Bahrain: The Political Structure, Reform And Human Rights


By Kenneth Katzman

The Al Khalifa family, which is Sunni Muslim and generally not as religiously conservative as the leaders of neighboring Saudi Arabia, has ruled Bahrain since 1783. The Al Khalifa family’s arrival from the Saudi peninsula to take control ended a century of domination by Persian settlers. The Al Khalifa subsequently received political protection from Britain, which was the dominant power in the Gulf until the early 1970s. Bahrain became independent from Britain in August 1971 after a 1970 U.N. survey determined that its inhabitants preferred independence to Iranian control.

Bahrain is led by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa (about 66 years old), who succeeded his father, Shaykh Isa bin Sulman Al Khalifa, upon his death in March 1999. Educated at Sandhurst Military Academy in Britain, King Hamad was previously commander of the Bahraini Defense Forces (BDF). His son, Shaykh Salman bin Hamad, about 49 years old, is Crown Prince. Shaykh Salman serves concurrently as deputy commander of the BDF; the King is commander-in-chief. Shaykh Salman is U.S.-and U.K.-educated and is, like the King, considered a proponent of reform and accommodation with Bahrain’s Shiite majority—about 70% of the 503,000-person citizenry.2 (There are also an estimated 235,000 expatriates in Bahrain, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s “World Factbook.”). About 25% of the population is age 14 or younger.


The King’s uncle (the brother of the late ruler), Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, along with hard-liners in the royal court and several ministries, are perceived as skeptical of King Hamad’s reforms. They believe that the concessions that King Hamad has made to the Shiite majority have cause the Shiites to increase their political demands rather than satisfy them, and might ultimately jeopardize Al Khalifa rule. Others believe that level of unrest reached in February 2011 would have been reached long ago had the King’s reforms not been enacted.

The minor political reforms under the current King’s father, Amir Isa (the December 1992 establishment of a 30-member appointed Consultative Council to comment on proposed laws and its June 1996 expansion to 40 members) did not come close to quieting the demands of either Shiites or Sunnis for the restoration of an elected national assembly, even though Bahrain’s Sunnis are considered less hungry for “democracy” than are the Shiites. An elected assembly was provided for under the 1973 constitution but abolished in August 1975. In the years just prior to Shaykh Hamad’s accession to rulership, there was daily anti-government violence during 1994-1998, although the unrest gradually took on a Shiite sectarian character. As Hamad’s first reform steps after taking over, he changed his title to “King,” rather than “Amir” and implying more accountability, and held a referendum (February 14, 2002) on a new “National Action Charter (constitution).”

One reason that the Shiite majority population was not satisfied by the National Action Charter was that the elected Council of Representatives (COR) and the all-appointed Shura (Consultative) Council were to be of equal size (40 seats each). Together, they constitute a National Assembly (parliament) that serves as at least a partial check on government power. The COR can propose (but not actually draft) legislation and both chambers can question ministers, although not in public session. The COR can, by a two-thirds majority, vote no-confidence against ministers and the Prime Minister and override the King’s veto of approved legislation, although none of these actions has occurred since the COR was formed. The King has the authority to dissolve the COR and amend the constitution. The Shura Council is formally limited to amending draft legislation and, in concert with the COR, reviewing the annual budget, but these powers provide the Shura Council with the ability to block action by the COR. The government has tended to appoint generally more educated and pro-Western members to the Shura Council, and it is generally more supportive of the government than is the elected COR. There is no “quota” for females in the National Assembly, as has been included in democratic constitutions in post-Saddam Iraq and post-Taliban Afghanistan.

The National Assembly has tended to address primarily economic and social issues, and not national security issues. For example, in May 2010, it voted to ban sale of alcohol to Muslims, although subject to implementing regulations made by the King, through the government. Other legislation considered in the Bahraini National Assembly in recent years included bills to combat cyber crime, regulating the pharmaceutical sector, regulating the press, creating an anti-corruption body, and establishing a higher council on social security. However, many of these bills stalled in the 2006-2010 parliament due to lack of consensus and broader Sunni-Shiite tensions.

Post-Charter Elections

Elections have been held every four years since 2002, each time marked by substantial tension between the government and the Shiite majority. Formal political parties are banned, but factions compete as “political societies” which serve as the functional equivalent of parties for election purposes. In the COR elections, if no candidate in a contested district wins more than 50% in the first round, a runoff is held one week later.

