An island nation blessed with sweet water from natural springs, and until recently, a gushing supply of oil, Bahrain is the most Westernized nation in the Gulf. Aided by its small size and population, it has become the most modern of the Gulf States, both in its infrastructure and its character.
Bahrain has enjoyed one of the most stable governments in the Middle East. Until February 2002, Bahrain was an emirate, ruled by the Al-Khalifa family. With the demand for more political freedom, including a representative-elected assembly, a referendum was held calling for a constitutional monarchy. Sheik Hamad appointed a committee to draft constitutional changes, and he declared Bahrain a kingdom with himself as king.
The legislative branch is governed by a bicameral Parliament with a 40-member Shura Council appointed by the King and a 40-member House of Deputies elected by popular vote to serve four-year terms.
A judicial branch is managed by the High Civil Appeals Court.
With political rights initiated by King Hamad and solidified via constitutional amendment, women were given the right to vote in 2002.
One of the important elements tying the ruling family to the people is their common devotion to Islam. The Muslim religion is seamlessly melded into the life and business of its followers, and overwhelmingly affects the patterns and structure of society.
Bahrain was the first of the Arabian Gulf States to produce oil. Bahrain's oil reserves are small, when compared to those of the rest of the Gulf region, including Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.
Although petroleum still accounts for over half of the country's export revenues, the dwindling oil resources are being replaced by modern and diversified industrial endeavors supported by the government. Dwindling underground water supplies are also a longterm concern that needs to be addressed. In addition, unemployment among the young is a concern. As the country works towards becoming the main trading and banking center for the Middle East, Bahrainis hope to increase jobs and diversify their economy.
The development of Bahrain is partly due to the discovery of oil in the early 1900s, but also due to careful planning by Emir Sheikh Sulman bin Hamad al-Khalifa in conjunction with a British advisor, Charles Belgrave. As a result, Bahrain has an advanced educational system, which has produced one of the highest literacy levels in the region; a comprehensive and modern health care system; and a well-developed infrastructure.
The Bahrainis are a tolerant people who, although devout followers of the laws of Islam, impose no restrictions on outsiders. It is not unusual to see Bahrainis in traditional dress, some with perhaps a suit jacket over the traditional robe.
Despite Muslim law - which forbids gambling, and the consumption of pork and alcoholic beverages - social activities, business entertainment, and Western modes of dress are more widely accepted in Bahrain than in most other Muslim countries.
In large part because of this tolerance, Bahrain is regarded as a very pleasant place to live and is a popular destination for expatriates from Saudi Arabia, from Europe and from North America.