Between the Persian Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia and the peninsula of Qatar is the tiny coastal island of Bahrain. This miniscule independent country is more important than you might think. First, it’s a major non-NATO US ally that regularly hosts US sailors active in the Persian Gulf. It also sits on top a large amount of hydrocarbons. But perhaps even more importantly, it is currently engaging in a political experiment that could have major implications for the future of constitutional and democratic government in the Arab World.
Up until the 1990s, Bahrain acted as a typical Emirate seen across the Persian Gulf. The ruling king and his family or tribe exercised absolute authority, with relatives and tribal allies serving in advisory and administrative roles, with little democratic representation.
This changed when Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa succeeded his father in 2000 and established a new constitution that declared the island state a Kingdom. This irked many of the neighboring Emirs — despite what you might think, the title of Emir is closer to governor or leader of a principality, and it has a certain populist status that is heavilty based on clan concensus. Bahrain’s move also ruined the element of brotherhood between the Emirs of the Gulf — now that Bahrain had a “King,” the fellow Emirates could no longer greet him with a kiss on the cheek and must instead kiss him on the shoulders.
However, a distinguishing factor of an Emirate is the broad pyramid of relatives, tribal members, and other noblemen who form the vast council of ruling advisors who dominate all agencies of government — anathema to representative government. By changing the system of government, the former Emir, now a king, was able to isolate the characteristics of Emirate governance into the executive branch and establish institutions outside that resembled the parliamentary constitutional monarchies of 19th century Europe. This may sound purely technical, but persons with legal and cultural expertise tell me this was a necessary revolution, without which a constitutional monarchy could not be established.
The king dominates the executive and appoints a prime minister, who forms a cabinet of ministers — not surprisingly, 80% of the members are from the royal family, similar to how government is run in Qatar, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai. And like 19th century Europe, the legislative branch serves at the pleasure of the Monarch. There is an upper house, appointed by the King and which proposes laws, and a national assembly that is fully elected by the people and which has a role in considering legislation. (There is then an independent judiciary, appointed by the King, but which issues rulings that are constitutionally inviolate.)
What has happened since the establishment of this constitution? Chaos! Four opposition parties boycotted the first elections in 2002. By 2006, most accepted the process and realigned into two coalitions — the mainstream Shia Islamist Party (all but officially backed by the highest Shia religious body in Bahrain) joined with radical Shia Islamists, Leftists, and former Baathists formed an ipso facto majority party, while on the other hand, the two main Sunni Islamist parties formed a coalition that actively acted as the underdog opposition.
There were plenty of issues, scandals and fiascos during the election campaign. One of the main issues of the election was to what extent it was valid and legitimate for a party to be backed by a leading religious authority. There were accusations that some candidates were ex-Al Qaeda members. Shia Islamists accused the government and the US embassy of undermining their candidates. The standing of some Islamist candidates was hit hard when it was revealed that they enjoyed a “stopover” in Bangkok when returning from a trip to Malaysia. Bahraini liberal intellectuals responded to the surge in religious parties by organizing a campaign called “We Have A Right” to promote, defend and justify personal freedoms — which was criticized more by left-wing Democrats than by anyone else for being exclusive and too focused on non-political rights, deriding the group as “We have a right…to drink alcohol.”
Also revolutionary was that women were granted the right to vote and run for election by 2006, with a large number of women candidates contesting the poll. However, only one female candidate won, by default, when her two opponents withdrew from the race, which was criticized as being engineered by the government because it wanted to see a woman win and showcase her victory. No other women candidates won contested elections, and several suffered abuse such as repeated insulting text messages and property violence. Interestingly, female candidates were prominently supported by business leaders and liberal thinkers, but women’s organizations provided little support to female candidates, reflecting on the conservative and family-oriented motives of many such organizations in Bahrain.
And what can we say years later in retrospect? It worked. There has been no disruptive violence. Bahrain’s freedom of speech and the press continues. The first hurdle of democratic government — surviving the chaos inherent at the genesis — has been cleared, and it seems likely that Bahrain can safely manage the next election approaching next year.
Does it look backwards, to have an appointed upper house and a constitutional monarch with broad executive powers? Maybe — but that’s how most European democracies developed, and Bahrain is deliberately trying to follow those lessons in an Arab laboratory. As a small, island state with a relatively stable government, decent economy, and lasting civil society, the Bahrain experience may provide lessons to be learned for others in the region. It’s already happening — Kuwait, which has long had a toothless single representative body elected by only 15% of the population, introduced women’s suffrage for the 2008 parliamentary election. 340,000 Kuwaitis, including about 195,000 women (out of a total population of 2.8 million), were eligible to vote for 253 candidates, which included 28 women. No women were elected, but in subsequent elections in 2009, four women won seats. Could Qatar, the UAE, Oman, or elsewhere follow Bahrain’s example next? Stay tuned.