Bahrain | Facts and History

Fish trap in Bahrain. Jose Carlo Reyes / Moment

The Kingdom of Bahrain is a small archipelago nation in the Persian Gulf, and one of the first to convert to Islam.  It has been ruled at various times by Persian dynasties, the Portuguese, and the British; it became independent only in 1971.

Capital and Major Cities:

Capital: Manama, population 262,000

Major Cities: 

Muharraq, population 176,500

Riffa, 135,000

Hamad Town, 133,550


Bahrain officially became a kingdom in 2002.

  In theory it is a constitutional monarchy, headed by King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa.  However, the king has such broad powers that Bahrain is essentially an absolute monarchy.  The king has power to appoint the Prime Minister, as well as the Cabinet. 

The legislative branch consists of a bicameral National Assembly, with the Shura Council's 40 members appointed by the King, and the Chamber of Deputies, whose 40 members are elected by the people.  Deputies serve four-year terms. 

The highest courts in Bahrain are the Court of Cassation and the Constitutional Court.  Other courts include the High Court of Appeal, civil courts, and sharia courts. 


The population of Bahrain is approximately 1.3 million.  Nearly 55% of the population are immigrants.  The largest expatriate community is the approximately 300,000 workers from India.

Within the Bahraini population itself, there are a number of different ethnic groups.

  Within the Shia population, there are the ethnic-Arab Baharna and the ethnic-Persian Ajam. Large Sunni ethnic groups include the Urban Arabs and the Huwala, another ethnic-Persian group. 


Bahrain's official language is Arabic.  Other languages in common usage include English, Farsi, and Urdu.

  Most public signage is in both Arabic and English.


Islam is the official state religion of Bahrain, and approximately 70% of the population is Muslim.  Among Muslims, the majority are Shia.

Other religions represented in Bahrain include Hindu, at 10%; Catholic, 9%; Protestant Christian, 5%; and Buddhist, at 2%.  Bahrain also has a native Jewish population that numbers between 35 and 50 people.


The Bahraini archipelago once consisted of 33 islands.  However, reclamation projects and dredging have increased this to 84.  The total area of Bahrain is now 780 square kilometers (300 square miles), up from 665 square kilometers.  Bahrain Island, Hawar, Muharraq Island, Umm an Nasan, and Sitrah are the largest islands in the archipelago.

The nearest country to Bahrain is Saudi Arabia to the west; the two are linked by a long bridge called the King Fahd Causeway.  To the southeast, the neighboring country is Qatar.  Iran is the nearest nation to the east and north, across the Persian Gulf.

Bahrain is a desert country, with just 40 square kilometers of irrigated cropland.  It is quite flat.  The highest point is the Jabal ad Dukhan, or the "Mountain of Smoke," at 134 meters (440 feet).

  The lowest point is sea-level.


Bahrain has mild winters and humid, extremely hot summers.  Between April and October, high temperatures average 40 °C (104 °F), and can get as high as 48 °C  (118 °F).  November through March is much more pleasant, although still exceeding humid.  Temperatures range between 10 and 20 °C (50 to 68 °F), with a damp chill. 

Winter also provides the country's only precipitation most years, averaging just 72 millimeters (2.8 inches) of rain.  The dryness is so extreme that there are no permanent rivers or streams anywhere on the archipelago.  Bahrainis rely on potable groundwater and underground springs, and they now get more than 60% of their water from desalinization plants that process seawater.


Bahrain has the fastest growing economy in the Middle East, and has successfully diversified.

  Nonetheless, it is still quite dependent on oil; it serves as a major transshipment point and processor of petroleum from other Gulf states.

Bahrain also exports huge amounts of aluminum, and has very healthy banking and communications sectors.  The government is very active in promoting tourism, as well.

The per capita GDP in Bahrain was $29,800 US as of 2013.  The unemployment rate is a somewhat high 15%.  The currency is called the Bahraini Dinar.  As of June, 2014, 1 Bahraini dinar = $2.65 US.


