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Politics of Bahrain

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Politics of Bahrain

This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of

Politics of Bahrain takes place since 2002[1] in a framework of a constitutional monarchy where the government is appointed by the King of Bahrain, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. The head of the government since 1971 is Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa and the Crown Prince is Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who serves as Commander of the Bahrain Defence Force. The parliament is a bi-cameral legislature, with the Chamber of Deputies elected by universal suffrage, and the Shura Council appointed directly by the king. MP Khalifa Al Dhahrani is the Speaker of Parliament.


  • Political background 1
  • Executive branch 2
  • Legislative branch 3
    • Political societies and elections 3.1
  • Judicial branch 4
  • Administrative divisions 5
  • National security 6
    • External threats 6.1
    • Insurgencies 6.2
    • Terrorism 6.3
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Political background

In 1973, the ruler, Sheikh Isa ibn Salman Al Khalifa, instituted reforms based on a constitution. The constitution enshrined the hereditary leadership on the al-Khalifa family and called for the establishment of a 44‑member National Assembly. Thirty members were elected by eligible voters and 14 were appointed by the ruler. The National Assembly was not empowered with legislative powers, rather it was closer to a public forum where petitions were heard and government legislation and policies were presented, debated and criticized, though elected members of the assembly sought to gain legislative powers. The government did not acquiesce and the ruler continued to issue laws by decree and in 1974 the issuance of the security law sparked a political crisis between certain members of the assembly and the government. The security laws granted state authorities extraordinary powers to arrest and detain suspects deemed to threaten national security. A bloc formed within the National Assembly which was opposed to the security laws and the manner in which the government imposed the law. The crisis came to a head in August 1975 when Sheikh Isa dissolved the National Assembly. An elected representative body was not reintroduced until the rule of Sheikh Isa’s son, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

Since he succeeded as head of state in 1999, Sheikh Hamad has initiated wide ranging political reforms scrapping the restrictive state security laws, giving women the right to vote, freeing all political prisoners and holding parliamentary elections. The first poll was held in 2002, with MPs serving four‑year terms; the second parliamentary election took place on 25 November 2006.

The reforms are based on the National Action Charter, a package of political changes that was endorsed by the people of Bahrain on February 14, 2001, in a popular referendum that saw a 98.4% vote in favour. Among other issues, the referendum paved the way for national elections and for the country to become a constitutional monarchy, changing the country's official name from the State of Bahrain to the Kingdom of Bahrain (a change which took effect in February 2002). Parliamentary elections took place on 26 October 2002 with the new legislature, the National Assembly, beginning work the following month.

The opposition led by Islamic parties boycotted the 2002 election in protest at the bicameral nature of the parliament, because the appointed upper chamber, the Shura Council, has the power to veto legislation. Shura members have responded by pointing out that an appointed upper chamber is a feature of long established democracies such as the United Kingdom and Canada.

However, the principle behind the Al Wefaq's boycott, that only elected MPs should have the right to legislate, was undermined when, in response to proposed changes to the family law to give women more rights, Al Wefaq stated that no one except religious leaders had the authority to amend the law because MPs could 'misinterpret the word of God.'

Democratisation has greatly enhanced clerical influence, through the ability of religious leaders to deliver the votes of their congregations to candidates. Sheikh Abdullah Al Ghraifi, the deputy head of the Islamic Scholars Council, gave a clear warning of the clerics' intent: "We have at our disposition 150,000 votes that we will forward to the MPs, and I hope that they understand this message clearly."[2] Over the showdown with the government and women's rights activists on the introduction of stronger legal rights for women, clerics have taken a lead in mobilising the opposition, and threatened to instruct their supporters to vote against MPs that support women's rights.

The opening up of politics has seen big gains for both Shī´a and Sunnī Islamic parties in elections, which has given them a parliamentary platform to pursue their policies. This has meant that what are termed "morality issues" have moved further up the political agenda with parties launching campaigns to impose bans on female mannequins displaying lingerie in shop windows, sorcery and the hanging of underwear on washing lines. Analysts of democratisation in the Middle East cite the Islamic parties' references to respect for human rights in their justification for these programmes as evidence that these groups can serve as a progressive force in the region.

