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Opposition groups
Ahrar albahrain


Polity: Traditional monarchy
Political Rights: 5
Civil Liberties: 5
Status: Partly Free
Economy: Capitalist-statist
Population: 700,000
PPP: $15,084
Life Expectancy: 74
Religious Groups: Shi’a Muslim (70 percent), Sunni Muslim (30 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Bahraini (63 percent), Asian (19 percent), other Arab (10 percent), Iranian (8 percent)
Capital: Manama
Ratings Change: 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.
Ten Year Ratings Timeline (Political Rights, Civil Liberties, Status): 1 being the highest, 7 the lowest

Brief Overview

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.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

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 arbitrary 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'a's 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.