Bahrain

GEOGRAPHY

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The Kingdom of Bahrain is a cluster of 33 small islands (an archipelago) in the Gulf of Bahrain. Saudi Arabia is located to the west of Bahrain, and Qatar is just to the east, with a stretch of water separating the countries. The Gulf of Bahrain is connected to the larger Persian Gulf. Since 1986, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have been connected by the 25 kilometer King Fahd Causeway. Construction plans for the 45 kilometer Qatar Bahrain Causeway, also referred to as the Qatar Bahrain Friendship Bridge, were announced in 2008, but the project has been postponed indefinitely for numerous reasons, principally financial. The capital of Bahrain is Manama, and has a population of roughly 150,000 people. Bahrain has an estimated population of 1.4 million people (2016, World Bank).

In Arabic, the word Bahrain means “two seas”, although which two seas the name was intended to signify is not entirely clear. Today, Bahrain’s two seas are generally taken to be the bay east and west of the island, the seas north and south of the island, or the salt and fresh water present above and below the ground. The latter possibility refers to the sweet, fresh water produced from springs, along with the salty water from the sea; in some places, it is possible to dive beneath the layer of saltwater and reach the fresh spring waters underneath. Until the late Middle Ages, Bahrain referred to the region of Eastern Arabia that included Southern Iraq, Kuwait, Al-Hasa, Qatif and Bahrain. Regardless of the name’s intended meaning, it is evident from these possibilities just how strong a role water plays in the Bahraini national identity.

Despite being surrounded by water, Bahrain has an arid climate, resulting in occasional droughts. Its terrain is mostly a low desert plain and it is not uncommon for sandstorms to occur. To some extent, Bahrain makes up for its size and environmental challenges by its strategic location in the Persian Gulf. Petroleum is Bahrain’s largest export at 60%, and the country’s banking and financial sectors have benefited from its larger and more resource-rich neighbors.

Currently, Bahrain suffers from desertification and degradation of its limited arable land. Being a desert island surrounded by salt water with no streams, lakes, or rivers for fresh water, Bahrain has an over-reliance on groundwater. Petroleum production has caused coastal degradation from oil spills and other discharges from large tankers and oil refineries.

Geography Resources

HISTORY & GOVERNMENT

The small country of Bahrain was once the link between trade coming from India and China to Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. For 3,000 years, this was the major source of income for the people of what would become the Kingdom of Bahrain; when trade with India began to decline, Bahrain suffered. The area has been ruled by Assyrians, Babylonians, Arabs, Persians and Portuguese. For much of this time, it was known by its Greek name, Tylos. The designation “Bahrain” was introduced officially during the 7th century when the country was taken over by Islamic rulers.

In 1783, Bahrain freed itself from the Persian Empire. The al-Khalifa family overthrew the Persians and set up a monarchy which is still in place today. In 1863, it entered into a treaty with the United Kingdom, becoming a protectorate, in order to guarantee its security. Bahrain did not become fully independent until 1971.

Bahrain has opened up its land, air space, and sea space to the U.S. military. For many years now, the Fifth Fleet of the United States Navy has been based at NSA (Naval Support Activity) Bahrain in Manama. Most recently, the U.S. military has used Bahrain as a staging ground during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Bahrain is a formally designated non-NATO ally of the United States.

Bahrain practices a form of governance known as a constitutional monarchy. The Sunni Muslim al-Khalifa family that came to power in 1783 has ruled since then. The current ruler, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, allowed Shia political parties to participate in parliamentary and local elections in 2006 in order to give the majority Shia population a voice in government; however, Shia political parties, notably the al-Wefaq party, boycotted both the 2011 and 2014 elections. While Bahrain has a parliament, the prime minister (and the cabinet) is appointed by the monarchy. Its judicial system, headed by a High Civil Appeals Court, has its foundation in Shari’a and English Law.

Bahrain experienced large-scale, organized demonstrations during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. The protests in Bahrain were at first peaceful and non-sectarian. They began on February 14th when people took to a central landmark, the Pearl Roundabout, in pursuit of reforms primarily related to obtaining greater political freedom for the majority Shia population.

On February 17th, in the early hours of the morning, Bahraini security forces attempted to clear the encampment of 1,500-3,000 people. Clashes soon erupted between the opposition groups gathered there and security forces; four protesters died and 300 were injured that day. The demonstrators began calling for the end of the monarchy, in addition to their original demands for reforms. Consequently, King Hamid bin Isa al-Khalifa declared a state of emergency in the country, allowing for the implementation of greater security measures throughout the country. The government requested further troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and installed martial law, in attempts to restore calm and order. These measures were taken because of government concern that Iranian influence would further incite Shia and opposition protesters.

