Bahrain is the only island state in the Arab world. Its total land area is under 600 square kilometres. Situated in the middle of the Persian Gulf off the north coast of Saudi Arabia, it is in some respects typical of the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula. But in others it is very different.
From about 3000 to 300 BC it was the site of the ancient civilization of Dilmun, famed for its pearl fishing. Its location ensured it remained a thriving commercial centre. The Persians and Portuguese fought to control it in the seventeenth century, with the former eventually victorious. But in the late eighteenth century they too were ousted by the Al Khalifa, who signed a treaty with Britain and have remained the ruling family ever since.
Of its 600,000 inhabitants, two-thirds are indigenous Arabs. But of these a quarter are Sunni, of Bedouin origin, who came to the island with the Al Khalifa. They remain the most powerful segment of the population. The remainder of the Arab inhabitants, the Baharna, are largely Shi’ite, whose roots in the island go back very much further. The Shi’ite population also includes many families of relatively recent Iranian origin. The rest of the population, over 150,000, is composed of expatriate workers, mostly Asian.
In 1932 Bahrain became the first oil producer on the Arabian side of the Gulf. But unlike its neighbours, crude oil production does not dominate the Bahraini economy. It is not a member of OPEC; in fact it exports no crude oil at all. And although refined petroleum and hydrocarbon products are responsible for nearly two-thirds of its export earnings, it has been far more successful than the other Gulf states in diversifying its economy. It has the largest aluminium-smelting capacity in the Middle East, a large shipbuilding and repair industry and over the last 25 years it has developed into a major banking and financial-services centre.
Although not as sumptuously wealthy as some of its neighbours, Bahrain is a prosperous country. Its education and healthcare systems are among the best in the Arab world. But the 1990s have witnessed an economic down-turn, with rising unemployment and falling living standards. This has led to political unrest during the last three years.
The Emir, Shaykh Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, has ruled since 1961. Independence from Britain came in 1971. The first National Assembly was elected in 1973. But 20 months later the Emir disbanded it and all the trade unions as well. Since then, he has ruled by royal decree.
Dissent is not tolerated. The jails are full of political prisoners. Strikes and demonstrations are banned. Political dissidents are frequently deported from the country. During 1994 popular discontent burgeoned out of control. Demonstrations became more frequent, calling for the restoration of the Assembly and better distribution of the country’s wealth. The Government’s response was to blame Iranian agents provocateurs and to arrest the perceived ringleader, a popular young cleric, Shaykh Ali Salman. A dozen or more died in the rioting that followed. The unrest has continued ever since.
The Government shows no sign of a willingness to make concessions. It has called on its Western allies – Britain chief among them – for support. British trade with Bahrain has been unaffected. Since 1971, the Emir’s Special Intelligence Service (SIS), whose principal task is the suppression of dissent, has been headed by a Scot, Ian Henderson. Under Henderson, the SIS has developed a gruesome reputation for horrific torture practices, ranging from electrocution to removal of toe-nails. The torture of political prisoners, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, is commonplace. On 5 March, Henderson ‘retired’ for health reasons, according to official reports. It seems most unlikely that Bahrain’s human-rights record will improve to any great extent with his departure.
AT A GLANCE
Leader Shaykh Isa al-Khalifa
Economy GNP per capita $7,000 (Australia $18,000).
Health Infant mortality 12 per 1,000 live births (Ireland 6 per 1,000).
Culture Some two-thirds of the population are native Bahraini Arabs; the remainder, the non-citizen population, are expatriates mostly from South Asia, but with a fair number of Europeans, Southeast Asians and Arabs from outside the Gulf. There is also a sizeable Iranian community.
Sources: World Bank Annual Report, 1997; Europe, Middle East & North Africa Yearbook, 1996.
Not previously profiled
Few people are poor, but much of the country’s wealth is in the hands of a small (mostly Sunni) minority.
Close to 90%, even for women.
Industrial diversification means oil is not the only commodity on offer, but nearly all food, raw materials and manufactured goods are imported.
Disastrous on all counts. No representation, even token. No political institutions. No dissent or protest is tolerated. Opposition subject to arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, torture and deportation.
POSITION OF WOMEN
Better educated and with better quality of life than in some neighbouring countries, but no political rights or representation.
71 years. Compares with Canada 78 and United Arab Emirates 74.
NI star rating