By: Abdulhadi Khalaf

On March 6, 1999, Hamad bin Isa succeeded his father as the Amir of Bahrain. Following the traditional forty days mourning, the new Amir spoke to his people. The country, he said, "is entering an era of change for the better in all areas...". The Amiri manifesto solemnly added that "at the top [of my] priorities are national unity and internal security, through the solidarity of all Bahrain citizens, without discrimination, whatever their origin or creed".

The following short account reviews some of Hamad bin Isa's attempts to carry out the tasks he set for himself and his reign. In doing so I will digress into some aspects of the political environment within which he treads. My account confirms to paraphrase Hudson (quoted in Schwedler 1995:9) that there are some straws in the wind but not enough to indicate that a serious political shift is in the making.


Amiri statements sounded particularly auspicious in a country where its modern history is a history of conflicts that periodically throw it into chaos, with the last beginning in December 1994. Confrontations between protesters and government forces have, at times, been violent, which has led to some twenty fatalities. Accounts by government's spokespersons portray the conflict as a result of terrorist acts carried out by small bands of misguided Shia youth encouraged by foreign patrons (Abdul Ghafar, 1997). Diametrically different accounts by Bahraini opposition show that the conflict is an intifada seeking to restore democratic constitutional rule (Fakhro 1999). Outside commentators (Cf. Weinberger, 1995; Gwadat, 1999) depart from the obligatory restatement of ethnic polarisation to describe the current situation as a conflict between the ' underprivileged Shia majority' and the 'privileged Sunni ruling minority'. While concurring with the observation that "sectarian tensions also play a role" (Gauss, 1997), I submit that Shia-Sunni dichotomy is only one of several more relevant factors in the current episode of contention.


For many Bahrainis, the Amiri manifesto has evoked a strong feeling of déjà vu. Similar promises were made nearly three decades ago, in August 1971, when Bahrain was declared independent. At that time, too, the future seemed so bright. The country was to move away from being an ethnically segmented political formation into the new bold world of enlightened nations. Public official statements, and the not so-public assurances, promised that independence would make the nationification project a priority of the state. Even then, exiled opponents of the regime were allowed to return and were publicly welcomed by the Amir and senior members of his family. The impending transformation seemed within its grasp as symbols of statehood were introduced with the appropriate fanfare. Two tangible gestures strengthened those hopes. First, the newly issued passports issued by the 'State of Bahrain' announced that Bahrainis were literally promoted from 'subjects' to 'citizens', albeit in three different categories. The second were the leaks from the high level meetings of representatives of the British nine Gulf protectorates, including Bahrain, to establish a federation. During those negotiations, Bahrain insisted, to the approval of their home audience, that a federation agreement should reflect the will of the people. Bahrain proposed a system of "proportional representation" as the most suitable mechanism to make the voice of peoples of the federated-to-be sheikhdoms heard. Bahrain also insisted that such a proportional representation should be reached through direct elections. (al-Baharna 1973: 62-64)


Following months of uncertainty and procrastination, the core of the ruling family became convinced that it could forge a successful combination of most privileges of pre-modern states and some of obligations of modern ones. A partially elected Constituent Assembly, of males only, debated and adopted a draft constitution.

The 1973 constitution appeased advocates of two parallel strategies. Theses strategies have simultaneously mobilized, to borrow from Mann (1986), the despotic powers of the regime as well as its infrastructural powers. The former sought to maintain the status quo (plus some reforms) while the latter sought to adapt to principles of enlightenment (minus some reforms).

In view of the freedoms it guaranties and in terms of the civil and human right it recognizes, the 1973 constitution is a remarkable document, (e.g. articles 4-28. For full text see al-Bahrana 1973). However, the constitution actually constrains the practice of rights and freedoms with an undefined stipulation: "in accordance with law". This explains that in spite of constitutional stipulation on equality of all citizens, Election Law Decree excluded women from participation in the nascent democratic experiment. Protests, including those organized by women's organizations, did not shake up the anti-female consensus.

