Polity: Traditional monarchy
Population: 700,000
GNI/Capita: $13,688
Life Expectancy: 72
Religious Groups: N/A
Ethnic Groups: Bahraini (63 percent), Asian (19 percent), other Arab (10 percent), Iranian (8 percent)
Capital: Manama

Political Rights Score: 6
Civil Liberties Score: 5
Status: Not Free

Ratings Change
Bahrain's political rights rating improved from 7 to 6, and its civil liberties rating improved from 6 to 5, because of political reforms that set the stage for the establishment of an elected legislature, abolished emergency laws and courts, released political prisoners and allowed exiles to return, granted nationality to bidoon (stateless peoples), and improved political debate and freedom of association.


Sheikh Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa ended almost a decade of civil unrest in February 2001, when he presented Bahrainis with the opportunity to vote in a referendum on a new national charter. The charter, which calls for the establishment of a partially elected legislature, an independent judiciary, political rights for women, equality for all citizens, and a body to investigate public complaints, addresses the key grievances of Shiite-led opposition groups. Ninety percent of Bahrainis turned out to vote in the referendum, and 98 percent of them approved the new charter.

Bahrain has been ruled by the al-Khalifa family since 1782. The country was a British protectorate from 1861 to 1971, when British forces withdrew after years of Arab nationalist disturbances. The emir retained a virtual monopoly on power until the adoption of a constitution, which provided for a partially elected national assembly, in 1973. Describing Bahrain's new legislative body as "obstructionist," the emir ordered its dissolution in 1975.

With the Iranian revolution in 1979 and its efforts to spread Islamic fundamentalism, resentment among Bahrain's majority Shiite population against its Sunni rulers intensified. Religious and secular opposition activists were arrested and exiled in large numbers during the 1980s and 1990s. Sheikh Isa ibn Salman al-Khalifa, who ruled from 1961 until his death in 1999, responded to demands for political liberalization by appointing a consultative council of 30 prominent business and religious leaders in 1993. The council, or Shura, was expanded to 40 members in 1996. It has no legislative power.

The arrest of a Shiite cleric and several Sunni former members of parliament in 1994 for petitioning for the reinstatement of parliament and the release of political detainees sparked civil unrest that killed more than 40 people. According to international human rights monitors, the Bahraini government arrested thousands of people, sentenced hundreds to prison, and expelled more than 500 people. Security forces routinely raided homes and assaulted suspected political opponents. While the government blamed Iran for inciting unrest, political analysts and private sector businessmen blamed the government's failure to resolve widespread social and economic problems, particularly unemployment, which disproportionately affect the Shiite population.

In 2000, Sheikh Hamad began a gradual process of liberalization. He released a number of political detainees, including former member of parliament and leading Shiite activist Sheikh Abdul Ameer al-Jamri, from three years' detention without trial. Prime Minister Khalifa ibn Salman al-Khalifa appointed four women (including one Christian), a Jewish businessman, and a businessman of Indian descent to the Shura, thus allowing women and non-Muslims on the council for the first time. In addition, a government-appointed committee was instructed to draw up the new national charter, which was approved in the February 2001 referendum.

Prior to the referendum, the emir visited Shiite communities and met with opposition leaders to discuss their demands and to obtain support for the national charter. In early February 2001, he announced an amnesty affecting all prisoners held on national security charges and opposition figures in exile. All political prisoners were released and many exiles returned in time to participate in the referendum. Major opposition groups supported the charter.

In a further move to address opposition demands, the government issued a decree on February 18 canceling the 1974 State Security Law, which severely curtailed due process and was used to send hundreds of activists to prison with no chance of appeal. Also in February, the government announced that it would grant citizenship to some 10,000 bidoon, or stateless people, resident in Bahrain, and it ordered that anyone fired from a state job for political reasons be rehired. In an effort to combat corruption, the ministries of health and agriculture underwent purges of personnel.

Measures to improve the economy, address economic disparities, and alleviate problems such as unemployment were also taken. With little oil, Bahrain relies heavily on its offshore banking and tourism industries. In January, a government decree instituted penalties of up to seven years' imprisonment and fines of up to $2 million for money laundering. The new Economic Development Board began easing restrictions on foreign investment. A new job-creation strategy outlines plans to recruit more nationals into Bahrain's security forces, and identified tourism, education and training, and health care as key areas for investment promotion. While such projects were getting under way, the government announced plans in April to provide unemployment benefits. Job seekers will get up to $265 per month under the new system, which includes measures to weed out cheating.

Bahrain's bright new outlook extended to its foreign relations. In March, the International Court of Justice resolved a long-standing territorial dispute between Bahrain and Qatar over the Hawar Islands and several other territories on the Qatari peninsula. The court awarded the Hawar Islands to Bahrain, but rejected Bahrain's claim to Zubarah, a disputed town on the Qatari mainland. Two minor islands went to Qatar.

