Bahrain or Bahrein, officially Kingdom of Bahrain, independent Arab nation in western Asia, part of the region known as the Middle East. Bahrain is made up of 36 islands on the western side of the Persian Gulf, between Saudi Arabia to the east and Qatar to the west. The main island, also known as Bahrain, is home to the country’s capital and largest city, Manama.
Bahrain entered recorded history about 5,000 years ago as a commercial trading center. Long under the influence of more powerful neighbors, it came under the domination of Iran in the 17th century. The al-Khalifa family, originating from the central Arabian Peninsula, established themselves as Bahrain’s rulers in 1783 and has ruled ever since. A series of treaties in the 19th century gave Britain control over Bahrain’s defense and foreign affairs. The British influence lasted until Bahrain became independent in 1971.
More than 60 percent of Bahrain’s population is native-born, in contrast to the populations of other Persian Gulf states such as Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, where foreign-born inhabitants outnumber the native population. Bahrain also differs from its neighbors in that the number of followers of Shia Islam in the country is more than double that of the adherents of Sunni Islam, which is the largest group of Muslims worldwide. The Sunnis control the country’s government, however.
In the 1930s Bahrain became the first Arab state in the Persian Gulf region to develop an oil-based economy, but by the early 1980s its oil fields were mostly depleted. However, the country had prepared for this change by investing in other industries, and its economy continues to prosper.
|II||LAND AND RESOURCES|
In terms of land area, Bahrain is a very small country. Its total area is 707 sq km (273 sq mi), a little less than that of New York City. Its main island is by far the largest, with an area of 562 sq km (217 sq mi). It is connected to Saudi Arabia by the King Fahd Causeway.
Bahrain is primarily a flat and arid desert land. The main island consists of a low desert plain that rises to a low central ridge where Bahrain’s highest point, Jabal ad Dukhan (134 m/440 ft), is located. The smaller islands, which include Al Muḩarraq, Umm an Na‘sān, Sitrah, Jiddah, and the Ḩawār Islands, are generally low-lying, some only a few feet above sea level. Parts of Manama are being expanded through land reclamation. Bahrain lacks rivers, lakes, and other permanent bodies of water. The country gets its water for drinking and irrigation from underground aquifers.
Bahrain experiences extremely hot and humid weather from April to October, with temperatures regularly rising to 43°C (110°F) and sometimes reaching 52°C (125°F). Winters are milder, with temperatures ranging between 10° and 20°C (50° and 70°F). Annual rainfall averages about 100 mm (about 4 in) and falls almost entirely during the winter months. Seasonal winds periodically cause sandstorms and rough seas. The shimal, a northerly wind, blows in June and July, and the gaws comes from the south before or after the shimal.
|B||Plants and Animals|
Despite harsh desert conditions, Bahrain supports varied plant and animal life. Many plants are halophytes (plants that are salt tolerant) and xerophytes (plants that are drought resistant), including flowering desert shrubs. There are many palm trees, although increased groundwater salinity has reduced their numbers. (As more and more freshwater is withdrawn from underground aquifers, saltwater from the Persian Gulf seeps into the aquifers, making the groundwater more salty.) An abundance of marine life, including grouper, mackerel, shrimp, pearl oysters, and dugong (sea cows), thrives in Bahrain’s surrounding waters. Land animals include scorpions, snakes and other reptiles, hares, hedgehogs, and gazelles. The government funds a conservation program to breed the endangered white, or Arabian, oryx (a type of antelope) at Al Areen Wildlife Park.
Petroleum and natural gas constitute Bahrain’s principal natural resources. However, the country’s reserves of petroleum and natural gas are far smaller than those of its neighbors. Only about 3 percent of the land is suitable for farming. Bahrain’s surrounding waters contain considerable numbers of fish and shellfish.
Like most industrialized nations, Bahrain copes with a variety of environmental problems. Oil spills and other discharges from large tankers, oil refineries, and distribution stations have damaged coastlines, coral reefs, and sea vegetation. No natural freshwater resources exist in the country, so groundwater and seawater are the only sources for all water needs. In some areas, industrial pollutants have contaminated water sources with heavy metals. Agricultural development has been neglected, and the limited arable land has been degraded. Erosion of farmland has brought desertification. Bahrain’s Environmental Protection Secretariat has worked to reverse environmental damage, especially in marine areas. Water Pollution; Air Pollution.
