Labor activism has been a major feature of political life in Bahrain, going back to early industrial activities following the discovery of oil in 1928-1932. [1] These early efforts absorbed many destitute pearl divers, peasants and freed slaves, and paved the way for a new stratum of middlemen from among the pearl merchant families. The new economic activities gave additional impetus to British efforts to build the skeleton of a local government administration capable of coping with the social and economic transformation of the island. [2]

More than in the neighboring Gulf countries, these transformations have clearly affected existing social networks and produced new ones. The general outlook of the emerging working class was contentious. Sporadic work stoppages and organized strikes were frequent reactions to the prevailing conditions of misery and lack of power. The first industrial strike in Bahrain was that of Bahrain Petroleum Company (BAPCO) workers in December 1943. The strike was successful, partly because of pressure by the British, who feared its influence on the war effort in the region. [3]

Political developments of the 1953-1956 period brought about two significant organizational changes in the Bahraini labor movement. The first was the formation of the General Trade Union. The GTU’s massive membership attested to the militancy and the effective agitation of the political leadership of the time, known as the National Union Committee (NUC). [4] The second change was the formation of a number of underground cells of political activists, including a small number of highly motivated communist activists.

The NUC was formed in 1954 after a series of intercommunal disturbances which claimed casualties among both Sunnis and Shi‘a. Educated young men of both communities, understanding that their opposition to the British and Al Khalifa rule could not be effective while intercommunal conflicts continued, worked to propagate “national unity.” Their ability to use the press and the existing social networks facilitated their subsequent success. The NUC held a series of mass rallies which adopted a common platform and presented it to the government and the British Political Resident. The platform demanded a constitution, an elected legislative assembly, a modern penal code, a constitutional court and legalization of labor unions.

The mass appeal of the General Trade Union seemed to surprise even its NUC sponsors. ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Bakr, who served for some time as the general secretary of the NUC, claimed that “the Bahraini labor union was able to recruit 14,000 Bahraini workers in [its first] three months.” The strength of the union was tested during the election of the workers’ representatives to the tripartite commission entrusted to draw up the first “labor code.” The NUC/GTU candidates won the election, while their opponents received only some 600 votes out of the 18,000 votes cast. [5] Following mass demonstrations in support of Nasser during the 1956 Suez war, the British cracked down on the NUC and the GTU, imprisoning or deporting its leaders and eventually banning all its activities. Underground cells grew rapidly as the only expression of a politically and economically discontented populace.

Bahraini militants learned a number of lessons from the experience of the Iraqi and Iranian militants who took refuge in Bahrain in the 1950s. Most important was how to consolidate their links within the growing working class. Patient efforts at a time of growing frustration were reflected in the growth of the National Liberation Front (NLF), also known as the Communist Party of Bahrain, and the Bahraini section of the Arab Nationalist Movement (later a section of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf and presently the Popular Front). Both communists and Arab nationalists were in the forefront of the struggle following the suppression of the NUC at the end of 1956.

The ban on political activity was not openly and seriously challenged until March 1965. Then the dismissal of hundreds of BAPCO workers sparked an uprising which showed the sophistication, militancy and mass support of both organizations, and the important role of organized labor in the struggle against British rule and for a more equitable social order. [6] The “uprising,” according to various sources, lasted some three months. The government’s report states that

toward the end of March, certain subversive elements took advantage of a strike by the oil company workers over redundancy, to carry out acts such as the attempted blowing up of the oil pipeline to the refinery, the burning of oil company buses, stoning of European cars, destruction by fire of a European godown, but the strike was settled and with the capture and arrest of the ringleaders of the subversive elements everything was back to normal by mid-April. [7]

The duration of the uprising of 1965 and its violent character underlined the gap between all major sections of the population on the one hand and the British and the ruling family on the other. [8] Once again, the insurgency was put down. Some people were shot to death, some injured, and many hundreds detained. In a symbolic “retaliatory” action in March 1966, the cars of the chief of the British-led security forces — the Special Branch — and his assistant were booby-trapped. The Special Branch changed its name in 1968 to the Security and Intelligence Services (SIS), following the appointment of Col. Ian Henderson, who still heads it today.