2002 Elections

The first elections under the Charter were held in October 2002. In the 2002 election, many Shiite opposition “political societies,”including Al Wifaq, (formally, the Al Wifaq National Islamic Society, also known as the Islamic National Accord Association—a large faction, led by Shaykh Ali al-Salman), boycotted the elections on the grounds that setting the COR and the Shura Council at the same size dilutes popular will. The 2002 boycott lowered turnout (about 52%) and helped Sunnis win two-thirds of the COR seats. Of the 170 total candidates, 6 were women, but none of the women were elected.

2006 Elections

As was widely expected by experts, Sunni-Shiite tensions escalated again in the run-up to the November 25, 2006, parliamentary and municipal elections. The tension was aggravated by the Shiite perception that a once-repressed Shiite majority came to power in Iraq through U.S.- backed elections and that the Bahraini majority was entitled to a similar result. In the fall of 2006, some Shiites protested, particularly after allegations, some of which were publicly corroborated by a government adviser (Salah al-Bandar) in August 2006 in a report to an outside human rights organization, that the government was adjusting election districts so as to favor Sunni candidates. It was also alleged that the government issued passports to Sunnis in an attempt to shift the demographic balance to the Sunnis’ advantage.

In the November 2006 elections, two Shiite opposition blocs, Wifaq and the National Democratic Action Association, participated, raising voter turnout to 72%. Wifaq is avowedly Islamist in political orientation. A harder-line Shiite opposition faction Al Haq (Movement of Freedom and Democracy) boycotted. The opposition, led by Wifaq, won 17 seats, virtually all those it contested. The Shiite opposition was therefore the largest single bloc in the COR, but it was short of a majority.

The government was heartened that Sunni Muslims independents won 23 total seats. Of those, 9 were won by secular Sunnis and 14 were won by Islamist Sunnis (7 from the Salafists trend and 7 Muslim Brotherhood members). Only one woman (Latifa al Qaoud, who was unopposed in her district) won, out of 18 female candidates (down from 31 female candidates in the 2002 elections). As evidence of continued friction, Wifaq boycotted the speakership contest, and incumbent COR Speaker Khalifa al-Dhahrani was reelected speaker.

The King subsequently named a new Shura Council with 20 Shiites, 19 Sunnis, and one Christian (a female). Ten women were appointed. However, the Shiites appointed were not all aligned with opposition factions, and several were considered “pro-government.” Therefore, the Shura Council was not a bastion of opposition to the government even though Shiites held half of its seats. In a nod to the increased Shiite strength as a result of the elections, the government appointed a Shiite (Jawad al-Araidh) as deputy prime minister and another (who is close to Wifaq) as a minister of state for foreign affairs.

Heightened political tensions continued in between national elections. In December 2008, the government made numerous arrests of Shiite demonstrators and accused some of being part of a foreign-inspired “plot” to destabilize Bahrain. Some were accused of undergoing guerrilla or terrorist training in Syria. On January 26, 2009, the government arrested three leading Shiite activists, including the wheelchair-bound Dr. Abduljalil Alsingace and Mr. Hassan Mushaima, both leaders of Al Haq. They were tried during February-March 2009 but, along with other Shiite activists, were pardoned and released in April 2009. Alsingace has visited the United States several times to highlight the human rights situation in Bahrain. (As noted below Alsingace was been arrested again in August 2010.)

The 2010 National Assembly and Municipal Election

The resentments over the 2006 election, and the still unfulfilled demand of Bahrain’s Shiites for greater political power and an end to economic discrimination, carried over to the 2010 election. The election was held on October 23, 2010. There were only a limited number of international observers, primarily from various international human rights organizations. Two Bahraini human rights watchdog groups, the Bahrain Human Rights Society and the Bahrain Transparency Society, again (for the third time) reached agreement to jointly monitor the 2010 elections. Municipal elections were held concurrently.

The electorate was about 300,000 persons, voting in 40 districts spread throughout five governorates. As was the case in the 2006 elections, Shiite oppositionists accused the government of drawing district boundaries so as to prevent the election of a Shiite majority. Registration of candidates took place during September 12-16, 2010. About 200 people registered to run, of whom seven were women. However, one woman withdrew after registering, leaving a field of six female candidates. Of the six, only one was formally endorsed by a political society, the National Democratic Action Society (Waad, which means “promise” in Arabic). She is Munira Fakhro, a prominent Shiite woman who was exiled prior to the political reform process under King Hamad. In 2006, she narrowly lost to a Sunni Islamist (Minbar, or “platform,” faction). At least four candidates in districts where there was no opposition were declared winners by September 28, 2010. One of them was a Wifaq member.