Bahrain’s population was estimated at 718,306 in 2008. Bahrain has a population density of 1,080 persons per sq km (2,798 per sq mi). About 90 percent of the population resides in urban areas, primarily in Manama, its suburbs, and the nearby city of Al Muḩarraq on the island of the same name. Manama serves as the country’s governmental and commercial center, while Al Muḩarraq is the site of Bahrain International Airport. Many of the smaller islands are uninhabited.
The country has a high population growth rate, 1.34 percent (2008 estimate). This high growth rate results primarily from a continued relatively high birth rate. Males account for 56 percent of the population. The higher number of males than females is found mostly within the 15- to 64-year-old age group. This difference and its concentration in that one age group reflect the fact that about 60 percent of Bahrain’s workforce is foreign and male.
Native Bahraini Arabs account for about two-thirds of the population. The various minorities include Asians (accounting for 13 percent of the total population), other Arabs (10 percent), and Iranians (8 percent). Other groups, including western Europeans and Americans, make up the remaining 6 percent. Some tensions exist between native Bahrainis and nonnative groups, especially in times of high unemployment. The official language is Arabic. English, Farsi, and Urdu are also widely spoken.
Almost all Bahrainis and the majority of nonnatives are followers of Islam (Muslims). About 70 percent of all native Bahrainis belong to the Shia branch of Islam, while the remainder, including the ruling al-Khalifa clan, are adherents of the Sunni branch. Non-Muslims, including Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and Jews, account for 15 percent of the total population. High unemployment among the Shia population has caused considerable discontent on the part of this group toward the Sunni-dominated government.
Bahrain established the first public education system in the Persian Gulf region in 1919. Education is free and, between the ages of 6 and 15, compulsory. The literacy rate was estimated at 90 percent in 2005, representing a steady increase over the previous several decades. The rate is somewhat higher among males (92.6 percent) than among females (86.4 percent). The University of Bahrain was established in 1986 in Manama. Another institution of higher education, also in Manama, is the College of Health Sciences, founded in 1976, which trains physicians, nurses, and other health professionals.
Traditional Bahraini culture reflects its Islamic, mercantile, and Arab Bedouin roots. Graceful dhows, Arab boats used for fishing and diving for pearls, exhibit a high degree of craftsmanship, as do traditional jewelry and the elegant residences of rulers and merchants. Traditional performing arts include ceremonial dances accompanied by drums, readings of the Qur’an (Koran, or Islamic scripture), and storytelling. Bahraini poets carry on established traditions while also exploring new themes. Soccer, horse racing, and cricket are among the most popular sports. Celebrations of birth and marriage continue to be important ceremonial occasions. The Bahrain National Museum, which opened in 1988 in Manama, features exhibits of crafts, historical documents, and archaeological artifacts. Arabic Literature; Islamic Art and Architecture.
In many ways Bahraini society is relatively open and liberal, reflecting its long history as a trading nation. Merchants, including the ruling clan, have long been the dominant class, establishing a business-oriented culture that values accumulation of wealth. Among university graduates women outnumber men, and women play an increasingly important role in business and professional life.
At the same time, Bahraini society continues to be shaped by conservative Islamic values, especially the Shia population in the rural areas. The family is the principal social unit, and most women remain in the home. In urban areas many women do not wear the traditional Islamic veil and some Bahrainis wear Western clothing. Traditional dress predominates in rural areas. For men, traditional dress includes a loose cotton garment called a thob, which can be covered with a woolen robe called a bisht in cool weather. Women traditionally wear a concealing cloak called an abaya.
In Manama many restaurants serve Western-style food, but at home most Bahrainis eat traditional fare, including lamb, fish (especially hamour, a kind of grouper), rice, and dates. Coffee, a favorite beverage, plays an important social and ceremonial role. The modern forms of entertainment found in Manama, such as motion pictures, cater primarily to foreigners.
Since the discovery of petroleum on the main island in 1932, oil production and refining have dominated Bahrain’s economy. Natural gas occurs along with the crude oil and comes out of the same wells. For a long time, the gas from the wells was allowed to escape into the air. In 1979 the government set up a company to collect and process the natural gas into propane, butane, and naphtha. Depletion of Bahrain’s limited oil reserves has prompted efforts to develop other industries. For example, in the 1970s the government established Aluminum Bahrain (ALBA); aluminum smelting remains an important industry. In a further effort at diversification, the government has promoted tourism.
The government controls the oil and gas industry, most heavy manufacturing, and the bulk of the transportation and communications sectors, but it has undertaken efforts to privatize the economy. Banking, light manufacturing, and commerce are in private hands, with many multinational corporations maintaining offices in the country.
