|Arab Culture and Civilization: A collaborative web project created by NITLE and sponsored by MEPC|
Geography, Demographics, and Resources
|Main Menu Introduction Map Readings Audio/Video Links Bibliography|
<< Back to list
Bahrain, officially Kingdom of Bahrain (Mamlakah al-Bahrain in Arabic), independent country in western Asia, comprising 33 islands on the western side of the Persian Gulf. The main island, also called Bahrain, lies 24 km (15 mi) east of Saudi Arabia and 29 km (18 mi) west of Qatar. The capital and largest city of Bahrain is Manama.
Bahrain entered recorded history about 5,000 years ago as a commercial trading center. Long under the influence of more powerful neighbors, it came under the domination of Iran in the 17th century. The al-Khalifa family, originating from the central Arabian Peninsula, established themselves as Bahrain's rulers in 1783 and has ruled ever since. A series of treaties in the 19th century gave Britain control over Bahrain's defense and foreign affairs. Dominant British influence lasted until Bahrain became independent in 1971.
More than 60 percent of Bahrain's population is native-born, in contrast to the populations of the other Persian Gulf states of Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, where foreign-born inhabitants outnumber the native population. Bahrain also contrasts with its neighbors in that Shias (the major sectarian movement of Islam) outnumber Sunnis (who form the vast majority of Muslims worldwide). In the 1930s Bahrain became the first Arab state in the Persian Gulf region to develop an oil-based economy, but its modest petroleum reserves have caused it to diversify into various manufacturing and service areas.
II. LAND AND RESOURCES
Bahrain's total area is 707 sq km (273 sq mi), a little less than that of New York City. The main island of Bahrain is by far the largest, with an area of 562 sq km (217 sq mi). The country lacks dramatic topographical features, such as mountains or valleys. The main island consists of a low desert plain that rises to a low central escarpment where Bahrain's highest point, Jabal ad Dukhan (134 m/440 ft), is located. The smaller islands, which include Al Muharraq, Umm an Na'san, Sitrah, Jiddah, and the Hawar Islands, are generally low-lying, some only a few feet above sea level. Parts of Manama are being expanded through land reclamation. Bahrain lacks rivers, lakes, and other permanent bodies of water. It obtains water for drinking and irrigation from underground aquifers.
Despite harsh desert conditions, Bahrain supports varied plant and animal life. Many plants are halophytes (plants that are salt tolerant) and xerophytes (plants that are drought resistant), including flowering desert shrubs. There are many palm trees, although increased groundwater salinity has reduced their numbers. (As more and more freshwater is withdrawn from underground aquifers, saltwater from the Persian Gulf seeps into the aquifers, making the groundwater more salty.) An abundance of marine life, including groupers, mackerels, shrimps, pearl oysters, and dugongs (sea cows), thrives in Bahrain's surrounding waters. Land animals include scorpions, snakes and other reptiles, hares, hedgehogs, and gazelles. The government funds a conservation program to breed the endangered white, or Arabian, oryx (a type of antelope) at Al Areen Wildlife Park.
Petroleum and natural gas constitute Bahrain's principal natural resources. However, the country's reserves of petroleum and natural gas are far smaller than those of its neighbors. Only about 4 percent of the land is suitable for farming. Bahrain's surrounding waters contain considerable numbers of fish and shellfish.
Bahrain experiences extremely hot and humid summers between April and October, with temperatures regularly rising to 43°C (110°F) and sometimes reaching 52°C (125°F). Winters are milder, with temperatures ranging between 10° and 20°C (50° and 70°F). Annual rainfall averages about 100 mm (about 4 in) and falls almost entirely during the winter months. Seasonal winds periodically cause sandstorms and rough seas. The shimal, a northerly wind, blows in June and July, and the gaws comes from the south before or after the shimal.
Oil spills and other discharges from large tankers, oil refineries, and distribution stations have damaged coastlines, coral reefs, and sea vegetation. No natural freshwater resources exist, so groundwater and seawater are the only sources for all water needs. Rapid depletion of aquifers has caused groundwater to become saline. In some areas, industrial pollutants have contaminated water sources with heavy metals. Agricultural development has been neglected, and the limited arable land has been degraded. Erosion of farmland has brought desertification. Bahrain's Environmental Protection Secretariat has worked to reverse environmental damage, especially in marine areas.
III. THE PEOPLE OF BAHRAIN
Bahrain's population was estimated at 656,397 in 2002, giving the country a density of 929 persons per sq km (2,406 per sq mi). About 92 percent of the population resides in urban areas, primarily in Manama, its suburbs, and the nearby city of Al Muharraq on the island of the same name. Manama serves as the country's governmental and commercial center, while Al Muharraq is the site of Bahrain International Airport.
