State and Civil Society in Bahrain

Mansoor Al-Jamri

MESA'98, Middle East Studies Association

32nd Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL., USA

6 December 1998


By the early seventies all states comprising the Gulf Co-operation Council were declared independent. Gulf emirates were to acquire the title of “state” in their bid to modernise their political structure. Amongst the GCC countries, the State of Bahrain provides one of most contrasting cases, where the process of state formation interacted with critical issues pertaining to tribal political control, civil society and popular participation. Administrative reforms were introduced in Bahrain in the 1920s at the peak of British involvement in internal politics. These reforms were subordinated to tribal sovereignty only to create a conflicting political environment.

Economical growth following the discovery and export of oil in 1930s transformed both state and society. As early as 1938, demands for greater participation in public affairs stemmed from all sections of the society. However, these aspirations clashed with two stumbling blocks. Firstly, there was the British Belgrave’s administration (1926-57) that imposed limits against each type of community in order to maintain the supremacy of tribal class. Secondly, many leading members of the ruling family viewed the modernisation of administration as a threat to their status and privileges. And although Belgrave had allocated one-third of oil income to the ruler and reserved all centres of power to the ruling family, many member of the Al-Khalifa family did not accept the outlawing of older fiefdom arrangements.

By relying on oil income, tribal rulers were able to counter political demands for greater popular participation in decision making. In dealing with the political events that surfaced in Bahrain, the state relied on tribal conception of power politics. Social forces inside Bahrain and the Gulf viewed the events that started in 1994 as a microcosm for the future of the Gulf region.

The declaration of Bahrain’s independence in 1971 was meant to have transformed the country from a British-protected Sheikhdom into a modern “State of Bahrain”. Bahrain had, by then, gone through several political phases that should have contributed to the achievement of a modern state.

Fiefdom Rule

Bahrain had a troubled history. For about a hundred years prior to 1783, the local Bahraini population has suffered from political instability caused by several factors. Bahrain was one of the richest places in the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula region and had been surrounded by increasingly impoverished mainland. For example, a Bahrain rich with agriculture and pearl trading contrasted the starvation in the mainland around 1722. Bahrain riches attracted troubles for its inhabitants. Piracy and tribal invasions proliferated in the region and attackers sacked Bahrain several times. The sacking of Bahrain destabilised its political structure and paved the way for a major invasion in 1783 by a group of mainland tribes led by the present ruling Al-Khalifa family.

The relationship between the inhabitants of the Bahrain and the invading tribes was characterised by a “slave-master” pattern. Between 1783 and 1820, the invading tribes had fought against each other in their quest for bigger share of the riches.

By 1820, says Farah (1985), the British had been largely successful in their prolonged effort to impose a Pax Britannica over the whole of the Gulf. “Although acts of piracy still occurred, a relatively high level of law and order at sea had been established under British supervision”. In 1869, Britain intervened directly to appoint the Al-Khalifa ruler, Sheikh Isa bin Ali, and ended the inter-triabl feuding. In 1923, it was Britain, again, that intervened directly to remove Sheikh Isa bin Ali and replace him with his son, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa, thus ending a 54-year rule by the Isa bin Ali. The period of Sheikh Isa bin Ali witnessed the growth of effective British control of Bahrain.

Farah (1985) explains that during this period “tribal traditions and usages contributed to the operation of government in Bahrain, but at the same time, dependence upon the personal element made the system very fragile. An evidence of that period is provided by Kemball “Since 1839, owing to the increased dissension, and subsequent hostilities between the members and relatives of the ruling family, the population, prosperity and commerce of the island have gradually declined. Numbers of the principal and most wealthy inhabitants, to avoid the effects of increased anarchy and confusion, fled upon the commencement of hostilities, to Kuwait on the Arabian, and Lingah and other places on the Persian Coast, where they have since temporarily located themselves, in order to watch the course of events, and return with the first signs of peace and established government, and subsequent security to life and property”.

A distinguishing factor in Bahraini’s politics is the way the ruling Al-Khalifa family conducted their affairs in Bahrain up until 1923. The regions of Bahrain were distributed amongst the leading members of the Al-Khalifa family. Each local sheikh would then impose taxes and would impose his type of control upon his territorial allocations. These territories, or “fiefs”, had different styles from each other, depending on the controlling sheikh.