Bahrain‘s opposition groups continued to organize rallies and demonstrations. The Bahraini security forces often met with aggressive, armed resistance by the protesters. The demonstrations and government response received international attention; the UN, along with several countries, was troubled by reports of the use of excessive force towards protesters, emergency responders and the media.  The Gulf Cooperation Council’s Ministers of Foreign Affairs expressed their solidarity with the government of Bahrain and its actions.

In the wake of the protests, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) on June 29, 2011. The Commission functioned independently of the government, and was tasked with investigating and reporting on the events that took place from February 2011 onward. The investigation resulted in the submission to the king of the Report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry which is available in its entirety for view by the public. The report documented 46 deaths, 559 allegations of torture, and more than 4,000 cases of employees dismissed for participating in protests. It also stated that the violence in Bahrain “was the result of an escalating process in which both the Government and the opposition have their share of responsibility in allowing events to unfold as they did”. King Hamad has implemented key economic and political reforms recommended by the BICI.

The unrest of 2011 has largely subsided, but divisions remain between and within the Sunni and Shia populations and the government. In the era of radical Sunni movements like the Islamic State, Bahrain has also experienced a growth in the number of extremists opposed to the government’s concessions to the Shia majority. The situation in Bahrain is much more complicated than the media portrayal of an oppressive Sunni monarchy denying rights to its Shia majority. We recommend you review the articles below (Bahrain: A Very Complicated Little Island and Bahrain Revisited) in the Resources Section to gain a more balanced understanding of the reality on the ground in Bahrain.

History & Government Resources

INTERNATIONAL & REGIONAL ISSUES

Due to Bahrain’s history of being part of the Persian Empire, Iran has long laid claims to the islands. The ruling Al Khalifa family of Bahrain has been fairly friendly toward Iran and shown them loyalty in issues with Britain, for instance. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Iranian flag was raised on official buildings in Bahrain as a protest against the British colonialists. In a show of good faith, Iran reserved two seats for Bahrain in in its national parliament, from 1906 to 1971, dubbing Bahrain its “14th province”. When the British withdrew from “east of Suez” in 1971, the last shah of Iran raised the issue of Bahrain’s governance with the British, hoping it would fall under Iranian control. Shah Pahlavi agreed to a limited UN-sponsored opinion poll of the Bahraini people to decide the future of the nation. Although the poll could not be called a referendum due to its limited scope (it was mainly the political elite who were asked) it did grant Bahrain its independence. Iran has accepted Bahrain’s independence since it was declared, but there are still some in Iran who view the Bahraini territory as rightfully belonging to Iran, and occasionally there are territorial or water disputes.

Bahrain and Qatar have had many territorial disputes. Since 1936 the nations have been involved in disputes over the Hawar Islands, Fasht Al Azm, Fasht Dibal, al-Jaradah, and Zubarah. Tensions have risen on several occasions over Fasht Dibal in particular, and the countries have come close to military action against one another. After Bahrain was accused of building on the island, Qatari troops arrived on the island in 1986 via helicopter and declared it a ‘restricted zone’. They seized several Bahraini officials and 29 construction workers. On the 12th of May 1986, following mediation by several GCC member states, Bahrain and Qatar reached a settlement and the foreign workers were released. In 1991 the dispute flared up again after Qatar instituted proceedings to let the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague decide whether it had jurisdiction. The two countries laid out their claims to the islands and exchanged complaints over the other’s incursion on their vessels and territories. The disputes were resolved by the International Court of Justice on 16 March 2001, awarding both sides equal amounts of land. Bahrain was granted control of the Hawar Islands (excluding the Janan Island), al-Jaradah, and Fasht Al Azm, with Qatar receiving Zubarah, Fasht Dibal, and the Janan Island.

Because of its small size and its proximity to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain tends to follow Saudi policy and opinion in most international situations.

International & Regional Issues Resources

ECONOMY

Bahrain is considered the most-free economy in the Middle East and North Africa region. Refined petroleum remains Bahrain’s top export, representing 44% of its total exports, but the country has actively diversified its economy in order to prosper in this energy rich area. Bahrain has the first post-oil economy in the Persian Gulf and is now renowned for its banking, finance, and tourism sectors which have been active since the late 20th century. 79% percent of the workforce is in industry, commerce, and services; 20 percent is in the government; and 1 percent in agriculture. Because very little of Bahrain’s land is arable (roughly 1 percent), the Kingdom has to rely on food imports, which makes the country vulnerable to food insecurity.  Many jobs are held by foreign temporary workers, who account for over 60 percent of the labor force. Expatriates work in every field from manual labor to investment banking.

