Updated: February 2012


Bahrain is an archipelago, consisting of Bahrain Island and some thirty smaller islands, totalling some 668 kilometres squared.


Main languages: Arabic, Persian, Urdu, English

Main religions: Sunni and Ithna'ashari Shii Islam, Christianity

Total population of around 700,000, a third of whom are non-nationals from Iran, India, the Philippines and other Asian states. The population of non-nationals rises to over 40% amongst the working age population.

Main minority groups: Bahraini Muslim nationals: Sunnis 140,000 (25%), Ithna'asharis 420,000 (75%). Roughly 70% of the total population is Muslim; the other 30% of the population is made up of Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and others (2010 Census).

Christians and other religious communities such as Hindus are part of the migrant worker population. These populations do not form coherent and cohesive minority communities on the basis of religion.


Bahrain has been inhabited for thousands of years and its strategic position has meant it has attracted the attention of various civilisations for centuries. It was controlled by the Portuguese and Persians between the 1500s and 1700s and became a British protectorate in the 1800s. Since the late 18th-century, Bahrain has been ruled by the Al-Khalifa dynasty, who has traditionally been Sunni. In 1820, Great Britain signed an informal treaty with the Al-Khalifa dynasty, granting the Al-Khalifa the official title of Rulers of Bahrain. During the late 19th-century, trading families from the Gulf, India and elsewhere began immigrating to Bahrain. Bahrain gained its independence from the UK in 1971, although the Al-Khalifa retained political power. Its economy gradually diversified from heavy oil dependence to a more developed financial sector in the 1980s.


Bahrain is ruled as a traditional monarchy, and nominally a constitutional monarchy within which the monarch is the head of the executive, legislature and judiciary. The Sunni Al Khalifas have ruled Bahrain since the late 1700s, despite the repeated challenge from Iran and the Shia-dominant population. The King appoints the Prime Minister, who is also a member of the Al Khalifa family, and the cabinet, which is again dominated by the Al Khalifas.

A national assembly was in operation from 1973 to 1975 but subsequently suspended until 2002. The 1973 Constitution was also suspended in 1975 until a new Constitution was adopted in 2002. This new Constitution allowed for elections for the Council of Representatives (40 members, four-year terms) and appointments to the Shura Council (40 members). The 2002 elections came after decades of petitions, protests and opposition calling for the reestablishment of parliamentary and constitutional rule, which gathered momentum in the 1990s. This had resulted in arrests, shootings, torture and exile of opponents. The elections and a new constitution - which also turned Bahrain into a Kingdom - followed the accession of Sheikh Hamad on the demise of his father, Shaikh Isa. The main, largely Shia-based, opposition movement, al-Wifaq, boycotted the 2002 elections over the late change from the promised unicameral to a bicameral system where the appointed upper chamber has at least equal powers with the elected lower chamber. Yet they participated in the 2006 elections and, together with other opposition strands, gained a majority.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

The present King, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has ruled since 1999. In 2001 he attempted to improve relations with the Shia population by promising a package of constitutional reforms giving them more political power. However, hopes for political reforms were dashed shortly after in 2002, when the King amended the Constitution in order to protect the power of the establishment. This followed decades of high tension, dating back to a failed coup by Bahraini Shiis in 1981, subsequent to the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. The poor relations peaked in the 1990s with protests, riots and resulting imprisonments, torture and killing. In contrast, a riot by 150 Shii youth in March 2004 resulted in just 16 being arrested and taken for questioning, and all were pardoned by the King.

Bahrain’s Shia population, although a numerical majority, are politically disadvantaged. They face discrimination from the Sunni authorities. Shia are excluded from certain military, security, administrative and judicial posts in the government. This discrimination is reflected in the social development indicators for Shiites in Bahrain; Shia villages have higher levels of poverty and unemployment than Sunni villages according to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. The US State Department reported in 2004 that electoral districts in Bahrain were drawn in order to maximise the chances of Sunni candidates being elected. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Shiites have access to a Jaafari Shia court, funded by the state and have their own mosques.

The political marginalization faced by the Shia community, the lack of a reform, and the continuation of low level protests led to the outbreak of mass protests in February 2011. Partly inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, protesters took to the street demanding political reform. Hundreds were arrested in the violent crackdown that followed.

In March 2011 King Hamad declared a state of emergency that gave sweeping power to security and military forces to end protests. King Hamad also established special military courts that sentenced hundreds of people to heavy punishments, including the death penalty in some cases. The state of emergency was lifted in June 2011, but the special military courts continued until October to try civilians associated with the protest movement.

45 people were killed in demonstration-related incidents according to Human Rights Watch. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry - established by King Hamad and headed by the Egyptian-American jurist Cherif Bassiouni – released a report in November 2011 that found a pattern of serious human rights abuses such as the use of excessive force against peaceful protesters, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and ill-treatment of detainees, and denial of fair trial guarantees.

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