Bahrain - The Exception in the Gulf

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012
25 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. The Kingdom of Bahrain
2.1. History
2.2. Political System
2.3. Society

3. The Protests
3.1. The National Dialogue
3.2. The Reaction of the International Community

4. The Reasons for the Failure of the Revolt
4.1. Elite-Intern Dynamics
4.1.1. Memory of the Past – Hardliners versus Reformers
4.1.2. Reluctant Use of Non-Repressive Legitimation Strategies
4.2. Disunity of the Protesters
4.2.1. Hardliners versus Moderates
4.2.2. The Crossing of Red Lines
4.3. External Influences
4.3.1. Pressure of the Gulf Cooperation Council
4.3.2. International Disinterest in Change

5. Outlook

6. Works Cited

1. Introduction

The International Crisis Group (ICG) wrote in one of its reports about Bahrain:

“With its majority-Shiite population, liberal social norms, long history of politic­al opposition and relatively small income deriving from natural resources, Bahrain stands out as a relative exception among GCC countries. Unlike most other GCC ruling families, but like the Al-Saud in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, its leadership acquired authority through tribal alliances and conquest.” (ICG 2011a: 1)

Bahrain in general is already different than the other monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) but these are not the only aspects that turn Bahrain into an exception in the Gulf. Also regarding the protests of the Arab Spring, Bahrain is exceptional since it is the only one of the six Gulf monarchies in which the existing ruling system was seriously threatened by the demonstrations (Pupke 2011: 171). The protests as such portray a special significance as well, not only because with up to a hundred thousand people taking it to the streets they were remarkably bigger than the protests in other monarchies, but also because compared to the population, these were probably the biggest demonstrations in the Arab world (Perthes 2011: 111).

Nevertheless, Bahrain was one of the last states to join the Arab spring, and regarding its history of violent oppression of demonstrations, this is probably not surprising. The economic, social and political problems had already existed for a while and there had already been protests because of them. The most recent one had only taken place in August 2010, and it was brutally repressed by the regime. In a state with a Sunni-led government and a discriminated and marginalized Shiite majority, conflict is much more likely than elsewhere.

Despite the dimensions of the protests, contrary to Egypt and Tunisia, there has been no revolution in Bahrain: The government is still in place, the protests have been more or less halted, and the discrimination against the Shiites continues. Instead, it was only a revolt[1] and it is very unlikely to change to a revolution in the near future. Van Inwegen claims that revolts can be the beginning of revolutions. In Bahrain, this has not been the case. The question therefore is: What are the reasons for the failure of the revolt and why have there been no regime-initiated reforms like in other monarchies affected by the Arab Spring? In this paper, I argue that the reasons for this failure and the absence of reform are internal and external. There is not one reason for the failure of the revolt, it is rather a combination of internal and external circumstances and influences that rendered even the slightest change impossible. The internal aspects include the dynamics within the ruling elite as well as the dynamics within the opposition and protesters. In combination with pressure from the outside, all actors involved had a share in the prevention of reforms or any form of progress. To explain these various dynamics, it is important to consider different elements of the history of Bahrain as well as its political system and society because they influence the decisions and actions of all actors involved.

2. The Kingdom of Bahrain

2.1. History

In 1783, the Al Khalifa came to Bahrain, expelled the Persians, and have ruled ever since (Niethammer 2007: 46; Zahlan 2002: 61). In the 19th century, they signed a number of treaties with Britain transforming Bahrain into a British Protectorate and declared the Al Khalifa family the official ruling dynasty (Friske 2008: 26; Zahlan 2002: 15).

The first discovery of oil in the Gulf was made in Bahrain in 1932 which was followed by “a period of prosperity unique in the Gulf. [...] Bahrain became the first oil-rich state.” (Zahlan 2002: 64) In the following years, the country witnessed an expansion of the educational system and the Bahrain Petroleum Company (BAPCO) offered new employment opportunities. But in 1937, a sudden depression set in (ibid.: 64-65). The oil-discovery led to the creation of a trade union movement, and society was early politicized. This politicization became apparent in the 1950s when a national movement for the independence from Britain emerged (Niethammer 2007: 46-47). The industrialization created a working class – earlier and to a greater extent than elsewhere in the region – and in 1938, the region witnessed its first workers' strike in Bahrain. In the following decades, further strikes and demonstrations took place (Schmidmayr 2011: 57-58).

