This week saw yet another major step in the normalization process. On 18 November Bahraini Foreign Minister ‘Abd al-Laṭīf az-Ziyānī arrived to Jerusalem, openly recognizing full Israelis control over the city and signed an agreement on opening mutual embassies in the two countries. By now there is nothing surprising in this, regardless all the criticism and anger by certain Arab, or Muslim sides. But what is significant that while Bahrain was not the first one in the process, it even resisted the idea and only buckled under intense Emirati pressure, Manama even got ahead of Abū Zabī. What also left a strange, unpleasant impression that while Netanyahu was celebrating, especially with his much-honored special guest Secretary Mike Pompeo, the Bahraini side was only represented by the Foreign Minister, without any of the major notables of the small kingdom. Clearly showing that the pleasure, unlike the embassies in the near future, is not mutual.
With this step, the small island kingdom, which has a Shia majority a significant Iranian minority, and which for long was especially close to Iran, became the strongest center of Israeli presence in the Gulf. And here the message is inescapable.
It would be easy to argue that the small state with less than 2 million inhabitants foreign workers included simply broke under pressure and in exchange of safety guarantees it went along with the policy of its strongest allies – and occupiers -, Riyadh, Abū Zabī and Washington. It is even more clear that this could not have been a self-interested decision if we take it into consideration that there is deep division, a boiling political crisis in Bahrain. As such a major political step with the easily foreseeable consequences of anger and mass demonstrations represent a serious threat to the integrity of the state. Such demonstrations in 2011 almost toppled the government and the only solution at that time was the rapid and brutal intervention of the Saudi and Emirati forces. This led to the practical military occupation, which might have been disguised, but never stopped.
This, however, is not the only, possibly not even the biggest change right now around Bahrain. Not long ago Prime Minister Halīfa ibn Salmān, King Ḥamad’s uncle passed away. He was not only the strongman of the country, who managed to held it together and surpass all crises but was also the last member of the state-founding generation. With his departure after more than fifty years in office, being the longest-serving Prime Minister ever in the world, the small state starts a new chapter in its history. Normally such a massive change means a shock, a real risk of internal struggle for a country, which is already in deep political crisis. Which might have been a reason for Manama to seek support in this foreseeably sensitive time.
Both notions are significant in the Arab world and have implications to the whole region. The two together especially. Ever since it was announced that after the Emirates there is another Arab country ready to make accords with Israel, the question was standing for the Western public: What is Bahrain? While many would like to downplay it as an almost insignificant little island under total, but indirect Emirati influence Bahrain in fact has a very deep history and a very troubled presence. And along with the two major changes these are perfect reasons to see Bahrain closer this week.
A long and surprising history
While it is widely held to and to a large extent true that the Gulf and even Saudi Arabia has a very little history before Islam that is truly not the case for Oman, and even less for Bahrain. The small archipelago, where the island of Bahrain is the biggest, but not the only inhabited member was a very important juncture between two great civilizations as early as the third millennium. It was the Dilmun civilization with its center in current day Manama, which connected Mesopotamia and the Indus-valley civilization and served as a busy trade hub between them. This capital at the later built Portuguese fort became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2005. Dilmun made such an impression that many scholars believe Bahrain was the basis of the first Mesopotamian legends of the Garden of Eden. By the middle of the second millennium, it became weakened and got firmly attached to the consecutive empires in Mesopotamia from Babylon to the Achaemenid Persian Empire, but it was still a bustling port and the center of the pearl trade.
It remained an important trade and cultural center for the centuries to come, yet it was the Byzantine era when it started to obtain one of its peculiar features. As a busy cultural center, but also being secluded from most imperial heartlands Bahrain became a sanctuary to many, often persecuted movements. The first of them to have a lasting legacy on Bahrain was the Nestorian Christians. They were often harassed as heretics in Byzantium, tolerated in the Sassanian Persian Empire, but thrived in Bahrain, which became of their biggest centers. It is largely due to this impact and the cosmopolitan cultural nature that before Islam Bahrain was largely Christian with a substantial Jewish and Zoroastrian minority. This familiarity with doctrinal religions possibly made it easy to accept Islam, and Bahrain was one of the first regions to embrace it even in the lifetime of the Prophet and peacefully. The first three centuries of the Islamic Empire in Bahrain was largely uneventful, as it remained a peaceful region far from the dynastic and internal wars. However, by the end of the 9th century AD, the once-mighty Abbasid Empire started to fall apart, as it was stricken with separatist movements in outlining regions, and religious conflicts in the heartland.
