Bahrain - History & Background
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HISTORY & BACKGROUND
The State of Bahrain is an archipelago consisting of 1 large island and about 35 smaller islands located in the shallow waters of the Arabian-Persian Gulf. Only four of these islands are actually inhabited. In Arabic "Bahrain" means "two seas." Ancient legends associate Bahrain with the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life, and the name "The Pearl of the Gulf," gives an indication of the beauty found on this island-oasis amid generally barren desert. It has been listed as the second most attractive tourist location in the Middle East. Although located in a desert region, the country benefits from underground aquifers that provide life-sustaining water. The total land area of Bahrain is 706,550 square kilometers, and the main island, Bahrain Island, comprises 85 percent of the country's total land area. The capital city of Manama is situated on Bahrain Island, which is linked to the Saudi Arabian mainland by the King Fahd Causeway. Two of the smaller islands, Al Muharraq and Sitrah, are linked to Bahrain Island by causeways.
Most of the population of Bahrain lives in the northern part of Bahrain Island. The population in 1994 was an estimated 568,000, reaching 600,000 people in 1997, demonstrating a growth rate of 2.6 percent. Of these figures, approximately one-third of the population consisted of expatriate workers from Iran, Yemen, Oman, Pakistan, and India, as well as from other Asian countries and Europe. Shiite Muslims constitute the majority (about 60 percent), but the ruling Al Khalifa family is of the Sunni Islamic sect. Islam is the state religion, and Arabic is the official language, although English and Farsi are widely spoken. People descended from the original island inhabitants are known as the Baharna, those with origins in Saudi Arabia trace their ancestry to the Hassawis, and others, known as the Ajami, are descended from earlier migrants from Iran.
In ancient times Bahrain was known to the Sumerians as Dilmun, and as the Land of Eternal, mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh as a land abundantly supplied with the essentials of life: water and food. Thus, from earliest recorded history the island has been known as a trading center, famous for its pearls, agricultural produce, and fishermen. The Greeks referred to the island of Bahrain as Tylos, as depicted on the 200 A.D. map of Ptolemy.
Arab settlements on the island began around 300 B.C., and control was maintained by the Rabyah tribe, who converted to Islam in 630 A.D.. The island's strategic importance led to various occupations amid jostlings for power in the Gulf by the Portuguese and the Persians, while Britain later controlled the island well into the twentieth century. The Portuguese established their presence from 1521 onwards, until they were evicted in 1602 by a combined Bahraini-Persian force supported by Shah Abbas the Great. A Persian influence followed the eviction of the Portuguese until 1718, when Oman temporarily annexed Bahrain. But the Persians returned and renegotiated their control in 1719, effected through a local puppet ruler. In 1783 the Persians invaded the island of Zubara, the home of the Al Khalifa tribe, who with the help of the Al Sabah tribe of Kuwait repelled the Persian attack on Zubara, then defeated the occupying Persians on Bahrain Island. The ruler of the Al Khalifa, Sheikh Ahmed bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, became known through this conquest as Ahmed Al Fatih, or Ahmed the Conqueror. In 1861, Britain took over Bahrain as a protectorate to prevent further foreign encroachment. The Al Khalifa dynasty still controls the monarchial rule of the modern state of Bahrain, maintaining its rule for more than 200 years.
Bahrain was the first Arab Gulf state to discover oil, with the first oil well commencing production in 1932. As such, Bahrain's development began much earlier than the other Arab Gulf states, giving Bahrain the advantage of being the most socially advanced and developed of the Arab Gulf countries. But in comparison to the richer petroleum-exporting states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, the Bahraini oil reserves are insignificant, currently meeting little more than domestic consumption requirements. Significant gas reserves, however, and Bahrain's petroleum refining industry, which processes Saudi crude petroleum, are likely to maintain a comfortable standard of living for Bahrainis well into the twenty-first century. As of 1996, oil and gas reserves totaled an estimated 65 percent of national revenues (Sick 1997) for Bahrain, the lowest percentage of all the Arab Gulf states, and an indicator of Bahrain's economic diversification. The early realization that Bahrain's oil reserves were relatively insignificant drove Bahrainis to embrace the diversification of their economy and to prepare for the time of oil-reserve depletion. As a result, the country has made a great investment in human resources development, including the development of educational and training programs.
This emphasis on human development in the 1990s was quite successful: Bahrainis are more involved than ever in the education sector as well as other sectors of the economy. Women have benefited greatly from the human resources development drive. Female employees work in one of the best labor environments in the world, where liberal maternity leave is strictly enforced. Women in Bahrain have moved beyond the traditionally acceptable role of teacher into such areas as banking, finance, engineering, the civil service, commerce, and administration. In 1996 through 1998, Bahrain came in first among Arabian countries on the Human Development Index as part of the United Nations Development Program's Human Development Report. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Bahrain's status as one of the most—if not the most—socially developed Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries was underscored by the progress made in education.
Shifts in the political climate have also been influential. In the late twentieth century, Bahrain began a process of rapid change under the leadership of His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa. From being one of the most oppressive and authoritarian Arab Gulf states, Bahrain appears to be moving toward becoming one of the most liberal and socially advanced. When Sheikh Hamad came to power in 1999, he did away with censorship, ordered the release of political prisoners, invited exiles home, and most importantly, issued a charter calling for a national parliament and outlining a national vision of Bahrain as a European-style democratic monarchy. Bahrain's first experiment with democracy had ended in failure shortly after independence from Britain in 1971. By 1975 the parliament was suspended, and strong opposition movements, mainly Shiite majority factions opposing the Sunni Al Khalifa family, were brutally crushed. The 1999 referendum for the new national charter was approved by 98.4 percent of the voters with a 90 percent voter turnout rate. These changes in Bahrain's system of governance appear to be the beginning of a new era in the country's history, likely to increase domestic tranquillity and decrease monarchial control by the ruling Al Khalifa family.