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Bahrain Nationalist Movement


Bahrain's twentieth-century effort to gain autonomy from Britain.

Nationalism has a long history in Bahrain, because local notables persistently resisted British influence over the rulers in the years after 1880. When British officials deposed the ruler in 1923, Sunni Islamic notables opposed to overt British interference in the country's internal affairs organized a Bahrain National Congress to demand the ruler's restoration and the creation of an advisory council to assist him in governing the country. In 1934, Shiʿite leaders (of the petite bourgeoisie and working class) unsuccessfully petitioned the ruler to promulgate a basic law and institute proportional representation on the municipal and education councils. In 1938, Sunni reformers demanded the establishment of a popular assembly (majlis) and an end to administrative inefficiency. When students and oil workers (petroleum was found in 1932) threatened a general strike in support of the majlis movement in November 1938, the regime arrested some prominent reformers and deported them to British-controlled India. Several clandestine opposition groupsincluding the Representatives of the People, the Secret Labor Union, and the Society of Free Youthremained active after the suppression of the reform movement, but none posed a serious challenge to the regime during the 1940s.

Unrest emerged in 1953 and 1954, culminating in a general strike in July 1954. Liberal reformers from both the Sunni and Shiʿite communities organized a Higher Executive Committee (HEC) that October to call for greater national autonomy, the convening of a legislature, the right to form trade unions, and the creation of an appellate court. Protracted negotiations between the ruler and the HEC led to formal recognition of a Committee of National Unity, in return for the HEC's agreeing to end its demands for a national assembly. Activists in the industrial labor force responded by forming the National Liberation Front-Bahrain, pressing for more fundamental changes in the country's political structure. Anti-British demonstrations at the time of the Suez (Sinai) War of 1956 precipitated restraints on all opposition forces and the declaration of a state of emergency, which effectively terminated the nationalist movements of the 1950s. Shaykh Isa ibn Sulman al-Khalifa succeeded to the throne in 1961; he announced Bahrain's independence on 14 August 1971.

see also bahrain; national liberation front (bahrain); sunni islam.


Halliday, Fred. Arabia without Sultans: A Political Survey of Instability in the Arab World. New York: Vintage, 1975.

Lawson, Fred H. Bahrain: The Modernization of Autocracy. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1989.

Nakhleh, Emile A. Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing Society. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1976.

Fred H. Lawson

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