Both sides readily accepted the decision, which is binding and may not be appealed, and hailed a "new era of cooperation," which began with a revival of calls to build the Friendship Bridge, a causeway between the two states.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The approval of a new national charter, the abolition of the State Security Law, the release of detainees, and the granting of nationality to bidoon helped to improve the overall human rights situation in Bahrain. But these developments left some uncertainty as to the degree of improvement that may be expected in coming years. It is unclear, for instance, how much authority the partially elected legislature, promised by 2004, will actually have. Opposition activists and other observers hope for a transition to a Western-European-style constitutional monarchy, while some worry that the emir will retain the final word on policy. Amnesty International praised Bahrain's progress on human rights, but emphasized its need to ratify international treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, and to ensure that its legislation is compatible with international standards. And many observers warned that guarantees of equality and separation of powers, along with other objectives outlined in the new charter, will not take effect until the passage of relevant legislation.

Bahrainis cannot change their government democratically, though they were able in 2001 to exercise their influence in their country's first referendum in 30 years. Political parties are illegal, and the emir rules by decree, appointing all government officials, including the 15-member cabinet, the Shura, urban municipal councils, and rural mukhtars (local councils). Citizens may petition the emir and officials at regularly scheduled audiences.

The 1974 State Security Law and State Security Court were abolished by decree in February. The law had allowed authorities to detain individuals suspected of "antigovernment activity," including participation in peaceful demonstrations and membership in outlawed organizations, for up to three years without trial. Security trials were held in secret with few due process considerations.

Members of the ruling family serve as judges on courts at all levels. Courts are also staffed by judges brought from other countries, such as Egypt, on renewable contracts. Ordinary civil and criminal courts generally guarantee an open trial, the right to counsel, and the right to appeal. However, there have been reports that people tried in criminal courts for alleged antigovernment crimes were denied open trials and the right to counsel. All political detainees were reportedly released following a general amnesty in February.

While proposed political reforms created unprecedented public debate during the year, freedom of the press remained limited. Privately owned newspapers refrain from criticizing the royal family, while broadcast media are state owned and broadcast only official views. Some observers note that increased political debate does not necessarily lead to increased independence of journalists. According to one opposition leader, "If you read the newspapers, you will read articles in favor [of] democracy written by the same people who just a year ago were attacking anybody who uttered the word 'election.'" Opposition activists express concern over the government's decision to retain information ministry officials viewed as hostile to reform. The information minister is head of the Bahraini Journalists' Society and the managing director of a major daily newspaper. He has also been condemned for undemocratic practices, including banning television programs and pressuring editors not to publish controversial articles. In November, journalist Hafed al-Shaikh Saleh was charged with undermining national unity in an article he wrote for a Lebanese newspaper.

Taking advantage of their new freedoms, Bahrainis have established dozens of social groups and associations since early 2001. Human rights activists and lawyers set up an independent human rights organization. One report described a range of new groups, including one to address the concerns of divorced women, an anti-Arab-Israeli-normalization committee, and a cat-protection agency. However, the government's General Organization for Youth and Sports (GOYS) in July announced a ban on public seminars on political issues and ordered all clubs and associations to obtain a special permit before holding any forum. Officials said the move was taken in the interest of law and order. Political parties are prohibited, though at least two – one nationalist and the other Islamic – have applied for registration. In 2001, the government allowed visits by international human rights groups, including Amnesty International.

Bahraini women may own and inherit property, represent themselves in public and legal matters, obtain passports and leave the country without the permission of a male relative, drive without escorts, and wear clothing of their choice. A non-Bahraini woman will automatically lose custody of her children if she divorces their Bahraini father. Labor law does not discriminate against women, but there is discrimination in the workplace, including wage disparity and denial of opportunity for advancement. In April 2001, the government announced that it would deny entry into Bahrain to women traveling alone without a visa obtained before departure. Bahraini women were allowed to vote for the first time ever in the February referendum.

Islam is the state religion, and Bahrainis are overwhelmingly Muslim. The state controls all official religious institutions through monitoring and funding. Non-Muslims, including Jews, Christians, Hindus, and Bahais, are free to practice, maintain places of worship, and display religious symbols. Sunni Muslims enjoy favored status, while Shiites generally receive inferior educational, social, and municipal services. Beginning in 1999, Shiites were permitted to work in the defense forces and the interior ministry, but only in subordinate positions.

In February, Bahraini officials announced that more than 10,000 stateless people, or bidoon, would be granted citizenship. The decision applies to people whose families settled in Bahrain after arriving from neighboring countries, particularly Iran. Although born and raised in Bahrain, bidoon had not been recognized as Bahraini nationals until now. More than 100 bidoon have so far been naturalized and given Bahraini passports.

Independent labor unions, collective bargaining, and the right to strike are nonexistent. Bahrain has not ratified key International Labor Organization conventions on the right to organize, collective bargaining, and workplace discrimination. Thousands of Bahrainis have been imprisoned for attempting to organize. Foreigners who come to Bahrain to work as domestic laborers are frequently mistreated and denied pay. Bahraini law does not protect these workers.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.