Imports and exports are roughly equal in value for Bahrain. Their main export partners are India, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates, whilst they import from Saudi Arabia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Germany.

Dramatic population growth due to a high birth rate has resulted in a deficit of jobs for the large and highly qualified young population. Currently, unemployment stands at 28% for those under 25, a contributing factor to the unrest in Bahrain during the Arab Spring of 2011. Further complicating the country’s economic outlook, Bahrain’s labor force is up to 60% non-native. The rapid depletion of its oil reserves and underground water resources have been offset by Bahrain’s economic diversification efforts in banking and finance, but the government will need to make ongoing economic, developmental, and infrastructural adjustments to accommodate the next generations of Bahrainis.

SOCIETY

Bahrain has a relatively small population, consisting of 1,418,895 people as of June 2017. Nearly 90% of the population lives in either one of the two urban areas, Manama and Al Muharraq. Of the one and a half million people living in Bahrain, estimates are that up to 55% of the population consists of non-nationals working in the kingdom, according to the United Nations. Most of Bahrain’s foreign workers live in the capital.

Those Bahrainis who do not live in the two cities are mainly found in the few villages and towns. These localities survive mostly by cultivating palm groves, which have several practical uses including medicine.

According to the World Health Organization, in 2015 Bahraini men lived to be about 76 years old, and the female life expectancy was 78 years old. The UNDP’s Human Development Index ranks Bahrain 47th on its index for all nations in the world.  The HDI measures life expectancy, education, and per capita income. The placement is consistent with its neighboring GCC states.

The obesity rate in Bahrain is 38.2% among those aged over 20, higher than the average for the region (24.5). The population is young, with only 2% over the age of 65. In contrast, 21% are under 15 years old. The per capita expenditure on healthcare is much higher than the region’s average, and 100% of births are attended by skilled personnel. Over the past 15 years the under-5 mortality rate has gone down to 6 out of 1000, slightly less than the American rate of 6.6%.

Government expenditure for education in Bahrain was at 7.7% of the overall GDP in 2015. In Bahrain the majority of men and women can read and write. Around 5% of the population is illiterate, and there is a gender gap in the literacy rate for women. This suggests that more boys are enrolled in primary and secondary school than girls; however, the girls who do go to school are more likely to continue their education than boys. In tertiary education the women outnumber the men with a female enrollment at 56.5% of the total number of eligible women, whereas the male enrollment is at 24.2% out of the total. There is, however, a gender gap when it comes to the labor force and representation. In 2015, only 7.5% of the seats in Bahrain’s national parliament are held by women.

Bahrain Population

Average Life Expectancy

RELIGION

Islam is by far the predominant religion of Bahrain. An estimated 99.8% of the national Bahraini population is Muslim, with the figure shrinking to 70.2% if non-nationals are included. Shia Muslims make up the majority of the population at around 70%, with a large minority (30%) of Sunni Muslims. It is one of the more open and religiously tolerant societies with small populations of Christians, Hindus, and others – mainly due to the large population of foreign workers. Bahrain is the only Arab Persian Gulf state with a synagogue; a very small but influential Jewish minority has been involved in Bahraini business and politics.

The constitution of Bahrain states that Islam is the official religion and that Sharia (Islamic law) is a principal source for legislation. There are continuous tensions between the ruling minority of Sunni Muslims and the Shia majority of the population. As mentioned above in the Government & History section, in February 2011, the tensions between the Sunni ruling minority and the Shia majority spilled over into street protests that were suppressed by authorities and followed by an independent commission inquiry.

CULTURE

Food

Staple foods in Bahrain include bread, hummus, and tabbouleh ( salad with parsley, bulgur, tomatoes, garlic, and lemon). The latter two dishes were brought to Bahrain from other Arab cultures when Bahrain became an important trade post. During this time Bahraini cuisine became influenced by Europeans as well, and rice among other things was introduced to the islands. Most prevalent in the historic diet of Bahrain is seafood, due to its geographic location. Bahrainis have traditionally enjoyed mackerel, nagroor, shrimp, crab, and lobster among other sea food. Dates are also highly popular.

Clothing

Women dress in the abaya, a long and loose-fitting black gown. It is worn along with a hijab, also black. Red is Bahrain’s national color, and on important days or national holidays women will often accessorize with these colors. Men’s traditional dress is the thobe, or dishdasha. It is a loose, long-sleeved, ankle-length garment which is white and made from cotton in summer and black made out of wool in winter. The male headwear includes the keffiyeh, ghutra and agal. The ghutra is a square scarf that is folded in a triangle and worn over the keffiyeh. In Bahrain, it is usually red and white checked or all white. There is no significance placed on which kind of ghutra a man wears in Bahrain, although the selection does matter in some other Gulf countries. The keffiyeh is a white knitted skull cap worn under the ghutra, and the agal is a thick, black cord that is worn on the top of the ghutra to hold it in place. The keffiyeh skullcap used in the Arabian Gulf must be differentiated from the black and white keffiyah scarf (also known as ghutra and shemagh across the Middle East) worn in Palestine.

