Bahrain: How Liberalizing Persian Gulf State Showed Arab Nations Way

Bahrain has been a trendsetter in the Middle East including in introducing greater participation of women in political and public spheres that have inspired other Gulf nations to follow suit

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

In the winter of 2018, I flew to Manama after a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia with my family for a week-long visit to Bahrain, an eastern Persian Gulf country. We would not have really planned the trip had not our closest friends moved to Bahrain some time back.

An extended conversation with the most polite and courteous immigration officials I have ever come across over some confusion related to our visas set the tone for what would turn out to be one of the most memorable and illuminating trips.

Saudi Arabia was in the middle of transformative changes in 2018 as part of a new vision to make the country more inclusive and diversify its economy. It was removing restrictions to increase women’s labour participation to 30% by 2030 as part of an ambitious reform agenda.

Bahrain’s cosmopolitanism, acceptance, and openness appeared in stark contrast when we landed in Manama. Cars with registration numbers of countries across the region were parked outside almost all major recreation centres in Bahrain, which was a major attraction for people wanting to let their hair down.

A constitutional monarchy, Bahrain has been a trendsetter in the region. It was the first country to introduce reforms to diversify the economy and become a business hub. Other countries in the Middle East have sought to replicate the model.

Bahrain pioneered greater participation of women in the political and public lives in the region. Other Gulf countries have been following suit and encouraging more inclusion of women in the workforce to reduce dependence on migrants.

Kuwaiti women outnumber the country’s male citizens in the workforce. More women are now enrolled in higher education institutions than men in the region. Their participation in politics has also increased.

Four women have been appointed as ministers in Qatar since 2003. Eleven women have held positions including as health, transportation, and finance ministers in Kuwait’s Cabinet since 2005. The literacy rate among women in Bahrain has increased to 94.9% compared to 98.8% among men.

The 2010 Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom rated Bahrain the freest economy in the Middle East and the 13th globally ahead of Japan, Belgium, and Germany.

Bahrain’s image took a beating when it responded with repression to protests for political reform in the aftermath of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Thousands gathered at Manama’s Pearl roundabout in February 2011 demanding more democracy.

Opposition groups were banned as Bahrain cracked down on protesters. Many protesters were jailed as Bahrain accused Iran of backing protests to topple its government. The citizenship of around 1,000 people was revoked and hit Bahrain’s image as a liberal and open country.

Bahrain has since sought to salvage the image. Its Constitution was amended in 2012 on the premise that Islam ‘brings salvation in this world and the next, and that Islam means neither inertness nor fanaticism but explicitly states that wisdom is the goal of the believer wherever he finds it he should take it.’

In April 2019, the citizenship of 551 people was reinstated. A court two months later overturned the government’s decision to strip 92 people accused of plotting with Iran.

The Constitution of Bahrain, which faces accusations of repressing its Shia majority, guarantees freedom of religion, conscience, and worship. It prohibits discrimination based on sex, origin, language, religion, or creed.

Nineteen non-Muslim groups are registered in Bahrain. They include churches as well as Hindu and Sikh places of worship. The third Catholic church in Bahrain, which has a population of under two million, was opened in 2021.

A synagogue was renovated in the heart of Manama after Bahrain normalised ties with Israel along with the United Arab Emirates in September 2020. In 2008, Bahrain nominated Houda Nonoo, a Jewish woman, as its ambassador to Washington.

In March 2021, the news agency Associated Press (AP) reported that Jewish communities in the Gulf Arab states, which earlier lived in the shadow of the Arab-Israeli conflict, were adopting a more public profile after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain established diplomatic relations with Israel.

AP noted Kosher food was now available; Jewish holidays were celebrated openly and a fledgling religious court was sorting out issues such as marriages and divorces.

Nonoo, who is among the founders of an association of Jews for greater acceptance of Jewish life in the six Arab countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, hosted an online celebration of the Purim holiday for Jews.

Thousands of Israeli tourists and businesspeople have travelled to the region since the normalisation of the ties. AP reported this has led to a fledgling industry of Jewish weddings and other celebrations for Israeli visitors.

Elie Abadie, the new senior rabbi of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, told the agency there is a certain shift across the Gulf. Bahrain has a rooted Jewish community of the descendants of Iraqi Jews, who arrived in the country in the late 19th century for trade.

The United Arab Emirates has the largest Jewish community in the region. Jews thrived for centuries across the region and enjoyed a protected status during the Islamic Golden Age. Most of the Jews left for Israel after its establishment in 1948.

Nancy Khedouri, a Bahraini Jew, became a member of the country’s parliament in 2018 when the percentage of women lawmakers increased to 18% in Bahrain. The country has held parliamentary and municipal elections every four years since 2002 with universal suffrage.

Pragmatism, openness, and its location along key trade routes have ensured Bahrain’s prosperity for centuries. Pearls were the main source of income for Bahrain before it became the first Gulf country to discover crude oil in the 1930s.

The discovery enhanced the country’s economy and modernisation and helped Bahrain overcome the collapse of the global pearl market. An archipelago of 33 islands off Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast, Bahrain literally means two seas in Arabic.

The freshwater from the subterranean springs within the briny Gulf Sea is believed to produce Bahraini pearls, which are considered the best globally.

Bahrain permits 100% foreign ownership in almost all businesses without local partners. It never produced as much oil as its neighbours and had to diversify its economy and focus on finance, banking, tourism, real estate sectors, etc.

Bahrain has the lowest cost of living in the region and has promoted sports as alternative revenue streams. Bahrain hosts international motor races, including the annual Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix as it continues to reinvent itself to maintain its prosperity and high standards of living.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

Leave a Reply