Bahrain’s gross domestic product (GDP) was $12.9 billion in 2005, or $17,773.40 per capita. Services, including public administration, banking, and tourism, accounted for 59 percent of the GDP. Industry accounted for 40 percent, with manufacturing responsible for 19 percent and oil and gas extraction for most of the remainder. Agriculture contributed 1 percent of the GDP.
Of Bahrain’s labor force of 350,301 people in 2006, 54 percent worked in industry, 43 percent in services, and 1 percent in agriculture. Almost 60 percent of the labor force was foreign-born, because native Bahrainis generally lacked the skills required for employment in many fields and many foreign workers were willing to work for low wages. Unemployment remains a serious problem. Since the mid-1990s unemployment has contributed to widespread, sometimes violent, political discontent among Shias, who are traditionally less advantaged and more prone to unemployment than the Sunnis.
Like its Gulf Arab neighbors, Bahrain has aimed for agricultural self-sufficiency, and it now produces about 75 percent of the fruits and vegetables that its population consumes. The main crops are dates, tomatoes, onions, and melons. The country also produces a large part of its milk, poultry, and egg requirements.
Beginning in the mid-1960s the government encouraged the growth of small-scale manufacturing. To this end, it offered tax incentives and low-interest loans to entrepreneurs. Factories in Bahrain produce plastics, ceramic tiles, paper products, and carbonated beverages.
|D||Banking and Currency|
After 1975, when the Lebanese Civil War began, Bahrain took over much of Lebanon’s financial services industry, especially in the form of offshore banking units (OBUs). These OBUs are units of large multinational banking companies that operate in small (usually island) countries and dependencies where regulation is not as strict as in their home countries and taxes are not as high. Today Bahrain is home to OBUs from all over the world. Although declining oil revenues and instability caused by civil unrest have hurt the banking sector, Bahrain remains a significant financial center. In 1989 the government established a small stock exchange, which it linked to Kuwait's stock exchange in 1997.
Bahrain’s currency is the Bahraini dinar (0.40 dinars equal U.S.$1; 2006), issued by the Bahrain Monetary Agency. In rural areas many transactions are made by bartering and trade rather than with money.
Bahrain has been a trading center since ancient times. For thousands of years Bahrainis produced dhows (boats), pearls, and various fruits and vegetables for trade. Today, oil is the focus of international commerce in the country. More than one-third of Bahrain’s imports consists of crude oil from Saudi Arabia, which is processed in Bahrain’s petroleum refineries. Other imports include machinery and transportation equipment, food, and chemicals. Exports include petroleum and petroleum products, aluminum, and manufactured goods. Bahrain’s major trading partners are Saudi Arabia, India, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
Bahrain belongs to a wide range of international and regional economic organizations. Because of its reduced oil production, Bahrain is not a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), but it is a member of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC), which seeks to coordinate Arab oil policy. Bahrain is a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and has participated in various council initiatives aimed at promoting economic cooperation among its members. Following independence in 1971, Bahrain became a member of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the World Bank) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The al-Khalifa family has ruled Bahrain since 1783. Bahrain gained full independence from Britain in 1971, adopted a constitution in 1973, and substantially revised the constitution in 2002. Under the 2002 revision, Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy ruled by a king (prior to 2002, the al-Khalifa ruler was called an emir). The constitution states that the succession of the office of king automatically passes from ruler to son, making Bahrain unique among the monarchies of the Persian Gulf in this regard.
|A||Executive and Legislature|
The king appoints a prime minister and a cabinet called the Council of Ministers. Members of the al-Khalifa family hold almost all of the top political posts. The constitution also provides for a bicameral legislature known as the National Assembly. The two houses of the National Assembly are the Consultative Council, whose 40 members are appointed by the king, and the Chamber of Deputies, whose 40 members are elected by direct popular vote. All citizens 18 years of age or older can vote. Both appointed and elected legislators serve four-year terms. All legislation approved by the National Assembly must be ratified by the king in order to become law.
|B||Political Parties and Local Government|
Political parties are technically forbidden, although informal political groups emerged in 1973 when the National Assembly was elected. In 2001 legislation was approved permitting the formation of political societies, similar to democratic political parties. The principal Shia political society is al-Wifaq al-Witani (National Accord) Islamic Society. The two main Sunni political societies are al-Assala al-Islamiyah (Islamic Purity) Society and the National Islamic Tribune Association, which is the political arm of the Islah (Reform) Society. The main secular political group is the leftist National Democratic Action Society.
Bahrain is divided into numerous municipalities, administered from Manama by a central council whose members are appointed by the king. Thus, the central government largely controls local governmental affairs.
