The al-Khalifa family has ruled Bahrain since 1783. Bahrain gained full independence from Britain in 1971, adopted a constitution in 1973, and substantially revised the constitution in 2002. Under the 2002 constitution, Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy, ruled by a king (prior to 2002, the al-Khalifa ruler was called an emir). The constitution states that the succession of the office of king automatically passes from ruler to son, making Bahrain unique among the monarchies of the Persian Gulf in this regard. The king appoints a prime minister and a cabinet, the Council of Ministers. The constitution also provides for a bicameral legislature, the National Assembly. The two houses of the National Assembly are the Consultative Council, whose 40 members are appointed by the king; and the Chamber of Deputies, whose 40 members are elected by direct popular vote by citizens 20 years of age or older. Both appointed and elected legislators serve four-year terms. All legislation approved by the National Assembly must be ratified by the king in order to become law.
Bahrainís legal system draws upon Islamic religious law (the Sharia), tribal law, English common law, and other sources. All residents are subject to the jurisdiction of Bahraini courts, which guarantee equality to all before the law. The court system consists of civil and Sharia courts, both of which have courts of appeal. The countryís highest court is the Supreme Court of Appeal. The 2002 constitution established a Higher Judicial Council to supervise the functioning of the court system. The king chairs the council and appoints judges proposed by the council.
Bahrain is divided into 12 municipalities, administered from Manama by a central municipal council whose members are appointed by the king. Thus, the central government largely controls local governmental affairs.
Political parties are technically not allowed, although informal political groups emerged in 1973 when the National Assembly was elected. The king has said he would favor the creation of political parties if doing so would not disrupt social unity.
The Bahraini Defense Force (BDF) numbered 11,000 in 2001. The BDF includes some Jordanian officers, as well as Pakistani and Sudanese enlisted men. Foreign personnel, chiefly Americans and Britons, contract with the BDF to supply support services. The BDF consists of an 8,500-member army, a 1,500-member air force, and a 1,000-member navy. The navy receives assistance (in the form of the loan of a frigate and training for personnel) from the U.S. Navy, whose Fifth Fleet uses Bahrainís harbor facilities. There is a separate 1,000-member Coast Guard. Military service is voluntary. However, native Shias are generally not accepted into the armed forces, because the Sunni ruling establishment does not trust the Shias, believing that dissidents might find their way into sensitive positions.
Upon its independence in 1971, Bahrain became a member of the United Nations and the Arab League, which promotes common Arab interests. It also belongs to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Because of its small size, Bahrain does not play a leading role in regional or international organizations. However, it participates actively in the Gulf Cooperation Councilís defense security measures.