After becoming independent in 1971, Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa took the title of an emir and appointed his brother prime minister. Three years later, the State Security Law was put into force enabling the security forces to suppress seditious activities (Quilliam 2003: 32). In 1973, an assembly and a constitution were installed, but both were suspended only two years later (Crystal 2007: 168-169; ICG 2011a: 2).

After the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, Bahrain experienced terror acts carried out in 1979 and 1985 by a few radical Shiites, but most Shiites distanced themselves from this violence. In December 1981, the Shiite organization Islamic Front even carried out a coup attempt (Rabi/Kostiner 1999: 185; ICG 2011a: 9). As a reaction to the Iranian Revolution and the almost-coup in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar created the Gulf Cooperation Council in May 1981 to protect the region's stability (Crystal 2007: 156; Quilliam 2003: 30).

The year 1994 marked the beginning of the “Bahraini intifada”: Protesters were frustrated with the system, the discrimination of Shiites and widespread corruption within the ruling family. Some protests turned violent and the government reacted likewise – with many severe human rights violations occurring. The next years witnessed a cycle of repression and violence, thousands were arrested (Friske 2008: 27; ICG 2005: 2).

When Emir Isa died in 1999, his son Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa succeeded him. He took several steps to liberalize the political system and to defuse tensions, like reinstating the assembly, releasing political prisoners, pardoning exiled activists and promising a new era of reform. Thus, the emir held a popular referendum on a National Action Charter that would reinstate an elected legislature with real legislative authority. He extended suffrage to women, abolished the State Security Law, and promised to guarantee the freedom of the press and religious belief (Crystal 2007: 157, 169; ICG 2011a: 3). But the process came to an end in 2002, when he unilaterally declared a new constitution that took the right of the assembly to directly introduce legislation and gave predominant power to an appointed upper house. He also declared himself King and passed a new Press and Publications Law expanding state censorship powers (Crystal 2007: 169).

2.2. Political System

Bahrain is officially a constitutional hereditary monarchy, but the king possesses extensive legislative and executive competences. He appoints, among others, the prime minister and the cabinet. Members of the ruling family staff a disproportionally high number of government offices: The prime minister, the minister of defense, the minister of the interior, the foreign secretary, many assistant ministers, State Secretaries, public prosecutors, and judges (Niethammer 2007: 50). The country's legal system is based on Islamic law concerning civil status and inheritance law and English common law concerning for example civil, business, and penal law (Crystal 2007: 166; Niethammer 2007: 51-52). The parliament consists of two chambers: The lower house, the representative council, is elected directly through universal suffrage. The upper house, the consultative council, is appointed by the king. Both chambers comprise forty members who stay in office for four years (ibid.). According to the constitution, both chambers have to pass a bill to put it into force but the government has the right to rule by decree if it does not violate the constitution (ICG 2011a: 4; Schmidmayr 2011: 62, 66-75). Only the cabinet has the right to initiative and draft bills and the appointed upper house has a veto power over all initiatives and decisions of the elected lower house. The king can suspend parliament for four months without holding elections and can postpone elections without any time limit (ICG 2011a: 4). Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority of both houses combined. By decree, the king established a Financial Control Bureau reporting directly to him. Thus, he removed the legislature's ability to monitor state financial affairs (ibid. 2005: 6). In general, a lot of debates take place in parliament and parliamentary elections show a real competition between the different political associations (Perthes 2011: 109/110).

In principal, freedom of speech exists, but since 2002 there are a number a restrictions. Statements that threaten the national unity, question basic Islamic believes or could advocate confessionalistic tendencies are forbidden. Freedom of assembly is limited to events that do not endanger public order, security or public morality. In any case, they have to be authorized and foreigners are not allowed to participate in them. Recently, there have been many further restrictions (Schmidmayr 2011: 67-68).

Officially, all political parties are banned, but since 2005 political associations are allowed to operate as long as they are licensed by the government (ibid.: 63). The opposition movement comprises a number of different groups, some of which are secular and composed of Shiites and Sunnis, others are Shiite or Sunni Islamist groups. (Bahry 2000: 130-131) The opposition can be divided into the legal political opposition, unlicensed Shiite Islamist groups and youth groups (ICG 2011a: 14).

These are the most important seven licensed, i.e. legal opposition groups: Al-Wifaq, the biggest one, is a Pan-Shiite grouping founded in 2001. Its emphasis is on democratic and human rights, equal distribution of wealth, and social justice (ibid.). It wants to change the system from within through participation (Pupke 2011: 173). For the Shira-zis, registered in 2006, armed struggle is a legitimate means to achieve political change. Al-Ikhaa represents Shiites of Persian origin and focuses on their grievances. The others are leftists: Al-Wa'ad, registered in 2001, promotes a version of Arab nationalism. Al-Minbar Al-Taqaddumi was formed in 2002, Al-Tajammua Al-Qawmi succeeding the clandestine Baathist organization has a mainly Sunni support base (ICG 2011a: 14-17).