In December 1973, Bahraini males elected members of the National Assembly. Various political forces, although not recognized as political collectives, took part, including communists and religionists. Notwithstanding the post election euphoria, the real balance of forces inside the parliament was clearly in favour of the regime. This is partly due to a constitutional stipulation that all fourteen ministers were ex officio full members of the parliament. Such a voting block proved to be impenetrable.

While the whole parliamentary arrangement seemed to suit regime's dual strategy, the extra-parliamentary situation was threatening to get out of control (Khalaf 1985). An unforeseen consequence of the 'parliamentary experiment' was the opening of political spaces and in setting citizenship rights as a focus for political contention. Disenfranchised women were beginning to organise in town and in the countryside and challenging the regime and its clerical allies. Scores of petitions were organised by women activists and presented to the assembly demanding rights stretching from voting and other political rights to provision child day-care centres. Diverse other groups including the bidoons, trade unionists, the unemployed were using the limited opening to put forward their own specific demands.

In August 1975, the Amir ended the 'constitutional experiment' without setting a date for its re-introduction. Since then, Bahrain lived under a virtual state of emergency, which has pushed all forms of political opposition underground (Moosa 1987). Discontented citizens were dealt with through agreeable patrons and intermediaries, through direct handouts or through the indiscriminate and decisive measures by the British-led security services, the SIS. (Cf. Wilkinson 1996; HRW 1997; Bar Human Rights Committee of England & Wales 1998).

During the past two decades opposition activities, including an alleged 'plan to stage a coup d'état', as well as the periodic agitation by members of various elite groups, including the business community, have not diminished the regime's resistance towards political reforms (Stork 1997). Periodic economic difficulties are usually followed by public calls for "restoration of democratic life". On such times, the local press is permitted to publish interviews with former MPs and other notables on the "blessings of democracy", and on the need to "share the burden of rule". The last such an occasion occurred during 1990-91, during preparations for the liberation of Kuwait as a first step towards the building of the promised New World Order. (HRW 1997)


In nearly fifteen years after the dissolution of parliament, the generally peaceful and vertically segmented social order was not seriously challenged. Political contentions, of course, were taking place, but within the boundaries formulated by the regime. Residential groups, professional associations and groups; clans and families; social clubs, charitable associations, were competing with each other, sometimes fiercely, partly for their own survival and partly to obtain additional gratuities.

Excesses of the regime, including its record of human rights violations, did not diminish the support it receives from external sources particularly from the USA and from Britain. Those excesses, in fact, enhanced the regime position as a deserving recipient of political, security and financial aid from Saudi Arabia and other GCC states. Combined internal and external support emboldened the regime and enhanced its self-confidence to disregard almost totally its subject population. From the perspective of the ruling family, the future could not have looked brighter than it did on the eve of the Iraqi invasion Kuwait.

While Bahrain was transformed into an advanced military base for the Desert Storm, efforts were made to win the hearts of minds of an increasingly skeptical local population. Intense public relations exercise gave a democratic interpretation of the proposed New World Order. Bahraini press, otherwise heavily censored, featured daily articles as well as official statements describing the good things to come. The only remaining barrier was the presence of Saddam Hussain's troops in Kuwait. (Cf. HRW 1997:23-4)

Within this historical context, one should read the more recent episodes in contentious politics, i.e. the 1992 and 1994 campaign for 'restoration of democracy and re-institution of parliament'. Mobilization of a significant portion of the population around these objectives brought to the forefront many related but usually overlooked issues. (Abdulla 1997) Women's rights, the return of forced exiles, the right of Bahraini bidoons to citizenship, and so on, appeared to be consensual topics on the public agenda. The campaign led since 1994 by the Popular Petition Committee, PPC reportedly gathered between 20,000 and 25, 000 ' (HRW 1997:30).

