Bahrain’s history goes back to the roots of human civilization. The main island is thought to have broken away from the Arabian mainland sometime around 6000BC and has almost certainly been inhabited since prehistoric times. The islands of Bahrain, positioned in the middle south of the Persian Gulf, have attracted the attention of many invaders throughout history. Bahrain is an Arabic word meaning “Two Seas”, and is thought to either refer to the fact that the islands contain two sources of water, sweet water springs and salty water in the surrounding seas, or to the south and north waters of the Persian Gulf, separating it from the Arabian coast and Iran, respectively.
The archipelago first emerged into world history sometime around 3000BC as the seat of the Dilmun trading empire. Dilmun, a Bronze Age culture that lasted some 2000 years, benefited from the archipelago’s strategic position along the trade routes linking Mesopotamia with the Indus Valley. In the midst of a region rapidly becoming arid, Dilmun’s lush spring-fed greenery gave it the image of a holy island in the mythology of Sumeria, one of the world’s earliest civilizations, which flourished in what is today southern Iraq. Dilmun had a similar cachet with the Babylonians, whose Epic of Gilgamesh mentions the islands as a paradise where heroes enjoy eternal life. Some scholars have suggested that Bahrain may be the site of the biblical Garden of Eden. Historical records also referred to Bahrain as the “Life of Eternity”, “Paradise”, etc. Bahrain was also called the “Pearl of the Persian Gulf”.
Though Dilmun enjoyed considerable power and influence, it is difficult to gauge exactly how much. There is no question that at one time, Dilmun controlled a large part of the western Gulf shore (what is now eastern Saudi Arabia). But there is dispute over how far north and inland its influence was felt. At various times in its history, Dilmun probably extended as far north as Kuwait and as far inland as the oasis of Al-Hasa in modern Saudi Arabia.
Dilmun eventually declined and was absorbed by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. The Greeks arrived, in the form of Nearchus, a general in the army of Alexander the Great, around 300BC, giving the islands the name Tylos. He established a colony on the island of Falaika off the coast of Kuwait in the late 4th century BC. It is known that he explored the Gulf at least as far south as Bahrain. Bahrain remained a Hellenistic culture for some 600 years.
The six hundred years from about 300B.C. to 300A.D. seem to have been relatively prosperous ones. Writing in the first century A.D., Pliny mentioned that Tylos was famous for its pearls. During these years, Bahrain was strongly influenced and often directly ruled by various Persian civilizations; indeed, the islands were formally annexed by the Sassanian Persians in the 4th century A.D.
Interestingly, it was during the 3rd or 4th centuries A.D. that many inhabitants of Bahrain appear to have adopted the new Christian faith. It is a fact that the Nestorian sect of Christianity was well-established in Bahrain and on the Arabian side of the Gulf by the early 5th century. Church records show that Bahrain was the seat of two of the five Nestorian bishoprics existing on the Arabian side of the Gulf at the time of the arrival of Islam. It is uncertain when the two bishoprics were dissolved though they are known to have survived until 835A.D. After experimenting with Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Manicheism, in the 7th century many of the island’s inhabitants accepted the personal invitation of the prophet Mohammed to convert to Islam.
The people of Bahrain are very proud of the fact that they were one of the first territories outside mainland Arabia to accept Islam. And to do so peacefully. About the year 640A.D., the Prophet Mohammed sent a letter to the ruler of Bahrain inviting him to adopt Islam. For whatever reasons he did so fairly soon thereafter and for another two centuries, Christians and Muslims lived peacefully together in Bahrain. Even today in 1996, Bahrain has a tiny community of indigenous Christians.
Bahrain was a part of both the Umayyad and Abbasid empires from the 9th to 11th centuries. It was a staunchly Shi’a Muslim community — once again because of the Persian influences — and during these years, it appears to have been well-governed and prosperous. It once again became an important port on the trade routes, between Iraq and India. Bahrain changed hands often during the Middle Ages and was caught in various squabbles and disputes between petty Gulf sheikhs who seem to have been constantly fighting with one another.
Bahrain up until 1521 comprised the bigger region of Ahsa, Qatif (both are now the eastern province of Saudi Arabia) as well as Awal (now Bahrain Islands). The region stretched from Basrah to the Strait of Hormuz in Oman. This was Iqlim al-Bahrayn “Bahrayn Province” and the Arab inhabitants of the province, descendants of the Arab tribe Bani ?Abdu l-Qays, were called Baharna after it.
After a series of Islamic rulers, Bahrain was conquered by the Portuguese in the early 16th century. The Portuguese used the island as a pearling port and military garrison. In 1602, the Portuguese governor made the fatal mistake of executing the brother of one of the island’s wealthiest traders. The trader, Rukn El-Din, proceeded to lead an uprising that soon drove the Europeans from Bahrain. Ultimately, the Persian Afsharid king, Nadir Shah, invaded and took control of Bahrain and for reasons of political control supported the Shi?a majority.The island then became part of the Persian empire, but that association was cut short by the arrival of the Al Khalifa clan, Bahrain’s current ruling family.