Labor actions, particularly strikes, continued to mount through 1968, and affected practically every major and medium size employer. The announcement in 1968 of the imminent British withdrawal from the Gulf helped create a tranquil situation for a while. The underground political organizations acclaimed Bahrain’s declaration of independence in 1971 as a major achievement. Popular expectations were heightened further by proposals for political and social reforms offered by Bahraini representatives to various Gulf states’ meetings. [9]

Those expectations were frustrated by the government’s procrastination. 1972 witnessed another “March uprising,” led this time by the Constitutive Committee of Bahraini Workers and Professionals Union. The CCBWPU was an alliance between the NLF and the Bahraini section of the PFLOAG, as well as independent opposition figures. When negotiations over legalizing labor unionization failed, labor activists challenged the government in the streets. On March 11 the CCBWPU held a mass rally at the steps of the Government House in Manama, the capital. The major demands concerned improvement of labor laws, freedom of association (including the right to unionize) and the release of political prisoners and detainees. [10]

The govenment’s reaction was harsh. Police and anti-riot squads and the Bahrain Defense Force — the latter for the first time since its formation in 1968 — were sent against the demonstrators. Most known leaders of the CCBWPU were detained for a year but never brought to trial. At the same time, the government undertook publicly to speed moves toward drafting the country’s first constitution (which would guarantee, among other things, the right to unionize) and towards calling the first general election.

Constitutional Reforms

The 1973 constitution fell short of expectations but did contain minimum guarantees of fundamental rights and democratic freedoms demanded by the opposition. The first parliamentary elections were held in December 1973.

Various political forces, including the communists, campaigned heavily. The 30 elected members of the National Assembly accurately reflected the political trends prevailing in the island at the time. [11] Two discernible political groupings emerged in the parliament: the leftists, with eight members, and the Islamic group, with six members. The rest, the “independents” or “center,” generally exchanged voting favors among themselves, with the government, and with the Islamic or leftist groups. [12]

But in spite of the fact that most successful candidates campaigned for some measure of political and economic change, the balance of power inside the parliament remained in the government’s favor. This partly owed to a constitutional stipulation that all ministers are automatically full members of Parliament. This voting bloc of 14 ministers proved to be impregnable.

The electoral successes of the opposition at first forced a number of concessions which elevated opposition morale and extended its networks of political agitation. This was reflected in the surge of labor-related actions. Thirty-six strikes took place during the first six months of 1974, affecting all major employers on the island. Twenty-four of these lasted for 10 days or more. The longest strike occurred at the drydock: It involved more than 400 workers and lasted for 26 days. These strikes were instrumental in improving wage levels and working conditions. The minimum wage level was raised by one third. Most strikers obtained wage increases of 10 to 15 percent and pay for half of their strike days. [13]

The formation of trade unions in four major areas — the aluminum smelter, the electricity department, the Ministry of Health and the construction industry — precipitated a head-on confrontation with the government. Exploiting certain loopholes in the 1955 labor code, the four unions expanded their recruitment which soared beyond initial expectations. Workers elsewhere took steps to form their own trade unions.

Labor activists and their backers in and outside the parliament perceived the govenment’s confusion and inaction as signs of weakness. This proved to be a very serious misjudgment. Following the failure of negotiations with the management, the welders in ALBA (the multinational aluminum venture with the Bahraini government as a major shareholder) went on strike on May 27, 1974. They were backed by the ALBA trade union, whose ranks included some 1,700 out of more than 2,000 Bahrainis working for the company. The union made three demands: improve wages, end harassment by management and provide cold drinking water facilities. The management declared a lockout on May 30. Negotiations continued until the whole ALBA work force went on strike on June 14. Further negotiations between the union and a specially appointed commission of four ministers reached a deadlock. According to a government communiqué of June 15, the ALBA strike caused losses of 20 million Bahraini dinars:

An irresponsible group, not caring for the country’s interests, is continuing its [attempts to] aggravate the situation, and is focusing its illegal activities on the sensitive centers in the country in order to push the country into political and economic crisis and undermine confidence in its economic and industrial conditions.