The worst affected by this type of “fiefdom rule” were the indigenous inhabitants, locally known as Bahranah. The Bahranah, who are Shai Arabs, were at the bottom of the social strata [see Al-Tajir (1987), Farah (1985), Khuri (1980)]. The Al-Khalifa local rulers stripped the land from the inhabitants and converted them into serfs, supplying free labour “sukhra” and imposing on them various types of arbitrary taxes. Oppositions to this form of rule were dealt with swiftly. Having a guaranteed external protection from Britain, the rulers deployed groups of special squads, called “fedaweyah”, for enforcing their rules. The “fedaweyah” were groups of Bedouin fighters brought in from the mainland.

This type of rule was ended in 1923 following an uprising in 1922 and several other disturbances. Britain intervened and replaced the ruler Sheikh Isa bin Ali, with his son Hamad.

Modern Administration and State Formation

The exploration and discovery of oil between 1928-32 “signalled the beginning of a new order that will gradually replace, but not eradicate the older tribal order”, says Khalaf (1998). Revenues from oil weakened the leading role played by the mercantile community, which had traditionally been influential in Bahrain.

The period between 1926-57 witnessed the changing of Bahrain from its “fiefdom” tribal rule into an administration led by the British Advisor, Sir Charles Belgrave. Belgrave (lived in Bahrain from 1927 to 1957) attempted to establish a modern administration that is “subordinated” to tribal control, under British protection.

Despite tribal resistance to the establishment of a modern administration, the events of 1922-23 made the older political order unsustainable. The next step change in Bahrain was the proclamation of independence in 1971.

Britain declared its intents to withdraw its forces east of the Suez in 1968, and this announcement helped to raise several questions about the Gulf security and about Bahrain sovereignty in the face of an Iranian claim. As the Iranian claim was being settled through the UN, the Al-Khalifa family had to face, for the first time, the possibility of sharing some of its power with the population. Demands for political representation had repeatedly been suppressed since 1938, but the vacuum to be created by the British withdrawal was a risky requiring regional and local stability.

As the UN settled the issue of sovereignty in May 1970, in favour of an independent State of Bahrain, the political compass was directing both the ruler and the ruled towards a constitutional monarchy with civil and political rights guaranteed by a constitution. The Constitution of the State of Bahrain was ratified in 1973 and it paved the way for an elected National Assembly.

However, the Al-Khalifa consolidated the policy adopted by Belgrave. It is the policy of separating the society into ethnic and religious groups and dealing with each group in a different way. The Al-Khalifa also formalised the distribution of executive powers. All sovereign-related powers were reserved for the ruling family. These include defence, foreign affairs, internal security, security courts, and all other functions that define “who is in charge of the country”. Strategic positions were also given to certain ethnic and religious groups with accurate political calculations usually carried out. One distinguished classification adopted by the ruling family is the reservation of service-oriented positions, which are neither sovereignty-related nor strategically important, to the Shia/Baharnah group.

The State of Bahrain has, therefore, continued to be based on concentration of powers in the hands of the ruling family. Organs of power and means of control are kept out of other social groups. The internal security system, for example, continued to be controlled by British personnel and staffed by people from other countries. The ruling family adopted a strict ranking for the different Bahraini social groups. This ranking is an informal one, but continued to be effectively deployed.

In parallel to the concentration of power and forcible stratification of social groups, the ruling family controlled most of the land in Bahrain. Land registry was established in the 1920s with the initiation of modern administration. However, all unregistered plots of land were then transferred to the control of the ruler. Distribution of land is a key feature of control, and supplements the centrality of sovereignty in the hands of the ruling family.

The State fund allocated to the ruling family has remained at a very high proportion. Herb (1998) reported the percentage allocated in 1970 to the Al-Khalifa family as 29.3% of total government’s expenditure. This percentage excludes other sources of income that are generated from active, and usually unfair, involvement in trade and commerce in competition with ordinary citizens.

The structure of the “State of Bahrain” has therefore developed as an exclusionist one that is characterised by total subservience to a patrimonial tribal rule. Such an arrangement poses a contradiction between the requirements of a modern state and the conditions needed for tribal control. Sahlins (1968) reminds that “in a tribe, there are not so much different institutions as they are different functions of the same institution: different things a lineage, for instance, may do”. This means that the institutions of the State tend to be transformed into functions for serving the tribe. “The tribal conditions”, he says, “is transcended the moment a state apparatus is differentiated from and imposed upon society at large”.

State versus Civil Society in Bahrain

Data from the Central Statistic Organisation (CSO) showed Bahrain's population expanded to 620,378 by June 1997 from 598,625 a year earlier. Foreigners, mainly from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippine, make up almost 39 percent of the population. The figures showed the number of foreigners grew 4.8 percent to 240,423 and the number of nationals rose 2.9 percent to 379,955 in the year to June 30, 1997. Foreign workers, mainly low-paid and unskilled from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines, hold around 60% out of a total workforce of 239,000.