Bahrain’s legal system draws upon Islamic religious law (the Sharia), tribal law, English common law, and other sources. All residents are subject to the jurisdiction of Bahraini courts, which guarantee equality to all before the law. The court system consists of civil and Sharia courts, both of which have courts of appeal. The country’s highest court is the Supreme Court of Appeal. The 2002 constitution established a Higher Judicial Council to supervise the functioning of the court system. The king chairs the council and appoints judges proposed by the council.
|D||Defense and International Affairs|
The Bahraini Defense Force (BDF) numbered 11,200 in 2004. The BDF includes some Jordanian officers, as well as Pakistani and Sudanese enlisted men. Foreign personnel, chiefly Americans and Britons, contract with the BDF to supply support services. The BDF consists of an 8,500-member army, a 1,500-member air force, and a 1,200-member navy. The navy receives assistance (in the form of the loan of a frigate and training for personnel) from the U.S. Navy, whose Fifth Fleet uses Bahrain’s harbor facilities. There is a separate 1,000-member Coast Guard. Military service is voluntary. However, native Shias are generally not accepted into the armed forces because the Sunni ruling establishment does not trust them, believing that dissidents might find their way into sensitive positions.
Upon its independence in 1971, Bahrain became a member of the United Nations and the Arab League, which promotes common Arab interests. It also belongs to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Because of its small size, Bahrain does not play a leading role in regional or international organizations. However, it participates actively in the Gulf Cooperation Council's defense security measures.
Archaeological evidence indicates that Bahrain was inhabited at least 50,000 years ago. The inhabitants may have first practiced agriculture about 8,000 years ago. By about 4000 bc Bahrain was the center of the advanced Dilmun trading culture, which had connections with the civilizations of Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley (see Indus Valley Civilization). Dilmun seems to have been a federation of sorts that centered on the Persian Gulf shore. It included parts of the Arabian mainland and traded with inland sections of what is now Saudi Arabia. Thus, early in its history, Bahrain established its character as a cosmopolitan commercial state, based on its location on major trade routes that passed through the Persian Gulf region. Dilmun achieved its greatest wealth and power in about 2000 bc.
In about 600 bc the Babylonian Empire (see Babylonia) absorbed Bahrain, which until modern times included part of the adjacent eastern Arabian mainland (now part of Saudi Arabia). Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great had been about to add Bahrain (known to the Greeks as Tylos) and the Arabian Peninsula to his empire when he died suddenly in 323 bc. Eastern Arabia subsequently came under the influence of the Seleucids, Alexander’s successors in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Persia. In the 3rd century ad it came under the control of the Sassanids, a Persian dynasty. In the early 7th century the Byzantine Empire defeated the Sassanids and drove the Persians from their eastern Arabian outposts.
By 650 the entire Arabian Peninsula had come under the rule of the followers of the prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam. Bahrain became part of the empire of two successive Islamic dynasties, the Umayyads (661-750) and the Abbasids (750-1258), then entered a long turbulent period when it often acted as a buffer between larger competing powers. In 1521 the Portuguese, who were in the midst of exploration and conquest in many areas of Africa and Asia, occupied Bahrain. In 1602 a group of Bahrainis seized the Portuguese fort and appealed to Iran (known as Persia by the Western world until the 1930s) for assistance. Their appeal led to Iranian domination, usually exercised through Arab vassals, for almost two centuries.
In the mid-18th century the al-Khalifa, a prominent family among the ‘Utub tribe from the central Arabian Peninsula, established control over parts of Qatar. They seized Bahrain in 1783, ending Iranian influence in eastern Arabia. By the end of the 18th century the al-Khalifa had moved their capital to Bahrain.
Meanwhile, Britain and The Netherlands increased their commercial influence in the region. By the late 18th century the British had bested the Dutch for supremacy in the Persian Gulf. Beginning in 1820 Britain imposed a series of treaties on Bahrain and its neighbors; treaties imposed in the 1860s brought Bahrain under still closer British sway.
British influence brought increased order to the maritime affairs of Bahrain and the other Persian Gulf states and led to the expansion of the pearling trade, which had been a major economic activity in the region as early as the 9th century ad. In the early 20th century pearling was Bahrain’s principal source of income. Its pearling fleet included about 900 ships, and close to half the male population was engaged in harvesting and selling pearls. An economic depression in Europe in the 1920s severely hurt the pearl business, and the introduction of cultured pearls in the early 1930s effectively ended it.