The near total dominance of religious parties in elections has given a new prominence to clerics within the political system, with the most senior Shia religious leader, Sheikh Isa Qassim, playing an extremely important role. According to one academic paper, "In fact, it seems that few decisions can be arrived at in Al Wefaq – and in the whole country, for that matter – without prior consultation with Isa Qassim, ranging from questions with regard to the planned codification of the personal status law to participation in elections".[3] In 2007, Al Wefaq-backed parliamentary investigations were credited with forcing the government to remove ministers who had frequently clashed with MPs: the Minister of Health, Dr. Nada Haffadh and the Minister of Information, Dr Mohammed Abdul Gaffar.[4]

Bahraini liberals have responded to the growing power of al Muntada, a grouping of liberal academics, launched "We Have A Right", a campaign to explain to the public why personal freedoms matter and why they need to be defended.

Both Sunnī and Shī´a Islamic parties suffered a setback in March 2006 when twenty municipal councillors, most of whom represented religious parties, went missing in Bangkok on an unscheduled stop over when returning from a conference in Malaysia [3]. After the missing councillors eventually arrived in Bahrain they defended their Bangkok stay, telling journalists it was a "fact-finding mission", explaining: "We benefited a lot from the trip to Thailand because we saw how they managed their transport, landscaping and roads."

Women's political rights in Bahrain saw an important step forward when women were granted the right to vote and stand in national elections for the first time in the 2002 election. However, no women were elected to office in that year’s polls and instead Shī´a and Sunnī Islamic parties dominated the election, collectively winning a majority of seats. In response to the failure of women candidates, six were appointed to the Shura Council, which also includes representatives of the Kingdom’s indigenous Jewish and Christian communities. The country's first female cabinet minister was appointed in 2004 when Dr. Nada Haffadh became Minister of Health, while the quasi-governmental women's group, the Supreme Council for Women, trained female candidates to take part in the 2006 general election.

The King created the Supreme Judicial Council in 2000 to regulate the country's courts and institutionalize the separation of the administrative and judicial branches of government. The King is the head of the council.

On 11–12 November 2005, Bahrain hosted the Forum for the Future bringing together leaders from the Middle East and G8 countries to discuss political and economic reform in the region.

Shia and Sunni Islamic parties have both criticised the government over the composition of the appointed Shura Council, after it was given a strongly liberal majority, with Al Meethaq being the biggest group in the chamber. Critics allege that the government is seeking to use the Shura Council as a liberal bulwark to prevent clerical domination of politics.

Dominated by Islamic and tribal MPs, liberals have criticised the lower house for trying to impose a restrictive social agenda and curtailing freedoms. Those MPs who do not have an Islamic ideological agenda have been criticised for tending to approach politics not as a way of promoting principles, but as a means of securing government jobs and investment in their constituencies. The only voices that regularly speak in favour of human rights and democratic values in the lower house are the former communists of the Democratic Bloc and the secular Economists Bloc.

Antigovernment factions state that the five municipal councils elected in 2002 do not have enough powers. Councillors of Islamic parties have repeatedly complained that their policies are being frustrated by lack of cooperation from central government. This has encouraged councillors to use at times innovative methods to push forward their policies. In January 2006, Dr Salah Al Jowder, an Asalah councillor in Muharraq discussed how the municipality would enforce a decree that would stipulate that all new buildings be fitted with one-way windows so that passersby would be unable to see residents within their homes (after concerns were raised about peeping toms). Dr Al Jowder explained that the municipalities would enforce the measure by using their control over the electricity supply: "We can't stop someone from building if they do not promise to install one-way windows. But we can make them put in one-way windows if they want permission to install electricity." [4]

In October 2005, Al Wefaq and the former Maoist National Democratic Action agreed to register under the new Political Societies Law, but continue to object to it because it prevented parties from receiving foreign funding. The move has been widely seen as indicating that the two parties will take part in the 2006 general election, particularly as they have faced considerable pressure from party members to participate. Once the law took effect, Al Wefaq reversed its previous opposition and described it as a 'big milestone for Bahrain'.

