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Map of Bahrain.
Withholding wages and confiscating passports appears to be rampant [in Bahrain], but the authorities do nothing to stop it. There is no system to make sure these vulnerable migrant workers can actually recover both their passports and wages, let alone to punish the abusive employers.
—Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.[1]

The Kingdom of Bahrain is a tiny island nation in the Persian Gulf wedged between the coasts of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Bahrain is a majority-Muslim nation, but the population is divided between the Sunni and Shia sects. While most of Bahrain's population, about 70%, are Shia, the royal family and most elites are Sunni.[2] Wealth disparities between the two groups have driven unrest and protests, but the monarchy has only responded by becoming even more oppressive and autocratic so far.

In ancient times, Bahrain was known for its pearl fisheries. After the rise of Muhammad, Bahrain was one of the world's first regions to convert to Islam. It was, however, an unruly province at first, and it got even more so when the radical Qarmatian sect seized control of it and used it as a base from which to attack and desecrate Mecca. After the Arabs regained control, Bahrain was ruled by the various Arab caliphates until Portugal seized it in 1521. In 1602, though, the Safavid Persian Empire conquered the island and successfully converted much of its population to Shia Islam. From there, successive tribal invasions and revolts made Bahrain effectively independent in 1783 under the Al Khalifa royal family, which has ruled the roost there ever since. Like the other Gulf States, Bahrain became a protectorate of the British Empire until it declared independence again in 1971.

The king rules as an absolute monarch with control over the appointment of the Prime Minister (currently the King's uncle), his ministers, the judiciary, and the armed forces. Although Bahrain has some oil and natural gas reserves, these are minor compared to other countries in the region. Since independence, there has been a focus on turning Bahrain into a regional financial center.

The desire to diversify away from reliance on hydrocarbons has also given rise to a rapidly expanding tourism sector. Bahrain is connected to Saudi Arabia by the 25 km King Fahd Causeway, and visitors from Saudi Arabia constitute a whopping 70% of all foreign arrivals.[3] Why would so many fine upstanding (male) Salafists from the other end of the bridge wish to visit this tiny lump of rock and sand? Sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll, baby! Bahrain has long had relaxed (by regional standards) laws on alcohol consumption, with most 4 and 5-star hotels having fully licensed bars. Despite some recent crackdowns, there is an actual nightlife scene. Hardly surprising then that Thursday evenings are very busy indeed (in one direction) on the causeway. This has given rise to Bahrain being termed the brothel of the Gulf[4] and the 25 km connection to Saudi Arabia being nicknamed the Johnny Walker Bridge.[5]

Bahrain is also known for its high reliance on foreign guest workers, who routinely suffer mistreatment and are considered little more than slaves.

Historical overview[edit]

Ruins of a Dilmun necropolis.

Early history[edit]

Bahraini civilization dates back to about the 3rd millennium BCE. The ancient Sumerians recorded the presence of a mysterious civilization on Bahrain island called "Dilmun", which was apparently a major trade hub between the Sumerians of Mesopotamia and the Indus River Valley Civilizations.[6] Excavations of Dilmun sites are still ongoing, but apart from their location, existence, relative prosperity, and trade importance, not a whole lot is really known about them.[7] However, modern historians know that the Dilmun were later conquered and ruled by the Akkadian Empire and then the Assyrian Empire.[8] The Assyrians also started taking advantage of Bahrain's pearl-bearing mollusk population, and the island quickly became known throughout the ancient world for providing the world's best-quality pearls.[9]

From the 6th to the 3rd century BCE, the Bahrain region fell under Persian rule, first under the Achaemenid dynasty and then under the Parthian Empire.[10] Despite being an occupied province, Bahrain still served as an essential commercial hub due to its geographical location. The Ancient Greeks, for their part, referred to Bahrain as Tylos, and several notable Greek thinkers like Strabo and Herodotus believed that the Phoenicians originated from this place.[11] The Roman Empire also knew about Bahrain. Pliny the Elder wrote in his Historia Naturalis, Book IX, ch. 35, that "the most perfect and exquisite (pearls) of all others... are gotten about Arabia, within the Persian Gulf."[9]

Islamic conquest[edit]

Facsimile of a letter sent by Muhammad to local rulers in Bahrain.