The regime's own calculation led it to reject the 'constitutional proposals' and instead, to opt for a less risky way out. A Council of Shura was formed in 1992. Appointees were equally divided between Shia and Sunni and among relevant segments within each community. Furthermore, and in accordance with "tradition", a Shia minister, after resigning his cabinet post, was appointed as a Speaker of the new body.

The regime took additional measures to re-gain the political initiative, including publicized visits by senior members of the ruling to traditional notables and senior clerics. Promises of additional infrastructural improvements were made, as well as publicly pledging to "grant" more concessions including relaxation of the stifling censorship on writers and artists. Concessions actually offered or simply promised, were part of the usual repertoire of measures reserved for severe crises. One surprising novelty, befitting the euphoric expectations of the New World Order, was the announcement in 1992, of an amnesty to unidentified number of 'persons living abroad because of their political acts', i.e. the self-exiled and forcibly exiled Bahrainis.


The sudden death of Sheikh Isa bin Salman on March 6, 1999 upset even some of his opponents. He was seen as the benign opposite of his younger brother, Khalifa, who holds the prime ministerial post since its inception in 1971. Statements of condolences by opposition groups announced the 'temporary cessation of all protest activities". Leading opponents of the regime seemed to believe that the new Amir would follow some, if not all, of the footsteps of the newly crowned kings of Morocco and Jordan. Like those monarchs, the overtly wishful reasoning went, Hamad needs to start afresh and will seek stand up to more militant flanks of his family. An unusual sign of change in the political environment also heartened opposition groups when local press started publishing articles on the need to consolidate the constitutional order.


Hamad spent most of his energies on consolidating his reign. To the dismay of his opponents, all his moves have been within the confines of the ancien régime. He has concentrated on mobilizing the same external and internal resources of legitimacy that supported his father's reign. These did not include, at least not since 1975, the constitution and rights and obligations it sets for the ruler and the ruled. During the past year, one can identify the following areas with which the Amir has been preoccupied.

1) The Family

Hamad's foremost priority has been to preserve the cohesion of the ruling family, to preserve its domestic peace, and subsequently to establish his undisputed authority within it. Like other ruling families in the rest of the GCC, internal squabbles provide the most credible threat to the stability of al-Khalifa dynasty and to its continued prosperity. Here I need to briefly digress into details. From 1959 to 1971, the core of the ruling consisted of the Amir and his two brothers. Fierce family feuds forced the early retirement of the youngest brother. In 1971, Hamad replaced his deposed younger uncle as the junior member of the troika. Existence of the troika is acknowledged in official communiqués as 'the political leadership'.

Hamad's moves towards streamlining the affairs of the family were swift. Within days of assuming power, Hamad appointed his son as Crown Prince, thus correcting the balance of power within this 'political leadership'. Another move, designed mostly to irritate the Prime Minister has been the summoning his other uncle, Mohammad, from his political wilderness. Politically more serious are the measures initiated to consolidate his authority within the 'al-Khalifa Family Council itself. As well as appointing some of his sons and brothers, to various positions in the Council trusted members of his faction, including another of his sons, to various positions in the Council, the Amir raised the monthly stipends allocated for each of the 2500-3000 members of the ruling family, according to an elaborate classification. In the past year, the Amir has put greater efforts in appointing educated men and women, some of who are accomplished professionals in their fields, to senior positions in government and public institutions. His latest appointments led to charges by opposition spokespersons that he has embarked on started khalifanizing the state apparatus.. More perilous, to the Amir, are reactions from traditional beneficiaries of state generous recruitment policies.

Hamad needs to do more than what he has done to date before he can balance the powers of his uncle, the Prime Minister, and establish his exclusive authority over the family and the state. In spite of all his efforts, Hamad may soon discover that he needs to decide whether to cohabitate with his uncle or put him in retirement.

2- The 'Tribals' and the Clerical establishment

The next priority is looking to the two vital and longstanding pillars of the al-Khalifa rule, that is the 'tribals' and the clerical establishment.

