The islands are flat and sandy, with a few low hills. The climate is hot and humid during the summer, mild and pleasant in the winter. The largely urban population is about 60% Bahraini; the balance of the inhabitants consist of nonnationals who are mainly other Arabs, Iranians, and South Asians. Islam (75% Shiite and 25% Sunni) is the religion of most of the population, and there are Christian and other minorities. Modern Bahrain has been marked by recurring tension between the Shiite majority and the Sunni minortiy, who include the ruling family and have dominated the government. Languages spoken other than Arabic (the official language) include English, Farsi, and Urdu.
Bahrain was once a chief center of pearling, but the industry declined in the 20th cent. Oil was found in 1931, and oil revenues have financed extensive modernization projects, particularly in health and education. Oil and petroleum products account for about 60% of Bahrain's export earnings. However, Bahrain is expected to be the first Persian Gulf nation to run dry of oil, and steps have been taken to diversify the nonagricultural sector of the economy. Aluminum-smelting, banking and financial-services, ship-repair, textile-manufacturing, and tourism industries have been established, as have oil refineries that largely process Saudi crude. Bahrain is home to numerous multinational firms, and the government actively encourages foreign investment. The U.S. navy's 5th Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf, is based in Bahrain. There is some fishing, and dates, fruits, and vegetables are grown, but the majority of Bahrain's food is imported. Machinery and chemicals are also imported. Saudi Arabia is the main trading partner.
Bahrain is governed under the constitution of 2002. The king is the head of state. The government is headed by the prime minister, who is appointed by the king. The bicameral legislature consists of the 40-seat Consultative Council, whose members are appointed by the king, and the 40-member Council of Representatives, whose members are popularly elected to four-year terms. Administratively, the country is divided into five governorates.
During the 3d millennium B.C., Bahrain (known in Sumerian as Dilmun) was already an important trade center, functioning as a transshipment point between Arabia and India. In the ancient world it was also famous for the pearling conducted in the waters surrounding the islands. The Greeks knew the island as Tylos. The term Bahrain was used to describe the entire Persian Gulf coast of Arabia in the early Islamic era; the island was also known as Awal or Aval. Bahrain was ruled in the 16th cent. by Portugal and intermittently from 1602 to 1783 by Persia. The Persians were expelled by an Arabian family that established the present ruling dynasty, the al-Khalifas. In 1861, Bahrain became a British protectorate.
Nearly a century later, demonstrations and strikes in the 1950s and 60s demanded greater popular participation in government. Iran claimed the islands in 1970 after the United Nations reported that the inhabitants desired independence. In 1971, after Britain withdrew from the Persian Gulf area, Bahrain became independent. In 1973 a constitution that limited the sheikh's powers was adopted and an elected national assembly established, but in 1975 the sheikh suspended the constitution and dissolved the national assembly. Bahrain was a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981, along with neighboring Persian Gulf countries, and it is also a member of the Arab League.
In the 1980s and 1990s relations with Qatar were strained by a dispute over the Hawar Islands and the large natural-gas resources of the Dome field (in the shallow sea between both countries). In the late 1980s a causeway was built connecting Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. After the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1988), attempts were made to improve relations with Iran; persistent irritants to Iran were the poverty among Bahrain's Shiite majority and the small Shiite representation in Bahrain's cabinet. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, coalition forces were allowed extensive use of Bahraini territory. In 1993 a consultative council (Shura) was appointed to replace the long-dissolved national assembly. In the mid and late 1990s unrest among Bahrain's Shiites has led to opposition protests and violence; the restoration of an elected parliament was one of the main demands. In 1996 more than 50 people were arrested for involvement in what was said to be an Iranian-backed coup attempt.
Sheikh Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who had ruled since 1961, died in 1999; he was succeeded by his son, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. The new ruler moved gradually toward increased democracy for Bahrain. In 2000 he called for the establishment of a national committee to write a new national charter. The charter, which established a constitutional monarchy, was approved in Feb., 2001; the same month a general amnesty for political prisoners and exiles was declared.
Bahrain was proclaimed a kingdom in 2002, and the Shura was dissolved prior to the assembly elections. Because King Hamad had established an appointed upper house in the national parliament, which had not been part of the charter approved in 2001, a number of groups (including the largest Shiite association) called for an electoral boycott; turnout in the October elections was 53%. The elected deputies were largely moderate Sunnites and independents. The election marked the first time that women in a Arab Persian Gulf monarchy could vote or run for national office. Shiite-Sunni tensions in Bahrain increased again after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In Sept., 2006, a former government adviser of Sunni Sudanese descent accused a number of government officials (but not the king or prime minister) of conspiring to manipulate elections and use other means to maintain Sunni control of Bahrain's government and society. The detailed report was denounced by the head of Bahrain intelligence service, who was accused of being central to the conspiracy, and the adviser was deported and then accused of attempting to overthrow the government and other crimes. An investigation into the evidence and charges was sought by Shiite opposition groups. In the Nov.-Dec., 2006, parliamentary elections themselves, the Shiite opposition secured 18 seats while Sunnis won 22; conservatives and Islamists were dominant in both groups.
See F. Adamīyat, Bahrein Islands (1955); J. B. Nugent and T. Thomas, ed., Bahrain and the Gulf (1985); T. T. Farah, Protection and Politics in Bahrain (1986); F. Lawson, Bahrain: The Modernization of Autocracy (1988).
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