Bahrain

GEOGRAPHY

The Kingdom of Bahrain is a cluster of 33 small islands (an archipelago) that rests in the Gulf of Bahrain; with neighboring countries Qatar and Saudi Arabia just across the water, and the larger Persian Gulf at its doorstep. 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.

bahrain_map_20101110_1988583799In 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, causing occasional droughts. Its terrain is mostly a low desert plain and it is not uncommon to see a sandstorm. To some extent, Bahrain makes up for its size and environmental challenges by it strategic location in the Persian Gulf. Petroleum is Bahrain’s largest export at 60%, but the strongly developed 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 and Persians. 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 still rules to this day. In 1863, it entered into a treaty with the United Kingdom, becoming a protectorate, in order to ensure security. Bahrain did not become fully independent until 1971.

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. As such, 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. Manama, the capital, is home to many large financial institutions. Bahrain has a high Human Development Index and was recognized by the World Bank as a high income economy. It is considered the freest economy in the Middle East according to the Index of Economic Freedom.

As an international banking center, Bahrain has helped to formalize and promote the concept of Islamic banking. It has also opened up its land, air space and sea space to the U.S. military. For many years now, the 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, beginning 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.

Nevertheless, 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 Gulf Cooperation Council’s Ministers of Foreign Affairs expressed their solidarity with the government of Bahrain and its actions. On the other hand, some countries and entities, such as the UN, were troubled by reports of the use of excessive force towards civilians, emergency responders and the media.

In the wake of the protests, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa established the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) on June 29, 2011, pursuant to Royal Order No. 28. 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. 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 a an oppressive Sunni monarchy denying rights to a its Shi’a 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 reality on the ground in Bahrain.

Dramatic population growth due to a high birth rate has resulted in a deficit of jobs for the large and highly qualified young population. Unemployment stands at 28% for those under 25. Further complicating the country’s economic outlook, Bahrain’s labor force is up to 55% non-native. The rapid depletion of its oil reserves and underground water resources have been offset by Bahrain’s smart 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.

History & Government Resources

PEOPLE & LANGUAGES

Bahrain has a relatively small population with almost 90% of the population living in either one of the two urban areas, Manama or Al Muharraq. Of the one million people living in Bahrain, estimates of up to 55%, according to the United Nations, are non-nationals who merely work in the kingdom. Because most of Bahrain’s foreign workers tend to live in the capital city, their presence provides Manama with an international atmosphere.

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.

Bahrainis live rather healthy lives; on average Bahrainis live to be around 79 years of age.

Bahrain has a literate population; both the majority of men and women can read and write. Around 5% of the population is illiterate. 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, those girls who do go to school are more likely to continue their education than boys.

Bahrain Population

Average Life Expectancy

RELIGION

Islam is the predominant religion of Bahrain. Shi’a Muslims make up the majority of the population with a large minority of Sunni Muslims. It is one of the more open and religiously tolerant societies with small populations of Christians, Hindus, and others – mainly a result of 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 Bahrain Synagogue is located on Sasa’ah Avenue in the lower-class commercial district of Manama, the capital city of Bahrain. Photo credit: By Alexgriz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, $3

CULTURE

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

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.

Music 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

Sites

Small in size, Bahrain still has a variety of places of historical, religious, and cultural prominence. Among its offerings, is an ancient fortress and a top regional museum. The Bahrain National Museum covers 4,000 years of the country’s history and heritage. One of the most famous sites is the Tree of Life, a tree that has no known water source. The Al-Fatih Mosque, the largest building in Bahrain, gives tours to non-Muslims that highlight the structure’s unique architecture details featuring marble from Italy, glass from Austria, and teak wood from India. Guides share fundamental tenets of Islam with visitors.

Sites 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