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Bahrain: Tiny Gulf State Shaken By Shiite-led Protests

Bahrain -- A Bahraini man walks past portraits of men reportedly detained after attending anti-government protests, displayed behind a mosque in the village of Diraz, west of Manama, on July 10, 2015. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH / AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED

The small Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, home to US and British military bases, is close to Saudi Arabia but hostile to Iran which it accuses of fuelling Shiite-led protests.

Ahead of legislative elections on November 24, here is some background:

- Sunni rulers -

Bahrain is made up of one large island and around 34 smaller ones situated off the east coast of Saudi Arabia, to which it is connected by a causeway.

At just 700 square kilometres (270 square miles), it is the smallest country in the Middle East with a population of 1.49 million (World Bank, 2017).

A British protectorate from 1871 until its independence in 1971, it has been ruled since 1783 by the Khalifa dynasty that follows the Sunni branch of Islam.

Bahrain has a majority Shiite Muslim population, according to unofficial estimates contested by the government.

It also has a significant community of Southeast Asian workers employed mostly in the construction and service sectors.

- Waves of unrest -

Bahrain was shaken by anti-government unrest in the 1990s driven by the Shiite opposition which called for the restoration of parliament dissolved in 1975.

Since 1999 it has been ruled by King Hamad, who is now in his late 60s.

A 2001 referendum approved reforms that paved the way for elections to a restored parliament in 2002, although they were boycotted by the opposition.

In 2011 Bahrain was rocked by an uprising by its Shiite population who complained of political, economic and social discrimination and demanded pro-democracy reforms.

A major sit-in by protesters in the capital Manama lasted a month before being crushed by security forces reinforced by deployments from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Since then hundreds of opposition activists have been imprisoned, some stripped of their citizenship, and opposition parties outlawed.

Dozens of people are feared to have been killed in the unrest.

- Tehran tensions, Riyadh ally -

Bahrain is one of the strongest allies of Saudi Arabia, the regional Sunni power, and is hostile to Iran, the Shiite heavyweight.

It frequently accuses Iran of stirring its unrest, a charge that is denied.

Manama broke diplomatic relations with Tehran in 2016. A year later it joined Saudi Arabia and other countries in ending ties with Qatar, accused of supporting extremists and rapprochement with Iran.

- US, British bases -

Located between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the island state is a strategic western ally and part of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State group.

It hosts the US Navy's Fifth Fleet with around 7,800 US military personnel deployed in the country.

Britain in April 2018 opened in Bahrain its first permanent military base in the Middle East since 1971. South of Manama, it is to host around 300 troops.

- Smallest Gulf oil producer -

In 1932 Bahrain became the first Gulf Arab country to produce crude oil but today it is the smallest of the Gulf producers.

In 2008 it announced the discovery of more than 80 billion barrels of shale oil which it hopes to start pumping in 2023.

With 80 percent of its revenues from oil and a large budget deficit, it announced in October 2018 an economic reform plan backed up by a $10-billion (8.6 billion euros) support package from its key Gulf allies.

- Pearl-rich past -

Before the discovery of oil, Bahrain's main activities were fishing and pearl diving.

In 2012 UNESCO added a major pearling site to its world heritage list, describing the practice as "testimony of an island economy".

Pearl Square in Manama, the epicentre of the 2011 protests, is so-called to evoke the kingdom's pearling history.