Ever since the Abbasid dynasty took power from the Umayyads in 750 AD, a number of Shia groups organized themselves to topple them, and against which so many times the Abbasid Caliphs waged war. Many of these groups went underground, preached, and organized themselves locally in secret. One of these was the Ismā‘īli Shia, from which in the early 900s the Fatimid Caliphate was born in Tunisia. By 969 they conquered Egypt, which for two centuries became the center of a Shia empire, the rival of the Sunni Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad. An offshoot of the Fatimids, who could not accept the messianic claims of the first Fatimid ruler broke off and found sanctuary in southern Iraq and in Bahrein. They were the Qarmatians (in Arabic: Qarāmiṭa), who made an even more impressive, though largely forgotten career out of their center in Bahrain. Only few years before the Fatimid movement made success this group broke off, took control of Bahrain and much of the Persian Gulf and under their first leader Abū Sa‘īd al-Ğannābī started to build a utopian messianic society. One of their distinctive features was that they renounced much of the traditional Muslim traditions as idolization. They frequently attacked even pilgrim caravans to Mecca, and at their zenith were so powerful that they defeated both the Fatimid and the Abbasid armies and imposed taxes on them. Under their second leader, Abū Ṭāhir al-Ğannābī they came close to take Baghdad, and while that did not succeed, in 930 they conquered both Mecca and Medina and took the black stone from the Ka‘aba. This and the fact that they did this at the time of pilgrimage, while they desecrated many sacred sights in Mecca was an unprecedented outrage for the Islamic world. Which made a very bad reputation for them to this very day, making it very hard to know how in fact their society looked like, given most sources were deeply against them. Despite the outrage, however, at the time not much could have been done against them, and the Abbasid Caliphs only managed to buy back the black stone in 952. The Qarmati state was the ultimate power in the tenth century in the Persian Gulf and an equal rival of its neighbors, but we know relatively little about them, given their bad reputation. One interesting fact is, however, that their economy was so stabile from slavery, agricultural pearl trade, and piracy that the gold coin they introduced was in partial use until the twentieth century.
As fast as their success was, so was their collapse. By the eleventh century, they were only a shadow of their former self and before the end of the century, they were conquered by an Arab Bedouin tribe. For centuries much of the Gulf kept changing rulers between various Arab and Iranian local dynasties until the Portuguese arrived in 1521 and Bahrain once again gained importance. The vast Portuguese trade empire, which held the trade routes between the Indian Ocean controlled the Gulf for almost a century and Bahrain was the center of this rule. The heavy fortifications are still standing testimonies of their era. In 1602, however, ‘Abbās I of the Persian Safavid Empire expelled the Portuguese and for two centuries Bahrain came under Shia control once again. For more than a century by the Safavids, for few decades under the Omani Empire, and later on once again under indirect Iranian control.
During the eighteenth century, as the Persian Gulf slowly suck into tribal rivalries with no ultimate overlord a number of Sunni Bedouin tribes started to migrate south and out of the inland, mostly being chased away by the Ottoman Empire for their predatory nature of attacking caravans and sacking towns in Iraq. This vast tribal confederacy gave the ruling houses of most Gulf statelets, and within it was a clan, the Āl Halīfa, which in the end of the eighteenth century settled in modern-day Qatar. From this power base in 1799, they conquered Bahrain, which they made their center of control and started to rule the island to this very day.
