Bahrain is characterized by autocratic tribal rule, with authority invested in a single family. The al-Khalifa family, minority Sunni Muslims in a majority Shi'a country, hold 11 of the 20 cabinet posts, while the rest are controlled by the prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa, who is the uncle of the ruler, Sheikh Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa. The present emir (prince) succeeded to the throne in March 1999, on the death of his father, and depends to a large degree on his much more experienced uncle, the prime minister, for the running of everyday government affairs. While Sheikh Hamad himself, and his son, Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad, are in favor of implementing cautious political reforms, the prime minister is seen as the vanguard of the old order.
In 1899, the al-Khalifa family became the first of the ruling families in the Gulf to sign a so-called "exclusive agreement" by which local rulers granted control of foreign affairs to Britain in exchange for military protection. On August 14, 1971, during the reign of Sheikh Isa bin Salman, which lasted from 1961 until his death in 1999, Bahrain became independent, and a constitution was issued in May 1973. The elected National Assembly convened in December 1973 but was dissolved only 20 months later when the emir decided that radical assembly members were making it impossible for the executive to function properly. For 20 years, the country functioned without a representative body.
Since 1993, there has been a Consultative Shura Council, which is wholly appointive and does not possess any legislative power. There are no political parties and no elections for government positions. In many ways, Bahrain is a typical rentier state, i.e., a state whose political system benefits from large revenues from the sale of natural resources, in this case oil. The government distributes the state income to its citizens by providing them with jobs and a generous welfare system; in addition, the level of taxation is very low. In return, these citizens are tied to the state and remain loyal to undemocratic regimes. Such a relationship is often encapsulated in the phrase, "no taxation, no representation."
During the mid-1990s, the country experienced civil unrest directed against the regime, during which several people were killed. Protests, mainly orchestrated by the underprivileged Shi'a majority, have since continued, although on a lesser scale. The new emir, Sheikh Hamad, has promised municipal elections in the near future and has made new appointments to the Shura Council, including a woman and a Jewish representative. In addition, a Supreme Council for Economic Development, chaired by the prime minister, was created in 2000 with the aim of identifying, developing, and promoting foreign investment opportunities. In February 2001 Bahrainis voted to approve a new constitution that would institute a partially elected parliament and grant political rights to women.