Al-Ahram Weekly Online
21 - 27 February 2002
Issue No.574
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

From emirate to kingdom

With the stroke of a pen, the Emirate of Bahrain has become a constitutional monarchy. Sherine Bahaa reports

Sheikh Hamad gives his assent to constitutional amendments (photo: AP)
In a major step towards transforming Bahrain's political system into a liberal democracy, its leader, Sheikh Hamad Bin Issa Al-Khalifa, last week proclaimed his country a constitutional monarchy. In conjunction with this change, Bahrain has dropped the term "emirate" from its official name in favour of "kingdom."

Preparations for this dramatic change began a year ago. In February 2001, two years after Al-Khalifa came to power, Bahrainis voted in favour of constitutional reform in a referendum. Public assent thus paved the way for Al-Khalifa's decree stipulating the re-establishment of parliament, the separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers, equality between men and women and the transformation of Bahrain to a constitutional monarchy.

The constitutional amendments give women the right to stand as candidates in parliamentary elections. In Bahrain, women already had the vote and were permitted to work and own businesses, but the decision to allow them to run for office is a first for the Gulf region.

The restoration of the legislature was the main demand during sporadic upheavals triggered by Bahrain's mainly Shi'ite opposition during the period 1994 to 1999.

Legislative elections are scheduled to take place in October while municipal elections are to be held in May. The last parliamentary elections were conducted in 1975, and two years later that parliament was dissolved. Since that time, the legislature has comprised appointed members. Municipal elections have not been held since the early 1960s.

Although the constitutional amendments pave the way for Bahrainis to play a larger role in the running of their country, the king will have the final say on all matters.

The amended constitution requires the formation of a bicameral legislature. One chamber will be elected by the people while the other, the shura, a consultative council of experts, will be appointed.

The two chambers will be equal when it comes to legislation, and the elected body will have a responsibility of watching over the government. By keeping an appointed Shura Council, the king will ensure the loyalty of the legislature and veto power.

The transformation of Bahrain to a kingdom makes it the second kingdom in the oil-rich Gulf region after Saudi Arabia. Other Gulf rulers hold lesser titles of "emir" or "sultan," but, in practice there is little difference among the political systems where ultimate power resides in the ruling families.

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