Country, Middle East, southwestern Asia.
Area: 278 sq mi (720 sq km). Population (2005 est.): 715,000. It
occupies an archipelago consisting of Bahrain Island and about 30
smaller islands lying along the Arabian Peninsula in the Persian Gulf.
Saudi Arabia lies to the west across the Gulf of Bahrain, and the Qatar
peninsula lies to the east. The capital is Manama. Most of the
population is Arab. Language: Arabic (official). Religion: Islam
(official). Currency: Bahraini dinar. Bahrain Island, which is about 30
mi (50 km) long and 10 mi (16 km) wide, accounts for seven-eighths of
the country’s total area and, with the islands of Al-Muḥarraq and Sitrah
off its northeastern coast, constitutes the population and economic
centre of the country. Since 1986 the main island has been connected to
Saudi Arabia by a 15-mi (24-km) causeway. The highest point of elevation
is Al-Dukhān Hill (440 ft [134 m]). Bahrain has a developing mixed
(state and private enterprise) economy based largely on natural gas and
petroleum production and refining. Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy.
The chief of state is the king, and the head of government is the prime
minister. The area has long been an important trading centre and is
mentioned in Persian, Greek, and Roman references. It was ruled by
various Arab groups from the 7th century ad but was then occupied by the
Portuguese (1521–1602). Since 1783 it has been ruled by a family group
known as the Āl Khalīfah, though (through a series of treaties) its
defense long remained a British responsibility (1820–1971). After
Britain withdrew its forces from the Persian Gulf (1968), Bahrain
declared its independence (1971). It served as a centre for the allies
in the Persian Gulf War (1990–91). Since 1994 it has experienced periods
of political unrest, mainly among its large Shīʿite population.
Constitutional revisions, ratified in 2002, made Bahrain a
constitutional monarchy and enfranchised women; parliamentary elections
(the first since 1975) were held in October 2002.
Official name Mamlakat al-Baḥrayn (Kingdom of Bahrain)
Form of government constitutional monarchy with a parliament comprising
two bodies (Council of Representatives ; Shura Council )1
Chief of state Monarch
Head of government Prime Minister
Official language Arabic
Official religion Islam
Monetary unit Bahraini dinar (BD)
Population estimate (2008) 1,084,000
Total area (sq mi) 281
Total area (sq km) 728
1Seats of Council of Representatives are elected, and seats of the Shura
(consultative) Council are appointed by the monarch.
small Arab state situated in a bay on the southwestern coast of the
Persian Gulf. It is an archipelago consisting of Bahrain Island and some
30 smaller islands. Its name is from the Arabic term al-bahrayn, meaning
Located in one of the world’s chief oil-producing regions, Bahrain
itself has only small stores of petroleum. Instead, its economy has long
relied on processing crude oil from neighbouring countries, and more
recently the financial, commercial services, and communications sectors
have grown markedly, as has tourism. The country’s chief city, port, and
capital, Manama (Al-Manāmah), is located on the northeastern tip of
Bahrain Island. A strikingly modern city, Manama is relaxed and
cosmopolitan and is a favourite destination for visitors from
neighbouring Saudi Arabia; on weekends, crowds of Saudis converge on the
city to enjoy its restaurants and bars. Yet the people of Bahrain remain
conservative in their lifeways. This sentiment is enshrined in the
country’s constitution, which affirms that “the family is the
cornerstone of society, the strength of which lies in religion, ethics,
Bahrain is renowned for its verdant groves of date palms; since
ancient times it has been an entrepôt for trade and a source of natural
resources for the surrounding area. Bahrain Island is widely believed to
be the site of the ancient kingdom of Dilmun, a commercial centre that
traded with ancient Sumer. It has been settled and colonized by various
groups, including the Khalīfah family (Āl Khalīfah), a native Arab
dynasty that has ruled Bahrain since the late 18th century. Recognizing
the islands’ strategic importance, the Khalīfah have opened Bahrain’s
port facilities to the naval fleets of foreign countries, including the
Bahrain’s total land area is slightly greater than that of
Singapore. Saudi Arabia lies to the west across the Gulf of Bahrain,
while the Qatar peninsula lies to the east. The King Fahd Causeway, 15
miles (24 km) long, links Bahrain to Saudi Arabia.
