Not Free
PR Political Rights 2 40
CL Civil Liberties 10 60
Last Year's Score & Status
12 100 Not Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

Bahrain’s Sunni-led monarchy dominates state institutions, and elections for the lower house of parliament are neither competitive nor inclusive. Since violently crushing a popular prodemocracy protest movement in 2011, the authorities have systematically eliminated a broad range of political rights and civil liberties, dismantled the political opposition, and cracked down on persistent dissent concentrated among the Shiite population.

header2 Key Developments in 2022

  • In June, the king ordered a major cabinet reshuffle, changing 17 of 22 ministers, adding more women to the cabinet, and including only three ministers from the ruling family. Three ministries changed hands in a smaller shuffle in November.
  • Elections for the lower house of parliament were held in November, but with opposition groups still banned, the resulting legislature was reliably supportive of the government.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

The 2002 constitution gives the king power over the executive, legislative, and judicial authorities. The monarch appoints and dismisses the prime minister and cabinet members, who are responsible to him rather than the legislature. Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the uncle of the current king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, was the country’s only prime minister between independence from Britain in 1971 and his death in 2020. The crown prince and eldest son of the king, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, was appointed prime minister that year, and he retained the role after a cabinet reshuffle that followed the November 2022 parliamentary elections.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 1.001 4.004

The king appoints the 40-member Consultative Council, the upper house of the National Assembly. The lower house, or Council of Representatives, consists of 40 elected members serving four-year terms. Formal political parties are not permitted, but members of “political societies” have participated in elections.

Elections for the lower house were held in November 2022. The polls were uncompetitive due to bans on major opposition groups. A law adopted in 2018 prohibited the candidacy of anyone who belonged to dissolved political societies, had boycotted or been expelled from the parliament, or had received a prison sentence of at least six months. Political societies in general performed poorly in the 2022 elections, with most seats going to independents, including Sunni Islamists.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 1.001 4.004

Bahrain’s electoral framework is unfair, with electoral districts deliberately designed to underrepresent Shiites, who form a majority of the citizen population but have never been able to obtain majority representation in the parliament. The government has also allegedly drawn district borders to put certain political societies, including leftist and Sunni Islamist groups, at a disadvantage. The government directorate responsible for administering elections is headed by the justice minister, who is appointed by the crown prince, and it is not an independent body.

Voters’ passports are stamped to indicate that they have voted, and there is a widespread belief that people who do not have these stamps are at a higher risk of being prevented from travelling. The government has previously punished people who call for election boycotts.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 0.000 4.004

Formal political parties are illegal. A 2005 law makes it illegal to form political associations based on class, profession, or religion, while a 2016 amendment prohibits serving religious clerics from engaging in political activity. The law permits “political societies,” with some of the functions of a political party, to operate after registering with the government, but the authorities have closed almost all opposition political societies since 2016 and jailed many of their leaders. The most popular, the Shiite Islamist society Al-Wefaq, was forcibly disbanded that year for allegedly encouraging violence. The second-largest opposition group, the secularist National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad), was banned in 2017. In 2018, the monarch banned individual members of dissolved groups from competing in elections.

Individual opposition leaders and activists routinely face harassment, and the regime has forced many into prison or exile. In 2019, the country’s top court upheld a sentence of life in prison against Al-Wefaq general secretary Ali Salman, who was jailed in 2018 for alleged espionage on behalf of Qatar. He had been in detention on various charges since 2014.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0.000 4.004

The ruling family maintains a monopoly on political power through formal and informal positions, with the crown prince currently serving as prime minister. A major cabinet reshuffle in June 2022 left three additional members of the ruling family in the offices of deputy prime minister, minister of interior, and minister of finance and national economy, though this was a historically small share of cabinet seats for the family.