To revitalise the Left before the September 2006 general election, leading lawyer, Abdullah Hashem launched the National Justice Movement in March 2006. While Bahrain's liberals have sought to use the opening of civil society to campaign against the domination of Islamic parties in politics, with a campaign to protect personal freedoms, We Have A Right, led by the civic group, Al Muntada.

Bahrain's five governorates are administered by the Minister of State for Municipalities and the Environment in conjunction with each Governorate's Governor. A complex system of courts, based on diverse legal sources, including Sunni and Shi'a Sharia (religious law), tribal law, and other civil codes and regulation, was created with the help of British advisers in the early twentieth century. This judiciary administers the legal code and reviews laws to ensure their constitutionality.

Major protests occurred in 2011, coincident with protests in many other countries in the Arab world. The protesters selected 14 February as a day of protest to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the National Action Charter.[5]

Executive branch

According to Article 32 (b) of the 2002 Constitution, "executive authority is vested in the King together with the Council of Ministers and Ministers". The Council of Ministers (Cabinet) is appointed directly by the King (Article 33d).

Bahrain has had only one Prime Minister since the country's independence in 1971, Khalifah ibn Sulman al-Khalifah, the uncle of the reigning King Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifah. As of 2010, roughly half of the cabinet ministers have been selected from the Al Khalifa royal family,[6] including the Minister of Defence, Minister of Interior, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Finance, and Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs.

Main office holders
Office Name Party Since
King Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifah March 6, 1999
Prime Minister Khalifah ibn Sulman al-Khalifah 1971

Legislative branch

According to Article 32 (b) of the 2002 Constitution, "legislative authority is vested in the King and the National Assembly.

The National Assembly is bicameral with the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, having 40 members elected in single-seat constituencies by universal suffrage for a four-year term. The upper house, the Shura Council, has 40 members appointed by the King of Bahrain. Among the members of the current Shura Council are representatives of Bahrain's Jewish and Christian communities as well several women legislators.

The speaker of the National Assembly is from the appointed Shura Council.

All legislation must be passed by a majority in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Shura Council, and must be ratified by the King.

Political societies and elections

Political parties are illegal in Bahrain, de facto political parties operate and are known as 'political societies'

 Summary of the 25 November and 2 December 2006 Bahraini parliamentary election results
Candidates/Parties Votes % Seats Change
Al-Wefaq National Islamic Society (Jam'iyyat al-Wifaq al-watani al-islamiyya)) 17 17
Al Asalah 8
Al-Menbar Islamic Society 7
Future Bloc 4
Independents 4
National Democratic Action 0
National Unity Bloc 0
Nationalist Democratic Assembly 0
Total 40

Judicial branch

The Judiciary of Bahrain is divided into two branches: the Civil Law Courts and the Shari'a Law Courts. The Civil Law Courts deal with all commercial, civil, and criminal cases, as well disputes related to the personal status of non-Muslims. The Shari’a Law Courts have jurisdiction over all issues related to the personal status of Muslims.[7]

Judges of the middle and lower courts are nominated by the Ministry of Justice and appointed by decree by the prime minister. The Supreme Judicial Council, chaired by the King, appoints the members of the Constitutional Court.[7]

Many of the high-ranking judges in Bahrain are either members of the ruling family or non-Bahrainis (mainly Egyptians) with 2-year renewable contracts. To secure renewal of these contracts, judges may be prone to consider it necessary to take decisions not unfavourable to the wishes or interests of the Government.[8]

Administrative divisions

Bahrain is divided into five governorates for administrative purposes:

Each governorate has an appointed governor and an elected municipal council.