First, I should note that the word 'tribals' is a recurring misnomer in discussions on socio-political structure in Bahrain. Of the more than two dozens tribes listed as residents in the country, (al-Zayani 1977), very few can boast numbers exceeding the two digits. Even by Bahrain standards, some of the listed tribes are not more than extended families. It is necessary also to note that al-Khalifa's alleged 'tribalism' is a political instrument rather than an ideological option. It has been mobilized and de-mobilised to suit the political ends of the ruling family and its core.

While often invoked as sources of traditional legitimacy, tribalism and tribal allegiances have not given the 'tribals' any special political position or turned them into a recognized corporate body that can claim rights. Whatever concessions a 'tribal' gets are personal and contingent on the will of the ruling family. However, a person with a recognized tribal name is more likely to find an appointment in the Bahrain Defence Force.

In an important area, the 'tribals' have been until recently, discriminated against. The ruling family in Bahrain has consistently excluded its 'tribals' from taking political posts. Until 1996, not a single ministerial post was allocated to persons with tribal credentials. While all strategic ministries are reserved for al-Khalifa, the remaining ' service ministries', are divided generally equally, among Shia and Sunni ministers. Sunni ministers have always been drawn from the Howala, i.e. descendants of Sunni families inhabiting the Persian side of the Gulf and who migrated to Bahrain at the turn of last century. Hamad did not change this time-honoured policy. The first cabinet of his reign showed the replacement of two Howala ministers by an al-Khalifa and a Shia respectively.

The second pillar of the al-Khalifa rule is more intricate. Formally, the clerical establishment is organized through The High Council for Islamic Affairs, which deals with internal affairs of Shia and Sunni communities. Its mandate includes administering the lucrative Awkaf properties, supervision of religious education, recruitment of clerics and other personnel for various religious institutions.

Hamad benefits from a legacy of British administration that continues to shape the cordial relationship between the ruling family and the clerical establishment. Since the early days of modern state administration, a consistent feature of local politics has been the absence of both Shia and Sunni clerics from overt political confrontations with the regime. Following 1975, clerics, of both sects, were encouraged to increase their public role through, among other channels, regular use of government-owned television and radio. Clerics, of both sects, were also encouraged to establish their own separate "charitable associations". Soon, however, underground religionist groups were taking active part in these associations. In the mid-1980s, some of these associations were banned on charges of providing the younger and more militant religionists with valuable and effective platforms to reach a wider public.

Clerics-ruling family relationship continues in spite of occasional rupture caused by activities of underground religionist groups, including the young graduates from seminaries in Cairo, Najaf and Qum. For clerics, the relationship provides them not only with access to the centre of power but also provide with enough goodwill to intercede on behalf of their own restive constituencies. Benefits secured through such intercession range from securing employment, housing loan or a plot of land, to release from detention. The influence of these clerics has led to an absence of any active protest in some rural areas and residential quarters throughout the recent troubles that raged in rest of the country since 1994. This supports Khuri's observation (1980:241) that " 'tribalism' as a form of social organization and religionism as a political force reinforce each other".

During the year, the Amir has made several gestures confirming that he appreciates the political fruits of continuing obliging the clerical establishment. An innovative, if highly bizarre, gesture of generosity across confessional lines was his offer of a sheep and bag of rice to several hundred recognized Hussainiyah, at last Muharram. However, relying on a sufficiently prudent clerical establishment he did not need to mobilize religion, or even show the customary public signs of piety such attending a Friday prayer. His plan to grant women the right to vote, but not to become candidates in future municipal elections may require him to invest more energies and resources in appeasing his family's clerical allies.