The country has a high population growth rate, 1.67 percent (2002 estimate). This high growth rate results primarily from a continued relatively high birth rate. Males account for 56 percent of the population. The higher number of males occurs almost entirely within the age group from 15 to 64 years. This difference and its concentration in that one age group reflect the fact that about 60 percent of Bahrain's workforce is foreign and male.
Native Bahraini Arabs account for 63 percent of the population. The various minorities include South and Southeast Asians (accounting for 13 percent of the total population), other Arabs (10 percent), and Iranians (8 percent). Other groups, including western Europeans and Americans, make up the remaining 6 percent. Some tensions exist between native Bahrainis and nonnative groups, especially in times of high unemployment. The official language is Arabic. English, Farsi, and Urdu are also widely spoken.
Almost all Bahrainis and the majority of nonnatives follow Islam. About 70 percent of all native Bahrainis belong to the Shia branch of Islam, and the remainder, including the ruling al-Khalifa clan, are Sunnis. Non-Muslims, including Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and Jews, account for 15 percent of the total population. High unemployment among the Shia population has caused considerable discontent on the part of this group toward the Sunni-dominated government.
Bahrain established the first public education system in the Persian Gulf region in 1919. Education is free and, between the ages of 6 and 15, compulsory. The literacy rate was estimated at 98.5 percent in 2001, representing a steady increase over the previous several decades. The rate is somewhat higher among males (98.2 percent) than among females (98.7 percent). The University of Bahrain was established in 1986 in Manama. Another institution of higher education, also in Manama, is the College of Health Sciences, founded in 1976, which trains physicians, nurses, and other health professionals.
In many ways Bahraini society is relatively open and liberal, reflecting its long history as a trading nation. Merchants, including the ruling clan, have long been the dominant class, establishing a business-oriented culture that values accumulation of wealth. Among university graduates women outnumber men, and women play an increasingly important role in business and professional life. At the same time, Bahraini society continues to be shaped by conservative Islamic values, especially in the Shia population in rural areas. The family is the principal social unit, and most women remain in the home. In urban areas many women do not wear the traditional Islamic veil and some Bahrainis wear Western clothing. Traditional dress predominates in rural areas. For men, traditional dress includes a loose cotton garment called a thobe, which can be covered with a woolen robe called a bisht in cool weather. Women traditionally wear a concealing cloak called an abayya. In Manama many restaurants serve Western-style food, but at home most Bahrainis eat traditional foods, including lamb, fish (especially hamour, a kind of grouper), rice, and dates. Coffee, a favorite beverage, plays an important social and ceremonial role. The modern forms of entertainment found in Manama, such as motion pictures, cater primarily to foreigners.
Traditional Bahraini culture reflects its Islamic, mercantile, and Arab Bedouin roots. Graceful dhows, Arab boats used for fishing and pearling, exhibit a high degree of craftsmanship, as do traditional jewelry and the elegant residences of rulers and merchants. Traditional performing arts include ceremonial dances accompanied by drums, readings of the Qur'an (Koran, or Islamic scripture), and storytelling. Bahraini poets carry on established traditions while also exploring new themes. Celebrations of birth and marriage continue to be important ceremonial occasions. The Bahrain National Museum, which opened in 1988 in Manama, features exhibits of crafts, historical documents, and archaeological artifacts.
Since the discovery of crude oil on the main island in 1932, oil production and refining have dominated Bahrain's economy. Natural gas occurs along with the crude oil and comes out of the same wells. For a long time, the gas from the wells was allowed to escape into the air. In 1979 the government set up a company to collect and process the natural gas into propane, butane, and naphtha. Depletion of Bahrain's limited oil reserves has prompted efforts to develop other industries. For example, in the 1970s the government established Aluminum Bahrain (ALBA); aluminum smelting remains an important industry. In a further effort at diversification, the government has promoted tourism.
The government controls the oil and gas industry, most heavy manufacturing, and the bulk of the transportation and communications sectors, but it has undertaken efforts to privatize the economy. Banking, light manufacturing, and commerce are in private hands.
Bahrain's gross domestic product (GDP) was $8 billion in 2000, or $11,540 per capita. Services, including public administration, banking, and tourism, accounted for 59 percent of the GDP. Industry accounted for 40 percent, with manufacturing responsible for 19 percent and oil and gas extraction for most of the remainder. Agriculture contributed 1 percent of the GDP.