The state consists of two separate groups of islands, which together
extend about 30 miles (50 km) from north to south and 10 miles (16 km)
from east to west. The island of Bahrain accounts for seven-eighths of
the country’s total land area and is surrounded by smaller islands. Two
of these—Al-Muḥarraq and Sitrah, both to the northeast—are joined to
Bahrain Island by causeways that have facilitated residential and
industrial development; other islands in the group are Nabī Ṣāliḥ,
Al-Muḥammadiyyah (Umm al-Ṣabbān), Umm al-Naʿsān (linked by the King Fahd
Causeway), and Jiddah. The second group consists of the Ḥawār Islands,
which are situated near the coast of Qatar, about 12 miles (19 km)
southeast of Bahrain Island; a dispute with Qatar over ownership of the
islands was resolved in 2001, when the International Court of Justice
awarded them to Bahrain. Small and rocky, they are inhabited by only a
few fishermen and quarry workers, but they are believed to hold
petroleum and natural gas reserves.
Relief and drainage
While the small islands in both groups are rocky and low-lying,
rising only a few feet above sea level, the main island is more varied
in appearance. Geologically, the island consists of gently folded layers
of sedimentary rocks: limestones, sandstones, and marls (loose clay,
sand, or silt) formed during the Cretaceous, Paleogene, and Neogene
periods (i.e., from about 145 to 2.6 million years ago). The central
region is rocky and barren, rising to 440 feet (134 metres) above sea
level at Al-Dukhān Hill (Jabal Al-Dukhān), the country’s highest point.
The southern and western lowlands consist of a bleak sandy plain with
some salt marshes, while the northern and northwestern coasts afford a
striking contrast, forming a narrow belt of date palms and vegetable
gardens irrigated from prolific springs and wells that tap artesian
water. The source of this water is precipitation on the western
mountains of Saudi Arabia. The abundance of fresh water has provided
Bahrain with fertile land, from which it gained importance historically
as a harbour and trading centre in the Persian Gulf. Economic
developments and population growth have outstripped the available
artesian water in the country, and some three-fifths of the water used
now comes from seawater desalinization plants powered by natural gas.
Summer in Bahrain is unpleasant, as high temperatures frequently
coincide with high humidity. Midday temperatures from May to October
exceed 90 °F (32 °C), often reaching 95 °F (35 °C) or higher; summer
nights are sultry and humid. Winters are cooler and more pleasant, with
mean temperatures from December to March dipping to 70 °F (21 °C).
Rainfall is confined to the winter months and averages only 3 inches (75
mm) per year, but this may vary from almost nothing to double that
amount. On average, rain falls only about 10 days a year. Sunshine is
abundant year-round. The predominant wind is the damp, northwesterly
shamāl; the qaws, a hot, dry south wind, is less frequent and brings
sand, dust, and low humidity.
Plant and animal life
Some 200 different species of desert plants grow in the bare, arid
portions of the archipelago, while the irrigated and cultivated areas of
the islands support fruit trees, fodder crops, and vegetables. The
variety of animals is limited by the desert conditions. Gazelle and
hares are not yet extinct, and lizards and jerboas (desert rodents) are
common; the mongoose—probably imported from India—is found in the
irrigated areas. Birdlife is sparse except in spring and autumn, when
many varieties of migratory birds rest temporarily in Bahrain while
traveling to and from higher temperate latitudes.
Roughly two-thirds of the population is Arab, and most are
native-born Bahrainis, but some are Palestinians, Omanis, or Saudis.
Foreign-born inhabitants, comprising more than one-third of the
population, are mostly from Iran, India, Pakistan, Britain, and the
United States. About three-fifths of the labour force is foreign.
Arabic is the official language of Bahrain. English is widely used,
however, and is a compulsory second language at all schools. Persian is
also common, although it is spoken mostly in the home. A number of other
languages are spoken among expatriates in Bahrain, including Urdu,
Hindi, and Tagalog.
The population is more than four-fifths Muslim and includes both the
Sunni and Shīʿite sects, with the latter in the majority. The ruling
family and many of the wealthier and more influential Bahrainis are
Sunni, and this difference has been an underlying cause of local
tension, particularly during and after the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88).
Christians constitute about half of the remaining one-fifth of the
population, with the rest consisting of Jews, Hindus, and Bahāʾīs.
The majority of the population now dwells in towns, but in the north
and northwest of the main island, where irrigation has long been carried
out using artesian water, there are numerous small villages and isolated
dwellings where horticulture is the way of life. This area has an aspect
of great fertility, which contrasts starkly with the bare desert
appearance of much of the country. Villages consist, for the most part,
of substantial flat-roofed houses built of stone or concrete. Some of
the temporary settlements of fishermen and the poor are still
constructed of barasti (branches of the date palm). There is little
permanent settlement either in the southern half of Bahrain Island or on
the smaller islands.
