The tiny state of Bahrain was thrust into the international spotlight this month when its regime violently suppressed pro-democracy protests. Although seemingly an extension of Tunisia’s and Egypt’s opposition movements, protests are not new in Bahrain, nor are clashes between demonstrators and police. The popular protests that began on February 14 have deep local roots and reflect frustration with a political system that promised more democratic reform than most others in the Middle East but has largely failed to deliver.

Bahrain has a highly developed civil society compared to other Gulf countries. It is historically a relatively cosmopolitan trade hub and was the first of the Gulf monarchies to discover oil, in 1932, giving it an economic head start. Its formal education system developed relatively early -- its first modern school for boys opened in 1919 and its (and the Gulf region’s) first girls’ school was founded in 1928. Education expanded further in the 1930s, as oil-funded state institutions developed. In 1935, the country became the center of the British Empire’s administration in the Gulf -- a position it retained until its independence in 1971. The empire’s bureaucratic apparatus contributed to the growth of an educated, professional class.

Bahrain’s strong civil society fostered a tradition of political activism. The principles of elected representation are not new there. Municipal elections to fill half the seats on local councils began earlier in 1926. (Neighbouring Saudi Arabia did not follow suit until 2005 and has since indefinitely postponed elections.) The principles of protest are not new to Bahrainis, either; demonstrations date back to the 1920s and probably earlier, although older records are scarcer. Modern labor activism in the country began in earnest in the 1930s, at the Bahrain Oil Company, where striking workers called for access to better education and fairer courts, as well as pay raises and improved working conditions. By the 1950s, as Arab nationalism spread through the region, Bahrain’s opposition demanded independence from Britain. Support for the opposition came from across all of Bahrain’s classes, regions, and religious sects.

The country eventually won independence in 1971, when a new British administration, worried about the costs of empire and the risks of unrest, decided to withdraw from all its territories east of the Suez Canal. The process of decolonization in the Gulf was very different from the violent independence revolutions in the rest of the Middle East and in Africa, which brought about regimes such as Gamal Abdel Nasser’s in Egypt and Muammar al-Gaddafi’s in Libya. The British imperial presence in the Gulf was always informal; its role was “protector” of the small sheikhdoms that needed a larger ally to guarantee their security. The Gulf’s ruling elites generally stayed in power and were reluctant to see the British leave. Indeed, the British agreed to delay withdrawing from Bahrain until Iran formally dropped its longstanding territorial claim to the island. Meanwhile, concerned with internal legitimacy, the emir of Bahrain, Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, announced that he would establish an elected parliament. To lay the groundwork, he set up a constitutional assembly, two-thirds of which was elected, to help devise the country’s first constitution.

In 1973, a popularly elected parliament was duly established, although a royal decree prevented women from voting. In an effusive guidebook from early 1975, James Belgrave, the son of Charles Belgrave, a British adviser and a force behind Bahrain’s throne for three decades, wrote that the constitution and parliament were “the culmination of half a century of steady evolutionary development” and that Bahrain’s international reputation was strengthened by its new democratic system.

Yet the parliament lasted only two years. Most of the 30 members were leftists or independents who began to push for land reform and question the U.S. military presence, which was established at the request of the regime to counter Iranian influence after the British left. Members of parliament also wanted to limit the royal family’s spending (just as oil revenue was surging after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war) and opposed the emir’s proposed law allowing him to detain prisoners for three years without trial. In August 1975, the emir dissolved the parliament by royal decree.

For the next 25 years, most opposition groups were united in their calls for the restoration of the parliament under a constitutional monarchy. There were exceptions, notably the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, an underground inspired by the 1979 revolution in Iran, which was group accused of plotting a coup in 1981. Bahrain went through particular unrest in the 1990s, as the country’s economy faltered. In 1992 and 1994, opposition activists tried to petition the king to restore the parliament and give women the vote. But they made no progress, and unrest spread to the streets, where it was met by a heavy-handed government response.