Of Bahrain's labor force of 312,401 people in 2000, 54 percent worked in industry, 43 percent in services, and 1 percent in agriculture. Almost 60 percent of the labor force was foreign-born, because native Bahrainis generally lacked the skills required for employment in many fields and many foreign workers were willing to work for low wages. Unemployment, estimated at 15 percent in 1996, remains a serious problem. Since the mid-1990s, unemployment has contributed to widespread, sometimes violent, political discontent among Shias, who are traditionally less advantaged and more prone to unemployment than the Sunnis.
Like its Gulf Arab neighbors, Bahrain has aimed for agricultural self-sufficiency, and it now produces about 75 percent of the fruits and vegetables that its population consumes. The main crops are dates, tomatoes, onions, and melons. The country also produces a large part of its milk, poultry, and egg requirements.
Beginning in the mid-1960s the government encouraged the growth of small-scale manufacturing. To this end, it offered tax incentives and low-interest loans to entrepreneurs. Factories in Bahrain produce plastics, ceramic tiles, paper products, and carbonated beverages.
After 1975, when the Lebanese Civil War began, Bahrain took over much of Lebanon's financial services industry, especially in the form of offshore banking units (OBUs). These OBUs are units of large multinational banking companies that operate in small (usually island) countries and dependencies where regulation is not as strict as in their home countries. Although declining oil revenues and fears aroused by civil unrest have hurt the banking sector, Bahrain remains a significant regional financial center. In 1989 the government established a small stock exchange, which it linked to Kuwait's stock exchange in 1997.
Bahrain is a major air transportation hub, and together with the governments of Qatar, Oman, and United Arab Emirates member Abu Dhabi it operates an international airline called Gulf Air. The airport at Al Muharraq is a large international facility. Manama has a major port that serves as the home port for the Fifth Fleet of the United States Navy. In addition, nearby Mina' Salman serves as the major commercial port, while Sitrah contains the oil port. A well-developed road network, consisting of 3,261 km (2,026 mi) of roads, links the country's population centers. Causeways link the island of Bahrain to the islands of Al Muharraq and Sitrah. In addition, the King Fahd Causeway, opened in 1986, links Bahrain to Saudi Arabia. A national bus company operates throughout the country. There are no railroads. Many Bahrainis rely largely on walking to get around, especially in rural areas, although the heat of summer limits physical activity.
Bahrain has an extensive and sophisticated communications network, including two AM radio stations, three FM stations, and two television stations. There are two daily newspapers in Arabic and one in English, seven weeklies covering various subject areas, and a number of other periodicals. The government exercises censorship over reports and commentary on domestic affairs. Bahrainis generally stay well informed about international events through foreign publications and satellite television links. In 1995 Bahrain gained access to the Internet, the worldwide computer-based information network.
Bahrain's currency is the Bahraini dinar (0.38 dinars equal U.S.$1; 2000), issued by the Bahrain Monetary Agency. In rural areas many transactions are made by bartering and trade rather than by using cash.
Imports of crude petroleum from Saudi Arabia for processing at Bahrain's oil refinery account for more than one-third of Bahrain's imports. Other imports include machinery and transportation equipment, food, and chemicals. Exports include petroleum and petroleum products, aluminum, and manufactured goods. Bahrain's major trading partners are Saudi Arabia, India, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
Bahrain belongs to a wide range of international and regional economic organizations. Because of its slight oil production, Bahrain is not a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), but it is a member of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC), which seeks to coordinate Arab oil policy. Bahrain is a founding member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and has participated in various council initiatives aimed at promoting economic cooperation among its members. Following independence in 1971, Bahrain became a member of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The al-Khalifa family has ruled Bahrain since 1783. Bahrain gained full independence from Britain in 1971, adopted a constitution in 1973, and substantially revised the constitution in 2002. Under the 2002 constitution, Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy, ruled by a king (prior to 2002, the al-Khalifa ruler was called an emir). The constitution states that the succession of the office of king automatically passes from ruler to son, making Bahrain unique among the monarchies of the Persian Gulf in this regard. The king appoints a prime minister and a cabinet, the Council of Ministers. The constitution also provides for a bicameral legislature, the National Assembly. The two houses of the National Assembly are the Consultative Council, whose 40 members are appointed by the king; and the Chamber of Deputies, whose 40 members are elected by direct popular vote by citizens 20 years of age or older. Both appointed and elected legislators serve four-year terms. All legislation approved by the National Assembly must be ratified by the king in order to become law.