Bahrain was one of the first conquests of Muhammad's expansionist phase; after the prophet came into power in Medina, he ordered a surprise attack on the Banu Saleem tribe, who were supposedly preparing to invade Medina from Bahrain.[12] During this point in time, Bahrain had already been exposed to Christianity. Due to its status as a trade hub, it was fairly cosmopolitan and diverse, with a good mix of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrianism, and Arab pagans.[13][14]

After conquering the island, Muhammad sent his envoy Al-Ala al-Hadhrami to rule it and take responsibility for converting it to Islam.[15] Despite initial success in conversion, Bahrain was one of the regions that revolted against caliphate rule after Muhammad's death.

Qarmatian society[edit]

Gold dinars minted by the Qarmatians.

Bahrain became troublesome again after it got occupied by the world's first real communist party. No, really. The Qarmatians, a radical Shia cult/sect led by Abu Said al-Jannabi, seized control of Bahrain during their initial revolt and tried to establish a utopian society and ensured that all property was communally owned.[16] Sure, they had about 30,000 slaves, but those slaves were owned by the community rather than a landowner. The Qarmatian state also dispensed loans to businesses or impoverished individuals without asking for interest, and grain could be processed in community-owned mills free of charge. This worked quite well as the Qarmatians paid for everything by taxing outside trade, and their economy was strong enough to support a large army which they later put to use.[16]

In terms of religion, however, they were an extremely radical sect. They rejected sharia law and considered the words of prophets like Jesus, Moses, and even Muhammad himself to be invalid.[17] Instead, they believed that the Mahdi, a proposed messianic final prophet, would arrive to reinvent and purify the Islamic religion. That opposition to many traditional tenets of Islam explains their subsequent actions.

Everything went great until Abu Sa'id al-Jannabi died and was succeeded by his son Abu Tahir al-Jannabi in 923 CE. Abu Tahir was an imperialist who started raiding the holdings of the Abbasid Caliphate, rampaging throughout Iraq between 927 and 928.[18] He almost destroyed Baghdad, the Abbasid capital, but couldn't breach the walls.

After that failure, Abu Tahir turned his attention to Arabia. In 930, Qarmati forces attacked the holy city of Mecca itself during Hajj season, massacring or enslaving tens of thousands of people.[16] They dumped dead bodies into the holy water of the Zam Zam Well and then absconded with the Black Stone from the Kaaba. The Qarmatians continued their rampage, so brutal and terrifying that Mecca and the Caliphate canceled the Hajj for about 8 years while the violence continued.[16] The Qarmatians eventually fell apart due to doctrinal differences, and the movement's leaders ransomed the Black Stone back to the Abbasids. The movement met its final defeat in 976.

Portuguese conquest and rule[edit]

The Qal'at al-Bahrain, built by Portuguese colonial forces.

After the fall of the Qarmatians, Bahrain bounced between various inconsequential Arab states. The island eventually came under the rule of Hormuz, a Persian state based out of the island of the same name, which controls the entrance to the Persian Gulf. Around this time, Portuguese trade fleets began making inroads into the centuries-old Middle Eastern and African trade routes. It didn't take long for the Portuguese imperialists to start coveting the wealth of those trade routes, and they decided that the best way to get in on the action was by conquest. Hormuz was one of their prime targets; not only was Hormuz island a strategic chokepoint on the entrance to the Persian Gulf, but they also controlled the vital trade hub of Bahrain.[19] Skirmishes began as early as 1507.

