Explainer: Tiny nation, big history: What you need know about Bahrain

  • As the Gulf nation reacts to days of unrest, a look at its role on the world stage

  • Geography

    Image: Satellite image of Bahrain
    Universal Images Group  /  Getty Images
    Bahrain, Middle East, Asia, True Colour Satellite Image
    Bahrain, an archipelago in the Persian Gulf, is just 3.5 times the size of Washington, D.C according to the latest estimate published in the CIA's World Factbook.

    Dwarfed by neighboring nations Saudi Arabia, Qatar and United Arab Emirates, Bahrain is the 187th largest on the globe — just outranking the island of Dominica — when you sort world nations by total area (land and water areas).

    For comparison: the U.S., the 3rd largest nation in the world, boasts a total area of nearly 3,794,100 square miles while Bahrain can claim just 293 square miles as its own.

  • Demographics

    Nearly 235,108 of the nation’s 738,004 residents are non-nationals, according to a July 2010 estimate.

    A Bahraini man uses his mobile phone as
    Adam Jan  /  AFP/Getty Images
    A Bahraini man uses his mobile phone as he leaves the Al-Fateh Mosque, the biggest mosque in the Gulf monarchy that can accommodate 7000 worshippers, in Manama on September 17, 2010. AFP PHOTO/ADAM JAN (Photo credit should read ADAM JAN/AFP/Getty Images)

    A large portion of Bahrainians — about 70 percent — belong to the Shiite branch of Islam, while the ruling family is Sunni.

    According to a report by Peter Beaumont in Britain's Guardian newspaper, the sectarian divide is a "key difference" between Bahrain's protests and those in Tunisia and Egypt.

    "The capital Manama is largely Sunni, while the Shiite population has been historically concentrated in the poorer rural areas where – according to some estimates – in some villages between one third and a half of the residents are unemployed."

  • Government

    Bahrain gained its independence from Britain in 1971. Shortly thereafter, a parliament and constitution – aimed at ensuring basic rights and equality – was put forth. The legislative process was immediately marred by tension and mistrust.

    Wary of what Foreign Policy magazine referred to as the “rising authoritarianism of the ruling family,” the legislative body and monarchy clashed over transparency and a measure known as “The Security Law.”

    The decree stipulated that political prisoners – who were primarily Shiite – "could be held for up to three years without charge for anything deemed threatening to the country." When parliament balked at passing the measure in 1975, the monarchy disbanded the body and passed the law on its own.

    In the years that followed, long-running tensions between Shiite and Sunni and populations continued to simmer, until riots and the death of the king opened the door for reform in 1999.

    Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa king of Bahrain
    Scott Olson  /  AFP/Getty Images
    Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa king of Bahrain speaks to US Defense Secretary Robert Gates during a visit to Safryia Palace on December 12, 2008 in Malkia, Bahrain. Gates is currently on a multi-day tour of the Middle East meeting with regional commanders and troops. AFP PHOTO/POOL/Scott Olson (Photo credit should read SCOTT OLSON/AFP/Getty Images)

    King Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa’s death saw his son, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa (right) rise to power, and prolong the family's grip on the power, which began in 1783.

    Attempts to soothe Shiite anger and establish harmony quickly followed, but real power, to this day, remains with the monarchy.

    By title, the nation is a constitutional monarchy, in which a sovereign ruler is guided by a constitution that spells out the monarch’s rights and responsibilities – with the king’s son, Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa waiting in the wings as the heir to the crown.

  • Resources

    Facing limited oil reserves, Bahrain has transformed itself into an international banking hub.

    A 2007 study by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia found that the nation – the smallest of the region – boasted its fastest growing economy thanks in part to an influx of foreign investors. The calendar’s turn to 2011 saw the nation’s economy deemed the “freest” in the Middle East according to a study by the Index of Economic Freedom by the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal.