Wifaq, still by far the most prominent Shiite political society, registered candidates. Its leader, Shaykh Ali Salman, was not a candidate, preferring to continue to lead the faction from the background. Al Haq again boycotted, as it did in 2006. In the run-up to the election, the government cracked down on Shiite activitists, particularly those who supported boycotting the election. For example, on September 4, 2010, 23 Shiite leaders, were arrested on charges of attempting a violent overthrow of the government. They were among about 160 Shiites arrested in August and September, under a 2006 anti-terrorism law that gives the government broad arrest and prosecution powers. Among those arrested was Dr. Alsingace (see above), arrested August 13, 2010, upon his return from abroad. Alsingace remains incarcerated and has told his lawyers that he has been beaten and deprived of sleep. A prominent Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Hussein Mirza al-Najati, said to be close to the most senior Iraqi cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, had his Bahrain citizenship revoked on September 20, 2010.

Some observers asserted that the government crackdown would drive Bahraini Shiites to politically support boycotting harder-line movements, such as Al Haq, and in so doing suppress the election turnout among Shiites. The crackdown did not prompt Wifaq to reverse its decision to compete. The crackdown might have helped the government’s election strategy but it also led to stepped up demonstrations by Shiite youth in Shiite neighborhoods. The tensions are also widely blamed for resulting in a bombing that damaged four police cars on September 15, 2010. The tensions over the election almost certainly were a catalyst for the major unrest that has occurred in February 2011, discussed further below.

Among Sunni political societies, there are two that are considered Islamist. They include Minbar, mentioned above, which is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al Asala, which is a harder line “Salafist” political society. In the 2006-2010 parliament, Asala and Minbar members held 7 seats each.

2010 Election Results

Despite the preelection tensions, the election was held without major reports of violence and produced some unexpected results, including:

  • The increase of Wifaq’s representation from 17 seats in the 2006-2010 COR to 18 seats. However, the 18 is still short of a majority.
  • The unexpected losses by Sunnis Islamist factions. Minbar and Asala each saw dramatic reductions in their seats from 2006: Minbar (Muslim Brotherhood) decreased to 2 seats (from 7) and Asala decreased to 3 seats (from 7). Most of the seats were picked up by Sunni independents, who won 17 seats, up from 9 in the 2006-2010 parliament. In addition, the secular and ideological Waad won no seats at all. These results appeared to represent a rejection of Islamist ideology, and even all ideological candidates, in favor of pragmatists who would address Bahrain’s economic difficulties.
  • The same one woman won who had won in 2006.
  • In the municipal elections conducted concurrently, one woman was elected in the second round—the first woman to be elected to a municipal council.

In advance of the December 14, 2010, start of the next parliamentary term, the King named the 2010-2014 Shura Council. Thirty of the forty serving Council members were reappointed, leaving only ten newly appointed members. The Council has four women, substantially fewer than the 2006-2010 Council that had nine women. Among the four, one is Jewish (Nancy Khadouri), out of a Jewish population in Bahrain of about forty persons, and one is Christian (Hala Qarrisah). Bahrain has an estimated 1,000 Christians. The Council speaker, Ali al-Salih, was reappointed.

Broader Issues of Governmental Representation

The elections are not the only means by which Bahraini government has sought to promote political and social inclusiveness. The government has sought to include Shiites in government, although some assert that the positions these groups obtain are generally non-critical. The Al Khalifa family has held onto all strategic ministry positions and about half of all ministerial slots.

Shiites are generally barred from serving in the security forces. In the current cabinet, there are four Shiites (out of 23 cabinet positions) and two female ministers (Minister of Social Affairs Fatima bint Ahmad al-Balushi and Minister of Information and Culture Mai bint Muhammad Al Khalifa). A previous female minister of health, Nada Haffadh, resigned in October 2007 following allegations of corruption in her ministry by conservatives who oppose women occupying high-ranking positions. Two other women, including the president of the University of Bahrain, have ministerial rank. In April 2008, Huda Azar Nunu, a female attorney and the only Jew in the Shura Council, is ambassador to the United States.