More than one-third of the population lives in the two principal
cities, Manama and Al-Muḥarraq. Manama, with its port of Mīnāʾ Salmān,
is the largest city and contains the main government offices, the
business and financial district, many large hotels, Western-style shops,
and a traditional Arab souk (market). It has a distinctly modern
appearance as compared with Al-Muḥarraq, which is densely settled and
has many narrow, winding streets. Other major settlements are ʿAwālī,
near the centre of Bahrain Island, built largely for expatriate
employees of the Bahrain Petroleum Company B.S.C. (Bapco); Madīnat ʿĪsā
(Isa Town), a community established by the government in 1968; the
sizable settlements of Al-Rifāʿ al-Shamālī (North Rifāʿ), Al-Rifāʿ
al-Sharqī (East Rifāʿ), and Al-Rifāʿ al-Gharbī (West Rifāʿ); and Madīnat
Ḥamad, completed in 1984.
The population of Bahrain has been steadily growing, increasing
almost 2 percent a year. Life expectancy is high, with males living on
average to about 71 and females to 76. The death rate is well below the
world average, and the major causes of death are diseases of the
circulatory or respiratory system and cancer. More than one-fourth of
the population is under the age of 15.
Though it was the first emirate where oil was discovered (1932),
Bahrain will most likely be the first to exhaust its reserves.
Consequently, Bahrain has developed one of the most diversified
economies in the Persian Gulf region. Bahrain’s economic activity, like
that of other Arab states in the Persian Gulf, has largely centred on
the production of crude oil and natural gas and on refining petroleum
products, making the country sensitive to fluctuations in the world oil
market. Bahrain has built on its long tradition of shipping and
commerce, however, and has been more successful than some other states
in the gulf in developing manufacturing and commercial and financial
services. The non-oil sector includes petrochemicals, ship repair,
aluminum refining, and light manufacturing. The government-owned
Aluminum Bahrain B.S.C. (Alba), one of the world’s largest aluminum
smelters, and Bapco have been profitable, but this has provided less
incentive for privatization. Bahrain has remained the most important
commercial and financial centre in the gulf, although it has faced
growing competition from the United Arab Emirates.
Agriculture and fishing
Less than 3 percent of Bahrain is arable, and agriculture
contributes only a marginal proportion of the gross national product.
The majority of Bahrain’s food is imported, but agricultural production
meets some local needs, including a large portion of vegetables and
dairy products. Tomatoes, dates, bananas, citrus fruits, mangoes,
pomegranates, and alfalfa (lucerne) are among the main crops. Cattle
breeding and poultry farming are also encouraged by the government,
while camels and horses are bred for racing. The increasingly polluted
waters of the gulf, mainly caused by spillages from Kuwaiti oil
installations during the Persian Gulf War, have killed off economically
valuable marine life (notably shrimp) that were important to the fishing
industry. Fisheries have remained largely unexploited despite some
government attempts to privatize and modernize the industry.
Resources and power
Bahrain’s oil production has always been small by Middle Eastern
standards, and refining crude oil imported from Saudi Arabia has been of
much greater importance since vast oil fields were discovered on the
mainland; in 1998 Bapco began a major modernization project for its
refinery. Bahrain’s only oil field, Al-Baḥrayn (also known as Awali), is
rapidly depleting. Several oil companies, however, have been granted
exploration rights by the government. The country’s offshore natural gas
supplies are somewhat more substantial. Petroleum and natural gas
resources and production are nationalized, but in the 1990s the
government began encouraging foreign investment in the sector.
The traditional industries of Bahrain were building dhows
(lateen-rigged sailing vessels), fishing, pearling, and the manufacture
of reed mats. These activities are now carried out on only a small
Ship repair is handled at Mīnāʾ Salmān, near Manama, and at a large
yard operated on Al-ʿAzl Island. Light industries include the production
of building materials, furniture, soft drinks, plastics, and a wide
range of consumer goods. The government has a significant financial
stake in all these modern industries. In addition to the aluminum
smelter operated by Alba, an aluminum rolling mill was opened in 1986
that manufactures such products as door and window frames.
The government has encouraged the growth of banking, insurance, and
other financial services, and consequently Bahrain has become an
important financial centre, notably of offshore banking. These
activities have increasingly contributed to the country’s balance of
payments. Bahrain has also been able to benefit from its long tradition
as a commercial centre. The country’s central bank is the Bahrain
Monetary Agency, which also issues the Bahraini dinar, the national
currency. In addition to offshore banking units, there are local and
foreign commercial banks, as well as investment banks. The Bahrain Stock
Exchange opened in 1989.
