Happy Bahrain National Day!

Since we commemorated National Day in the United Arab Emirates a couple of weeks ago, it wouldn’t be right not to commemorate Bahrain’s National Day today, right? Happy National Day, everybody!

bahrain flag

Bahrain’s National Day is slightly different from the UAE’s. UAE National Day (December 2), if you recall, marks the actual date (in 1971 when its component emirates gained their independence from Britain and formed their own union. Bahrain National Day commemorates its independence from Britain, to be sure, but Bahrain became independent on August 15, 1971, not December 16 or even close to it. Like Qatar (coming up Friday!), Bahrain holds its National Day on another important date in their history. In this case, December 16 is the date, in 1961, when Isa b. Salman Al Khalifa (d. 1999) became the first Emir of Bahrain.

Isa was not the first Khalifa to rule Bahrain–that was Ahmed b. Muhammad b. Khalifa (d. 1796), who conquered the island in 1783. But Ahmed titled himself Hakim, or “protector,” which was an effort to at least pay lip service to the Iranians, who were nominally in possession of the islands (technically Bahrain is an archipelago). As Iranian control over Bahrain fell to the Portuguese, then to Egypt, then to Britain, the title Hakim made it clear that the island was autonomously governed, but not independent. Isa’s assumption of the title Emir, then, was a step toward acknowledging Bahrain’s nationhood. Hamad, Isa’s son and the current ruler of Bahrain, changed the title once again, to Malik (“king”), in 2002.

The historical “Bahrain” (which is actually mentioned a few times in the Qurʾan) covered most of the eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula, an area that included, but was not limited to, the island nation that now bears the name (the main island of which was historically called Awal). This is why you’ll usually catch me writing Bahrayn when I’m talking about the historical region, so as to distinguish it from the modern nation. We’ve already talked about some of the more notorious history of the historical Bahrayn. The Khalifa family, a branch of the Utbah tribe, moved into the archipelago in the 17th century and were strong enough by 1783 to lead a successful revolt against the then-Iranian governor.

The whole region has some ethno-linguistic and religious features that distinguish it from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, like the presence of the Baharna people, who are Arab (or at least Arab-speaking) but with heavy Persian influences (they may be descended from the mixing of the area’s original Arab-Persian-Jewish-Aramaic population, though that’s debatable). Bahrain is also unique in that it is a majority (or at least plurality) Shiʿa state in otherwise mostly-Sunni Arabia: the Baharna, who are Shiʿa, and a community of Persian Shiʿa (called Ajamis after the old Arab name for Persians), when combined, make up between 45% and 60% of Bahrain’s total population.

This has created something of a problem, in that the ruling Khalifa family are Sunni (originally from the Najd region of central Arabia) and there’s a steadily growing mutual antagonism between the country’s majority/plurality Shiʿa and the ruling family. The Khalifa have tried to respond to this antagonism by suppressing and roughing up any political opposition, while also bringing in and granting citizenship to Sunnis from elsewhere in the Middle East and South Asia, in an attempt to reconfigure the country’s demographics, and…you know what? It’s Bahrain National Day; let’s not dwell on the negative.

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