February 2011 Uprising

King Hamad’s efforts to accommodate Shiite aspirations were demonstrated to have failed when a major uprising began on February 13, 2011, in the immediate wake of the success of an uprising in Egypt in forcing the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011. After a few days of protests and relatively minor confrontations with the mostly Bahraini Sunni and expatriate Sunni security forces, the mostly Shiite demonstrators converged on a major public square, “Pearl Roundabout,” named after a statue in the middle of the traffic circle that depicts Bahrain’s pearl-diving past. The uprising took place even though King Hamad had tried to head off the unrest by offering all Bahraini families a $2,700 one-time payment. The demands of the protesters were numerous, but generally limited to political reform steps such as altering the constitution (presumably to expand the elected lower house), end fraud that prevents Shiites from winning a majority in the COR, more jobs and economic opportunities, and, among some, the resignation of hard-line Prime Minister Khalifa. The protesters did not generally demand the ouster of the royal family. On February 15, 2011, King Hamad spoke to the nation and announced the formation of a committee to investigate the use of force against protestors, which had killed at least two until that time.

The unrest took on new dimensions in the early morning of February 17, 2011 when security forces surrounded the thousands of demonstrators in Pearl Roundabout, many of whom were asleep, and used rubber bullets and tear gas to remove them from the location. At least four demonstrators were killed, and others are in critical condition in hospitals. The government asserted it had warned of an impending move to expel the protestors, an assertion disputed by the opposition. At a news conference later on February 17, Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa claimed Bahraini forces had used a minimum of force, that some of the protesters were found with weaponry, and that the Pearl Roundabout was cleared to avoid a “sectarian abyss”—a reference to possible all-out civil conflict between the Shiites and Sunnis. Amid heavy security patrols to prevent demonstrators from regrouping in Pearl Roundabout, additional protests took place on February 18, 2011, with additional press reports of gunshots by security forces, including in the context of funerals for those demonstrators who were killed. Politically, Wifaq pulled all 18 of its COR deputies out of the COR following the February 17 crackdown.

U.S. Posture on the Uprising

The U.S. response to the unrest in Bahrain has been, to some extent, colored by the response to the unrest in Egypt and elsewhere, although with an eye toward the vital U.S. interests in Bahrain discussed below. In phone calls to their counterparts after the February 17, 2010, clearing of Pearl Roundabout, Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Gates reportedly expressed concern to the Bahrain government for using force against the protesters. The White House spokesman Jay Carney said the violence was not an appropriate response to peaceful demonstrators making “reasonable demands.” On February 15, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley referred to U.S. officials calling for restraint on both sides. Some have criticized the Administration for previously muting criticism of Bahrain’s human rights record, citing Secretary of State Clinton’s comments in Bahrain on December 3, 2010, referring to the October 2010 elections, saying: “…I am impressed by the commitment that the government has to the democratic path that Bahrain is walking on. It takes time; we know that from our own experience.”3

There may be a concern among U.S. officials about the consequences if the Al Khalifa regime falls. U.S. officials fear that if a Shiite-led regime come to power there, Iran’s influence in Bahrain would increase to the point where it might be successful in persuading Bahrain to ask the United States to vacate Bahraini military facilities. These concerns are shared by the mostly Sunni allies of Bahrain in the Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC, which met on February 16, 2011, and expressed solidarity with the government of Bahrain. There has been speculation that Saudi Arabia might itself intervene to prevent a Shiite government from coming to power in Bahrain, but there has, to date, been no evidence of any Saudi troop or security force movements toward or into Bahrain. Britain closed its embassy in Bahrain after the February 17, 2011 crackdown, and announced it might ban further arms exports to Bahrain.

The Obama Administration, which presented its FY2012 budget request on February 14, 2011, just as the unrest in Bahrain was growing, has not announced any alteration of its military and anti-terrorism assistance or arms sales policy for Bahrain in light of the February 17 crackdown. However, it is possible that outside experts and some in Congress might object to further sales to Bahrain, particularly of equipment that could be used against protesters. Levels of those sales and aid are discussed in the sections below.

Possible Outcomes

Outcomes are difficult to predict. Some believe the crackdown has hardened the protest movement to continue its activities in an all out effort to topple the regime and presumably bring a Shiite-led government to power. This outcome is possible, although most Sunnis would see a Shiite takeover as an existential threat and they will likely support the regime to prevent that outcome.

Others believe that negotiations and compromise are likely, potentially including the King’s firing of the Prime Minister—a move long blocked by support for him among many older, powerful members of the Al Khalifa family. Other avenues for compromise could be an amendment to the constitution that expands the elected COR, and its powers relative to the upper house, or the outright abolition of the upper house. Other reforms could include redistricting that would permit Shiites to win a COR majority.

