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Middle East
Country profile: Bahrain
Last Modified: 18 Feb 2011 09:27 GMT
 

Known as one of the most socially liberal states in the Gulf, the small island nation of Bahrain has faced political unrest in recent years.

With a capital in Manama, the country is a chain of around 30 islands with a territory of 717 square kilometers.

It is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), along with Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Politics

The Khalifah family has ruled the country since 1783, after expelling the Persians. After signing a treaty with the UK, it became a British protectorate from 1861, until independence on August 15, 1971.

The country became a constitutional monarchy in February 2002, melding a hereditary monarchy with a bicameral legislature, where some representatives are elected. The prime minister is appointed by the king, while voters elect 40 members to a council of representatives. The king also appoints 40 members to a consultative council.

Currently, the chamber of deputies is comprised of 18 members from the al Wifaq (Shia), three from al Asala (Sunni Salafi), two from al Minbar (Sunni Muslim Brotherhood) and 17 independents.

The current king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah, took the reins of power in March 1999 when his father died. He was educated at Cambridge University and the US Army Command and Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

The ruling family are Sunnis, while about 70 per cent of the population are Shias, who complain about discrimination from the dominant minority. Shia Iran is said to view Bahrain as a renegade province, exacerbating sectarian tensions and worsening fears from ruling elites.

Economy

One of the first countries in the Gulf to discover oil, Bahrain has attempted to diversify its economy towards banking, tourism and services.

While never reaching the levels of oil production experienced by Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, the country has been more successful than other Gulf states in diversifying its economy. Per capita income is $25,420 according to 2009 World Bank figures. The country is wealthy, but not as prosperous as Qatar, the UAE or other Gulf states.

Unlike other Gulf states, alcohol can be purchased in shops, rather than just upscale hotels. The country's liberal laws have made it a popular tourist destination, drawing residents from neighboring Saudi Arabia and other states in the region.

Society

Bahrain has a population of 807,000 people, according to 2010 UN figures. This includes 235,108 foreign expats, according to CIA figures.

About 70 per cent of the population are Shia muslims, while Sunni Muslims and other groups make up the rest. Arabic is the major language, but English is also widely spoken. Life expectancy is high, with men living an average of 72 years and women making it to 78.

Shias complain about being subject to unfair laws. There have also been allegations that Sunni rulers have fast-tracked citizenship for some foreigners to change the demographic balance in the country.

Much of the population is connected to the Internet, although the elites still censor some sites. The media is more free than other Gulf states, although self-censorship from journalists is still common.

A close US ally, Bahrain is home to the US navy's fifth fleet.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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