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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 September 2005, 16:18 GMT 17:18 UK
Bahrain offers dram of democracy
Robin Lustig
By Robin Lustig
BBC News, Bahrain

In the fourth of his five-part Looking for Democracy series, the BBC's Robin Lustig reports from the Gulf state of Bahrain.

Bahrain parliament in session
The tiny Gulf state claims to be the region's most democratic nation
Bahrain is not like the other Gulf states, it is not awash with oil and it does have to look after the pennies.

While it is both the smallest and the poorest state in the region, it also claims to be the most democratic.

The ruling family, the al-Khalifas, have run the place since the late 18th Century.

They provide the king, who is the head of state, and his heir apparent, the crown prince.

They also provide the prime minister, deputy prime minister, foreign minister, defence minister, oil minister and finance minister.

In fact, it is rather an odd democracy in which nearly half the cabinet members are related to each other.

Accountability

But it is not quite that simple. One government minister, not a member of the royal family as it happens, told me he gets regular grillings from MPs, which he clearly does not much enjoy. A lawyer said he has actually won cases in court against royal princes.

Officially, Bahrain is now a constitutional monarchy.

If parliament passes a vote of no confidence in a minister, royal or not royal, the king has to sack him within seven days.

Bahraini Information Minister Muhammad Abdulghaffar
The Saudis have a nick-name for Bahrain - they call it "the bar" for short, because you can buy alcohol here
No, it has not actually happened yet, but they insist that it could.

How democratic is Bahrain? Well that depends on whether you consider the glass to be half full or half empty.

On one hand, ministers are answerable to parliament, although there is not a single woman member in the elected lower chamber.

There are dozens of political societies that campaign on human rights and constitutional reform.

On the other hand, the upper house of parliament is wholly unelected, the press is only semi-free and political parties are banned.

Judges have sole jurisdiction over family cases like divorce in the country's Sharia courts.

'The bar'

Ghada Jamsheer, a feisty women's rights campaigner, has run into trouble with the judges and now faces trial on charges of having insulted them.

"They say they don't like to see my hair," she tells me, pointing to her defiantly uncovered head. "Well, I don't like to see their beards."

LOOKING FOR DEMOCRACY
The Saudis have a nick-name for Bahrain - they call it "the bar" for short, because you can buy alcohol here.

Every weekend, thousands of them drive across the 15-mile-long (24km) causeway that links the island to the mainland to enjoy all kinds of delights not available back home.

I even heard that some of them turn up to human rights classes, but I suspect they are in the minority.

Is a taste for democracy as easy to acquire as a taste for whisky?

Human rights campaigners here tell you there is still far too little democracy, even in Bahrain while the Islamists think the whole reform programme has already gone too far.

The government sits uneasily in the middle. Stability and order are the watchwords, say ministers - democracy cannot be built in a day.

But as I stare at my glass of beer, I still cannot decide: is it half full or half empty?



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