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  • Main minorities and indigenous peoples:  among Bahraini citizens, the majority are Muslim:  Sunnis (30 – 35 per cent) and Shi’a (60 – 65 per cent), with between 1 and 2 per cent non-Muslims including Bahá’í, Christians, Hindus, Jews and Sikhs. However, around half of the population of 1.3 million are expatriate labourers, primarily from South Asia. Almost half of the migrant population are non-Muslim.

    Main religions: Sunni and Ithna’ashari Shi’i Islam, Christianity

    Main languages: Arabic, Persian, Urdu, English

  • Environment

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


    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, which has traditionally been Sunni. In 1820, Great Britain signed an informal treaty with the Al-Khalifa, granting them 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. While Iran had renounced its claim to sovereignty over Bahrain in 1970, its geo-political significance for neighbouring countries such as Bahrain remained. In particular, the 1979 Iranian revolution had profound implications for Bahrain: an attempted coup d’etat in the country two years later was allegedly led by the Tehran-based ‘Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain’, with the aim of installing a theocracy with a cleric as supreme leader, imitating the Iranian model of governance.

    These and subsequent actions by Iran played a significant role in entrenching the persecution of Shi’a in Bahrain, who increasingly found themselves represented as a threat to national security. Excluded from the civil service, army and judiciary, they also faced discrimination in accessing education, employment and other needs, despite making up the majority of the population. This sectarian approach served the purpose of upholding a system of governance rooted in colonialism.

    The 2000’s saw some promising signs of progress, including a 2001 referendum on political reform that demonstrated overwhelming support for Bahrain to become a constitutional monarchy, with an elected lower chamber of parliament and an independent judiciary – measures that were implemented shortly afterwards. Yet despite these reforms and the growth of an increasingly vocal Shi’a political opposition, winning 40 per cent of the vote in the 2006 elections, the outbreak of protests against the government in February 2011 led to a brutal crackdown on predominantly Shi’a demonstrators and the declaration of martial rule, with many civil rights restricted. Thousands of protestors were arrested, and a number were killed by security forces.

    While inspired by the wider context of the Arab Spring in the region, the demonstrations were nevertheless driven by the deep-seated discrimination and exclusion that many Shi’a citizens had experienced in Bahrain. However, the legacy of the violent crackdown on the protests, carried out by security forces with the support of Saudi troops, was to further alienate the Shi’a population through targeted round-ups, prosecutions and other discriminatory measures.


    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-Khalifa dynasty has ruled Bahrain since the late 1700’s, despite the repeated challenge from Iran and the Shi’a-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 Shi’a-based, opposition movement, Al-Wefaq, 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 groups, gained a majority.

    In the 2010 election, Al-Wefaq won 18 out of the 40 available parliamentary seats in the chamber of deputies. Following the death of two protesters by Bahraini police during the uprising, on 18 February 2011 Al-Wefaq withdrew from its parliament bloc. In July 2016, a court in Bahrain issued a court order that Al-Wefaq must be dissolved – a move that was seen as a strategic approach to crushing dissent.

    Discrimination persists even within a nominally democratic context. For example, the Bahraini authorities rely on electoral gerrymandering to gain a disproportionate number of seats. In past elections, the Shi’a-dominated northern governorate has reportedly garnered more than 91,000 voters and elected nine members of parliament, whereas the Sunni-dominated southern governorate with only 16,000 voters has elected six members – an imbalance that favours the ruling elite.

  • Bahrain, a constitutional monarchy since 2002, was once widely seen as a politically progressive state with a history of religious tolerance for its minorities, with multiple Christian denominations officially recognized and communities of Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and Bahá’í also afforded recognition. However, its Shi’a population, while making up the majority of Bahrainis, have long suffered discrimination, persecution and other abuses – a situation that has worsened since 2011 when protests against the government, inspired by the Arab Spring taking place in neighbouring countries, were violently suppressed by the government with the support of Saudi troops.

    In the wake of the protests, mobilizing a broad section of Bahrainis to demand political reform and an end to the government’s systematic exclusion of its Shi’a majority, discrimination and rights abuses have intensified. The targeting of human rights activists, journalists and political opponents, the majority of them Shi’a, is routinely justified with charges of terrorism, sedition or defaming the state. Most notably, this has culminated in the dissolution of the main opposition party, Al-Wefaq, and the prosecution of its leaders – moves designed to dampen calls for democratic reform, rights and greater inclusion, particularly for Shi’a.

    In this context, there have been continued anti-government protests in Duraz, the home of Shi’a cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim, who had his citizenship revoked. It is suspected that the government responded by disrupting internet services to prevent people from mobilizing in the streets. On May 2017 raids were carried out in Duraz and five peaceful demonstrators were killed, with another 286 people arrested – a group Bahrain’s Interior Ministry claimed to be ‘terrorists and convicted felons.’

    While cracking down on civil society groups, many civilian judicial cases have also been transferred to a military court as a step to further repress dissent and human rights in Bahrain. In a move that received widespread condemnation within and outside Bahrain, three Shi’a men were executed in January 2017 for the killing of police officers in a bomb attack in 2014 following confessions reportedly extracted under torture and an unfair trial. The executions, the first since 2010, were condemned as ‘extrajudicial killings’ by the UN.

    Around half of Bahrain’s population is made up of non-national workers, predominantly from South Asia, including a large proportion of non-Muslims such as Christians and Hindus. Most work in construction, domestic work and other low-wage sectors. Their lack of rights and limited access to justice has left many exposed to the risk of serious human rights violations and exploitation, including sexual abuse, unpaid wages, confiscation of passports, excessive hours and unsafe working conditions. Despite some efforts to regulate migrant labour rights more effectively, in practice many remain trapped in abusive situations of employment.

Updated August 2017

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