For non-Bahrainis the Kingdom’s political system is often poorly understood. The global media completely ignored recent reforms to separate religion from politics and many people are unaware that Bahrain is a Constitutional Monarchy with a well-developed parliamentary system.
Another unusual factor is the strong public preference for independent elected MPs and a trend towards increasing distrust of political societies. Meanwhile, Bahrain has an open economic climate and does not get the credit it deserves for its cultural and social freedoms.
Constitutional Monarchy committed to reform
Bahrain definitively became a Constitutional Monarchy in 2001, two years after King Hamad came to the throne, when over 98% of Bahrainis voted during a popular referendum in favour of the National Action Charter – King Hamad’s new Constitution.
This Constitution set out far-reaching rights and freedoms which put Bahrain ahead of many of its neighbours and emphasized the rights of women, all religions and minority groups. The establishment of a two-chamber Parliament was a central pillar of the King’s reform project which continues to this day.
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry recommendations in the context of the 2011 unrest gave rise to a new phase of reforms of security and judicial institutions and renewed impetus to ensure Bahrain’s compliance with international human rights norms and the rule of law.
Parliament includes both the elected Council of Representatives and the appointed Shura Council. In a region where Islamists and sectarian entities have routinely exploited the ballot box to capture power and restrict social freedoms, Bahrain’s two-chamber Parliament ensures that checks and balances exist to protect our constitutionally-enshrined rights and freedoms.
The Shura Council is predominantly made up of technocrats and experienced national figures, making this chamber strongly progressive and reformist in temperament. This means that even when elected Islamists have achieved a majority in a vote blocking progressive legislation or proposing retrogressive measures (for example a motion which would have forced Government departments to exclusively use Islamic banking); the Shura Council protects Bahrain’s tolerant and liberal heritage.
In 2012 a number of constitutional amendments further increased the powers of elected MPs, for example empowering them to debate and approve the periodic Government four-years action plans or take a vote of no confidence against ministers.
Weakness of political societies
In the early years of Parliament, sectarian Shia and Sunni political societies were relatively strong – but secular and nationalist societies performed very badly. In the last couple of rounds of elections, particularly in November 2014, all political societies performed very badly, with Sunni Islamists only winning three seats between them and 90% of elected MPs being independent candidates. The abolition of the Islamic Shia society Al-Wefaq takes this process a step further.
This has happened primarily because these societies have lost the confidence of the public by being focused on ideological issues and failing to provide economic solutions for improving standards of living. Discussing this crisis, Abdulrahman al-Baker from the National Constitutional Assembly recently commented: “We failed to get any of our representatives into Parliament and the contexts in which these political societies were formed are unsuited to the situation in 2016. There is a need to establish principles for a progressive vision for Bahrain… the current situation for societies of abandoned headquarters and inactivity is unacceptable. There is a need for reevaluation of activism in society…”
Given that the lack of parliamentary success has resulted in a sharp decline in both funding and activity, it is difficult to imagine a change in the fortune of any of these societies any time soon. This has facilitated the entry of a diverse range of independent figures to Parliament.
Separation of religion and politics
In May 2016 both chambers of Parliament approved a Government proposal which banned serving clerics from being members of political societies or engaging in political activity. Supporters of these proposals argued that clerics had exploited the pulpit to promote themselves of particular political societies.
This law arguably puts Bahrain ahead of all other states in the region for ensuring the separation of religion and politics and protecting the political system from ideological influence. These measures also secured widespread approval from most Bahrainis, concerned by the influence of sectarian societies on political life.
Open economic model
Crown Prince Salman Bin-Hamad Al Khalifa has been at the forefront of many of the economic reforms to encourage inward investment and consolidate the Kingdom as a regional hub for banking and commerce. This has led to Bahrain being rated as one of the top most open economies in the world, with a sophisticated regulatory system and an emphasis on minimizing unnecessary bureaucracy. With lower costs of living and doing business, KPMG and others have rated Bahrain as having strong competitive advantage over many of its neighbours.
The large amount of current investment into Bahrain’s tourism, construction and infrastructure sectors is paving the way for future economic growth centred around the hospitality industry and encouraging millions of tourists from the region and around the world to sample the best of Bahrain.
Tolerant cultural model
As a small group of islands which have historically thrived on trade, Bahrain has a very different cultural heritage from its inland neighbours. Bahraini cuisine and culture are highly diverse, with Indian, Arabian, Western and many other influences. Meanwhile Bahrain has always been highly progressive in empowering women and respecting their freedoms, while respecting the rights of all faiths.
With half of those living in Bahrain being non-Bahraini residents we by nature have a diverse and tolerant society. Just one symptom of this is the diverse range of religious holidays which are celebrated here.