3. Human Right 'Issues'

During the year, Hamad has made several pronouncements on what may be grouped as human rights issues. Some of these measures and pronouncements have their own historical significance. Among these is a commitment to grant women the right to vote in municipal elections. However, the sum total of all that, when everything is said and done, does not add up to a move away from despotic rule. While some of Hamad's moves confirm his tactical skill, they also betray his reluctance to address the causes of the crises which has plagued the country since 1975. Probably more alarming is that some of his moves seem designed solely to impress an international audience. Here he certainly has made some impact. His attempts to improve Bahrain's 'image' and to reassure foreign investors have been bold and innovative although not always fruitful. Early this year, the regime's public relations drive suffered a serious set back. For several years, REDRESS and other London-based human rights watchdogs have compiled witness accounts and other documentation on allegations of torture in Bahraini prisons. In January, the Metropolitan police began initial investigation into allegations against the Chief of Bahraini security police, General Ian Henderson.

Other measures directly affecting human rights in the country have also been taken, including:


One of Hamad's early measures should have shattered all the overly unrealistic hopes that he will initiate a dialogue with moderate opposition figures towards national reconciliation. On July 8, Bahrainis were treated to a show of bizarre magnanimity. A leading figure of the PPC, Shiekh Abdul Amir al-Jamri, incarcerated since 1996, was shown on TV apologizing to the Amir, the day after he had been sentenced to a fine of some five million Bahrain dinars and a 10 year imprisonment. The Amir has duly pardoned the humiliated elderly cleric. The trial, with its unprecedented harsh sentence, and the following pardon confirmed what radical opponents of the regime have been saying all along: it does not tolerate any form of opposition even the non-violent protest advocated by al-Jamri.

Throughout the year, the Amir announced several Makramah granting conditional pardon. Several hundreds detainees were released and some 40 exiles were allowed to return home. To benefit from the Amiri magnanimity a person is required to send a personal attestation of his/her repentance and an assurance that he/she will not 'meddle in politics'. Probably because of this condition that most exiles, and several hundreds detainees have not been enticed by Hamad repeated show of magnanimity.


In his first national day speech, the Amir announced another makrama promising citizenship to all those 'who qualify for it'. During the past three months, some 850 bidoons have finally seen their generation old agony end. Hamad deserves praise for this move, however, it should be noted that bidoons will remain legally insecure in their new status as 'naturalized citizens', the lowest category in the three tier Bahraini citizenship.


In October, the Amir announced the formation of a Human Rights Committee. The six members of the committee were selected from members of the Shura and were charged with studying the laws and regulations currently in force in Bahrain and asked to propose amendments in line with the country's international commitments. Its most public activity to date has been commemorating the human rights day on December 10. The Committee has been criticized for its inactivity and lack of clout.


In his national day speech, the Amir announced also a plan to hold municipal elections in which women would be allowed to vote. The announcement disappointed Bahraini women who noted the better fortune of their Qatari sisters who were granted the right to vote and to candidate. The regime has yet to set dates and procedures for the new project.


Hamad's record during the year seems modest and uninspiring. Mistakenly, probably, he has raised expectations to levels that he could not possibly carry through without confronting his powerful uncle. He attempted to cover a vast area without securing, among other things, a popular base of support for his moves. To do so he needed to take the bull by its horn, as it were.

Hamad ruled out any meeting with members of the PPC, let alone initiating a meaningful political dialogue, which lead to national reconciliation. Few weeks ago the Amir, following his father's footsteps, refused to receive a letter from the PCC sent to him through one of his newly appointed advisors. Like his father, he has reportedly stated that he, too, does not receive petitions. Ironically, the action of the Amir is within the letter of the constitution. Article 29, specifically states " Any individual can address the public authorities in writing and with his signature. Only duly constituted organizations and corporate bodies shall have the right to address the public authorities collectively". By defining the PPC as not a 'duly constituted organization or a corporate body', the Amir was formally correct, but this is likely to grow into a strategic blunder. The final price of his blunder may be more than just delaying a return to constitutional legitimacy and democracy.