Bahrain's legal system draws upon Islamic religious law (the Sharia), tribal law, English common law, and other sources. All residents are subject to the jurisdiction of Bahraini courts, which guarantee equality to all before the law. The court system consists of civil and Sharia courts, both of which have courts of appeal. The country's highest court is the Supreme Court of Appeal. The 2002 constitution established a Higher Judicial Council to supervise the functioning of the court system. The king chairs the council and appoints judges proposed by the council.
Bahrain is divided into 12 municipalities, administered from Manama by a central municipal council whose members are appointed by the king. Thus, the central government largely controls local governmental affairs.
Political parties are technically not allowed, although informal political groups emerged in 1973 when the National Assembly was elected. The king has said he would favor the creation of political parties if doing so would not disrupt social unity.
The Bahraini Defense Force (BDF) numbered 11,000 in 2001. The BDF includes some Jordanian officers, as well as Pakistani and Sudanese enlisted men. Foreign personnel, chiefly Americans and Britons, contract with the BDF to supply support services. The BDF consists of an 8,500-member army, a 1,500-member air force, and a 1,000-member navy. The navy receives assistance (in the form of the loan of a frigate and training for personnel) from the U.S. Navy, whose Fifth Fleet uses Bahrain's harbor facilities. There is a separate 1,000-member Coast Guard. Military service is voluntary. However, native Shias are generally not accepted into the armed forces, because the Sunni ruling establishment does not trust the Shias, believing that dissidents might find their way into sensitive positions.
Upon its independence in 1971, Bahrain became a member of the United Nations and the Arab League, which promotes common Arab interests. It also belongs to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Because of its small size, Bahrain does not play a leading role in regional or international organizations. However, it participates actively in the Gulf Cooperation Council's defense security measures.
Archaeological evidence indicates that Bahrain was inhabited at least 50,000 years ago. The inhabitants may have first practiced agriculture about 8,000 years ago. By about 4000 BC Bahrain was the center of the advanced Dilmun trading culture, which had connections with the civilizations of Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley (see√äIndus Valley Civilization). Dilmun seems to have been a federation of sorts that was centered on the Persian Gulf shore. It included parts of the Arabian mainland and traded with inland sections of what is now Saudi Arabia. Thus, early in its history, Bahrain established its character as a cosmopolitan commercial state, based on its location on major trade routes that passed through the Persian Gulf region. Dilmun achieved its greatest wealth and power in about 2000 BC. In about 600 BC the Babylonian Empire (see√äBabylonia) absorbed Bahrain, which until modern times included part of the adjacent eastern Arabian mainland (now part of Saudi Arabia). Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great had been about to add Bahrain (known to the Greeks as Tylos) and the Arabian Peninsula to his empire when he died suddenly in 323 BC. Eastern Arabia subsequently came under the influence of the Seleucids, Alexander's successors in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Persia. In the 3rd century AD it came under the control of the Sassanids, a Persian dynasty. In the early 7th century the Byzantine Empire defeated the Sassanids and drove the Persians from their eastern Arabian outposts.
By 650 the entire Arabian Peninsula had come under the rule of the followers of the prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam. Bahrain became part of the empire of two successive Islamic dynasties, the Umayyads (661-750) and the Abbasids (750-1258), then entered a long turbulent period when it often acted as a buffer between larger competing powers. In 1521 the Portuguese, who were in the midst of exploration and conquest in many areas of Africa and Asia, occupied Bahrain. In 1602 a group of Bahrainis seized the Portuguese fort and appealed to Iran (known as Persia by the Western world until the 1930s) for assistance. Their appeal led to Iranian domination, usually exercised through Arab vassals, for almost two centuries.
In the mid-18th century the al-Khalifa, a prominent family among the 'Utub tribe from the central Arabian Peninsula, established control over parts of Qatar. They seized Bahrain in 1783, ending Iranian influence in eastern Arabia. By the end of the 18th century the al-Khalifa had moved their capital to Bahrain.
Meanwhile, Britain and The Netherlands increased their commercial influence in the region. By the late 18th century the British had bested the Dutch for supremacy in the Persian Gulf. Beginning in 1820 Britain imposed a series of treaties on Bahrain and its neighbors; treaties imposed in the 1860s brought Bahrain under still closer British sway. British influence brought increased order to the maritime affairs of Bahrain and the other Persian Gulf states and led to the expansion of the pearling trade, which had been a major economic activity in the region as early as the 9th century AD. In the early 20th century pearling was Bahrain's principal source of income. Its pearling fleet included about 900 ships, and close to half the male population was engaged in harvesting and selling pearls. An economic depression in Europe in the 1920s severely hurt the pearl business, and the introduction of cultured pearls in the early 1930s effectively ended it.
