounds of reform, Bahrain is in principle the most liberal country in the Arabian Peninsula. The Constitution, which came into force in 2002 extended already introduced, but not fully practiced, rights, including universal suffrage, freedom of speech and an extensive, but not absolute, freedom of organization; political parties were still banned.
Although Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy under the Constitution, in reality the king has almost full power, including to appoint and oust government members and dissolve parliament. Only half of the National Assembly is elected; the other is appointed by the king. Nor is the government accountable to Parliament. There is no distinction between legislative, executive and judicial authority, as the power is gathered with the king.
The constitutional rights are undermined after the uprising in 2011, and Bahrain is termed a police state. Particularly from around 2015, projections against regime critics have intensified. The fight against terror in the region is used as justification and pretext.
When the largest opposition group, the Shia-dominated al-Wefaq, was forcibly dissolved in 2016, the leader was arrested. Many opposers are deprived of their Bahraini citizenship and are either imprisoned or banished. Following the regional conflict with Qatar, one could be sentenced to five years in prison for expressing sympathy with the country or criticizing Bahrain for breaking it. In January 2019, Bahrain’s Supreme Court upheld the life sentence of three oppositionists, all members of al-Wefaq, convicted of spying for Qatar. As of 2017, under a royal decree, civilians can be tried before military courts.
The Constitution gives workers the right to organize themselves, but after the uprising in 2011, the authorities created their own main organization because it had no control over the existing one; General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions – which has been critical of the regime.
In principle, Bahrain has religious freedom, but Islam is state religion, and its legislation is based on Islamic law, Sharia. Supporters of the Shi’a direction of Islam should not be discriminated against but experience it; both socially, economically and politically. Despite the constitutional freedom of expression, restrictions have been introduced, among other things, against internet content.
Developments in the region after the Arab Spring, and with increasing contradictions between the regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have been strengthened especially as a result of the war in Syria, and subsequently by the war in Yemen, have led to a more tense security situation at the Gulf of Persia. These include the political conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where Bahrain joined the Qatar blockade in 2017.
Bahrain has emphasized fostering a close relationship with the United States, and is the host country for the main base of the US Fifth Fleet. In 2018, an agreement was signed with the UK to establish a new naval base in Bahrain.
Bahrain’s influence in the region will be strengthened by the extraction of new large reserves of both oil and gas that were announced in 2018. Bahrain has had modest petroleum recovery, and with a weakening role as a financial center, the country has become increasingly dependent on other countries; especially of Saudi Arabia.