By 1521, the Portuguese had penetrated the Gulf itself, and they turned their attention to conquering Bahrain. Their invasion went well, and they conquered the island and executed its local ruler.[20] Once in charge, the Portuguese built the great Qal'at al-Bahrain, a fort standing on the site of what was once the capital of the Dilmun civilization.[21] Although the fort is the most visible legacy of Portuguese rule, it wasn't the only thing they did. The Portuguese were greedy and oppressive rulers, seizing Bahrain's wealth and trading goods for themselves. In 1602, the Portuguese decided to further strengthen their rule by executing Bahrain's richest merchants.[20]

Safavid rule[edit]

Abbas I, conqueror of Bahrain.

The Portuguese had fucked up with those executions, and the entire population of Bahrain became pissed off about this. During the predictable uprising, Portugal also became embroiled in minor conflicts with other European powers in the region who were circling like vultures in Portugal's moment of weakness. In this atmosphere of conclusion, the Safavid dynasty of the Persian Empire won out. Shah Abbas I swept in like a smooth fucking criminal in late 1602 and landed troops on the island; he was met with open arms by a Bahraini population quite happy to see an end to Portuguese oppression.[20]

Abbas and his successors knew that the Portuguese lost Bahrain by being terrible rulers. Although the Safavids weren't much nicer than the Portuguese, they knew better than to spark another uprising against them. Thus, the Persians ruled Bahrain by pumping in wealth and sponsoring trade. They also sent Shia Islamic priests to slowly win the population over to the Safavid state religion.[22] In time, this proved effective, and much of the Bahraini population now follow Shia Islam.

As a result of these policies, Bahrain enjoyed a period of prosperity and cultural development. However, local elites got more powerful, and Bahraini Shiites became increasingly independent from Safavid state authorities.[20] Persian rule in Bahrain survived invasions from several different parties, including Oman and various Arab tribes. In 1783, however, the Persians were finally ousted by the Bani Utbah, an Arab tribal confederation that established rule over Bahrain and Qatar alongside much of eastern Arabia.[23] From this time forward, the Al Khalifa dynasty became the rulers in Bahrain.[24]

British protectorate[edit]

Bahrain's first oil well, 1931.

While semi-independent under Arab rule, Bahrain suffered repeated invasions from other Arab tribes and by Oman. Once again, however, Bahrain had to deal with European encroachment. This time around, it was the British Empire. The British also wanted to run trade routes through the Persian Gulf, but their efforts were hampered because the Gulf was a hotbed of piracy. In 1820 and again in 1835, the British Empire used gunboat diplomacy to force Bahrain and other Gulf states into signing treaties promising to help the British fight piracy.[25] For a time, the Arab rulers of Bahrain survived as an independent state by bouncing the various local empires off of each other; the Bahraini Arab rulers sought friendship and defense agreements with the British, Persian, and Ottoman Empires.[26]

By 1868, though, Bahrain's internal politics were fractured by dynastic feuding. Sheikh Muhammad overthrew his predecessor and tried to protect his rule by signing an agreement with the British to turn Bahrain into a protectorate, which would obligate the British to protect him.[27] This didn't stop another Muhammad from overthrowing the Sheikh Muhammad, so the British completely lost their patience. They jailed and deported both Muhammads and installed their own puppet ruler to be in charge of Bahrain.[27]

Pearling had become less critical in the modern age, so the British primarily used Bahrain as a port. The Royal Navy eventually decided to base all of their Middle Eastern operations theatre out of Bahrain. However, things started to change in the early 1900s when British mineral explorations turned up the probability that Bahrain was sitting on a bunch of oil. By 1936 Bahrain was exporting oil, becoming an important strategic consideration for the British Empire's resource-gaining during World War II. Indeed, Fascist Italy tried unsuccessfully to bomb Bahrain in 1940.[27][28]

After the war, anti-British sentiment began rising in Bahrain due to several causes:

  1. The UK's protection of Jews from anti-Jewish riots began across the Middle East due to the independence of Israel and its subsequent defeat of a coalition of Arab states.[29]
  2. The Suez debacle, in which the British government cooperated with Israel to attack free Egypt over the Suez Canal.[27]
  3. Pan-Arab nationalism made the British Empire's Arab subjects increasingly discontent at the idea of not being ruled by Arabs.