The security forces took charge. Anti-riot squads and units from the Bahraini Defense Force were sent in and around the smelter’s area. Troops were also positioned at every “strategic point” in main towns and crossroads. From June 15 to 25, the SIS rounded up the leaders of the strike and a number of other labor activists and political figures. The change in the political climate was reflected in the agitation of the tightly controlled press for the “elimination of alien ideologies…lest the seeds of communism ferment.” [14]


The emir issued a “Decree Concerning Matters of State Security” before the end of the parliament’s summer recess. This empowered the minister of interior to arrest and detain any person for up to three years if the minister or his designated officers have reason to “suspect that this person is endangering or is planning to endanger the security of the state or disturb public order.” [15] Legal examination of the case may be carried out at the minister’s own discretion. This decree remains in force today. Persons have been detained under this decree for over five years without legal review of their cases.

With all overt political activity banned, the parliament became the sole legal forum for expressing popular grievances. Twenty-nine of the 30 elected members of parliament voted against the decree on “state security.” Another confrontation between the parliament and the government occurred when the same number of members refused to ratify the extension of lease agreement with the US Navy for the use of Juffayr. The regime cited these and other “non-cooperative” acts when it dissolved the parliament by decree in August 1975. The decree also suspended certain articles in the constitution, including those pertaining to reelection of a new parliament. [16] All political activities were forced underground, and the country has been under a virtual state of emergency.


Since then, a few marginal and short-lived strikes and labor actions have erupted, but as an expression of discontent or militancy they have become something of the past. Industrial relations in Bahrain have, for the time being, been pacified.

A number of social, economic and political developments lie behind this process of pacification. Comparison of the demographic structure in 1971 and 1981 indicates significant changes. [17] Non-Bahrainis constituted 17.5 percent of the total population in 1971. In 1981, the percentage of foreigners rose to 32 percent of the total population of that year. The figures show in particular a larger increase in non-Arab foreigners. Nearly all new migrants were laborers, and most of these came from the Indian subcontinent and other parts of southeast Asia.

One effect of these changes in the size and composition of the foreign labor force was the fragmentation of the working class along ethnic, lingual and religious divides. This fragmentation was replicated even on many shop floors. Changes in the composition of the labor force included a noticeable shift in its distribution by economic sector. This was also affected by shifts in social status ascribed to various occupations. In the newly consolidated rank order of occupational categories, Asians are concentrated at the bottom of the scale, Europeans and Americans at the top, and locals are concentrated in the middle. The percentage of Bahrainis in the labor force fell from 63 percent in 1971 to 42 percent in 1981. The decline is noticeable in every occupational category. The least affected categories are the “clerical and related workers,” and the “professional and technical workers.” Both categories are white-collar occupations where the government is the largest employer. The largest declines are in “sales, services, agriculture and production,” which are mainly privately owned and managed.

At present, the saturation and structural inadequacies of the island’s economy have slowed down this rate of increase in foreign workers. Official figures for 1982-1984 show a decline in the influx of new migrant laborers from the 1981 figure of 22,230 new labor permits. [18] But even if these constraints on the import of foreign labor persist, they are unlikely to offset the large demand for domestic servants, maids, cooks, gardeners and drivers. Political considerations may reduce the impact of economic realities by inducing Saudi Arabia and other GCC states to pump more financial aid into Bahrain.

Economic Changes

Independence created a need to accelerate efforts to modernize the state apparatus to meet the “normal” tasks of statehood. The Bahraini Defense Force (BDF), public administration and municipal services have grown considerably in the aftermath of the British announcement of their intention to withdraw from the Gulf.

The establishment of the BDF, in February 1968, added symbolic credibility to the country’s imminent claim to statehood. It could also serve as an instrument in the internal squabbles of the ruling family. The BDF, led by the crown prince, is balancing the powers of the prime minister, his uncle, who is in charge of the police and security force. The BDF is a voluntary force of some 2,700 and is strictly a Sunni affair. Shi‘i applicants are not considered. Officers are recruited from the ruling family and from those families considered traditional allies of the Al Khalifa. The SIS and the BDF’s own intelligence have periodically uncovered political opposition cells among BDF soldiers. At present, some 75 former soldiers are serving long prison terms for belonging to underground networks. One officer is serving a 15-year sentence for attempting to plant a time bomb in the ruler’s private plane in 1980. [19]

Saudi and Kuwaiti grants and, later, the rise of oil revenues, have financed the expansion of the Bahraini business community. This also activated the government’s economic role to subsidize food imports and other consumer goods and to enter a number of commercial and industrial ventures as a major partner.