The constitutional system’s structure excludes the possibility of a change in government through elections, and the parliament has been dominated by progovernment lawmakers since the dissolution of the main opposition societies and the imprisonment of many of their leaders.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 0.000 4.004

The monarchy generally excludes the public from any meaningful or genuinely independent political participation. Since 2011 it has used the security forces to isolate the country’s Shiite population and suppress political dissent. The royal court allegedly uses its patronage networks to influence candidates and elections.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 0.000 4.004

Although Shiite Muslims make up a majority of the citizenry, they have tended to be underrepresented in the cabinet and parliament. The regime, which is controlled by a Sunni ruling family, has often viewed Shiites with suspicion and sought to prevent them from organizing to advance their political interests. Senior positions in politics and government are typically allocated to members of the ruling family and affiliated Sunni tribes. Certain wealthy Shiite families also enjoy a privileged position. After the June 2022 cabinet reshuffle, nine of the 25 ministers belonged to the Shiite majority, though none were associated with the political opposition.

Women formally enjoy full political rights but are marginalized in practice. A record high of eight women were elected to the lower house of parliament in November 2022, and five women served in the cabinet as of that month.

Noncitizens make up about half of the total population, and most have no political rights, but the minority of expatriates who own property in Bahrain can vote in municipal elections. Citizenship generally must be inherited from a Bahraini father, and foreign men married to Bahraini women do not have access to naturalization.

LGBT+ identity is generally not recognized openly, including in political contexts.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0.000 4.004

There are no elected officials with executive authority. The National Assembly may propose legislation, but the government drafts and submits the bills for legislative consideration. As major opposition groups are absent from the National Assembly, the body has become silent on politically sensitive topics, though it does feature debate on economic reforms, austerity measures, subsidy reforms, and public services.

Bahrain is fiscally and economically dependent on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which gives their governments significant influence over its foreign policy.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2.002 4.004

There are some laws in place to combat corruption, but enforcement is weak, and high-ranking officials or members of the ruling family who are suspected of corruption are rarely punished. The generally pliant parliament does not check malfeasance effectively, and the media are not sufficiently free to independently air allegations of corruption against powerful figures. Civil society anticorruption efforts are also restricted; activists who highlight such problems have been prohibited from traveling or otherwise harassed.

In January 2022, a court sentenced a civil servant to seven years in prison after convicting him of embezzling fees for the renewal of expatriates’ residency permits; another defendant in the case was acquitted.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0.000 4.004

Parliamentary proceedings are public, and the parliament is entitled to scrutinize the government budget, but in practice the executive issues orders and laws without providing insight or allowing meaningful public consultation. The government does not publish regular and timely income or expenditure data. No access-to-information law has been adopted, and officials are not obliged to disclose their assets or income.


Add Q
Is the government or occupying power deliberately changing the ethnic composition of a country or territory so as to destroy a culture or tip the political balance in favor of another group? -2.00-2

Over the past two decades, the government has made concerted efforts to erode the Shiite citizen majority and tip the country’s demographic balance in favor of the Sunni minority, mostly by recruiting foreign-born Sunnis to serve in the security forces and become citizens. No data on the sectarian makeup of the population are made public.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Bahrainis have had their citizenship revoked in recent years, including a large number of Shiite leaders and activists. After a mass revocation in 2019 prompted international outcry, the monarch and courts restored the citizenship of hundreds of people, but those left out of the restoration included the most prominent opposition activists, and the government retains the authority to revoke citizenship without meaningful due process.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 0.000 4.004

The government owns all national broadcast media outlets, and the private owners of Bahrain’s main newspapers have close ties to the state. Self-censorship is encouraged by the vaguely worded Press Law, which allows the state to imprison journalists for criticizing the king or Islam or for threatening national security. Insulting the king is punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment. A 2016 edict requires newspapers to apply for a one-year renewable license to publish online. The government blocked access to Qatari news outlets between 2017, when diplomatic relations with Qatar were severed, and January 2021, when these ties were restored. Nonetheless, Al Jazeera remains inaccessible.

Journalists face legal and bureaucratic obstacles to their work in practice. The authorities have refused to renew the credentials of several Bahraini journalists working with foreign outlets. Five journalists remained imprisoned in 2022, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). International journalists face difficulty obtaining an entry visa.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 1.001 4.004

Islam is the state religion, and the penal code criminalizes blasphemy-related offenses. However, non-Muslim minority groups are generally free to practice their faiths. Both Muslim and non-Muslim religious groups are required to register with government ministries. In November 2022, Pope Francis became the first Roman Catholic pontiff to travel to Bahrain, the home of the Persian Gulf’s first and largest Catholic churches, with the aim of advancing interreligious dialogue. Muslim religious groups are required to register with the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs through the Sunni or Shiite awqaf (endowments) that oversee mosques and prayer houses; their directors are appointed by royal decree and paid by the government.