Historically, Bahrain was an important transit point for trade goods in the Persian Gulf.  In very earliest historic times, c. 3500 - 1800 BCE, Bahrain was part of a commercial center called Dilmun, which also seems to have encompassed what is now Kuwait.  Dilmun is mentioned as a holy land in ancient Mesopotamian texts, and the Sumerian king Gilgamesh seeks the land of Dilmun in the Epic of Gilgamesh

Dilmun was a major trading entrepot, where precious goods such as copper, gold, lapis lazuli, ivory, pearls, timber, and more moved between Persia, Arabia, and as far away as the Harappan civilization in what is now Pakistan.  Around 1800 BCE, Dilmun collapsed during an age of piracy. Between circa 500 BCE to 330 BCE, the Achaemenid Dynasty of Persia ruled Bahrain.  The islands passed in turn to the later Persian Parthian (247 BCE - 224 CE) and Sassanid Dynasties, as well. 

Greater Bahrain, which included the coast of the Arabian mainland, was among the earliest areas to accept Islam during the 600s CE.

  In fact, Bahrain embraced the new faith in 629 CE, which was only the seventh year after the hijra.  The Prophet Muhammad appointed Al-Ala'a Al-Hadhrami to rule the region in his name.  Bahrain continued under Arab rule during much of the Umayyad (661 - 750 CE) and Abbasid (750 - 1258 CE) Caliphate eras. 

In about 900, Bahrain had an interesting interlude in which a messianic Ismaili sect out of Iraq took over the archipelago.  The Qarmatians, led by Abu Sa'id al-Hasan al-Janaby, sought to create a society in which all people were equals and all property was held communally.  Qarmatian beliefs combined early Shi'ism with elements of Zoroastrian fire worship. 

Despite this apparently peaceable mandate, the Qarmatians committed massacres against Muslim pilgrims going on the Haj, reportedly massacreing 20,000 in the year 906.  They also sacked the holy city of Mecca in 930, and stole the Black Stone of Kabba.  In addition, Qarmatian wealth was based on slave labor from Ethiopia. 

In 1058, the Abd al-Qays clan led an uprising against the Qarmatians, eventually establishing a new dynasty that would rule from 1076 to 1235.  Bahrain was more or less self-ruling for several centuries to follow, although various Arab, Turkic, and Persian powers meddled in Bahraini affairs.  A Bedouin dynasty, the Jabrids, took control of the islands in the middle of the 15th century. 

Less than a century later, in 1521, a Portuguese invasion based in Hormuz took control of Bahrain.  They remained only until 1602, when a local rebellion drove them from the islands.

  In the chaos that followed, the Safavid ruler Shah Abbas I took the opportunity to seize Bahrain.

In 1717, Oman invaded Bahrain and touched off a regional tussle over the islands that would continue until 1820; Persia, Kuwait, Oman, and other neighbors all sought to control Bahrain.  Finally, the local Al Khalifa tribe made a treaty with Great Britain that made the island nation a de facto protectorate of the UK, ending the squabble.  That relationship was further formalized in 1880 and 1892 agreements.

Although British protectorate status insulated Bahrain from other foreign aggressors, it sparked widespread domestic unrest.  Nonetheless, the British exercised their influence during the first decades of the 20th century to establish schools for boys and girls, and to abolish slavery in Bahrain. 

In 1932, the Bahrain Petroleum Company struck oil, intensifying British interest in the island nation.  Throughout World War II and the decades that followed, however, the people of Bahrain chafed under British rule.  Strikes, demonstrations, and riots were common, and British troops sometimes responded with live ammunition.

Great Britain announced in 1968 that it would relinquish control of all nine of its protectorates in the Gulf region.  Bahrain, Qatar, and the group of sheikdoms that now comprise the United Arab Emirates attempted to create a unified government.  They could not all agree on terms, however, so on August 15, 1971, Bahrain declared its own independence.

The new country's economy got twin boosts from the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, which drove up the price of oil, and the Lebanese Civil War, which sent banking interests fleeing from Beirut.  Many banks relocated to Bahrain.

In the decades that have followed, Bahrain has gradually modernized and democratized its political institutions to some degree.  However, the people of Bahrain have demanded more and quicker reforms.  Since 2011, pro-democracy and human rights demonstrations have rocked the capital quite regularly; the government responds with force, and has barred international human rights organization from Bahrain.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Bahrain | Facts and History." ThoughtCo, Aug. 9, 2016, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2016, August 9). Bahrain | Facts and History. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Bahrain | Facts and History." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 11, 2017).