Russia State visit: A week in politics

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4-10 February 2016

The Bahraini media this week has been full of coverage of King Hamad’s State visit to Russia. However, there has also been strong condemnation of the EU Parliament statement on Bahrain’s human record, while Bahraini MPs clashed fiercely with each other during their weekly session. Meanwhile, the subsidies issue remains at the forefront of people’s minds, as Bahrainis adjust to paying higher petrol prices and increased electricity and water bills are mooted.

A lot of media and political debate has occurred in the context of the upcoming 14 February anniversary of the 2001 referendum on the National Action Charter. However, in 2011 the same debate marked the triggering of the period of unrest, coinciding with the so-called “Arab Spring” events which shook the entire region. Several media commentators and at least one high profile opposition activist have marked this upcoming date by calling on the opposition to rejoin the political process, so as to enable the country to move forward.

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First for Bahrain: First referendum

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Bahrain’s first formal referendum took place on 14 February 2001.

The referendum asked Bahrainis for their views on King Hamad’s new constitution, the National Action Charter – which provided for a two-chamber Parliament and enshrined the rights of women, minorities and religious groups; while defining the rights and freedoms of all citizens.

There was huge public support for the document and over 98% of Bahrainis voted in favour. The new constitution was promulgated in the context of King Hamad coming to power in 1999 and his ambitious package of reforms. The King issued an amnesty for those exiled abroad and political prisoners were freed.

The reforms also allowed for the establishment of dozens of civil society organizations and political societies, while paving the way for national reconciliation and a period of greater political participation. The National Action Charter marked Bahrain’s decisive move in the direction of Constitutional Monarchy.

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First for Bahrain: International Airshow

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Between 21 and 23 January 2016, Bahrain is hosting its fourth International Airshow. These have been held every two years with the first such event taking place in 2010. Since this date, the airshows have only got bigger and more ambitious, with tens of thousands of attendees and hundreds of participating companies.

Participation has recently expanded from regional and GCC airline companies, including the major international players, like BAE, Boeing and Airbus.

Bahrain has a distinguished history in the airline industry. The first recorded flight arriving in Bahrain was in 1918; a Vickers Vimy bomber from the Royal Air Force on a survey flight from London to Calcutta, a journey which took 27 days to accomplish.

This was the beginning of a regular RAF air mail service along this route. Imperial Airways, the forerunner of BOAC and British Airways, proved flights through the Gulf region during the 1920s. The first Imperial Airways flight to Bahrain was in 1927. Imperial’s De Haviland bi-plane ran scheduled flights between the UK and India, via Basra, Bahrain, Sharjah and sometimes Kuwait.

Over this period, Bahrain’s aviation facilities became firmly established at the current site of Bahrain Airport in Muharraq, making it the international airport with the longest history in the region. By 1936 these flights were running two times each week.

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An evolving role for Bahrain’s civil society

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Civilsociety aims to create a space for public discourse and activity, independent of the conflicts between political factions. This is why February 2011 was so damaging for civilsociety in Bahrain – as the nation was deeply affected by the political and sectarian polarization.

In the early days of the unrest, civil society figures were very active and visible in social media, calling for calm, supporting political reform and urging the sides to avoid violence.

However, in mid-March 2011 the sectarian mood soured, particularly after a number of nasty sectarian incidents, including violence at Bahrain University and attempts by opposition militants to mobilize rallies against predominantly loyalist areas.

Moderate figures found themselves under attack from both sides, especially in social media. As the protests increasingly became dominated by divisive sectarian figures, the Sunni middle classes completely distanced themselves from the protest movement, and so more moderate calls for reform were completely overshadowed by calls for violent revolution.

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