A Primer on Bahrain

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

In an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, Salman Shaikh discusses Bahrain, offering context on the nation’s people and history.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: For some context on Bahrain, its people and its history, we turn now to Salman Shaikh. He’s director of the Brookings Doha Center and he joins us now from Qatar. Welcome to the program.

SALMAN SHAIKH: It’s a pleasure to be with you.

NORRIS: Now, as we just heard in the Peter Kenyon piece, police reacted to the square with rubber bullets, shotgun shells, canisters, very violent reaction today. Is that in line with how the security forces have traditionally treated people who question or protest against the government?

SHAIKH: There has been a history of protests in Bahrain for a number of years. But I think these incidents since yesterday and last night show perhaps a greater disproportionate use of force than we’ve seen in Bahrain before.

NORRIS: We’re hoping that you can help us understand a little bit more about Bahrain. We call it a kingdom because it’s been ruled by the same family for more than 200 years. Can you tell us a little bit more about its political structure?

SHAIKH: Yes, of course. You’re absolutely right. It has been ruled by the Khalifa family for more than 200 years. It’s currently headed by a king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who took up the throne in March 1999 after his father.

Bahrain is a country which assumed its independence from the British in 1971. But what has been significant about the rule of the current king is that he actually has championed a program of democratic reforms since taking over. Despite the reforms, I think there is a feeling that there needs to be much greater representation of the citizens in the political structures.

NORRIS: Now, this is a country which is ruled by minority Sunni. But the Shia represent the majority, so there are inherent political tensions there.

SHAIKH: Absolutely. The Shias constitute about 70 percent of the total population of Bahrain; the Sunnis, probably just under 30 percent. And there are other smaller groups, which include Christians and even a very small Jewish minority as well. But, again, Shias have felt that they’ve not been represented adequately.

Listen to the interview or read the full transcript at »