Bahrain’s location and its developed communications infrastructure have stimulated its use as a regional depot and center for general service facilities and attracted scores of multinational firms to the island. The establishment of offshore banking units was encouraged by the monetary surpluses which accrued to the oil-producing countries of the region. An offshore unit deals only with international transfers of capital and has no access rights to the local market. The number of offshore units rose from 32 in 1975 to 65 in 1982 and included practically all major US, European and Japanese banks. The role of Bahrain as a base for multinational businesses is enhanced by the presence of 18 commercial banks, 48 representative offices of foreign banks, nine investment companies, 17 insurance firms, 17 money exchange bureaus, six money brokerage firms and two specialized banks. [20]

State expenditures increased tenfold from 33 million dinars in 1972 to 348 million in 1980. The economic resources available to the state enabled it to reduce some sources of popular discontent, particularly in the public services and housing sectors. Wage levels for Bahrainis have increased markedly, although the legal minimum wage has not changed since 1974. Popular expectations of a “Bahraini economic miracle,” though, were bound to be disappointed. The present economic difficulties are accentuated by the fact that the government employs 44 percent of all wage earners in Bahrain.

Political Changes

The Bahrainis’ long struggle for national independence and social equality has drawn strength from an alliance of divergent social forces. Independence in 1971 seemed to represent the end of the line for many prominent figures of the national movement during the 1950s and 1960s. The secretary-general of the NUC, for example, who was exiled for over 14 years by the British authorities after 1956, now serves as ambassador to the Arab League. Almost all members of the cabinet except the Al Khalifa were active, even leading members of the underground political networks several decades earlier.

The promises of impending prosperity and power sharing induced a significant number of educated Bahrainis to seek to reform the system “from within.” They joined the ruling family and the big merchant families in viewing the activities of the political opposition as unwarranted or even subversive.

After political independence, issues like social justice, democracy, human rights, women’s equality, Arab (and Gulf) unification, elimination of any foreign military presence and economic development became gradually more prominent in the political literature of the underground networks. The opposition suffered from a split over the course and means of struggle. The Bahraini section of the PFLOAG advocated armed action. The NLF advocated the buildup of opposition forces through civil actions. These differences determined their attitudes towards the parliamentary elections of 1973. The PFLOAG viewed the elections as diversionary and called for a boycott. The NLF formed the People’s Bloc, in an alliance with independent leftists, and campaigned on a rather moderate platform. Eight of its 12-man list were successful. Although the Popular Front later privately admitted that their course was an error, the disunity between these two underground forces persists today.

The parliament became a public forum for the communists and their allies to express their ideas, grievances and demands. Labor unrest gained an added impetus through the publicity offered by the press coverage and parliamentary debate. This ended in June 1974, when the security forces were again given free hand in dealing with labor unrest. The authorities obtained considerable assistance in this effort from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

The Kuwaiti government’s relatively long experience in dealing with its own parliamentary opposition has been more than a source of inspiration to the government of Bahrain. An experienced administrator of the Kuwaiti parliament was seconded to serve as an adviser to the Bahraini speaker. The Kuwaiti practice of offering improved services to the constituencies of cooperating members of parliament was faithfully — if not as generously — copied in Bahrain. So was the practice of appointing willing MPs, or their influential supporters, to honorary positions as well-paid consultants of government-controlled institutions. The Kuwaiti government also provides cash and other aid through its specialized agencies based in Manama.

The Saudi government role has been mainly financial. Units of the Saudi National Guard pay frequent visits to Bahrain, the first during the 1972 “uprising.” Opposition sources allege that the Saudi embassy in Manama has become a major power broker through its economic incentives and by mediating the internal squabbles of the Khalifa family.

