Bahrain - Political background

For much of the 17th and 18th centuries, Bahrain was ruled by Iran. In 1783, the Arab Utub tribe ended Iranian rule, and members of its main branch, the al-Khalifa, established themselves as rulers. In 1861, faced with threats from Iran and Ottoman Turkey, Bahrain sought assistance from the United Kingdom and agreed to become a protectorate. In return for British protection, the government of Bahrain agreed to abstain from piracy and the slave trade. Furthermore, Bahrain agreed not to establish relations with any foreign country without British approval. Although Britain and the Ottoman Turks acknowledged Bahrain's independence in 1913, the country remained under British control. The al-Khalifa family, however, maintained its position of prominence under British rule.

In 1970, a United Nations commission recommended total independence. The State of Bahrain became fully independent on 15 August 1971 under the rule of the al-Khalifa family. At first, a form of parliamentary government was established, and elections for a Constituent Assembly were held in December 1972. A year later, the National Assembly was elected. In August 1975, the prime minister resigned, charging that the assembly had made it impossible for the government to function. The emir dissolved the assembly and asked the prime minister to form a new government. In February 2002, the emir declared Bahrain a constitutional monarchy, changed his own designation from emir to king, and set national legislative elections for 24 October 2002.

As of 2002, Bahrain was administered by a 17-member cabinet of ministers, appointed by the king (formerly emir). The council was headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa (since 1971) and dominated by the members of the al-Khalifa family—nine of the cabinet positions were filled by members of the al-Khalifa family. They also play an important role in lower administrative positions.

Although Sheikh Khalifa is the head of government, effective power is in the hands of his elder brother, King Hamad Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa. (Their father, Sheikh Isa, died of a sudden heart attack on 7 March 1999 after a 38-year reign. Crown Prince Hamad assumed the throne within hours of his father's death.) Under the Constitution of 1973, the emir was the head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces; in February 2002, the Constitution was amended to change the country's name to Kingdom of Bahrain and make it a constitutional monarchy. These measures also changed Sheikh Hamad's title from emir to king, but his role remained essentially unchanged. He has the power to conclude treaties and international agreements and to establish diplomatic relations with other countries.

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