In the late 18th century, the Al Khalifa clan invaded and captured the islands from their base in neighbouring Qatar. In order to secure Bahrain from returning to Persian control, the Emirate entered into a treaty relationship with the United Kingdom and became a British protectorate.
In the 1830s, Bahrain signed the first of many treaties with Britain, who offered Bahrain naval protection from Ottoman Turkey in exchange for unfettered access to the Gulf. This arrangement kept the British out of Bahrain’s internal affairs until a series of internecine battles prompted the British to install their own choice for emir in 1869.
Although oil was discovered in the area in 1902, large-scale drilling and processing didn’t happen until the 1930s, right about the time the world pearl market was collapsing. Oil money brought improved education and health care to Bahrain. It also brought the British closer: the main British naval base in the region was moved to Bahrain in 1935, and the senior British official in the Middle East followed suit in 1946.
British influence would continue to grow as the country developed, culminating with the appointment of Charles Belgrave as an advisor. Belgrave helped create the country’s educational system and oversaw much of Bahrain’s infrastructural development. When Emir Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa ascended the throne in 1942, he capitalized on Bahrain’s superior level of development to take advantage of the oil boom happening in Saudi Arabia and other neighboring countries, making Bahrain the Gulf’s main entreport.
After World War II, increasing anti-British sentiment spread throughout the Arab world and led to riots in Bahrain. In 1960, the United Kingdom put Bahrain’s future to international arbitration and requested that the United Nations Secretary-General take on this responsibility. In 1970, Iran simultaniously laid claim to both Bahrain and the other Persian Gulf islands. However in an agreement with the United Kingdom it agreed to ‘not pursue’ its irredentist claims on Bahrain if its other claims were realised. The following plebiscite saw Bahrainis confirm their independence from Britain and their Arab identity. Bahrain to this day remains a member of the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council.
The British withdrew from Bahrain on August 15, 1971, making Bahrain an independent emirate. The oil boom of the 1970s and 1980s greatly benefitted Bahrain, but its downturn was felt badly. However, the country had already begun to diversify its economy, and had benefited from the Lebanese civil war that began in the 1970s; Bahrain replaced Beirut as the Middle East’s financial hub as Lebanon’s large banking sector was driven out of the country by the war.
The Iranian revolution touched off a few violent pro-Iranian demonstrations in Bahrain in 1979 and 1980, but Islamic fundamentalism failed to capture widespread support. Bahraini Shi?a fundamentalists in 1981 orchestrated a failed coup attempt under the auspices of a front organisation, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain. The coup would have installed a Shi?a cleric exiled in Iran, Hujjatu l-Islam Hadi al-Mudarrisi, as supreme leader heading a theocratic government.
The 1990s saw Bahrain wracked with external threats and internal strife. Though the Scud missile attack on Bahrain ordered by Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War landed harmlessly in the sea, relations between the two countries hit an all-time low. In 1994 a wave of rioting by disaffected Shia Islamists was sparked by women’s participation in a sporting event. The Kingdom was badly affected by sporadic violence during the mid-1990s in which over forty people were killed in violence between the government and Islamists. Bahrain cooperated closely with the UN’s monitoring mission to Iraq in the late 1990s, though the US military buildup in the Gulf in early 1998 strained relations between Bahrainis and US military personnel.
In March 1999, Sheikh Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who had ruled since 1961, died. Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa succeeded his father as head of state and instituted elections for parliament, gave women the right to vote and released all political prisoners; moves described by Amnesty International as representing an ‘historic period for human rights’.
In 2001 a national charter for constitutional reforms was endorsed by the country’s first ever national referendum and a year later, on 14 February, Bahrain was declared a constitutional monarchy and Sheikh Hamad its king. Bahrain was pronounced a constitutional monarchy in 2002, Sheikh Hamad changing his status from emir to king. The same year saw Bahrainis elect members to the National Assembly. Because King Hamad had established an appointed upper house in the national parliament, which had not been part of the charter approved in 2001, a number of groups (including the largest Shi’a association) called for an electoral boycott; turnout in the October elections was 53%. The elected deputies were largely moderate Sunnites and independents. The election marked the first time that women in a Arab Persian Gulf monarchy could vote or run for national office.
A prominent opposition figure, Majid Al Alawi, recently returned from exile, was appointed to a ministerial post in the new government. Early in 2003, there were further protests against the impending war against Iraq, and Bahrain’s role in hosting American and British forces. In May 2003, thousands of victims of alleged torture petitioned the King to cancel the law that prevents them from suing suspected torturers. These protests instigated a general concern for security in Bahrain, and in 2004, the protests against fighting in Iraqi cities once again materialized. However, the King sacked his Interior Minister after police tried to prevent the protests. These kind of moves seem to render the country more stable and King Hamad appears to have succeeded in quelling the Shi’a opposition – at least for the time being.