    Taking advantage of its location next to OPEC heavyweight Saudi Arabia, Bahrain has also turned itself into a playground for Saudis, many of whom frequent the nation’s Western-style bars, hotels and beaches.

    Despite punching well above its financial weight, the nation still struggles with unemployment, especially among the young. The latest estimates put the jobless figure at 15 percent.

  • International relations

    Two U.S. Navy Vessels Collide
    U.s. Navy  /  Getty Images
    In this handout image provided by the U.S. Navy, The Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Hartford (SSN 768) pulls into Mina Salman pier in Bahrain.(Photo by Cmdr. Jane Campbell/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
    Little Bahrain is a pillar of the Obama administration's military framework in the region. It hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which is a critical counterbalance to Iran's efforts to expand its clout in the region.

    Officials fear that a prolonged crisis opens the door for a potential flashpoint between Iran and its Arab rivals in the Gulf.

Photos: March

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  1. Bahraini Shiites women attend the funeral of Bahiya al-Aradi, holding portraits of her, in central Manama on Monday, March 22. Aradi, 51, went missing on March 16 evening, and a car that she drove was found the day after in al-Qadam village, west of Manama, with bloodstains on the driver's seat. She was pronounced dead on March 21 after being shot in the head. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Bahraini opposition protesters carry the body of Abdulrasool al-Hajiri during his burial ceremony in Buri village, north of the capital, Manama, on Monday, March 21. Relatives accused the military of executing al-Hajiri after grabbing him at a checkpoint outside the village. Meanwhile, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa praised Saudi-led forces that he called in to help quell unprecedented unrest. (Mazen Mahdi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, right, meets with officers of the Gulf Cooperation Council's Peninsula Shield force late on March 20 in Manama. The monarch said Bahrain has foiled a "foreign plot" to target Gulf countries, in a possible reference to Iran, after security forces crushed Shiite-led unrest, the state news agency reported. (BNA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. An injured Pakistani man takes refuge at a Pakistan club in Manama on March 19. He said that he was attacked by Shiite Bahrainis in a Shiite neighborhood on March 19. According to Pakistani men, Shiites have been attacking Asian nationals, accusing them of taking away their jobs. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Young women look at welts on the body of a young man walking through the streets of Daih, a Shiite suburb of Manama, on March 19. The youth said he was returning from nearby Sanabis, another Shiite area, where he said he and several others were beaten by riot police. (Hasan Jamali / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Bahraini soldiers with the portrait of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on their armored personnel carrier are seen at a checkpoint near Pearl Square in Manama on March 19. (Sergey Ponomarev / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. The sisters of activist Ahmed Farhan mourn over his body in Sitra on March 18. Farhan, 29, was killed March 15 when police cracked down on opposition protesters in the town. (James Lawler Duggan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. An unidentified man shows the bullet that was allegedly pulled from the head of killed opposition protester Ahmed Farhan before his burial on March 18. (Mazen Mahdi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Shiite mourners wrap the body of Ahmed Farhan before his funeral in Sitra on March 18. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Shiite mourners carry the coffin of Ahmed Farhan during his funeral in Sitra on March 18, as thousands of anti-regime activists defied martial law to renew their pro-democracy protests. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A Shiite woman stands in front of the national flag as she watches the funeral procession of Ahmed Farhan on March 18. (Sergey Ponomarev / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A combination of pictures show the statue in the center of Pearl Square in Manama being torn down on March 18. The authorities demolished the statue, focal point and symbol of weeks of pro-democracy protests in the Gulf island kingdom. Drills and diggers cut away at the six bases of the statue for hours, until it collapsed into a mound of rubble and steel bars. Trucks stood by to take away the debris. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. People walk past a car damaged with shotgun pellets in Sitra on March 17. (James Lawler Duggan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The Bahraini National Guard arrest a man who was later identified as journalist Alex Delmar-Morgan of the Wall Street Journal as he walked towards Pearl Square in Manama on March 16. Several hours later, Morgan was released. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Anti-government protestors gesture towards military vehicles near Pearl Square in Manama on March 16 after police killed at least two protesters and wounded dozens more as they assaulted a peaceful protest camp in the capital's Pearl Square, an opposition party official said. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Black smoke billows from burning tents in Pearl Square in Manama on March 16 after soldiers and riot police used tear gas and armored vehicles to drive out hundreds of anti-government protesters occupying the square. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Black smoke billows in Pearl Square on March 16 after a full-scale assault on the protesters occupying the square was launched at daybreak by soldiers and police. (James Lawler Duggan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces move in to Pearl Square to remove anti-government protesters on March 16. The GCC is a union comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Doctors form a human chain at Salmaniya Hospital in Manama fearing an attack by riot police on March 15. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A man from the Shiite Muslim village of Sitra, south of the Bahraini capital Manama is brought to the Salmaniya hospital late on March 15 after he was shot with pellets of buckshot, as the king imposed a state of emergency after bringing in foreign troops to help quell anti-regime protests. (James Lawler Duggan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Thousands of anti-government protesters march to the Saudi embassy in Manama on March 15, a day after a Saudi-led military force entered the country to defend its Sunni monarchy from a Shiite-led protest movement. The yellow sign center foreground reads: "The Saudi army came to protect the illegitimate government, not the aggrieved, legitimate nation" and the banner at right says: "The Saudi army's entry to Bahrain is an occupation we will never accept." (Hasan Jamali / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Female anti-government protesters gather outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Manama on Tuesday, March 15. (James Lawler Duggan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Saudi Arabian troops cross the causeway leading to Bahrain on March 14. About 1,000 Saudi soldiers entered Bahrain to protect government facilities, a Saudi official source said, a day after mainly Shi'ite protesters overran police and blocked roads. (Reuters TV ) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Protesters confront riot police on a flyover near the Pearl Square in Manama on March 13. Bahraini riot police fired thick clouds of tear gas and pushed back protesters who blocked a main thoroughfare leading to the Bahrain Financial Harbour, a key business district in the Gulf Arab region's banking center. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Protesters set up makeshift roadblocks in Manama on March 13. Bahraini police clashed with demonstrators trying to occupy Manama's banking center, as protests spread from a peaceful sit-in to the heart of the strategic Gulf state's business district. (James Lawler Duggan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A protester gestures in front of riot police on an overpass near Pearl roundabout in Manama on March 13. (Hasan Jamali / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Opposition protesters take cover after being fired upon by police during an opposition march on Riffa, south of the capital Manama, on March 11. Police clashed with protesters on the outskirts of Riffa after pro-government supporters were able to pass through police lines and attack the opposition march, leaving hundreds injured according to the health ministry, mainly due to tear-gas inhalation. (Mazen Mahdi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Protesters holding signs that read: "Down With Al-Khalifa" (left and right) stand in front of the U.S. embassy during a demonstration where they accused the U.S. government of supporting dictatorships, in Manama on March 7. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A protester kisses a police officer after being told to clear the way for a female driver in Manama on March 3. The protester was blocking the road during an anti-government rally. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Anti-government protesters gesture in front of the main gate of the Interior Ministry during demonstrations in Manama on March 2. Protests in Bahrain are starting to make forays away from the central square in Manama and into different parts of the city. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Anti-government protesters march toward the Pearl roundabout, March 1, in the capital of Manama. Tens of thousands of Bahrainis, largely Shiites, participated in the march urging unity among Sunnis and Shiites in demanding political reform. (Hasan Jamali / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: TOPSHOTS

Bahraini Shiites women attend t
    Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (31) 2011 Bahrain uprising - March
  2. Image: Bahraini protesters sit and rest in their tent at Pearl Square in Bahraini capital of Manama
    Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters
    Slideshow (63) 2011 Bahrain uprising - February

Video: NYT's Kristof: Bahrain hospital scene 'heartbreaking'

Interactive: The Egypt effect

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