"Business Middle East" newsletter (1998) reported that official figure from the Bahraini Labour Minister says unemployment is 1.87% (less than 2%). That's 5318 Bahrainis unemployed. The Labour Minister also said that 8349 persons found jobs in 1997. However, the newsletter said that foreign estimate put unemployment rate at 15-18%. Fakhroo [see Sick et al (1997)] reported that unemployment likely exceeds 30%. This is worsened by the influx of “free via” workers, where estimates put them in excess of 30,000. Under the “free visa” programme “each foreign individual pays his sponsor around $1,250 annually for his work and residence permit. This system is run and controlled by some senior bureaucrats and the elite who amass large fortune from it”.

The Financial Times of 31 May 1983 says in its survey on Bahrain "Bahrain is a polyglot state, both religiously and racially. Leaving aside the temporary immigrants of the past 10 years, there are at least eight or nine communities on the island".

Fakhroo [see Sick and Potter (1997)] describes the ethnic origins of today’s Bahrain society as Sunni tribal origins, Sunni non-tribal, Sunni Howala who emigrated from the Persian coast, Sunni of African descent, Shia Arabs (Bahranah), and Shia of Persian origin. There are also tiny Christian, Jewish and other groups. The Shia make up at least two-third of the population. Modern educational establishment and the emergence (since the 1930s) of industrial corporations, such as the Bahrain Petroleum Company, contributed to the formation of social interaction amongst the various communities.

Mouzelis [see Hall (1996)] defines civil society as “all social groups and institutions which lie between primordial kinship groups or institutions on the one hand, and state groups and institutions on the other”. Civil society involves a large-scale mobilisation of the population and its autonomous inclusion into the national, economic, political and cultural arenas. A strong civil society entails the existence of rule-of-law conditions that protect citizens from state arbitrariness, the existence of strongly organised non-governmental interest groups capable of checking eventual abuses of power, and the existence of a balanced pluralism so that no group can establish absolute dominance.

The first attempts at forming modern non-governmental organisations NGOs started in the early by personalities in the early 1920s. In 1919 Al-Adabi Club was established to exchange views and to enhance cultural debate. This was closed down in 1920s by the authorities when members started debating political issues. In the 1930s, three clubs were formed, Bahrain Club in 1937, Al-Ahli Club in 1939 and Oroba Club in 1939. The participants were business people, teachers, students, workers and employees.

At present, the Labour and Social Affair Ministry recognises 138 NGOs (4 for women, 12 social purposes, 2 charity, 3 religious (Sunni), 21 professional, 51 Clubs and expatriate societies, 41 local charity funds (Sandook Khayri). There are other types of traditional organisations, which attract non-governmental activities. These are mosques (both Sunni and Shia) and Shia community centres/assembly halls or “Matams”. There are about 300 Sunni mosques and more than 1000 Shia mosques and assembly halls.

The charity funds (Sandok Khayri) represent one of the excellent examples of NGOs in Bahrain. The government failed to support poorer sections of the society due to the lack of a welfare system. The affected sections of society turned to each other for solidarity and support. Their number rose from 6 in 1993 to 41 at the end of 1994. The mushrooming of their number reflects the strength of social solidarity amongst the people and their speedy response to the failure of the State. The government allowed their growth to release itself from the burden of supporting the poorer sections, but in 1998 it moved to tighten control and their activities. The government is expected to further interfere in the activities of these NGOs and may even attempt a crackdown.

These social centres have are not free from governmental control. The Labour and Social Affairs Minister is empowered by Law No. 21/1989 to dissolve any club or society, to attend any meeting, to demand permission for any function performed by the association and punish any person objecting orders.

In February 1984, the Labour Minister ordered the closure of the (Shia) Islamic Enlightenment Society and its three schools. Within a year of this closure, at least three other libraries (with teaching services) were closed down by the authorities. This followed the arrest of members of the Society by the security forces. Closing down the Islamic Enlightenment Society has further alienated the Shia population who feels they are severely targeted by the State.

Virtually all NGOs are controlled by the State through various means. However, The Bahraini Lawyers Society, the Oroba Club and a few others retained their semi-autonomy and as a result have suffered from intervention by the government.

On 1 February 1998, the President of Bahrain Lawyers Society, Dr. Abbas Helal was interrogated by Interior Ministry officials bout a seminar organised by the Society on 14 January 1998, during which the pro-democracy figure Dr. Monira Fakhroo and the journalist Mr. Hafedh Al-Sheikh mildly criticised the government. On 4 March 1998, the government replaced the elected board of the society with a new board headed by a member of the ruling family.