Petroleum was discovered in Bahrain in 1932, the first such discovery on the Arabian coast of the Persian Gulf. The discovery assured the country's continued prosperity. Oil provided the ruling family with an independent source of income, strengthening its position against potential challenges from the wealthy merchant class. In addition, it made possible the creation of modern infrastructure (roads, water supply, and so forth) and social services. Consequently, Bahrain developed a modern state administration before the other states under British protection: Kuwait, Qatar, and the seven Trucial States (later the United Arab Emirates). Bahrain thus acquired a greater commercial and strategic importance. As a result, Britain exercised its influence there more strongly than in the other protected states, and Britain's naval forces in the Persian Gulf established their home port at Al Jufayr.
In January 1968 the British government, acting to cut expenditures, announced that British forces would withdraw from positions east of Suez, Egypt, by the end of 1971, thus ending Britain's protection over Bahrain, Qatar, and the Trucial States. Initially, these states considered forming a union, but that idea fell through in part because the other states feared that Bahrain's greater population and more advanced development would enable it to dominate such a union. Meanwhile, Bahrain faced an Iranian claim to its territory, first advanced in 1928. However, Iran accepted the results of a United Nations survey in May 1970 that confirmed the population's preference for independence.
Bahrain became an independent state on August 15, 1971. Emir Isa bin Sulman al-Khalifa, who had assumed power in 1961, remained as monarch. The Council of State, created in 1970 to advise the emir, became his cabinet. The emir announced the creation of a constituent assembly to draft and ratify a constitution. Just over half of its members were elected in December 1972 by Bahraini male voters, with the balance appointed by the emir. The constituent assembly approved a constitution, which the emir put into force in December 1973. The constitution called for a legislature, the National Assembly, with very limited political powers. In an election held that month, male voters elected the assembly. However, the cabinet and the assembly disagreed on many matters, including trade union and internal security issues, the U.S. Navy's lease of Bahrain's facilities (dating to 1949), and especially how much power the assembly would have. The emir dissolved the assembly by decree in August 1975.
Bahrain's modest oil resources prompted the government to consider ways to diversify the economy. The government initiated an aluminum industry and other industrial enterprises. It also created banks and encouraged foreign banks to set up offshore banking units (OBUs) in Bahrain.
Events in the late 20th century demonstrated how much Bahrain's stability depended on the stability of the Persian Gulf region. The Islamic Revolution of Iran, which brought a Shia government to power on the other shore of the gulf in 1979, heightened tensions between Sunnis and Shias in Bahrain. In 1981 and 1985 the Bahraini authorities reportedly foiled Iranian-inspired Shia plots to overthrow the government. The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) brought further instability to the region. Concern over possible escalation of the war prompted fears about the weakness of Bahrain's military. Bahrain joined other Arab nations in the region to found the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981, thereby receiving assistance with intelligence monitoring and gaining approval from the other member states to purchase weapons from the United States. In 1987 Bahrain provided vital facilities for U.S. naval forces escorting Kuwaiti vessels through the Persian Gulf to shield them from possible attack by Iran, which accused them of carrying Iraqi oil. It also played a key role in supporting naval vessels of the United States and other countries operating against Iraq during the Persian Gulf War (1991). In 1991 and 1994 Bahrain solidified its security arrangements with the United States, confirming its role as an American support base in the region.
Political unrest among Bahrain's Shias continued in the later 1990s, and the government's often harsh responses drew international criticism. In 1994 Shias calling for the restoration of the National Assembly, which had been dissolved in 1975, held protests that led to skirmishes with police. After several months of protests, the emir began negotiations with the Shia leaders, but the talks dissolved by mid-1995. In 1996 many Shias were arrested. By the beginning of 1999, about 40 people had died as a result of incidents related to Shia unrest.
In 1999 Emir Isa bin Sulman al-Khalifa died and was immediately succeeded by his son Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. The new emir chose a path of reform. He commissioned the drafting of a new national charter and pardoned hundreds of political prisoners. In February 2001 the government held a referendum on the charter, which would transform Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy governed by a king and a new, bicameral legislative body. Almost 90 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots, and the charter was overwhelmingly endorsed. The country's amended constitution subsequently went into effect in February 2002. Elections for the Chamber of Deputies, the elected house of the legislature, were scheduled for October.
"Bahrain". Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2002
http://encarta.msn.com (2 Aug. 2002)
© 2002 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.