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Bahrain - Politics - Background

Home to one of the oldest cultures in the Middle East, Bahrain is also one of the first to become oil-poor and one of the few to face open, hostile political confrontation with an increasingly radicalized and vociferous opposition. Bahrain's woes are those of the region in microcosm. A small, resource-poor country, Bahrain lives primarily on declining revenues from an oil refinery, Saudi largesse, and service industries.

Its ailing but tolerant ruler, Amir Isa, enjoyed widespread support from the Sunni and Shi'ah communities in the thirty-five years he has ruled. Isa governs in consultation with family members -- particularly his brother, Prime Minister Khalifa, his son and designated successor, Crown Prince Hamad, and a small Cabinet, which had Sunni and Shi'ah representation. Political parties were prohibited under Amir Isa, and Islamic law is a source rather than the source of law. Bahrain permits the consumption of alcohol and a relaxed style of Western dress not tolerated in neighboring Saudi Arabia; it also allows Christian, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, and Bahai communities to practice their religion openly.

Poor by Persian Gulf standards, Bahrain has an economy many countries would envy. Per capita GDP in 1994 was $7,500 a year, GNP was $4.1 billion, and average life expectancy is about seventy years. The official unemployment rate is 15 percent, but the rate probably approaches 30 percent in Shi'ah villages. Bahrain's Shi'ahs generally hold lower-paying jobs and are the last hired, first fired. The annual population growth rate is 2.8 percent, low for the region, but the rate is higher among Shi'ah families than Sunnis, and new job creation cannot keep pace with new job seekers entering the market.

Manama is under increasing pressure from radical Islamists seeking an end to years of economic and political discrimination. The Islamists come mostly from the tiny country's Shi'ah community, nearly 70 percent of the population. Joined by Sunni activists, these Islamists demand jobs, government accountability, and a return to the short-lived national assembly convened in 1973 and closed two years later because of its allegedly disruptive behavior and Saudi pressure. One anti-regime Islamist faction--the Bahrain Freedom Movement--claims loyalty to the Amir but wants reforms and the opportunity to work within the system; another faction--the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain--was responsible for an aborted coup attempt in 1981 and is depicted by observers as more militant and revolutionary; its leaders are in exile in Iran or London.

Troubles began after the end of the Gulf War. In 1992, three hundred prominent Bahrainis, including Sunni and Shi'ah clerics, signed a petition calling for the restoration of the constitution and parliamentary rule. The government responded by creating a new appointive, consultative council of thirty members, half Sunni and half Shi'ah. A second petition two years later called for political reform and the return of political exiles. Since 1994, there has been recurrent unrest, including street demonstrations, bombings of luxury hotels used by foreigners, and arson fires. In January 1996, the government arrested a prominent Shi'ah cleric and several hundred supporters for allegedly plotting to destabilize the regime.

Manama's reaction to its troubles has been to blame Iran and to arrest, deport, and imprison oppositionists; in one case, an opponent was executed for killing a policeman. These activities serve only to arouse more anger and anti-regime demonstrations. Isa's death and Hamad's succession could fuel renewed unrest among Bahrain's activists, for many Shi'ahs view the prince with suspicion, seeing him as anti-reform and anti-Shi'ah.

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