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the current ruler of Bahrain, promised reforms when he came to power in 1999. Ten years ago this month, he held a referendum on the National Action Charter, a document that pledged to restore the constitutional monarchy and parliament. The government would also amend the constitution, introducing an upper house of appointed parliamentarians, but promised that its role would be limited to “advising,” leaving the elected lower house to do the legislating. The charter was overwhelmingly popular, and the referendum passed with 90 percent of the vote.

A year later, however, the king unilaterally introduced an entirely new constitution, which was ratified in 2002. It did establish a parliament but one in which the 40 appointed parliamentarians held greater power than the 40 elected ones. It included some important reforms: it abolished the hated state security law, which gave the executive branch draconian powers; took steps to reform the police and end torture during detainment; eased restrictions on free speech; and gave amnesty to political prisoners and exiles. (The amnesty was controversial, however, because it also applied to former torturers.)

Opposition groups felt betrayed by the king’s unilateral reform and for several years pushed for a return to the 1973 constitution. Over time, the opposition split into two camps. The first seeks to bring about change within parliament and includes Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, led by a young Shia cleric, Sheikh Ali Salman, and the Democratic National Action Society (Wa’ad), a cross-sectarian leftist political party. The second focuses on street protests and includes the Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy and the Wafa movement. Meanwhile, officials argued that Bahrain had become a democracy and that anyone who rejected the 2002 constitution was bent on destabilising the country, perhaps on behalf of a devious Iranian hand.

Bahrain’s key Western allies, the United States and the United Kingdom, have repeatedly praised the country as a beacon of reform, but for at least the past five years, it has been hard to find evidence of political liberalization there. At best, reforms have stalled; at worst, there has been backsliding. Convincing allegations of torture have resurfaced, dissidents have been rounded up on terrorism charges, the board of the country’s first-ever independent human rights NGO was dismissed by the government, and sectarian tensions have risen as opposition groups have claimed that the government has been giving passports en masse to Sunni Muslims from overseas to dilute the Shia population. (The king bestows citizenship as he likes and has naturalized some 70,000 Sunnis since coming to power -- a huge number in a small country where it is usually very hard to obtain citizenship.) Street protests gradually became noisier, and clashes with police more violent. In 2007, a demonstrator died, and a policeman was killed in 2008. The circumstances of the deaths have been disputed.

The tensions in Bahrain have been brewing for years. But this month's sudden escalation surprised most Bahrainis. The level of violence reflects the dynamics in the region: protests now seem more of a threat to Bahrain than they did just three months ago, before the protest-fuelled regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt. With the international media paying more attention, the country’s carefully crafted image as a liberal oasis in an illiberal region has been badly damaged. Bahrain's ability to attract Western investment and compete with Dubai as a financial center is likely to be weakened by the images of the regime’s violence that have spread around the world.

The escalation of violence has polarized Bahraini political opinion and seems to be radicalizing many young citizens. Although Bahrain has a longstanding consensus in favor of moderate reform (e.g., reinstating a constitutional monarchy), in the past week three opposition groups have started to demand outright revolution. Some protesters say they are ready to die, like hundreds did in Egypt and Tunisia, to bring about changes. Meanwhile, there are thousands who benefit from the existing system and support its continuation and many more who fear that change will bring instability. Although there is no simple sectarian divide, Shia Bahrainis have been more likely to support the opposition, while their Sunni counterparts have been more likely to support the government. There is thus a risk of sectarian tensions worsening as time goes on.

The opposition is clearly emboldened by events around the region. But it is unclear whether the ruling family is willing to deliver even the most basic political reforms the protesters demand. So far, the government has taken only modest steps. It has called for dialogue, pulled troops from the streets, and freed approximately 200 prisoners, including prominent opposition activists. The king also carried out a minor cabinet reshuffle, but he only replaced ministers in the public services, rather than those in the interior and defense departments who oversaw this month's violence. It remains to be seen whether the moderate reform project can yet be salvaged or if the window to establish a popularly accepted constitutional monarchy is now closing.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • JANE KINNINMONT is Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, and is the author of a book on Bahrain, to be published later this year by I.B. Tauris.
  • More By Jane Kinninmont