All of this culminated with the March Intifada in 1965. After the British authorities laid off many Bahraini oil workers, a weird alliance of leftists and nationalists began weeks of rioting.[30] This event finally convinced the British that Bahrain was more trouble than it was worth.

Independence and the modern era[edit]

Manama Souk in 1991.

Bahrain became independent in 1971 after a referendum and the British withdrawal. Despite the anti-British sentiment, the breakup was fairly amicable, and Bahrain signed a treaty of friendship with its former colonizer.[31] There definitely were a few problems, however. Since 1783, Bahrain had been ruled by the Al Khalifa dynasty, who were and are Sunni Muslims who don't get along well with Bahrain's Shia Muslim majority. That wasn't the end of Bahrain's Shia problems since the Shah of Iran officially claimed sovereignty over Bahrain and wouldn't rule out a violent solution.[31] However, that problem changed after the Shah met his downfall during the Iranian Revolution. Specifically, the problem became much worse since Iran's government became radically Shia. In 1981, the Iranian-sponsored Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain tried unsuccessfully to launch a coup against the royal family and bomb its local US military bases.[32] That didn't pan out for them.

More unrest set in during the 1990s, as a strange alliance of hardcore Shia Islamists and secular leftists and liberals joined forces to protest the oppressiveness of the royal family.[33] After 40 deaths during the rioting, stoning, and government crackdowns, the royal family finally caved and offered concessions, including releasing political prisoners and giving women the right to vote in parliamentary elections.[31]

Bahraini uprising of 2011[edit]

Bahraini protesters shot by security forces, February 2011

As part of the wave of civil disobedience in the wake of the Arab Spring, Bahrain saw serious protests, the remnants of which continue until this day. Citizens demonstrated (most of whom were of the Shi'a Muslim majority) to achieve greater political freedom and equality (there is almost none), constitutional changes, and the release of arrested Shi'a men and boys. Finally, they called for an end to the monarchy of Sunni Muslim King Hamad bin Isa Al KhalifaWikipedia[34] (perhaps here they were overreaching just a bit). Protesters in the capital camped for days at the iconic Pearl Roundabout until the dictatorship sent for help from the Gulf Cooperation CouncilWikipedia. On 14 March 2011, 1,500 troops from Saudi Arabia and the UAE arrived and, together with local forces, brutally crushed the uprising.[35] Dear old King Hamad declared martial law and a 3-month state of emergency. The police carried out night raids in Shi'a neighborhoods and beatings at random checkpoints. There was a widespread organized denial of medical care for the injured.[36]

Since then, demonstrations have continued, with some drawing as many as 100,000 participants (some 15% of the native population). More than 80 citizens have been killed, five of them due to torture in police custody, and nearly 3,000 have been officially arrested.[37] The UN-supported Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, commissioned by the King, confirmed the dictatorship's use of systematic torture and a whole slew of other human rights violations. The commission also rejected the Bahraini government's claims that the protests were instigated and funded by Shi'a majority Iran.[38] Although the commission report was lauded by some for its independence, there was also significant criticism of it for going easy on members of the Royal Family and not specifically naming officials responsible for the documented abuses.[39] The Bahraini government gave itself a target of implementing these recommendations by the end of February 2012.[40]

In 2015 Amnesty International issued a major report which was very critical of the government, stating that torture, detentions, and excessive use of force against peaceful activists remained widespread in Bahrain. Despite the government insisting they had exceeded the provisions set out in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry.[41]

Human rights[edit]

King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa with US President Donald Trump.

Freedom of Expression, Association, and Peaceful Assembly[edit]

Nabeel Rajab’s conviction for his refusal to stay silent on the government’s rights abuses is further proof of the Bahrain authorities’ flagrant disregard for human rights.
—Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.[42]

Bahrain repeatedly jails people for extended periods for speaking out against the government. Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, is serving a five-year sentence upheld by Bahrain's highest court of appeals.[42] Why is he in jail? Because he tweeted about the use of torture in Bahraini prisons and then criticized Bahraini authorities' refusal to allow journalists and rights groups into the country.[42] Courts charged him with "insulting a statutory body", a crime in Bahrain.

