Bahrain – which name means “two seas” – was one of the first states in the Gulf to discover oil and to build a refinery. It never reached the levels of production enjoyed by Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, however, and has been forced to diversify its economy.
The Muslim country is ruled by a Sunni king, whose family holds the main political and military posts. The divide between the Shia majority and the Sunni population has led to long-running tension in the kingdom, which has sporadically boiled over into civil disobedience.
The government called in the Saudi military to crush protests by demonstrators demanding a greater say in government in early 2011. The Shias claim there is systematic discrimination against them in jobs and services.
Over the years, however, the country enjoyed increasing freedom of expression, and monitors said the human rights situation had improved.
King: Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah
Sheikh Hamad, who has led the country since 1999, transitioned from emir to king when Bahrain became a kingdom in February 2002.
Born in 1950, he was educated at a public school in Cambridge, England, and went on to study at Mons Officer Cadet School in Aldershot, England, and at the US Army Command and Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Under his leadership, the country has faced protests and civil unrest from the Shia majority, with demonstrators saying the ruling Sunni minority shuts them out of housing, healthcare and government jobs.
The Khalifa family has ruled since 1783. Bahrain is now a constitutional monarchy with an elected legislative assembly.
Bahraini journalists risk five-year prison terms for offences which include “undermining” the government and religion. Self-censorship is widespread; and some well-known journalists and bloggers have been put behind bars.
Journalists were also targeted by officials during anti-government protests in 2011. In 2014, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) described Bahrain as the “kingdom of disinformation”.
RSF also added Bahrain to its list of “Enemies of the Internet”.
Freedom House reports “surveillance of online activity and phone calls is widely practised, and officers at security checkpoints actively search mobile phones for suspicious content”.
Some key dates in Bahrain’s history:
1913 – Britain and the Ottoman government sign a treaty recognising the independence of Bahrain but the country remains under British administration.
1931 – The Bahrain Petroleum Company (Bapco), a subsidiary of the Standard Oil Company of California (Socal), discovers oil at Jabal al-Dukhan and production begins the following year.
1971 – Bahrain declares independence and signs a new treaty of friendship with Britain. Sheikh Isa becomes the first Emir and the Council of State becomes a cabinet.
2001 – February – Referendum on political reform; Bahrainis overwhelmingly back proposals under which Bahrain would become constitutional monarchy with elected lower chamber of parliament and independent judiciary.
2011 – Protesters gather in Manama, inspired by popular revolts that toppled rulers in Tunisia and Egypt. Saudi troops take part in a crackdown.
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