They came under frequent attacks by the Saudis, the Omanis and Qatar broke away, and that is why the ruling house looked for support to stabilize their position. And that new superpower was Britain. In 1820 the first-ever British pact was signed in the Gulf, thus making Bahrain the first center of the British presence in the region. The peace treaty of 1820 was the result of the war between Britain and the small emirates a year before when the British fought against rampant piracy. The treaty forbade such activities and practically put all maritime movement under British administration. But more importantly for Bahrain, it acknowledged the Āl Halīfa dynasty as legal rulers of Bahrain, and that was recognized by other regional statelets. To counter the suffocating British influence the Āl Halīfas sought Persian and Ottoman help offering allegiance to them, but to now avail. In the brief war between Bahrain and Qatar in 1868 the British intervened and forced a treaty on the Bahraini ruling house. Bahrain became a self-governing vassal, a protectorate, but on the other hand, the British vowed to keep the increasingly unpopular Āl Halīfa in power under all circumstances. And that is the beginning of a troubled history with a ruling house on shaky local, but very foreign support keeping it in power. In 1880 and 1892 other treaties further stabilized the British rule.
Despite the growing British control and the hatred for it, which led to a number of uprisings mostly against the British, but also against the ruling dynasty Bahrain remained an important trade and logistical center, much like Dubai or Doha today. Iran brought up historical claims to the island, which claims were rejected, and in 1926 Bahrain came under de facto direct British control with a very nominal role to the Āl Halīfa dynasty. This role of the island only grew when in 1932, the first time in the Gulf outside of Iran oil was found in Bahrain, and extraction rapidly developed. Only three years later the Middle East command of the British Navy was moved here, thus making it the practical headquarters of the British presence in the region.
After the Second World War, however, the British presence was increasingly unpopular and met with frequent violence, the biggest of which was the uprising in 1965. There was a very strong independence movement, unlike in many of the neighboring statelets, and the royal house supported it. Bahrain along with the rest of the Gulf still under British oppression gained its independence in 1971 and tactfully stayed out of the United Arab Emirates.
Given its rich history, developed and cosmopolitan society, the affects of being the center of British presence for centuries, and the oil boom Bahrain were off for a good start. Yet this turned very difficult from the begging. The oil crises crippled the little state, and the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 set a very frightening example. This became the source of much of the Gulf Arab paranoia against Iran to this very day.
Upon independence Iran once again demanded suzerainty over Bahrain citing historical claims and a significant Iranian population, but that was settled with the national referendum voting for independence. After the Iranian revolution, however, a movement closely tied to Iran chose a local Shia cleric as their own Supreme Leader and in 1981 staged a failed coup d’état. Which was not at all hopeless, given the Shia majority of the country ruled by the Sunni leadership. This convinced the local ruling house that Iran is an existential threat to them. Though Bahrain was not traumatized like Kuwait with an invasion, this remained a serious matter. Along with the tradition of similar methods for centuries Bahrain sought strong American support and it is not surprising that it became the center of the American Fifth Fleet. Once again Bahrain became a key point of a superpower’s hold on the region, occupied, but its ruling house stabilized by such conditions.
This was, however, not the only major problem the state faced. There was an equally serious internal tension, even within the royal court. The first ruler of the newly independent state, ‘Īsā ibn Salmān Āl Halīfa, who was first Ḥākim of Bahrain until independence, then Emir, was not a specifically strong character. He was a relatively modern-minded person, who introduced parliament and general elections, but after 1975 he dissolved the parliament and never conveyed it again. The reason for this was the heavy-handed state security law, which is largely still active today, which was the key instrument to tackle any attempt overthrowing the regime. This caused a standstill, as both leftist and Islamist groups demanded reforms and several times organized uprisings and protests. That was one of the reasons why despite its perfect circumstances and overall good economy performance Bahrain never became an active regional player, like Kuwait until the ‘90s, or Qatar and the UAE in our day.