Although Shiite communities are free to carry out religious observances like Ashura, Shiite clerics and community leaders face harassment, interrogation, prosecution, and imprisonment. Shiite religious sites were demolished or vandalized in 2011 in apparent reprisal for the role of Shiite opposition groups in that year’s protests. The Islamic Ulema Council, a group of Shiite clerics, was banned in 2014. Shiite cleric Isa Qassim lost his citizenship in 2016, received a suspended sentence for money laundering in 2017, and left Bahrain in 2018. Other Shiite clergy have been detained or questioned for their actual or suspected involvement in protest activity.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 0.000 4.004

Academic freedom is not formally restricted, but scholars who criticize the government have in the past been subject to dismissal, and universities are affected by a broader climate in which criticism is frequently equated with disloyalty.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1.001 4.004

The penal code includes a variety of punishments for offenses such as insulting the king or state institutions and spreading false news. Many Bahrainis have been convicted and jailed for political speech, including on social media. Authorities have also warned against online expression that contradicts the foreign policy priorities of Bahrain and its regional allies. Following social media accounts deemed to promote sedition can constitute a cybercrime.

Security services are believed to employ networks of informers, and the government monitors the personal communications of activists, critics, and opposition members. Researchers with Toronto-based Citizen Lab have detected Pegasus spyware on the devices of at least a dozen Bahraini activists since 2020.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 0.000 4.004

A permit is required to hold demonstrations, and a variety of onerous restrictions make it difficult to organize a legal gathering in practice. Participants can face long jail terms, particularly if the demonstrations involve clashes with security personnel. Police regularly use force to break up political protests, most of which occur in Shiite villages.

In November 2022, during the visit by Pope Francis, a small protest was organized by families of prisoners on death row or facing life imprisonment; a spokesperson for the government confirmed that the protesters were asked to disperse and ultimately did so.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 0.000 4.004

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are prohibited from operating without a permit, and authorities have broad discretion to deny or revoke permits. The government also reserves the right to replace the boards of NGOs. Bahraini human rights defenders and their family members are subject to harassment, intimidation, and prosecution. Many remained either in prison or in exile as of 2022.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1.001 4.004

Bahrainis have the right to establish independent labor unions, but workers must give two weeks’ notice before a strike, and strikes are banned in a variety of economic sectors. Trade unions cannot operate in the public sector, and collective-bargaining rights are limited even in the private sector. Harassment and firing of unionist workers occur in practice. Domestic, agricultural, and temporary workers do not have the right to join or form unions.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 0.000 4.004

The king appoints all judges and heads the Supreme Judicial Council, which administers the courts and proposes judicial nominees. The courts are subject to government pressure in practice. The country’s judicial system is seen as corrupt and biased in favor of the ruling family and its allies, particularly in politically sensitive cases.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1.001 4.004

Due process is particularly problematic in politically sensitive cases. Law enforcement officers reportedly violate due process during arrests and detention, in part by obstructing detainees’ access to attorneys. Detainees are sometimes held incommunicado. Judicial proceedings often put defendants at a disadvantage, with judges denying bail requests or restricting defense attorneys’ attendance or arguments without explanation. Prominent defense lawyers who represent dissidents have themselves been prosecuted on various charges. A 2017 constitutional amendment permits military trials for civilians in security-related cases, further weakening due process rights.

In September 2022, a report from the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights found that there were 4,500 political activists currently in prison in Bahrain; it also concluded that Bahraini authorities had arrested some 15,000 people for their political views since 2011. A 2017 law allows prisoners to complete their sentences via alternative means, such as home detention and monitoring. Some political prisoners have been conditionally released under this provision.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0.000 4.004

Torture is criminalized, but detainees frequently report mistreatment by security forces and prison officials, who are rarely held accountable. The Interior Ministry ombudsman’s office has failed to provide a meaningful check on such impunity. The Justice Ministry’s Special Investigation Unit is also regarded as largely ineffective and lacking in independence, but it continued to examine cases of alleged ill-treatment and torture in 2022. In April, a criminal court sentenced three members of the security forces to three years in prison for physically assaulting two inmates.