The unlicensed political groupings are technically illegal and call for the downfall of the regime. Three of them formed a coalition in March 2011: The Bahrain Islamic Freedom Movement, Al-Haq and Al-Wafaa. Al-Haq, the most important one, was founded in 2005 when some Al-Wifaq members left the group to protest its decision to participate in elections. It is predominantly Shiite but some of its leading members are Sunnis. They reject any arrangement with the government (ibid.: 18; Pupke 2011: 173). Al-Wafaa is a Shiite Islamist group that was founded in 2009 (ICG 2011a: 18-19).

The two largest Sunni Islamist groups, Al-Minbar and Al-Asala, entered a tactical alliance with the regime to counter the liberals and Shiite Islamists. Al-Minbar, founded in 2001, is the Bahraini branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Asala is more conservative, represents the Salafi trend, and began to operate in the 1980s (ibid.: 12-13). They both consider Shiite demands for more power as a red line. In February 2011, they formed the National Unity Gathering calling for a dialogue without preconditions (ibid.).

2.3. Society

„In terms of educational and technical skills, the populations of both places [Bahrain and Kuwait; A/N] are the most advanced in the Gulf.” (Zahlan 2002: 59) The illiteracy rate is at 12,3 per cent (Niethammer 2007: 46) and the level of education is the highest among all Arab states. Women's level of education is at 57 per cent (Pupke 2011: 168). Blogs and internet forums are widespread since about 649,000 Bahrainis have internet access (ibid.; Schmidmayr 2011: 67). 85 per cent of the society is Muslim, with two-thirds Shiites and one third Sunnis, the remaining 15 per cent are Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Persian minorities. 90 per cent of the population live in towns or cities, and 45 per cent live in the capital and on the second biggest island (Quilliam 2003: 37).

Bahrain differs from the other Gulf monarchies in that the Shiites are the population's majority and not a minority. Many of them originate from Iran and Iraq and have historically had close ties to the Shiites in those countries (Rabi/Kostiner 1999: 172).

The society of Bahrain is very heterogenous. The original people are the Shiite Baharinah. The exact numbers are unknown, but Shiites are estimated to constitute more than half of the population. The Baharinah have traditionally been rural people. The three main Sunni groups are the tribes of the Utub that accompanied the Al Khalifa in 1783, the Nejdis and the Hawala. The Nejdis came to Bahrain at the same time like the Al Khalifa, but they are urban and non-tribal. The Hawala are Sunni Arabs who had emigrated to Persia in the past and then returned to the Arab coast (Zahlan 2002: 59-60).

Most of the Shiites belong to the middle and lower classes and predominantly inhabit rural areas while the Sunnis are mostly urban and dominate the government, military and security establishments. Socioeconomically, very few Shiites are part of the elite. Although they have been discriminated and oil revenues have often not been shared fairly with the Shiites, most of them see themselves as patriots (Rabi/Kostiner 1999: 171-174). The socio-political “ladder” starts with the Al Khalifa family, followed by their Sunni tribal allies. Next are other Sunni Arab tribal families, then the Hawalah. Only then come the Baharinah, the indigenous Shiite Arabs, followed by those of Persian origin, both Sunni and Shiite, at the very bottom of the “ladder” (ICG 2005: 1).


[1] According to Van Inwegen's definition, a revolt or rebellion is an unsuccessful revolution, an „angry, violent expression of the refusal of an individual or group to continue in its present condition“ (9). It is the point at which the existing order is no longer accepted and change seems possible. They are usu­ally associated with less radical change and violence, although this is not necessarily the case.

In Bahrain, people had already refused to continue in the present conditions, as various protests over the past decades show. But after the violent crackdown in August 2010, change did not seem possible anymore. That changed after the removal of Ben Ali in Tunisia and of Mubarak in Egypt: Change seemed possible again.

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Bahrain - The Exception in the Gulf
University of Tubingen  (Institut für Politikwissenschaft)
Current Issues in the Mediterranean: Revolutions in the Arab World
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bahrain, exception, gulf
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Anna Fuchs (Author), 2012, Bahrain - The Exception in the Gulf, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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