Bahrain is a small island nation in the Persian Gulf. Bahrain’s area is about 295 square miles with a population of about 1.3 million people. Roughly 46% of the nation’s population are Bahraini citizens. The remaining 54% are mostly guest workers, primarily from South Asia (Pakistan and India). Bahrain is connected to Saudi Arabia by the 16 mile long King Fahad Causeway. The nation of Qatar is about 25 miles to the southwest and Iran is about 125 miles away across the Persian Gulf.
Bahrain is a former British Protectorate, and only gained independence in 1971. Officially the nation is a constitutional monarchy, however, in practice it is an absolutist monarchy ruled by the Al Khalifa dynasty since 1783. The current monarch is king Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa, who ascended to the throne in 1999 first as Emir then as the first king of Bahrain after announcing the country a kingdom in 2002. Al Khalifa started his reign as a “reformist”, releasing all political prisoners of the 1990s uprising and easing the crackdown on dissidents and reformists. Al Khalifa later changed course and brutally suppressed the 2011 uprising.
Bahrain’s strategic location made it of vital importance to foreign powers. It was home of the Middle East command of the British Royal Navy in 1935 and is currently home of the US Navy Fifth Fleet. Bahrain is an oil exporter, but features a diversified economy as it serves as major financial hub and prominent tourism population. Although Bahrain has the 12th highest GDP per capita in the world, income inequality is a major problem and one of the main drivers of the uprising that started in 2011. In 1995, the poorest 40% of Bahrinis earned 19.6% of the country’s annual income. Their share dropped to 18.1% in 2006 and continues to decline.
Inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrainis took to the streets to demand democracy, economic reforms, more equal distribution of income, and even regime change. The government initially attempted to accommodate some of the demands of the protesters. Nonetheless, it soon turned to brutal oppression, killing and injuring thousands of demonstrators and detaining tens of thousands of political prisoners. The Bahraini government demolished Pearl Roundabout, the symbolic home of the uprising and enlisted a full scale Saudi invasion to violently clampdown on the revolution. Bahrain may not feature in the headlines today; nonetheless, the uprising is still ongoing and protestors continue to take to the streets despite the brutal government suppression.