Beginnings of labour activism and civil society movements

With the discovery of oil in Bahrain in 1931, civil society activism often took the form of petitioning the leadership on issues of workers’ rights and the need to increase Bahraini representation within the workforces of large companies.

Left-wing exiles from other states helped introduce nationalist, Marxist and progressive ideas. Many Bahraini literary figures and intellectuals during the 1950s and 60s were of this general persuasion, which also played a role in circulating new forms of political thought.

Both Sunnis and Shia were represented within these groups, whose founding ideologies often explicitly rejected divisions according to sect. However, nationalist, leftist, Baathist and Nasserist traditions often emerged within a wider Sunni context; and these groupings were often (rightly or wrongly) perceived as a Sunni counter-balance to explicitly Shia political-religious organizations.

As Fuad Khouri points out; until the mid-fifties, “instances of unrest had no ‘national’ base cutting across ethnic and religious divisions”.

The nearest thing to formal political societies in the early 1950s were various clubs. Some of these, like the Bahrain and Uruba Clubs were started by figures who had received education in Beirut or Cairo and were exposed to Arab nationalist ideas. These two clubs in particular emphasized “Arab enlightenment” – rejecting sectarianism, opposing colonial rule and promoting workers’ rights. These ideas were promoted in lectures and through sympathetic press outlets.

1953-56 unrest and the Higher Executive Committee

In 1953, tensions arose between Sunnis and Shia against a context of industrial unrest and strikes. Five Sunni and Shia members of the Bahrain and Uruba Clubs got together to try and put a stop to the disturbances.

The initial efforts of this “network of five” to settle the issue through traditional reconciliation methods failed. This network then organized itself into a broader political front which took the name of the Higher Executive Committee.

This Committee then put forward a series of demands to the authorities for reforms. However, as mediation with Bahrain’s leadership got underway through a range of channels, the Committee was weakened by differences between its membership over their objectives and tactics. The result was that each time the authorities offered concessions, the HEC was unable to reach agreement on accepting these.

By March 1956 the HEC had failed to make any progress and tensions escalated after an attack by rioters on the car of the British Foreign Minister in Muharraq; which led the British to take a more negative stand towards the disturbances.

The rulers agreed in May 1956 to recognize the Committee, under a new name; the Committee of National Union. However, as these talks began to make progress, the CNU organized protests against the Anglo-French attack of Egypt in the context of the Suez crisis. These protests turned violent and several arrests were made, with three key CNU members ending up in a British jail on the island of St. Helena. By 1961 these figures had been released and were paid compensation by the British Government.

Although this marked the effective end of the CNU; this period of Bahraini history was an important phase of the emergence of nationalist groupings. Around the time of independence, many of the leading figures from the CNU gained high-level roles in the new administration, for example; Abdulaziz Shamlan was to be the vice-speaker of the new National Assembly and later ambassador to Egypt.                                                                                          

Emergence of left-wing, Marxist and Baathist parties

The 1953-1956 social tensions helped bring about a new generation of civil society activists; many of whom were thoroughly immersed in pan-Arab; nationalist and left-wing ideologies. There were three particularly important political movements which emerged in the decades leading up to independence:

  1. Among the early leftist groupings, the National Liberation Front—Bahrain; a clandestine Marxist party; was founded in 1955, making it one of the oldest leftist parties in the Arabian Gulf.
  2. A grouping which emerged in the late 1960s was the “Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arab Gulf”. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Bahrain split off from this grouping in 1974. “Liberation” during this period, of course meant gaining independence from colonialist powers in the region.
  3. The Nationalist Democratic Assembly represents the Iraqi-dominated Ba’ath Party in Bahrain.  The NDA was established by Bahrainis who had studied in Iraq during the 1960s and 1970s.

These groupings played a significant role in the March Uprising of 1965 against British colonialism. This was triggered by hundreds of workers being laid-off by the national oil company, BAPCO.

Following Bahrain’s formal declaration of independence in 1971; 1972 witnessed a period of intense political activity by leftist and liberal groups demanding greater freedoms and a more representative political system. These efforts forces arguably contributed to the decision to create a Bahraini National Assembly in 1973.

Whatever happened to Bahrain’s left-wing?

Bahrain’s independence and the creation of the National Assembly, represented a victory for the nationalist movement; but this was a hollow victory, because the inherent weaknesses of these groups were beginning to show and they were rapidly losing ground to increasingly assertive Islamist groups, both across the entire region and within Bahrain.