Other Human Rights Issues

Many of the general human rights issues are intimately tied to the power struggle between the Sunni-led regime and the Shiite majority, as noted in U.S. government reports on human rights and religious freedom in Bahrain. Beyond the Sunni-Shiite schism in Bahrain, State Department reports, such as the human rights report for 2009, note problems for non-Muslims and for opponents of the government. Bahrain allows freedom of worship for Christians, Jews, and Hindus although the constitution declares Islam the official religion.

On freedoms for religions other than Islam, the November 17, 2010, State Department report on international religious freedom, in the section on Bahrain, says that non-Muslims have been able to practice their religion privately without government interference, and to maintain places of worship. However, the government requires licenses for churches to operate, and has in the past threatened to shutter un-licensed churches serving Indian expatriates. The Baha’i faith, declared blasphemous in Iran and Afghanistan, has been discriminated against in Bahrain. A Baha’i congregation was repeatedly denied an official license, although other State Department reports (human rights reports for 2008 and for 2009) say that the Baha’i community now gathers and operates openly.

On labor issues, Bahrain has been credited with significant labor reforms, including a 2002 law granting workers, including non-citizens, the right to form and join unions. The law holds that the right to strike is a legitimate means for workers to defend their rights and interests, but their right is restricted in practice, including a prohibition on strikes in the oil and gas, education, and health sectors. There are about 50 trade unions in Bahrain.

On human trafficking, Bahrain was elevated in the 2008 Trafficking in Persons report to “Tier 2 Watch List,” from Tier 3 in the 2007 report, because it is “making significant efforts” to comply with the minimum standards for elimination of trafficking, but has not shown results, to date. The 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report (June 16, 2009) kept Bahrain as Tier 2 Watch List, with explanatory language similar to that of the 2008 report. The 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report (June 14, 2010) upgraded Bahrain yet again to Tier 2 (dropping the “watch list” designation) on the grounds that Bahrain is making significant efforts to comply with minimum standards and has begun making prosecutions under its anti-trafficking statutes.

Another issue is that of executions. Human Rights Watch and other groups assert that Bahrain is going against the international trend to end execution. In November 2009, Bahrain’s Court of Cassation upheld the sentencing to death by firing squad of a citizen of Bangladesh. That sentenced was imposed for a 2005 murder. From 1977 until 2006, there were no executions in Bahrain. Allegations of torture against Shiite opposition figures are widespread.4

U.S. Efforts to Promote Political Reform and Religious Freedom

The United States has long sought to accelerate political reform in Bahrain and to empower its political societies through several programs, including the “Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI).” Some funds have been used to help build an independent judiciary and strengthen the COR. Other U.S.-funded programs focus on women’s empowerment, media training, educational opportunities, and civil society legal reform. MEPI funds have been used to fund AFL-CIO projects with Bahraini labor organizations, and to help Bahrain implement the U.S.-Bahrain FTA.

In May 2006 Bahrain revoked the visa for the resident program director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and has not allowed the office to reopen. NDI is conducting programs to enhance parliamentary capabilities through a local NGO. In February 2010, the MEPI office of State Department signed a memorandum of understanding with Bahrain to promote entrepreneurship there and promote opportunities for trade with U.S. small businesses. Still, some human rights group and Bahraini activists believe the United States has consistently (including during the February 2011 unrest) downplayed democracy promotion in favor of broader security issues.

According to the State Department’s International Religious Freedom report for 2010 (November 17, 2010), “The U.S. government discusses religious freedom with the [Bahraini] government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.” The religious freedom report also noted that the U.S. government sponsored the visit to the United States of a prominent Sunni cleric, Shaykh Salah Al-Jowder, to discuss religious freedom and interfaith dialogue.

Kenneth Katzman
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
[email protected], 7-7612


This article is part of a longer Congessional Research Service February 18, 2011 report Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy (PDF)


1 Much of the information in this section is from State Department reports: 2009 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (March 11, 2010); the International Religious Freedom Report for 2010 (November 17, 2010); and the Trafficking in Persons Report for 2010 (June 14, 2010). CRS has no means to independently investigate the human rights situation in Bahrain or confirm allegations of specific human rights abuses there.

2 The Shiite community in Bahrain consists of the more numerous “Baharna,” who are of Arab ethnicity and descended from Arab tribes who inhabited the area from pre-Islamic times. Shiites of Persian ethnicity are less numerous, and arrived in Bahrain over the past 400 years. They speak Persian and generally do not integrate with the Baharna or with Sunni Arabs.

3 Department of State. “Remarks With Foreign Minister Al Khalifa After Their Meeting.” December 3, 2010.

4 Human Rights Watch. “Bahrain: Torture Redux. “ February 2010.

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