On 2 April 1998, the government prevented its own ambassador to France, and ex-minister, Dr. Ali Fakhroo, from delivering giving a lecture at the Oroba Club (scheduled for 20 may 1998) in Manama about the responsibilities of citizenship.

On 14 September 1997, An-Nahda Women Association was holding a meeting to discuss details of the commemoration of the late national figure Ms Aziza Al-Bassam, when security officers stormed the Association and brought the meeting to a halt. The participants were also summoned for interrogation the next day. On the next day, executive members were threatened that if any activity takes place, the interior ministry will hold them responsible. They were also banned from publishing anything in press or in booklets.

On 4 April 1998, the Governor of Bahrain Monetary Agency abolished a scheme organised by Al-Ahli Commercial Bank for present awards for high achievers in the society. The Governor, Mr. Abdulla Hassan Saif addressed the Board Director of Al-Ahli Bank, Mr. Mohammed Jalal, saying, “I refer to the Achievement Prize that is annually presented by your Bank. While appreciating the motives for distributing such a prize,.. you are notified that presenting such prizes are performed by the State only”.

All the above actions can not be compared to the severity of State intervention when it comes to social set-ups of the Shia community. Since 1994, mosques and community centres had been ransacked and desecrated. At least 50 Shia mosques and community centres had suffered extensive damages and several of them were, and remained, shut down since 1994. Attacking the Shia community has become a customary exercise for the State. For merely historical reasons, the tribally-controlled State treats the Shia as a “traditional enemy”.

The regional and international political environments of the 1980s and 1990s provided an excellent cover for singling out the Shia community. The authorities implemented severe crackdowns, including collective punishment, arbitrary detention, death under torture, extra-judicial killings and forcible exile.

One of the strategies adopted by the authorities for winning support to its repressive programmes has been the labelling of all activists emerging from Shia community as members of a “Hizbollah”. This labelling is intended for attracting Western, and especially US, sympathies to the crackdowns and collective punishments.

It is a policy similar to the one adopted by the Serbs against people from Bosnia and Kosovo. There, the Serbs attempted (but generally failed) to win US and Western sympathies by saying that they were standing against the threat of Islamic extremism spreading to Europe. Indeed, one can read all what the government of Bahrain is saying and can replace all references to “Hizbollah” by the word “Shia”, and the true picture emerges. It will bring out to the surface the semi-official policy of discrimination against a wide section of the population.

It is not surprising, therefore, that in 1997, the government formed the “High Council for Islamic Affairs” for the sole purpose of confiscating the remaining religious freedoms retained by the Shia community within their mosques and community centres.

Neo-fiefdom Rule

The past two decades provided the State with an opportunity to return to pre-modern policies. Within the Bahraini context, pre-modern refers to the period before 1923, i.e. fiefdom rule. As Khalaf (1998) explains the government has an “unfinished business” to go back to. By now Bahrain is controlled by “despotic powers of a pre-modern state” with an “infra-structural power of a modern state”.

By 1996, the government undertook fundamental changes to the structure of the “State of Bahrain”. These structural changes were facilitated by the financial injection the government had received in that year from the neighbouring Gulf countries. In response to a plea from the government, the UAE pledged to invest around $1 billion in infrastructure industrial projects. More importantly, Saudi Arabia relinquished its shared revenue of Abo-Sa’afa offshore oil field, in favour of the government Bahrain. The oil field is located north of Bahrain. In 1958 the Saudi and Bahraini government signed an agreement for mutual utilisation. In 1965 the revenues were distributed as follows 25% for Bahrain government, 25% for Saudi government and 50% for Aramco. In 1987, the share of revenue was divided 50% between Bahraini government and Aramco [see Al-Sheroogi (1993)].

In 1996, Saudi Arabia agreed that 100% of the revenue (140 b/d) to the Bahraini government. Adding this to a 40 b/d from inshore oil field, the government stated to feel comfortable with the cash flow available for major political projects aimed at reversing the situation to the pre-modern stage in terms of political control. Two projects are worthy of noting in this regard.

The first relate to the importation of Bedouins, predominantly from the Syrian area of Deir-Zor, for affecting demographic changes. The Financial Times of 28 May 1998 reported “Critics of the government say one sinister development is the building by the ruling family of a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around itself by giving nationality to between 8, 000 and 10, 000 Sunni families from Jordan, Syria, Pakistan and Yemen, whose men, working in the security services, would be loyal to the Al-Khalifa family should unrest break out again on a scale which can no longer be contained”. This is of course a very large number of families which implies 40,000-50,000 additional population, or about 13% of the native population. There is no doubt that many Syrian Bedouins can be seen in Bahrain now and most of them are working for the security forces, but no one can be absolutely sure of their exact number.