Shaikh Ali Salman, formerly the leader of Bahrain's only opposition political party, is now serving a life sentence after being falsely convicted of espionage.[43] They are just two of dozens of human rights advocates in prison for speaking out against the government. In May 2019, the Bahraini Interior Ministry declared that it would prosecute people who follow "inciting accounts" on Twitter or share their posts.[43]

As of 2017, Bahrain no longer has any independent media sources because they shut down Al Wasat, the country's last remaining independent news outlet.[43] Foreign journalists are repeatedly denied access to Bahrain.

Torture, violence, and mistreatment[edit]

Sit-in to express solidarity with Nabeel Rajab, 2012.

Police and prison officers routinely beat and mistreat people, and the Bahraini government refuses to prosecute them for offenses. Shia Muslims are abused by prison guards, inmates are deliberately placed in cells with people who don't speak their language, and women are subjected to rape and sexual assault.[43] Torture is also omnipresent in Bahraini prisons; it is often used to secure confessions.[44] Former detainees allege that torture methods include stress positions, beatings, and electric shocks.[44] Despite promising to investigate, Bahrain's Ministry of Justice has taken no action and still just blankly denies any wrongdoing by its officials.

Bahrain's prisons are all rife with mistreatment and poor conditions. Prisons suffer from overcrowding, inadequate supply of beds and hygienic items, punitive use of solitary confinement, poor sanitation, cases of food poisoning, skin infections, and medical neglect.[45]

Religious freedom[edit]

Sectarianism is strictly enforced in Bahrain, to the point where the Christian Science Monitor has described it as "a form of sectarian apartheid".[46] Shiites cannot hold high-level government posts nor serve in the police or military; instead, Bahrain fast-tracks Sunnis from other Arab countries into citizenship to serve in these positions.

Bahrain also routinely arrests Shia clerics, bulldoze Shia mosques, and destroys Shia graveyards.[47]

Women's rights[edit]

Although gaining the right to vote, women still don't have full legal equality. Women first voted in the 2002 election, but no women candidates won, and 60% of women voters said they opposed the idea of women serving in parliament.[48]

Bahraini family laws are weighted against women in divorce cases, inheritance, and cases of their children's nationality.[43] Article 353 of Bahrain's penal code exempts perpetrators of rape from prosecution and punishment if they marry their victims, and Article 334 ensures that perpetrators of "honor crimes" receive reduced sentences.[43]

Foreign relations[edit]

Relations with the West[edit]

Despite its brutal dictatorship, the state of Bahrain enjoys close relations with its former colonial ruler, the United Kingdom. It is the site of a British military base at Mina Salman, which opened in 2018 after a 2014 agreement.[49] Queen Elizabeth II is good friends with King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa: he regularly visits the UK for equestrian events, and he and the Queen have exchanged gifts of horses.[50] He also buys lots of British weapons, which is nice.[50] Shame about the human rights abuses, but at least he likes animals.


See also[edit]


