Bahrain: Background, History and Conflict Development
The royal Al Khalifa family has ruled the small island of Bahrain since the late 18th Century. Roughly thirty years after the Al Khalifa family came to power, Bahrain declared its allegiance to Iran to avoid an impending Egyptian takeover that had swept over the Arab Peninsula. An alliance between many Bahraini citizens and Iran remains palpable largely due to the sizeable Shia population, despite the end to Iranian sovereignty over the island nation in 1970. In the 1830s, the Al Khalifa family signed a treaty that held them as a British Protectorate, which granted them military protection under the condition that the nation would not engage in foreign relations without British approval. This treaty ended in 1971 when Bahrain declared its independence with the UN supporting its quest for freedom.
By the mid-19th century Bahrain became the trading center of the Persian Gulf. During this time Bahrain experienced rapid growth. Many Persian, Huwala, and Indian merchant families set up businesses in the region that triggered an economic boom. In 1931, oil was discovered in Bahrain and thousands of workers came to operate this new business, created a large influx of immigrants.
Although Bahrain maintained a reputation as a more liberal of the Islamic countries, this shifted with the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Influenced by the conservative trend of political Shia Islam and Islamic figures successful seizure of power in Iran, some members of Bahrain society began to oppose the monarchy in favor of an Islamic government. In 1981 the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Iran attempted a coup d'etat of the monarchy in order to propel an Islamic uprising. However, in the end, the coup failed and the Khalifa’s remained in power.
In 1994, protests formed in response to political stagnation and the collapse of oil prices. However, the uprisings failed to shake the regime, and Shaikh Isa bin Hamad Al Khalifa passed the crown to his son, Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, in 1999.
On February 14, 2002, Shaikh Hamad pronounced Bahrain a constitutional monarchy and changed his title from Amir to King, wanting to separate himself from his father’s reign. He also announced that the first municipal elections since 1957 would be held in May 2002.1
Inspired by the successful political uprisings of Egypt and Tunisia, Bahraini citizens began to speak out against the long-ruling Sunni minority, expressing a desire to have a greater voice in the government. On February 17, unsatisfied Bahrainis held peaceful demonstrations in Pearl Square in Manama, which were violently broken up by security forces, resulting in four deaths and many injuries. Over the next few weeks, a total of twenty-six people were killed by security forces and more than 300 people were detained. As protests continued to grow across the country, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa allowed Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to send troops to Bahrain to suppress the protests. King al-Khalifa declared a state of martial law that began on March 15, and troops were given orders to forcefully put down all protests.
On May 1, King al-Khalifa called for an open dialogue with the opposition. However, he never followed through on his public statements, and the country remained tense. In June 1, the regime proclaimed an end to martial law; however troops continued to act aggressively, moving through towns and targeting peaceful protesters. 2
The monarchy has continued to arrest dissenters, and has been prosecuting medical personnel and protestors accused of inciting anti-government acts. Some of the harsh sentencing ranging from 15 years to life in prison has garnered the attention of Western media. The military courts handing down the punishments have even overturned some of the decisions.