Bahrain’s main import is the crude petroleum brought in by
underwater pipeline from Saudi Arabia to be refined. Other major imports
are machinery, food, and chemicals. The primary exports are refined
petroleum products and aluminum goods. Saudi Arabia is the principal
trading partner, and the United States and Japan are also important.
Services, including public administration, defense, and retail
sales, employ some three-fifths of Bahrain’s workforce and also account
for about three-fifths of the gross domestic product (GDP). The service
sector, particularly tourism, is the fastest growing area of the
Tourism is actively promoted by the government, and, with its balmy
climate and scenic location, the country is a growing tourist
destination. Travelers from other, more conservative Persian Gulf
countries—who comprise the largest number of visitors—are attracted to
Bahrain’s more liberal society. Visitors from outside the region come
for the country’s climate and to experience its unique cultural wealth.
Labour and taxation
The majority of the workforce is men, with women constituting about
one-fifth of the total. Women, however, are encouraged to work by the
government, especially as a means of increasing indigenous employment.
Beginning in the 1970s, non-Bahrainis have comprised a large portion of
the country’s workforce; by the end of the 20th century, two-thirds of
those working were foreigners. There are no unions in Bahrain, which,
although legal, are discouraged by the government. The standard work
week is Saturday through Wednesday.
Bahrain has no individual income tax, and its only corporate tax is
levied on oil, petroleum, and gas companies. Taxes account for less than
one-third of the country’s revenue.
Transportation and telecommunications
Bahrain Island has an excellent system of paved roads, and its
causeway connections to Al-Muḥarraq and Sitrah islands and to Saudi
Arabia facilitate travel. There are no railroads, but the principal
towns and villages are well served by bus and taxi services; a large
proportion of residents also own motor vehicles. Bahrain International
Airport on Al-Muḥarraq Island is one of the busiest airports in the
Middle East and is served by most major international airlines. Manama
is the headquarters of Gulf Air, owned by the governments of Bahrain,
Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Steamers run scheduled
service from Bahrain to other gulf ports and to Pakistan and India.
Bahrain Telecommunications Company (Batelco), established in 1981,
serves the country’s telephone, wireless telephone, data communications,
and Internet needs, either directly or through its subsidiaries. Through
Batelco, Bahrain has promoted itself as a regional telecommunications
centre, connecting the countries of the gulf region with the broader
world. In 1998 Batelco opened an underwater fibre-optic cable network
linking Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
Government and society
Since the 18th century, the head of the Āl Khalīfah, the country’s
ruling family, has taken the title emir. A constitution promulgated in
2002 established Bahrain as a constitutional hereditary monarchy whose
head of state is now titled king. Under the new constitution the
executive is composed of a prime minister, who is head of government,
and a Council of Ministers, all of whom are appointed by the king. The
legislative branch consists of two houses: a 40-member Consultative
Council that is also appointed by the king and a 40-member Chamber of
Deputies that is elected by universal adult suffrage. The voting age is
20 years. Members of both deliberative bodies serve terms of four years.
Women, in addition to voting, may stand for local and national
elections. An earlier constitution (1973) created a National Assembly
composed of appointed members and others elected by popular vote, but
after a period of labour unrest and political agitation the assembly was
dissolved by the emir in 1975. Public representation thereupon reverted
to the traditional Arab and Islamic system of a majlis (council),
through which citizens and other residents presented petitions directly
to the emir. In 1993 the emir created the Consultative Council, to which
the first women were appointed in 2000.
Bahrain’s legal system is based on Islamic law (Sharīʿah) and
English common law. The highest court in the country is the High Civil
Appeals Court, and there are separate courts for members of Sunni and
Shīʿite sects. When the royal family faced growing unrest in the 1990s
from protesters, predominantly Shīʿite Muslims calling for a restoration
of the constitution, a special court was established to prosecute
In light of the political unrest of the 1990s, Ḥamad ibn ʿĪsā Āl
Khalīfah, after succeeding his father to the throne in 1999, promised
political reforms. In 2001 a national referendum approved a new
document, the National Action Charter (NAC), and the new constitution
appeared the following year.
Participation in the military is voluntary, and males can enter
service at age 15. The country maintains a large military and police
force relative to its population, but it is one of the smallest in the
region. In 1991, following the Persian Gulf War, Bahrain signed a
defense cooperation agreement with the United States. Bahrain is the
headquarters for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. The United Kingdom
maintains a small military presence.