Music

Sawt, literally “voice” in Arabic, is the most popular type of music in Bahrain. Heavily influenced by African, Indian and Persian music, sawt music is played using the Oud, a traditional Arab stringed instrument that is an antecedent of the lute, and Rebaba, a stringed instrument that looks similar to a guitar. Other musical traditions in Bahrain include Khaleeji, a style of Persian Gulf-area folk music and Fidgeri, songs performed by the male-only pearl diving community.

There is a growing popularity of hard rock and heavy metal music among the younger generations.  Music groups are writing original content as well as covering songs that have been done by European and American bands. Osiris is the most popular rock band in Bahrain currently.

Click the link below to listen to Al Ekhwa band which translates to “the brothers”. Al Ekhwa is a Bahraini musical band that was formed by the widely-known Bahraini performer, Ali Bahar, in 1986.

Culture Resources

Art

Bahrain, like many other Middle Eastern countries, has a rich artistic heritage. Works from the times of the various ruling empires, including the Ottoman Empire, can be found on display. Bahrain is known for its use of glass and metal in the arts, particularly with jewelry. Manuscripts and calligraphy are also carefully preserved and accessible to the public. Much of the ancient art contains phrases in Arabic or specific phrases for the Qur’an using the art of calligraphy. Pottery and weaving are also popular.

The younger generations are producing an extremely diverse assortment of artwork. Much of it is very modern and colorful, and makes statements about politics, religious issues or societal problems. The Elham Creative Arts Group is committed to sharing with the public the works of these emerging artists in order to bring attention to contemporary creative expression in Bahrain.

Art Resources

Sites

Small in size, Bahrain still has a variety of places of historical, religious, and cultural prominence. Included among them are an ancient fortress and a top regional museum. The Bahrain National Museum covers 4,000 years of the country’s history and heritage, and is located in Manama near the King Faisal Highway.

The Al-Fatih Mosque is the largest building in Bahrain and tours are given to non-Muslims that highlight the structure’s unique architecture details featuring marble from Italy, glass from Austria, and teak wood from India. Guides will share the fundamental tenets of Islam with visitors.

To date, the Bahrain Fort (Qal’at Al Bahrain) is the country’s sole World Heritage Site. The fort is of Portuguese architecture and sits on top of a tell, an artificial mound that has been created by several layers of human occupation. About 25% of the site has been excavated, and it is clear that the area has been occupied continuously since about 2300 BCE. The structures found range from residential homes and public and commercial buildings, to religious and military ones. The site used to be the capital of Dilmun, one of the most important ancient civilizations of the region. The Bahrain Fort sits right on an old trading port on the northern coast of Bahrain, about 5.5 km west of Manama.

Bahrain also hosts the densest concentrations of burial mounds found anywhere in the world from any period. The sites display the burial practices of the Dilmun and Tylos eras that were prominent periods of trade between Mesopotamia, South Arabia and the Indian subcontinent. Although the sites have been subject to several archaeological digs over the past decades, there is still a lot that has not been uncovered. The grounds have not yet been made into World Heritage sites due to disputes between UNESCO and Bahrain. The government has not done enough to preserve the sites, according to UNESCO, and many burial mounds have been destroyed in the process of urbanization. Much of what has been preserved, such as vases, glasses, weapons and bones, is stored in the National Museum.

Tree of Life, Photo by: Harold Laudeus – Flickr

One of the most famous sites in Bahrain is the Tree of Life. The tree is a 400-year old mesquite tree. It stands alone in the desert, surrounded by miles of sand. The area is supposedly free of any water supply, which is why the tree has been given its dramatic name. The Tree of Life is located in the desert about two kilometers from Jebel Dukhan.

Sites Resources

Sports

In the sporting world, Bahrain is best known as the host of Formula 1 auto racing in the Middle East.  It is the home of the 2010 Formula 1 Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix, the opening race of the season.

Diving is a popular activity in Bahrain, especially in search of pearls.  Pearls were once a primary export of Bahrain.

Sports Resources

LATEST NEWS & COMMENTARY ON BAHRAIN

Scholarly essays, commentary and forums on Bahrain

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News about Bahrain, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times.

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ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Country Briefing: Bahrain

Provides resources on history and culture.

Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy

Congressional Research Service

Kenneth Katzman, December 2015