In 1975 the Parliament was dissolved (as we will discuss in the coming sections) and the NLF, NDA and Popular Front were suppressed, with many activists going into exile.

During the 1970s – as was the case throughout much of the Arab world – left-wing and nationalist political groups lost a large proportion of their popularity. Two of the common reasons given for this are the shameful defeat of the nationalist Arab states in the 1967 Seven-Day War against Israel; and the rapid rise of Islamic groups throughout the region.

The Popular Front continues to exist today in the form of Ibrahim Sharif’s National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad), the largest left-wing/liberal party on Bahrain’s political scene. The NDA and the NLF also continue to exist.



Origins of the Bahrain opposition: Other sections

Part 1

A major divide within Shia Islam: Al-Da’wah and the Shirazis

Al-Da’wah and the Shirazis in Bahrain

Part 2

The Da’wah current in Iraq

The Da’wah current in Bahrain

Why do Al-Da’wah & the Islamic Enlightenment society matter?

Part 3

Origins of the Shirazi current in Bahrain

Consolidation and radicalization of the Shirazis

Differences between the Da’wah & Shirazi factions in Bahrain

Part 4

Beginnings of labour activism and civil society movements

1953-56 unrest and the Higher Executive Committee

Emergence of left-wing, Marxist and Baathist parties

Whatever happened to Bahrain’s left-wing?

Part 5

Who were the People’s Bloc?

Who were the Religious Bloc?

Part 6

Religious Bloc versus the People’s Bloc in the National Assembly

Eclipse of the left

Part 7

Politicization of Bahraini Shia

The influence of political Islam movements elsewhere

The influence of Ayatollah Khomeini

Politicization of religious festivals

Part 8

The radicalizing influence of Iran’s Islamic revolution

Growing Shirazi radicalism

Exporting Iran’s Islamic Revolution

Part 9

Al-Da’wah contacts with Iran’s revolutionary leadership

Changing Iranian allegiances

Part 10

Saudi oppositionist movements

Part 11

Announcing the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain

Islamic Front aims and ideology

Part 12

1981 coup attempt by Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain

Part 13

Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain after the failed coup

The Shirazi movement loses favour in Iran

Declining influence: The Islamic front in the 1990s

Part 14

Iranian support for Bahrain’s Al-Da’wah movement

Moving into the Iranian ideological orbit

Part 15

What is Welayat Al-Faqih?

Breaking with Shia quietism

Ayatollah Isa Qassim and Welayat Al-Faqih

Part 16

A new generation of Shia clerics

Hezbollah in Bahrain




Major references 

(Additional specific references can be found as hyperlinks within the text)


Ali Alfoneh, 2012: Between reform and revolution: Sheikh Qassim, the Bahraini Shi’a, and Iran


Anissa Haddadi, 2012: Bahrain Uncovered: Divided Political Landscape


Faleh Jabar, 2003: Shi’ite Movement in Iraq, Saqi


Mansour al-Jamri, 2010: Shia & the State in Bahrain: Integration & Tension


Abdulhadi Khalaf, 1998: Contentious politics in Bahrain: From ethnic to national and vice versa


Fuad Khouri, 1980: Tribe and State in Bahrain, University of Chicago Press


Jane Kinninmont, 2012: Bahrain: Beyond the Impasse


Laurence Louer, 2008: Transnational Shia Politics; Columbia University Press


Falah al-Mdaires, 2002: Shiism & Political Protest in Bahrain


Helem Chapin Metz, ed, 1993: Persian Gulf States: A Country StudyThe Constitutional Experiment


Khaldoun Nassan Al-Naqeeb, 2012: Society and State in the Gulf and Arab Peninsula; Routledge


Katja Neithammer, 2007: Avenues of Political Participation in Bahrain


A.   Rush, ed, 1991: The Ruling Families of Arabia


Bahrain Wikileaks:


Guide to Bahrain’s politics


Reform in Bahrain: Mansour al-Jamri (re. Abdulhadi al-Khawaja)


Wafaa: New Shia rejectionist movement


Bahrain’s Shia opposition: Managing sectarian pressures


Some potential new leaders in Al-Wefaq


Bahrain al-Wefaq hails Iran Supreme Leader’s support




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