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Friday, 15 February, 2002, 15:53 GMT
Bahrainis welcome change
Sheikh Hamad becomes King of Bahrain
Sheikh Hamad (centre) agrees to a constitutional monarchy
By Julia Wheeler in Dubai

Within the next nine months, the world's newest constitutional monarchy will have been formally born when parliamentary elections take place in Bahrain.

On 24 October 2002, all Bahraini citizens over the age of 21 - men and women - will be able to vote for the elected assembly which, it is promised, will play an important role in the running of their country.

Before then, on 9 May, there will be municipal elections to five regional councils which, it is planned, will look after public works, roads and education, among other things.

That date will mark the first time women have been able to stand for office in the tiny Arab state, home to around 620,000 people.

Novelty of equal opportunities

Equal opportunities are novel in the Gulf. Equally novel is the way this has come about.


Ordinary people too are relishing being a part of the changes and on Thursday were openly celebrating in the streets

On Valentine's Day last year (14 February), the Bahraini leader, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, asked his people to vote in a referendum on a National Charter.

They responded with a near unanimous "yes" vote of 98.4%.

Sheikh Hamad's government promised to bring in the political reforms set out in the charter by the end of 2004. Now they will be about two years ahead of schedule.

'Self-promotion'

In fact, one change has already taken place. Sheikh Hamad is no longer a Highness - he has promoted himself and now ranks among Majesties.

The Emir of Bahrain
Sheikh Hamad became ruler in 1999
The reason given is that Bahrain is a single entity and not one part of a larger whole, as the name "emirate" suggests within the region.

The United Arab Emirates, for example, is made up of seven Emirates that go to make up one country.

The self-promotion of His Majesty appears more of a change in protocol rather than something that will make much difference in the running of the country.

Whatever his title, Sheikh Hamad will still be very much in charge.

However, the reforms are significant in a region where the democracy so prized in the West has until now been strangled before birth.

The reforms are designed to lessen the divisions between Bahrain's Sunni Muslim government and Shia Muslim majority.

Two-tier government

There will be two tiers of government, each with 40 members, under the King.

The Shura or consultative council, appointed by Sheikh Hamad and his successors and the House of Representatives voted for by the people.


Whatever his title, Sheikh Hamad will still be very much in charge

Both will have a say in Bahrain's laws while the house will also have a watching brief over government.

The House of Representatives will have the power to question ministers, launch investigations and even remove individuals from office if their performance is unacceptable.

The governing administration will work along the American system with appointed technocrats running things day to day.

Change welcomed

After more than 25 years without a parliament, the people of Bahrain are welcoming the prospect before them.


Saudi Arabian leaders expressed hope the Bahraini people will "fulfil their aspirations". The stress is very much on the word "their"

Since the launch of the moves towards democracy, many of those opposition leaders in exile under the old regime have returned to their country, political prisoners have been released and there are signs of more press freedom.

Ordinary people too are relishing being a part of the changes and on Thursday were openly celebrating in the streets.

The neighbouring states will be watching closely and listening carefully.

Sheikh Hamad certainly does not want to give them the impression that he is blazing a trail of democracy for other Gulf Arab leaders to follow.

He says he is sharing the responsibility of government with his people.

Others are less willing to do so.

The powerful Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, just a short drive across the causeway from Bahrain's main island, has congratulated Sheikh Hamad.

Its leaders expressed hope the Bahraini people will "fulfil their aspirations".

The stress is very much on the word "their".

See also:

14 Feb 02 | Middle East
Bahrain steps up democratic reforms
18 Feb 01 | Middle East
Bahrain lifts key security law
16 Feb 01 | Middle East
Landslide win for Bahrain reforms
08 Feb 01 | Middle East
Bahrain amnesty welcomed
30 Sep 00 | Middle East
Politics open up in Bahrain
05 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Bahrain
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