Statistics of this type will always remain a confidential matter of State. The Financial Times of 28 May 1998 stated “one US analysis, a regular investor, remarked that in Bahrain substantial revenues from oil sales were unaccounted for. In Bahrain's 1998 budget there are no references to revenue estimates from any of the country principle state- owned industries. Officials refuse to comment on these and other criticisms. Local publications are censored”.

According to the official figures issued by the Ministry of Finance and National Economy for the 1998 budget, the total recurrent expenditure was around BD 573 million ($1.5). This is about 80% of the annual budget and were expended in 1998 as follows:

     Ministry of Defence: 19%
     Ministry of Interior: 16%
     Ministry of Education: 14%
     Ministry of Health: 10%
     Ministry of Electricity: 6%

The total percentage expended on defence and security amounts to 35% of recurrent expenditure as compared to 30% expended on education, health and electricity combined.

Before 1920s, the ruling Al-Khalifa family deployed groups of “fedaweyah” for imposing their will on the society. More than 75 years later, similar groups of people are being importing for the same purpose.

The second project relates to the dividing Bahrain to four provinces, or fiefs. Al-Hayat of 29 May 1996, reported that the a new decree is underway for establishing a “system of four provinces”. A Governor, appointed by the Interior Minister will control each province, and each Governor will appoint 30 persons, or “mukhtar”. In 1919, Bahrainis moved away from appointed bodies and elected their representatives for a municipality. In 1973, Bahrainis elected a National Assembly that was dissolved in 1975. But in 1996, Bahrain is forcibly returned to a situation below the level enjoyed by Bahraini 75 years earlier.

Al-Hayat (29 May 1996) said that there are five objectives for this “new” system. The most important of these objectives are those stated in the third and fourth points. The third point states the objective of “preserving security in public order, while the fourth point states the objective of ensuring “loyalty”.

On 2 May 1997, a member of the ruling family, Abdul Aziz Atteyat-Allah Al-Khalifa, was appointed the Governor of the Capital. On 21 February 1998 another member of the ruling family, Isa bin Ahmed Mohammed Al-Khalifa, was appointed as the Governor of Muharraq. Both persons had played senior roles in the Interior Ministry as investigating officers.


Clash of concepts: Today’s Bahrain is a cosmopolitan society with an active population aspiring for greater participation in society and politics. The various ethnic and religious sects have tended to come together for the furtherance of common causes. This was manifested in the type and construction of leading movements since 1938. However, this tendency clashes directly with the tribally controlled ruling establishment.

The underlying conceptions of “state” and “popular participation” are viewed differently. The rulers float the idea of an appointed consultative council as the most appropriate and compatible form of popular participation. This form of participation has no capability to stand against the excesses the State.

Countering this concept is the view that reiterates the need for popular participation as the only long-term and viable alternative for meeting the challenges of the modern age. The pro-democracy movement in Bahrain has based its views on the modern concepts stated in Bahrain’s 1973 constitution, effectively suspended since 1975. Political rights are specified in Article 1e of the constitution: "The citizens shall have the rights to participate in the public affairs of the State and enjoy political rights, beginning with the right to vote".

Disregarding Bahrain’s Constitution: The Bahrain government disregards all articles specifying public rights and freedoms. Examples of such rights are as follows. Article 18 sates “People are equal in human dignity, and citizens shall be equal in public rights and duties before the law, without discrimination as to race, origin, language, religion or belief”. Article 22 states “Freedom of conscience is absolute. The State shall guarantee the inviolability of places of worship and the freedom to perform religious rites and to hold religious processions and meetings in accordance with the customs observed in the country”. Article 27 states "Freedom to form associations and trade unions on a national basis and for lawful objectives and by peaceful means shall be guaranteed". None of these or other articles are respected by the government.

Neo-fiefdom rule: Since the dissolution of the parliament in 1975, the ruling family has incrementally returned back to the state of affairs that existed before 1923. This return has been camouflaged by a modern “symbology’ of State. All organs of powers are dominated and controlled by members of the ruling family. Lands of Bahrain are controlled as private estates and a new structure for the State of Bahrain was initiated in 1996 to divide these estates and to rule them through “governors” appointed from tribal-security ranks. Even the education sector has been subjected to paramilitary control, thus preventing interaction of university and society. Foreign-staffed security forces and recently imported groups of people are deployed to coerce the society into submission. This is a “neo-fiefdom” rule.


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