After 28 years of leading his country, including declaring Bahrain's independence from Britain, Emir Sheikh Isa bin Salman al-Khalifah passed away after a heart attack in March 1999 at age 66. His eldest son, Sheikh Hamad, 49, immediately succeeded him.
Bahrain’s new leader faces an uphill battle. A majority of the roughly 600,000 Bahrainis are Shi'ites and reject the legitimacy of the Sunni regime. Criticism is also directed toward the family-style (nepotism) rule of the country. Many family members hold key cabinet positions.
The ban on political parties constitutes another source of strife. In 1975, internal political agitation and discontent toward the Assembly's operation led to its dissolution. In December 1994, anti-government protests erupted following the arrest of a Shi'ite clerk who was arrested for distributing leaflets signed by 20,000 people demanding the restoration of Parliament.
In 1996, Bahrain announced it had foiled a pro-Iranian plot to topple the government and subsequently downgraded its ties with the Islamic Republic. Sheikh Hamad must also deal with the country's border dispute with Qatar regarding a small but potentially oil-and-gas rich groups of islands, including Hawar Island.
Sheikh Isa, however, did leave his son with a modernized country. The late Sheikh said he believed his greatest accomplishment was the construction of the causeway that opened in 1986 linking Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
As mentioned, the country’s demographics are a serious cause of internal political turmoil. Shi'ite Muslims constitute a slight majority. They accuse the Sunni minority of employment opportunity discrimination. The rising unemployment rate is becoming an important social and political factor. The official government figure of less than 2 percent is unreliable, with various estimates placing the actual figure as high as 15 percent. A higher unemployment rate, of course, is more likely to affect the young - those more inclined to turn to desperate political acts regarding the government’s policies. Shi’ite arsonists were suspected in a wave of attacks in Bahrain’s capital city of Manama in early May 1996, just 40 days after the execution of a Shi'ite demonstrator found guilty of killing a police officer.
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)