Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Bahrain's political rights rating improved from 6 to 5, and its status from Not Free to Partly Free, due to relatively free and fair parliamentary elections.
Bahrain held parliamentary elections in 2002 for the first time in 30 years. It also became the first Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country to allow the participation of women in national elections, both at the polls and on the ballot, and the second GCC country to allow the establishment of independent labor unions.
Bahrain, an archipelago with a population of just 700,000, has been ruled by the al-Khalifa family since 1782. After 110 years as a British protectorate, Bahrain became independent in 1971 under the leadership of Emir Isa ibn Salman al-Khalifa. Although the country's 1973 constitution provided for a partially elected national assembly, the emir dissolved the body in 1975 and ruled with few checks on his power for the next quarter century.
Although Bahrain's 70 percent Shi'a majority has long resented the Sunni ruling elite, tensions were kept in check by prosperity during the 1970s oil boom. However, the 1979 revolution in predominantly Shi'a Iran brought to power an Islamic fundamentalist regime committed to spreading its creed to Shi'a minorities throughout the Arab world. During the decline of oil revenues in the 1980s, challenges to the emir's authority by Shi'a and leftist opposition activity steadily intensified.
The emir established a consultative council of appointed business and religious leaders in 1993, but the creation of an advisory body with no legislative power did little to stem increasingly strident calls for political liberalization. The following year, a Shi'a cleric and several Sunni former members of parliament were arrested after petitioning for the reinstatement of democratic institutions. The arrests sparked a period of violent unrest that left more than 40 people dead, thousands arrested, hundreds imprisoned, and more than 500 exiled. While the government blamed Iran for inciting the unrest, most informed observers pointed to the government's failure to resolve widespread social and economic problems, particularly unemployment, that disproportionately affect the Shi'a population.
Following the death of Bahrain's aging emir in 1999 and the ascension of his son, Hamad, the country witnessed a sustained process of economic and political liberalization. On the economic front, measures were introduced to reduce the country's reliance on dwindling oil reserves by strengthening industries such as banking, tourism, petrochemicals, aluminum smelting, and ship repair. Restrictions on foreign investment were eased and the distribution of social services improved in hopes of alleviating the economic disparities that fuel Shi'a disaffection.
On the political front, Hamad released political prisoners and allowed exiles to return, abolished emergency laws and courts, and eased restrictions on freedom of expression and association. In late 2000, the emir unveiled the National Charter, which calls for the country's transformation into a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament, an independent judiciary, and political rights for women. The charter was overwhelmingly approved in a February 2001 referendum.
However, constitutional amendments introduced to enact the charter, as well as a succession of royal decrees, imposed limits on the political reform process. A February 2002 decree conferred equal legislative power on an appointed upper house of parliament (the Consultative Council), giving the king a de facto veto over the elected body. Measures to limit the electoral power of Shi'a's included decrees granting residents from other, predominantly Sunni GCC states the right to vote in municipal elections and to obtain Bahraini citizenship. Also, an August 2002 electoral law gerrymandered parliamentary district boundaries to dilute Shi'a votes. Other measures included a law prohibiting associations from "participating in any electoral campaign," a controversial press law, and royal decrees that granted immunity to government officials, as well as military and police officers, for all previous criminal acts and prohibited the incoming legislature from questioning them about matters predating its first session in December.
Vocal opposition to these measures prompted the king to suspend enforcement of the ban on political campaigning, but four main Shi'a and leftist groups nevertheless boycotted the October 2002 parliamentary elections. Despite the fact that the government allowed opposition groups favoring a boycott to hold mass rallies just days before the vote, 53 per cent of registered voters went to the polls. The results, as widely expected, were a victory for opposition candidates, especially Islamists. Many were surprised that the new cabinet unveiled in November included the former head of the London-based Bahrain Freedom Movement, Majed Alawi, as labor and social affairs minister.
Much like the introduction of reforms elsewhere in the Arab world, the political liberalization process in Bahrain has been intended to preserve the regime's grip on power. However, unlike most of its counterparts in the region, the Bahraini government appears increasingly committed to acquiring the consent of the governed and nurturing a truly democratic political culture.
Bahrainis have only a limited capacity to change their government democratically. The king appoints the cabinet and controls appointments to the Consultative Council, the upper house of parliament, which can effectively veto decisions by the elected lower house. Municipal and legislative elections held in 2002 were considered free and fair. Although political parties remain illegal, opposition groups operate openly in the country and even those that boycotted the elections have been allowed to stage rallies of up to 30,000 people.
Bahrainis enjoy protection from arbitary arrest and detention. The government has the authority to monitor telephone calls and other private correspondence.
The judiciary in Bahrain is not independent, as the king appoints all judges, in consultation with the Supreme Judicial Council. Although courts have been subject to government pressure concerning verdicts and sentencing in the past, defendants receive due process protections and trials are open and reasonably fair.
Freedom of expression is limited, but growing. The broadcast media are state-owned and reflect official views, but privately owned newspapers and other print media criticize government policies on most issues and reflect a diverse range of opinions. Overt criticism of the royal family remains rare, but unflattering coverage is becoming more tolerated. In November 2001, journalist Hafez al-Shaikh Saleh was charged with undermining national unity after he criticized Hamad for visiting the United States. He was acquitted, however. The government barred the Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera from covering municipal elections in May. A November 2002 press law limited the state's capacity to close down publications arbitrarily, but vaguely worded provisions of the new law prohibiting activities such as the "propagation of immoral behavior" leave the door open for state pressure on the media.
Restrictive laws requiring governmental permission to form associations and the ban on political parties remain in place, but in practice the king has allowed the establishment of dozens of advocacy associations, including an independent human rights organization. The government allows access to the country by international human rights groups, including Amnesty International.
In September 2002, King Hamad issued a landmark law allowing the establishment of independent labor unions without government permission. However, a vaguely worded statute stipulating that strikes can be held "only to achieve the workers' social and economic demands" appears intended to depoliticize unions, and strikes are prohibited entirely in areas such as telecommunications and electricity and water supply, as well as in hospitals, airports, and ports. Foreign laborers are frequently mistreated and enjoy little protection under Bahraini law.
Women enjoy most of the same rights as men, but face legal discrimination in divorce and inheritance cases and are underrepresented in the workplace and government. There are a large number of women's rights groups active in Bahrain.
Islam is the state religion, and the government controls all official religious institutions. Small non-Muslim minorities, including Jews, Christians, Hindus, and Baha'is, are free to practice, maintain places of worship, and display religious symbols. Sunni Muslims enjoy favored status, while Shi'as generally receive inferior educational, social, and municipal services. In 1999, Shiites were permitted to work in the defense forces and the Interior Ministry for the first time, but only in subordinate positions.