  1. Bahrain: Migrant Workers Denied Pay, Right to Travel. Human Rights Watch.
  2. The real story of Bahrain's divided society. The Guardian.
  3. Saudi visitors main contributors to Bahrain’s tourism sector.
  4. Bahrain: Kingdom of the Gulf, Navy Sailors, and Drunk Saudis.
  5. Bahrain parliament moves to ban alcohol. Al Jazeera.
  6. Bahrain digs unveil one of oldest civilisations. BBC News.
  7. See the Wikipedia article on Dilmun.
  8. Larsen, Curtis E. (1984). Life and Land Use on the Bahrain Islands: The Geoarchaeology of an Ancient Society. University of Chicago Press. pp. 52–55. ISBN 978-0-226-46906-5.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Bahrain Pearling in Historic Times. Kari Pearls.
  10. Mouthed-Zadeh, Pirouz (5 November 2013). Security and Territoriality in the Persian Gulf: A Maritime Political Geography. Taylor & Francis. pp. 119 and others. ISBN 978-1-136-81724-3.
  11. R. A. Donkin (1998). Beyond Price: Pearls and Pearl-fishing: Origins to the Age of Discoveries, Volume 224. p. 48. ISBN 9780871692245.
  12. See the Wikipedia article on Al Kudr Invasion.
  13. Houtsma, M. Th (1993). E.J. Brill's First Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913–1936, Volume 5. M. Th. Houtsma. p. 98. ISBN 9004097910.
  14. Usmani, editor, Muzaffar Husain Syed ; co-editors, Syed Saud Akhtar, Babuddin (2011). A concise history of Islam (unabridged ed.). Vij Books India Pvt Ltd. pp. 421–3. ISBN 9789382573470.
  15. See the Wikipedia article on Al-Ala al-Hadhrami.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 The Qarmatians: The world's first enduring communistic society. World Bulletin.
  17. Qarmatiyyah. Archived.
  18. Halm, Heinz (1996). The Empire of the Mahdi: The Rise of the Fatimids. Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-10056-5. p. 255.
  19. Portuguese on the Persian Gulf and Arabin Peninsula. Colonial Voyage.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 History of Bahrain: Arabs, Portuguese and Persians - Colonialism in Bahrain. International History Blog.
  21. See the Wikipedia article on Qal'at al-Bahrain.
  22. Cole, Juan R. I. (1987). "Rival Empires of Trade and Imami Shiism in Eastern Arabia, 1300–1800". International Journal of Middle East Studies. 19 (2): 177–203. doi:10.1017/s0020743800031834. JSTOR 163353.
  23. See the Wikipedia article on Bani Utbah.
  24. See the Wikipedia article on House of Khalifa.
  25. Al-Baharna, Husain (1968). Legal Status of the Arabian Gulf States: A Study of Their Treaty Relations and Their International Problems. Manchester University Press. p. 31. ISBN 0-7190-0332-6.
  26. Smart, J. R.; Smith, G. Rex; Pridham, B. R. (2004). New Arabian Studies. University of Exeter Press. pp. 51, 52, 53, 67, 68. ISBN 978-0-85989-706-8.
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 27.3 Bahrain. British Empire.
  28. Hamza, Abdul Aziz (2009). Tears on an Island: A History of Disasters in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Al Waad. p. 165. ISBN 978-99901-92-22-3.
  29. See the Wikipedia article on 1947 Manama riots.
  30. See the Wikipedia article on March Intifada.
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 A Short History of Bahrain. Study Country.
  32. Bahrain Plot Tied to Iran. Chicago Tribune.
  33. See the Wikipedia article on 1990s uprising in Bahrain.
  34. Bahrain protests prompt global concerns
  35. Saudi Troops Enter Bahrain to Help Put Down Unrest
  36. Bahrain rulers unleash 'campaign of intimidation'
  37. Bahrain inquiry confirms rights abuses
  39. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry: Is the Glass Half-Full or Half-Empty?
  40. Implementing the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry
  41. Amnesty warns human rights abuses ‘unabated’ before Bahrain Grand Prix
  42. 42.0 42.1 42.2 Bahrain: Rights Defender’s Conviction Upheld. Human Rights Watch.
  43. 43.0 43.1 43.2 43.3 43.4 43.5 Bahrain World Report 2020. Human Rights Watch.
  44. 44.0 44.1 Bahrain's torture problem. Human Rights Watch.
  45. 2019 Report. Amnesty International.
  46. Bahrain emerging as flashpoint in Middle East unrest. Christian Science Monitor.
  47. Bahrain's Sunni rulers target Shiite mosques. Christian Science Monitor.
  48. In the Gulf, Women Are Not Women’s Best Friends. Yale Global. Archived.
  49. UK opens permanent military base in Bahrain to strengthen Middle East presence, The Independent, 6 April 2018
  50. 50.0 50.1 Queen's meeting with king of Bahrain prompts protests, The Guardian, 10 May 2019