Health and welfare
Medical care is extensive and free, and there is provision for most
forms of social security: pensions, sick pay, compensation for
industrial injury, unemployment benefits, and maternity and family
allowance payments. The government also sponsors public housing projects
that are partially funded by its gulf neighbours.
Bahrain’s constitution requires the government to help provide
housing for any citizens unable to obtain adequate shelter through their
own resources. Nearly three-fifths of all Bahrainis have benefited from
government housing assistance in some way, and the government has
likewise expended significant resources in recent decades to develop
associated infrastructure. In 2001 the government inaugurated a new
program to extend housing assistance to rural towns and villages.
Bahrain’s public education system, founded in 1932, is the oldest in
the Arabian Peninsula. Public education is free for both boys and girls
at the primary, intermediate, and secondary levels and is mandatory for
all children aged 6 to 14. Private and religious schools are available
as well. The University of Bahrain, Arabian Gulf University, and the
College of Health Sciences are institutions of higher learning. The vast
majority of the population is literate, and Bahrain has the highest
female literacy rate in the Persian Gulf.
Bahrain’s island location has made it unique among Persian Gulf
states. With greater access to ocean travel and broader exposure to
outside influences, Bahrain traditionally has been home to a more
ethnically and religiously diverse and cosmopolitan population than have
other, more insular gulf states. This openness is reflected in Bahrain’s
social customs, which—although still conservative—are much more moderate
and relaxed than those of its neighbours, particularly conservative
Saudi Arabia. Thus, although Bahrain is still at heart an Arab-Islamic
country, it has been more accepting of modernization and Westernization
than many of its neighbours.
Daily life and social customs
The official holidays in Bahrain are generally the same as those
observed in most Muslim countries. These include the two ʿīds
(festivals), ʿĪd al-Fiṭr and ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā, the Prophet Muhammad’s
birthday, and, more recently, the celebration of ʿĀshūrā among the
Western-style clothing is common in Bahrain, though some men still
wear the traditional thawb (full-length tunic) and the kaffiyeh (white
head cloth), bound in place by a black, camel-hair cord known as an
ʿiqāl—the latter often more ornate, particularly among the political
elite. The dress rules for women are relaxed compared to the more
conservative, regional standards, although women in rural areas, and
those in conservative communities in cities, still wear the veil (ḥijāb)
and a traditional long cloak known as an ʿabāyah.
Coffee is an important part of social life. Coffee shops are popular
meeting places, and coffee is offered as a sign of hospitality. It is
often flavoured with cardamom and saffron. Bahraini cuisine typically
features fish, shrimp, meat, rice, and dates. Machbous is a popular
traditional dish of fish or meat served with rice. Other typical food
includes muḥammar, sweet brown rice with sugar or dates, and shāwarmah,
spit-roasted lamb, beef, or chicken.
Traditional handicraft industries receive state and popular
support, and most villages practice specialized traditions; ʿĀlī, for
example, is well known for its ceramics, while artists in Karbābād weave
baskets from date-palm leaves. Throughout the country artisans engage in
gold working, tinsmithing, and textile making and sell their wares at
small shops or the Souk al-Arabaʿāʾ (“Wednesday Market”) in Manama.
Shipyards at Manama and Al-Muḥarraq are sites of dhow building, a highly
respected art form. The museum in Manama contains local artifacts dating
from antiquity, such as ivory figurines, pottery, copper articles, and
gold rings, many of which reflect various cultural influences from
outside Bahrain. There is also a small but flourishing avant-garde art
Music is an important part of Bahraini life. There is a rich folk
music culture, and fidjeri, songs once sung by pearl divers, are still
heard. Since 1991 the country has held an annual music festival.
Although the country does not have a film industry, moviegoing is a
popular activity, and some of Bahrain’s cinema theatres screen
English-language films. In the early 21st century the government
undertook a program to encourage the development of theatre.
Bahrain has several museums, including the Bahrain National Museum
and Beit al-Qurʾān, which houses a large collection of Qurʾāns, some
dating to the 7th century. There are also museums devoted to the history
of petroleum production and to pearl diving as well as several art
galleries. The Bahraini Ministry of Education maintains a network of
public libraries, the oldest of which, in Manama, opened in 1946. The
emirate also maintains one of the principal wildlife conservation areas
in the Persian Gulf region, Al-Areen Park, which harbours such
indigenous mammals as the oryx and gazelle and is visited by many
Sports and recreation
Football (soccer) is the most popular modern sport, while horse
racing remains a national pastime. More than 20 types of Arabian horses
are bred on the islands, and races are held weekly on Bahrain island’s
large racecourse, which seats some 10,000 spectators. Traditional sports
such as falconry and gazelle and hare hunting are still practiced by
wealthier Bahrainis, and camel racing is a popular public entertainment.
