Hamad quickly demonstrated his commitment to move Bahrain toward more political freedom. Among his first acts was the release of political prisoners and the welcoming home of political exiles. He also made several overtures to the beleaguered Shiite majority, including allowing Shiites into the army for the first time and releasing hundreds of Shiite political prisoners, most notably Sheik Abdul Amir al-Jamri, the country's best-known Shiite dissident. While Sheikh Hamad seemed to be allowing for more openness internally, some observers believed that his approach to disputes with Bahrain's neighbors, especially Qatar, would be heavier handed than his father's.
A referendum held in 2001 called for amendments to the Constitution to make the country a constitutional monarchy with a democratically elected Parliament. Sheikh Hamad called for the creation of a Parliament with two houses, one made up of appointed expert ministers and the other made up of representatives elected by Bahraini citizens. He also gave his approval to a provision allowing both men and women the right to vote and run for office and gave his royal approval to a constitutional amendment changing his own title from emir to king, making Bahrain a kingdom.