Petroleum was discovered in Bahrain in the early 1930s, the first such discovery on the Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf. The discovery assured the country’s continued prosperity. Oil provided the ruling family with an independent source of income, strengthening its position against potential challenges from the wealthy merchant class. In addition, it made possible the creation of modern infrastructure (roads, water supply, and so forth) and social services. Consequently, Bahrain developed a modern state administration before the other states under British protection: Kuwait, Qatar, and the seven Trucial States (later the United Arab Emirates). Bahrain thus acquired greater commercial and strategic importance. As a result, Britain exercised its influence there more strongly than in the other protected states, and Britain’s naval forces in the Persian Gulf established their home port at Al Jufayr.
In 1968 the British government, acting to cut expenditures, announced that British forces would withdraw from positions east of Suez, Egypt, by the end of 1971. Initially, Bahrain, Qatar, and the Trucial States considered forming a union, but that idea fell through in part because the other states feared that Bahrain’s greater population and more advanced development would enable it to dominate such a union. Meanwhile, Bahrain faced an Iranian claim to its territory, first advanced in 1928. However, Iran accepted the results of a 1970 United Nations survey that confirmed the population’s preference for independence.
Bahrain became an independent state on August 15, 1971. Emir Isa bin Sulman al-Khalifa, who had assumed power in 1961, remained as emir. The Council of State, created in 1970 to advise the emir, became his cabinet. The emir announced the creation of a constituent assembly to draft and ratify a constitution. Just over half of its members were elected in late 1972 by Bahraini male voters, with the balance appointed by the emir. The constituent assembly approved a constitution, which the emir put into force in December 1973.
The constitution called for a legislature, the National Assembly, with very limited political powers. In an election held that month, male voters elected the assembly. However, the cabinet and the assembly disagreed on many matters, including trade union and internal security issues, the U.S. Navy’s lease of Bahrain’s facilities (dating to 1949), and especially how much power the assembly would have. The emir dissolved the assembly by decree in August 1975.
Events in the late 20th century demonstrated how much Bahrain’s stability depended on the stability of the Persian Gulf region. The Islamic Revolution of Iran, which brought a Shia government to power on the other shore of the gulf in 1979, heightened tensions between Sunnis and Shias in Bahrain. In 1981 and 1985 the Bahraini authorities reportedly foiled Iranian-inspired Shia plots to overthrow the government. The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) brought further instability to the region. Concern over possible escalation of the war prompted fears about the weakness of Bahrain’s military. Bahrain joined other Arab nations in the region to found the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981, thereby receiving assistance with intelligence monitoring and gaining approval from the other member states to purchase weapons from the United States.
In 1987 Bahrain provided vital facilities for U.S. naval forces escorting Kuwaiti vessels through the Persian Gulf to shield them from possible attack by Iran, which accused them of carrying Iraqi oil. It also played a key role in supporting naval vessels of the United States and other countries operating against Iraq during the Persian Gulf War (1991). In 1991 and 1994 Bahrain solidified its security arrangements with the United States, confirming its role as an American support base in the region.
Political unrest among Bahrain’s Shias continued over the course of the decade, and the Sunni government’s often harsh responses drew international criticism. In 1994 Shias calling for the restoration of the National Assembly, which had been dissolved in 1975, held protests that led to skirmishes with police. After several months of protests, the emir began negotiations with the Shia leaders, but the talks dissolved by mid-1995. In 1996 many Shias were arrested. By 1999 about 40 people had died as a result of incidents related to Shia unrest.
In 1999 Emir Isa bin Sulman al-Khalifa died and was immediately succeeded by his son Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. The new emir chose a path of reform. He commissioned the drafting of a new national charter and pardoned hundreds of political prisoners. In February 2001 a public referendum on the charter passed overwhelmingly, transforming Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy governed by a king and a new, bicameral legislative body. The bicameral legislature was known as the National Assembly. The assembly was divided into the Consultative Council, whose 40 members are appointed by the king, and the Chamber of Deputies, whose 40 members are elected by direct popular vote to four-year terms. The reforms enacted in 2001 also gave women the right to vote and run for political office for the first time in the country’s history.
The country’s amended constitution subsequently went into effect in early 2002 and elections for the Chamber of Deputies, the elected house of the legislature, were held in October. However, the election was boycotted by the main Shia and secular liberal groups because in their opinion the reforms did not go far enough.
Shia and liberal, secular political societies did participate in the 2006 legislative elections, along with Sunni groups. The main Shia opposition group, al-Wifaq al-Witani (National Accord) Islamic Society, won 18 of the 40 seats, while Sunni candidates allied with the government won 22. No secular liberal candidates won, although one woman was elected, becoming the first woman elected to a parliament in any Arab Persian Gulf country. Also for the first time a Shia Muslim was named a deputy premier.