The Jordanian government’s seconded police and military officers play an important role in the activities of the SIS and BDF. According to opposition sources, Jordanian officers are in charge of the anti-riot squads and staff senior positions in the security and intelligence. [21]


Since 1975, Bahrainis have lived under a virtual state of emergency which has pushed all forms of political opposition underground. Effective harassment and brutal measures undertaken by the SIS include: limiting to one year the validity of passports issued to students; banning students from returning to their universities abroad; withholding or withdrawing the mandatory “certificate of good character” from job seekers; harassment through preventive detention of potential “troublemakers”; deportations; detention without trial for periods reaching in some cases to five years; and extensive use of physical torture which has led, in the past nine years, to the death of six detainees.

The effects of these measures have been enhanced by the opposition’s persisting disunity, and by the emergence of two unrelated, politically significant organizational alternatives. The first is the local repercussions of the Iranian revolution. The second is the introduction of government-sponsored “Workers’ Committees.” Each has contributed, in its own right, to the process of labor pacification.

Bahrain’s Shi‘i community makes up more than 60 percent of the indigenous population. The mullahs, inspired by the success of their Iranian counterparts, sought to reproduce it in Bahrain. The Shi‘i movement has been able to claim massive support while other political organizations retreated. But its potential as a leading opposition force was soon undermined by its sectarian exclusivity and its unrealistic call, in the Bahraini context, for the establishment of an Islamic republic. The main Shi‘i organization, the Islamic Liberation Front (ILF) made extensive use of legally existing forums such as mosques and other religious meeting places, sports and cultural clubs, and associations. It has had to challenge the more cautious and conciliatory traditional leaders of the Shi‘i community. The ILF, while dominating the religious Shi‘i underground, also had to coexist with other, smaller, more radical Shi‘i activist groups. Its exclusively Shi‘i and revolutionary slogans alienated the religious Sunnis and their political network, the Muslim Brothers. The ILF has not been willing to coordinate its activities with any of the secular opposition organizations.

The government arrested more than 70 ILF members in December 1981 on charges of plotting a coup d’etat. Most received long prison terms, and some died under torture. Another consequence of this event was to revive the hitherto unsuccessful endeavors to forge a mutual security pact among the GCC states.

Workers’ Committees

In April 1981, the minister of labor and social affairs issued Order 9 on the formation of a “joint commission of workers and employers to attend to matters related to industrial relations.” A “General Workers’ Committee” was to be selected by representatives of committees elected by workers of major establishments in the country. The first objective was to present an alternative to the underground trade unionism. The second was to offset the bad publicity the government had been getting as a result of repeated censures by the Arab Labor Organization and the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions (ICATU). (The latter continues to challenge the legitimacy of Bahrain’s membership in the ALO and the International Labor Organization.) The underground Bahrain Workers’ Union called the move a “publicity stunt designed to foil the resolution of the ALO relating to violations of union rights in Bahrain.” [22]

In spite of calls for a boycott, the committees continue to represent the workers in the Bahraini tripartite delegations (government, workers, and employers) to ALO and ILO meetings and conferences (the underground Bahrain Workers’ Union represents the country in the ICATU). Although very useful abroad, the government-sponsored committees’ role in appeasing the Bahraini labor movement’s demands is marginal. Underground sources claim they have succeeded in taking over some of the government-sponsored committees during the election of January-February 1985. But given the usually strict vetting by the SIS, these cannot be any significant number. The viability of the government-sponsored committees, and their role as a credible alternative to the underground networks, are hampered by wide popular distrust of the government, as well as by its unwillingness to empower these committees to act as proper trade unions.

A Possible Breakthrough?

The structural changes of the 1970s, the continuing harsh political repression and the emergence of alternative forums have contributed, in varying degrees, to the paralysis of the Bahraini opposition, particularly in labor relations. The impact of these factors has been compounded by the inability of the major opposition organizations, the NLF and the PF, to agree on a joint program of action and to coordinate their priorities. Attempts in that direction, though frequent, have not been successful.

The most recent attempt took place at the end of 1979. A year of negotiations finally produced “A Common Political Platform,” signed and published in January 1981. The platform reiterates opposition demands and sets as a priority the restoration of democracy. The platform was hailed as a major achievement, considering the deep-rooted adversity between the two organizations. Underground publications indicate that the two organizations have undertaken concrete measures to coordinate actions, particularly in areas affecting labor, youth and women. The NLF, PF and independent activists are reportedly closely cooperating in the Bahrain Workers’ Union.