The other reason was for that was that Emir ‘Īsā ibn Salmān had no serious desire to actively rule from the very beginning. This led to deal with his brother and Prime Minister from the very first day, Halīfa ibn Salmān, by which the Emir would retain a nominal and diplomatic role, while the Prime Minister would practically rule the state. This Halīfa ibn Salmān died on 11 November after practically running the state for fifty years. First for his brother and after his death for his nephew. The new ruler since 1999, Ḥamad ibn ‘Īsā started with an ambitious reform program to find a way out of the decades-long internal stalemate, reinstating the parliament, introducing general voting rights to women, releasing political prisoners, and limiting the authority of the ruler in favor of the government. The pack summed up in the National Action Charter was put to a referendum, which was vastly supported popularly, and by which the state became a kingdom in 2002.
A real feeling of change and prosperity was felt, in which most Shia parties found content and participated in the process. The conservative influence of the Prime Minister was greatly curbed and the king was popular. That is at least until 2011 when the Arab Spring struck the country and sent it back to square one.
But to understand that, we have to understand the people of Bahrain. The social composition of the state is the result of this unique history, but also the main source of the political deadlock.
The land of extremes
Around half of the population, some 1 million people are themselves Bahrainis, while the rest are foreign workers living in the country. Most of them are from the Indian subcontinent. The Bahrainis themselves are made up of two main groups. The Sunni Arab tribes living in Bahrain for centuries, and the Baḥārana, a Shii ethnoreligious group, who inhabit most of the western bank of the Persian Gulf. Their biggest concentration is in Bahrain, but a large number live in the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia. They themselves are of a mixed origin, though they have a district identity. The majority of them are of Iranian origin, who migrated to the region from Iran, but some of them are ethnic Arabs from Southern Iran. They made up two-third of the Bahraini people, making Bahrain one of the few countries with a clear Shia majority. Power, however, was always in the hands of Sunnis, mostly tribesmen allied to the ruling house since the ascendence of the Āl Halīfa dynasty. And that is a source of eternal tension.
While the Shia majority claim that the royal house is discriminating against the Shia, bring in foreigners to counter the Shia, and naturalize Sunnis to change the demographic composure, the regime accuses the Shia parties of plotting to overthrow the government. And this led to a perpetual ring of protests, responded to by countless crackdowns and accusations of Iranian terrorist cells trying to undermine the state. The last of these happened in September 2020. But this can grow into extremely paranoid, like a famous case from 2018, when allegedly state tv announced the apprehension of an Iranian terrorist group, which tried to sink Bahrain with “rain invoking” prayers. While this might sound appalling, Bahrain indeed has a very dark human rights record, recently heavily criticized by the EU.
Bahrain is a land of extreme contradictions. A Shia country, led almost exclusively by a Sunni minority. A rare example of an elected parliament, which is easily checked by an appointed upper house and ruled by royal decrees. A country where the indigenous Christian and Jewish minorities, even women are guaranteed positions in the Parliament, Hindus are respected, yet religious parties are clamped down in fear of Shia overpower, and Shia clerics and political leaders are routinely deprived of their citizenship to expel them from the country. On top of that all the Saudi, and in the last decade, the Emirati influence is absolute, keeping the government in place. Two allies, which have a similar dark record of human rights abuses.
The dark days of 2011
The so-called “Arab Spring” wave reached Bahrain as well, as it was already in political turmoil, when the biggest Shia opposition group, the al-Wifāq won the elections but had little access to real governmental power. Naturally, most of the oppositional parties demanded major reforms, which started with the National Action Charter, but for derailed. Ironically, however, this is part of the Arab Spring, practically the only occasion when the much-acclaimed cliches in the mass media were never really told to the Western public, and rapidly forgotten about after the first massive wave.
After Tunisia and the first clashes in Egypt and Yemen protests supported by the oppositional parties started. People started to gather in Manama’s center roundabout, the Pearl Square, and paralyzed public traffic. On 14 February the first major protest started, which at that time only demanded reforms, elected government, and the ouster of the Prime Minister. At that time the king was still very popular and change was expected from him. However, that met a very harsh response by the security forces dispersing the crowd with arms. Three days later a similar thing happened at night, which became the infamous Bloody Thursday. After the square was retaken crackdowns continued in local hospitals detaining everyone with wounds and forcing – the mostly foreign – medical staff to given information on the patients. Those who refused were expelled.