Shiekh Hamad bin Isa has not been idly sitting by during the year. He has concentrated on maintaining the cohesion of his family as well as trying to establish a credible base of authority which can compete, if not completely neutralize, the power base of his uncle, the Prime Minister. The latter, the founder of the modern state according to his official biography, would certainly be happy to turn his nephew into a powerless figurehead of the state. It is too early to judge how viable is the current cohabitation in Bahrain, or to predict its likely outcomes.


· Fawziyya Abdulla, (1997), "Al-Mara'a wal mosharakah al-siyassiyyah fil bahrayn" (Women and Political Participation in Bahrain) in Ahmad al-Shamlan, et al, (1997) al-harakah al-distoriyyah - Nidhal Shaab al-bahrayn min ajli al-dimokratiyyah,(The Constitutional Movement- The Struggle of People of Bahrain for Democracy), dar al-wihda al-wataniyyah, (Beirut?)

· Muhammad Abdul Ghaffar, (1996) "Letters", Middle East Report, October-December.

· Hussain al-Baharna, (1973) Duwal al-khaleej al-arabi al-haditha, [Modern Arab Gulf States], Beirut

· Bar Human Rights Committee of England & Wales, (1998), Crises of Human Rights in Bahrain: The Rules of Law under Threat, London,

· Munira Ahmad Fakhro, (1997), "Intifadhat Sha'ab al-bahrayn, al-asbab wal durous wal ihtimalaat" , (Bahraini uprising, the causes, lessons and prospects), in Al-Shamlan, op.cit.

· F. Gregory Gause III, (1997) "The Gulf Conundrum: Economic Change, Population Growth, and Political Stability in the GCC States", Washington Quarterly, Winter 97, Vol. 20 Issue 1,

· Bahgat Gwadat , (1999), Peace in the Persian Gulf: the Shi'is Dimension, Peace & Change, Vol. 24 Issue 1,

· HRW [Human Rights Watch], (1997), Routine Abuse Routine Denial: Civil Rights and the Political Crisis in Bahrain, New York/Washington DC

· Abdulhadi Khalaf, (1985), "Labor Movements in Bahrain", MERIP, May

· Fouad I. Khuri (1980) Tribe and State in Bahrain , Chicago University Press

· Michael Mann, (1986), "The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms and Results", in John A. Hall (Ed), States in History, Basil Blackwell,

· Hussain Moosa (1987) Al-bahrayn: al-Nidhal al-watani wal-demokrati 1920-1981, (Bahrain: National and Democratic Struggle- 1920-1981), al-Haqeeqa Press, (?Damascus/Beirut),

· Jillian Schwedler (ed) (1995), Towards Civil Society in the Middle East ?, Lynne Rienner Publishrs, Boulder

· Joe Stork (1997) " Bahrain's Crises Worsens", Meddle East Report, July-September 1997

· Caspar W. Weinberger (1995) Forbes, Vol. 155 Issue 11

· Robert Wilkinson (1996), Speak Together of Freedom: The Present Struggle for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, The Parliamentary Human Rights Group United Kingdom, London

· Faisal Ibrahim al-Zayani, (1977) Mojatam'a al-bahrayn wa athar al-hijra al-kharijiyya fi taghyeer bina'iehi al-ijtimaa'i, ( Bahraini Society an the impact of external migration in transforming its social structure), Dar al-Ta'aleef Printer, Cairo,

(About the author: Abdulhadi Khalaf, PhD in Sociology, 1972, from University of Lund, Sweden, where he currently teaches courses in Sociology of Development, and in Human Rights in the Third World. His publications include, (1988) almoqawama almadaniyyah (Civil Resistance), Arab Research Institute, Beirut, and, (2000)) Unfinished Business- Contentious Politics and State-Building in Bahrain, University of Lund, Dept of Sociology, Research Report, 2000:1. His extra academic career includes a short spell as an elected member Bahraini parliament (1973-74); and two short spells (1974-5 and 1976) as a prisoner of conscience. )