The country first competed in the Summer Olympic Games in 1984; it has
not participated in the Winter Games.
Media and publishing
Several weekly and daily papers are published in Arabic, and a small
number appear in English. Most of the press is privately owned and is
not subject to censorship as long as it refrains from criticizing the
ruling family. The state television and radio stations broadcast most
programs in Arabic, although there are channels in English.
This discussion focuses on Bahrain since the 19th century. For a
treatment of earlier periods and of the country in its regional context,
see Arabia, history of.
Bahrain has been inhabited since prehistoric times, and several
thousand burial mounds in the northern part of the main island probably
date from the Sumerian period of the 3rd millennium bc. It was the seat
of ancient Dilmun (Telmun), a prosperous trading centre linking Sumeria
with the Indus Valley about 2000 bc. The archipelago was mentioned by
Persian, Greek, and Roman geographers and historians. It has been Arab
and Muslim since the Muslim conquest of the 7th century ad, though it
was ruled by the Portuguese from 1521 to 1602 and by the Persians from
1602 to 1783. Since 1783 it has been ruled by sheikhs of the Khalīfah
family (Āl Khalīfah), which originated in the Al-Ḥasā province of
The British protectorate
Several times during the 19th century, the British intervened to
suppress war and piracy and to prevent the establishment of Egyptian,
Persian, German, or Russian spheres of influence. The first
Bahraini-British treaty was signed in 1820, although the country’s
British-protected status dates from 1861, with the completion of a
treaty by which the sheikh agreed to refrain from “the prosecution of
war, piracy, or slavery.” Thus, Britain assumed responsibility for the
defense of Bahrain and for the conduct of its relations with other major
powers. In 1947 this protection briefly became the responsibility of the
government of British India, which had both commercial and strategic
interests in the Persian Gulf, but it reverted to Britain following
India’s independence. Until 1970 the government of Iran periodically
advanced claims to sovereignty over Bahrain, but these were repudiated.
Britain’s decision to withdraw all of its forces from the gulf in
1968 led Sheikh ʿIsā ibn Sulmān Āl Khalīfah to proclaim Bahrain’s
independence in August 1971. A treaty of friendship was signed with the
United Kingdom, terminating Bahrain’s status as a British protectorate,
and Sheikh ʿĪsā was designated the emir. Bahrain then became a member of
the United Nations and the Arab League.
Domestic and foreign relations since independence
After independence, tensions mounted between the predominantly
Shīʿite population and Sunni leadership—especially following the 1979
revolution in Iran. The political unrest was fueled by economic and
social grievances related to the fall in oil prices and production,
cutbacks in public spending, and continued discrimination against the
majority Shīʿite population.
In 1981 Bahrain joined with five other Arab gulf states in forming
the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which has led to freer trading and
closer economic and defense ties. During the Persian Gulf War (1990–91),
Bahrain made its port and airfields available to the coalition forces
that drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. Although more moderate than Saudi
Arabia, Bahrain has generally followed that country’s lead in most
foreign policy decisions. The construction of the causeway linking
Bahrain with Saudi Arabia has strengthened bilateral relations and
regional defense and has helped both countries economically and
politically. Bahrain has maintained relatively good relations with the
United States and has continued to house the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
Iran’s ties to the country’s Shīʿite community, its territorial claims
to the island, and its displeasure with the American presence in Bahrain
have helped to strain relations between it and Bahrain. Resolution in
2001 of the dispute between Bahrain and Qatar over the Ḥawār Islands
improved their already warming relations.
Sheikh Ḥamad ibn ʿIsā Āl Khalīfah, who assumed power on the death of
his father in March 1999, released a number of imprisoned Shīʿite
dissidents and other individuals later that year in a bid to ease
tensions. These changes led in 2001 to a referendum—overwhelmingly
supported by Bahrainis—that ratified the National Action Charter. The
charter was followed in 2002 with the promulgation of a new constitution
that established a constitutional monarchy in Bahrain, called for
equality between Sunnis and Shīʿites, and guaranteed civil and property
rights to all citizens.
Charles Gordon Smith
Jill Ann Crystal