National security

External threats

Though juxtaposed between much larger neighbors, the tiny island Kingdom of Bahrain does not face any immediate threats from foreign nations. Likewise, it is not currently involved in any international disputes. In the recent past, however, relations between Bahrain and two other Persian Gulf states – Iran and Qatar – were less than amicable. The government of Bahrain has made a concerted effort to improve relations with both. Relations with Iran were initially strained over Bahrain’s 1981 discovery of an Iranian-sponsored plot to stage a coup. Bahrain’s suspicion that Iran had also instigated domestic political unrest in the 1990s fueled the tension. Bahrain’s recent efforts to improve relations with Iran include encouraging trade between the respective nations, as well as promoting maritime security cooperation. Hostile relations between Bahrain and Qatar stemmed from a longstanding territorial dispute. On March 16, 2001, an International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling facilitated a peaceful settlement of the matter. The ICJ granted sovereignty over the Hawar Islands and Qit’at Jaradah to Bahrain and sovereignty over Zubarah (part of the Qatar Peninsula), Janan Island and Fasht ad Dibal to Qatar.


The government of Bahrain does not face any immediate threats from individuals or organizations that seek to undermine its sovereignty. In the past, however, it has been forced to contend with political uprisings. The government foiled an attempted coup in 1981. The disaffection of Bahrain’s Shi’a majority precipitated a series of violent incidents in the 1990s. Legislative reforms aimed at addressing the estranged population’s underlying grievances initially held the violence in check. In 1996 tensions resurfaced, however, and a number of hotel and restaurant bombings resulted in numerous casualties. The government subsequently arrested over 1,000 individuals for their alleged participation in the incidents and proceeded to hold them without trial.

Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa assumed the throne in March 1999 upon the death of his father, Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain since 1961. He continued to implement democratic reforms, including the transformation of Bahrain from a hereditary emirate to a constitutional monarchy, and in so doing changed his status from emir to king. He also pardoned all political prisoners and detainees, including those who had been arrested for their unsubstantiated participation in the 1996 bombings as well as abolishing the State Security Law and the State Security Court, which had permitted the government to detain individuals without trial for up to 3 years.

In February 2011 a series of protests by the Shia majority began which became the Bahraini uprising.


The government of Bahrain has actively cooperated with the international community in general and the Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

In 2005, Bahrain, as one of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), agreed to intensify coordination in the fight against terrorism in response to instability in the region. They called for a clear definition of terrorism so that it could be differentiated from other criminal activities or activities such as rightful struggles against foreign occupation for example.

See also


  1. ^ "Bahrain Tourist Information - Manama Guide". Retrieved 10 March 2012. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ Voices in Parliament, Debates in Majalis, Banners on the Street: Avenues of Political Participation in Bahrain, Katja Niethammar, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, 2006
  4. ^ Bahrain ministries' probe to continue Gulf News, 25 September 2007
  5. ^ "In Fear of Transmitting the Tunisian and Egyptian Demonstrations to Bahrain: Blocking a Facebook Group that Calls People to go Down the Streets and Demonstrate against the Authority's Policy".  
  6. ^ Bahrain Shia demand cabinet change,, 5 March 2010
  7. ^ a b "Country Theme: Judiciary: Bahrain".  
  8. ^ "Attacks on Justice 2002 - Bahrain" (PDF).  

External links

  • Kingdom of Bahrain eGovernment Portal
  • Chamber of Deputies (Lower house of parliament)
  • Shura Council (Upper house of parliament)
  • Bahrain Government at DMOZ
  • Bahrain's private sector opens the door to political participation, Daily Star (Beirut), 22 February 2006
  • Generational change and elite-driven reforms in the Kingdom of Bahrain. (Sir William Luce Fellowship Paper No. 7) Dr. Steven Wright (2006) Middle East and Islamic Studies, University of Durham, (PDF Format)
  • Why neither of Bahrain’s political groups is favourable?
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