Political prisoners have alleged denial of medical care and religious discrimination against Shiite inmates. Several reports of medical negligence emerged in 2022, particularly for political prisoners in Jau Prison, where there was apparently a tuberculosis outbreak. Among other prominent cases during the year, Amnesty International highlighted the conditions faced by human rights defenders Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who was at risk of losing his vision due to lack of medical care, and Abduljalil al-Singace, who had been on hunger strike since 2021 and was being denied some of his medication. Both had been in prison since 2011.

A moratorium on executions ended in 2017, though no prisoners have been executed since 2019. UN special rapporteurs and experts have raised concerns that individuals sentenced to death were forced to confess under torture, among other flaws in their cases. Bangladeshi workers are heavily represented among this group; in 2021, the NGO Reprieve reported that eight of the 13 foreigners who received death sentences between 2011 and 2020 were Bangladeshi.

Police have sometimes been targeted in small bombings and armed attacks in recent years, though no major incidents were reported in 2022.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 0.000 4.004

Women enjoy legal equality on some issues, and gender-based discrimination in employment is prohibited, but discrimination is common in practice.

Shiites of both Arab and Persian ethnicity face de facto discrimination in matters including employment. They are largely excluded from the security forces, except when serving as unarmed community police officers. The government does not publish socioeconomic data that are broken down by religious sect.

Discrimination based on sexual orientation is common. The law does not provide protections against such bias, though same-sex sexual activity is not criminalized for those aged 21 and older. Public displays of same-sex affection could fall afoul of public decency laws.

Bahrain is not a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention and does not recognize refugee status.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 1.001 4.004

Authorities sometimes restrict movement inside the country to prevent protests by residents of largely Shiite villages outside Manama. The government also obstructs foreign travel by numerous opposition figures and activists.

Bahrain established a “flexible” permit for foreign workers in 2017, aiming to ease the workers’ ability to change jobs; the traditional sponsorship (kafala) system ties migrant workers to a specific employer. However, participation in the newer scheme has been limited by numerical caps and other restrictions.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2.002 4.004

Although registered businesses are largely free to operate, obtaining approval can be difficult in practice. For the wealthy elites who dominate the business sector, property rights are generally respected, and expropriation is rare. Shiite citizens encounter difficulties obtaining affordable housing and in some cases face de facto bans on purchasing land. Much of the country’s scarce land is occupied by royal properties and military facilities. Noncitizens can only own property in designated areas. Women may inherit property, but their rights are not equal to those of men.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2.002 4.004

Personal status issues such as marriage, divorce, and child custody are governed by a 2017 unified family law applying to both Sunni and Shiite Muslim families. The law’s provisions are based on Sharia (Islamic law) principles that put women at a disadvantage on many topics. Unlike men, Bahraini women who marry non-Bahrainis cannot pass their citizenship to their children.

Accused rapists can avoid punishment by marrying their victims, and spousal rape is not specifically outlawed. Adultery is illegal, and those who kill a spouse caught in the act of adultery are eligible for lenience in sentencing.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1.001 4.004

Migrant workers, who make up a large portion of the population, are sometimes subjected to forced labor or have their salaries and passports withheld, although this is illegal. Due to their employment and living conditions, migrant workers have faced a disproportionate risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19, and those who lost their jobs amid the pandemic often faced eviction, denial of services, or deportation. Migrant workers also received fewer emergency benefits than citizens.

The US State Department found in its 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report that the government had made serious efforts to address human trafficking, highlighting the creation of a specialized prosecutor’s office and court. The report also noted that no traffickers were convicted during its coverage period, however, and recommended increased efforts to investigate and convict traffickers.

Revenues from oil and gas exports are used to fund public employment and services that benefit all citizens, but access to public-sector jobs and promotion opportunities often depends on one’s social and sectarian background and personal connections.

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    12 100 not free
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