The protests spiraled out and continued with strikes, which paralyzed the country. The crackdowns, no matter how strong they were in the small country, started to gain momentum, as there was no end to it, much of the Sunni population started to join and the first cracks started to appear within the ranks of the security forces. On 14 March the government imposed marital law, reintroduced the previous state security laws, and asked help from the GCC’s Peninsula Shield Force. A day later Saudi and Emirati forces invaded Bahrein to end the protests. They replaced the local forces, which is true up to this day to a large degree.
The thus far massive but peaceful protests turned into occasional violence, and despite the brutal lockdown by the Saudi forces and the marital law the sporadic protests and clashes went on for years. Which in time started to claim the lives of the invaders as well. After this life never really returned to normal, even though the world largely forgot about Bahrain, and strangely the West never criticized the Saudi invasion against the protests.
Bahrain is paralyzed for years, and while the Prime Minister managed to save the regime, his methods were largely responsible for the deadlock. His removal and now death could mark the beginning of a new era. And it probably does, just in a way, many imagined in 2011.
The strongman gone
On 11 November the strongman of Bahrain who practically ruled the state since its independence died. Ironic that in the US, since he was famously not fond of the Americans. So much so that while joined many joint Gulf projects on the side of the Americans, like the war in Afghanistan, he objected the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and even offered asylum to Ṣaddām. He was a controversial man, who was responsible for the strong ties with the West and Saudi Arabia, who held good relations with some Shia clerics and led the economic modernization of the state, but also with his heavy fisted politics run a series of crackdowns was brutal with his opponents. And he is the primary responsible for the Saudi invasion in 2011. Which was in many ways a coup against his own nephew, the king. The government was composed of practically his own hand-picked men, most notorious amongst them long term Foreign Minister Hālid ibn Aḥmad Āl Halīfa, who was working on the Israeli connections for some time.
In recent years, however, with the deterioration of his health, his power base was severely weakened. It did not help that he was of a much more cautious nature than his nephew, who opposed major changes, like the normalization with Israel. He knew perfectly well Bahrain is too fragile internally for such steps. His staff was slowly replaced, last of them Hālid ibn Aḥmad in February, and were replaced by weightless new people utterly loyal to the Crown Prince, Salmān ibn Ḥamad. The Crown Prince, who is famously reform and pro-Western minded was often openly at odds with the Prime Minister, and since he was appointed as his first deputy in 2013, slowly tried to take over his post.
With the death of Hālid ibn Salmān, the Crown Prince immediately got appointed to Prime Minister. Thus the power division the state was built upon is over. But that leaves the question of what sort of government will he lead.
Reforms or downfall?
It was suggested in many forums that Hālid ibn Salmān leads an especially active reform movement and much resembles the hopes of his father two decades ago. Just like at that time, it is probable that he will introduce a number of reforms and start a dialogue with the opposition. At least for the time being, the building of the benefit of the doubt, he will end the hard measures of his predecessor, which ruled that state for decades, and especially since 2011.
It is within this Westernization program, much like his Saudi counterpart that he pulls his country closer to the Emirates, and to Israel. After all, he was the host in the 2019 June Bahrain workshop for the Deal of the Century, which paved the way for the normalization process. So in general Bahrain, as an occupied country might have been forced into the deal with Israel, this trajectory has powerful supporters within the state. And in the long term, their ascendence to even more power is inevitable.
That, however, knowing the social composition of the state, leaves very little room for any real reform process. Because if the Shia parties being the vast majority of the political arena viewed Iran positively and the internal conditions appalling before, they will certainly not be any less against the regime now, as the Bahrein transforms into an Israeli forward base.
The Israeli alliance might secure the hold of the Āl Halīfa dynasty, or it might just increase its problems. But whatever reform process will be offered, it will be short-lived, or will resemble the Saudi model. Either way, in the normalization process there might be massive protests against it Bahrain is not simply just a victim. And the great transformation has only just begun.