The economic difficulties forecast for the coming period, the indiscriminate repressive measures of the SIS and the ambitions of segments of the Bahraini business community have contributed to the reemergence of public pronouncements on the need to “restore democratic life.” Even the Bahraini press, normally heavily censored, has begun printing articles and interviews with former MPs, dwelling on the “blessings of democracy.” These became more pointed in the process of covering the Kuwaiti elections held in February 1985. A breakthrough in the present impasse might come if the organized underground networks succeed in maintaining their unity of action in their attempts to reactivate the popular movement, and if the presently rather subdued expressions of discontent continue to grow and reach wider segments of the population.


[1] Oil prospecting firms which formed the Bahrain Petroleum Company, BAPCO, were not the only foreign enterprises to be established in the country. Gray Mackenzie, a British maritime and transport agency, obtained a virtual monopoly in its field in most of the Gulf, including Bahrain. British Cable and Wireless and the British General Post Office have made use of the island since the last decades of the nineteenth century. The British also used Bahrain as a coal depot and later built their military and naval facilities in Juffayr and Muharraq. See A. Khalaf, “Oil and the Labor Movement in the Gulf: The Bahraini Case,” al-Tariq 3-4 (1980) pp. 259- 280. [Arabic] [2] For details see C. D. Belgrave, “Personal Column” (London, 1960); and Fred Khuri, Tribe and State in Bahrain: Development and Practice of Authority (Beirut, 1983). [Arabic] [3] See A. Khalid, “On the Formation of the First Trade Union in the Gulf,” al-Tariq 6 (1979), pp. 104-121.
[4] For details, see ibid.; A. al-Bakr, From Bahrain to Exile: St. Helene (Beirut, 1965) [Arabic]; and R. E. Littlefield, “Bahrain as a Persian Gulf State,” unpublished M.A. thesis, American University of Beirut, 1964.
[5] Al-Bakr, pp. 487-468.
[6] Sayf bin ‘Ali, Problems of Liberation and Democracy in Bahrain and the Arabian Gulf (Beirut, 1980), pp. 46-47. [Arabic] [7] Government of Bahrain, Annual Report for Year 1965 (Bahrain, n.d.), p. 1.
[8] Khuri, p. 326; Fred Halliday, Oil and National Liberation in the Arabian Gulf and Iran (Beirut, 1975), pp. 68-69 [Arabic]; and al-Bakr, pp. 502-504.
[9] For details of these negotiations from a Bahraini official viewpoint, see H. al-Baharna, The Modern Arab Gulf States (Beirut, 1973). [Arabic] [10] H. Musa, The Path of Repression in Bahrain (Beirut, 1984), pp. 95-96 [Arabic]; and the local press of the period.
[11] See local press of the period; and Khuri, pp. 331-352.
[12] One of these independents was a member of the ruling family, who ran for office in defiance of the family elders. He coordinated his parliamentary activities with the left, thus earning the nickname “the red sheikh.”
[13] The Coordination Committee of Trade Unions and Workers Committees, Something of the History of the Bahraini Working Class (Beirut, 1978), pp. 15-28 [Arabic]; and the local press of the period.
[14] Al-Adhwa’, June 20, 1974. [Arabic] [15] Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs, Official Gazette, October 28, 1974. [Arabic] [16] Ibid., August 28, 1975.
[17] Figures are based on population census of the years cited.
[18] Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, Social Indicators for Bahrain, December 1982.
[19] For details on the BDF and related matters, see, among others, Anthony Cordesman, The Gulf and the Search for Strategic Stability: Saudi Arabia, the Military Balance in the Gulf, and Trends in the Arab-Israeli Military Balance (London, 1984), pp. 582-589.
[20] Arab Information Center, Economic Encyclopedia of the Gulf Cooperation Council, 1983 (Kuwait, 1983), pp. 24-31; see also the Bahrain Monetary Agency’s quarterly reports.
[21] See, among others, Musa, pp. 58-68.
[22] Communiqué issued on May 1, 1981.

How to cite this article:

'Abd al-Hadi Khalaf "Labor Movements in Bahrain," Middle East Report 132 (May/ June 1985).

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