The Kingdom of Bahrain, a former Emirate and now a constitutional hereditary monarchy, is an archipelago consisting of more than 30 islands in the Persian Gulf. The largest of the islands, also called Bahrain, makes up seven-eighths of the country. Causeways link the island of Bahrain to the second largest island, Al Muharraq, to the NE and also to the Arabian peninsula.
Sandy, desert plains make up most of this small, low-lying island country. In the N coastal areas of Bahrain, freshwater springs provide water for drinking and also for irrigation.
Bahrain has a humid climate. Winters are mild, with temperatures ranging from about 10°C [50°F] to 27°C [80°F]. Summers are hot and humid, with temperatures often soaring to more than 38°C [100°F]. The average annual rainfall is low. N Bahrain is the wettest area, with about 80mm [3in] a year. The rain occurs mainly in winter and rainfall is almost non-existent in summer months.
Bahrain was part of a trading civilization called Dilmun, which prospered between about 2000 and 1800 bc. This civilization was linked to the Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations to the N, and with the Indus Valley civilization in what is now Pakistan. Bahrain later came under Islamic Arab influence of the from the 7th century.
Portugal seized the archipelago from its Arab rulers in 1521, but the Persians conquered the islands in 1603, holding them against attacks by the Portuguese and Omanis. However, in 1782, the Al Khalifah Arabs from Saudi Arabia took over the islands and they have ruled ever since.
In the early 19th century, Britain helped Bahrain to prevent annexation by Saudi Arabian invaders. As a result, Bahrain agreed to let Britain take control of its foreign affairs. Bahrain effectively became a British protectorate, although it was not called one. In the 1920s and 1930s the Bahrainis established welfare systems, later funded by revenue from oil, which was discovered in 1932.
Political reforms began in the 1950s and, in 1970, the Emir turned over some of his power to a Council of State, which became a Cabinet. Britain withdrew from the Persian Gulf region in 1971 and Bahrain became fully independent.
Bahrain adopted a new constitution in 1973. This created a National Assembly with 30 elected members. However, relations between the National Assembly and the ruling Al Khalifa family were difficult and the National Assembly was dissolved in 1975. The country was then ruled by the Emir and his cabinet, headed by the prime minister, the Emir's appointee.
In February 2002, a new constitution changed the country from an Emirate into a constitutional hereditary monarchy and the ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa became king. Elections for a new directly elected House of Deputies took place later that year, with women allowed to vote for the first time. The 40-member House of Deputies - together with a second chamber, a Shura Council, consisting of experts appointed by the king - made up the National Assembly, Bahrain's first parliament since 1975.
Political problems in recent years have included tensions between ruling Sunni Muslims and the Shi'ite majority. During the Iran-Iraq war, Bahrain supported Iraq against Iran, but in the Gulf War it joined the coalition against its former ally.
Since 1991, the US Navy has used Bahrain as its permanent headquarters in the Persian Gulf. This has provoked terrorist incidents. Although the people have more freedom than others in the region, opposition groups continue to press for further progress, including greater powers for the elected House of Deputies. The opposition Shiite Al-Wefaq party won over 40% of parliamentary seats in November 2006 elections.
The people of Bahrain enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the Persian Gulf region. The average life expectancy at birth (2005 estimate) is 74 years and free medical services are available. The adult literacy rate is 89%.
Bahrain's prosperity is based on oil, although the country lacks major reserves. Petroleum and petroleum products accounted for 68% of the exports in 2002. Its aluminium smelting plant is the Persian Gulf's largest non-oil industrial complex and aluminium, in all forms, accounted for 15% of the exports in 2002. Textiles and clothing accounted for another 8%.
Bahrain is a major banking and financial centre, and it is home to numerous multinational companies that operate in the Persian Gulf region. It is a popular tourist destination.
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