Until the Arab Spring of 2011, political tensions had been contained – at least overtly – and Bahrain was seen as a model of stability and relative freedom. But ever since that mask spectacularly fell, Bahrain has been holding its breath. The nation's reputation as a reliable offshore banking centre and commercial hub, as well as its status as a valued member of the UN, Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), are under serious threat. While political spats and simmering tensions are making some investors nervous, there is virtually no risk to travellers.
Tensions continue to simmer, partly because of the perceived slow pace of political development, but mainly because of ancient sectarian differences that have threatened to boil over (and have done several times) ever since the island of majority Shiite Muslims was taken over by the Sunni Al Khalifa family. Official figures are difficult to come by, but more than half of Bahrain's population today is Shiite.
The government's brutal response to the riots nearly a decade ago continues to be heavily criticised; in 2016, the UN accused Bahrain of 'harassing' its Shiite population. A year later, Bahrain executed three Shiite activists convicted of killing three policemen in a 2014 bomb attack, and in the same year, Bahrain's most prominent Shiite cleric, Isa Qassim, was found guilty of money laundering and illegally raising funds. The main opposition party leader, Al Wefaq's Sheikh Ali Salman, was arrested in 2014; in 2018, his jail sentence was extended to life after he was charged with spying for Qatar, a move that human rights groups believe is politically motivated.
In 2017, Bahrain cut its ties with Qatar and asked its diplomats to leave within 48 hours. The reason given was that Bahrain's ministers had come under a cyber attack from its neighbour. However, the move has been widely viewed as toeing the line of their major ally, Saudi Arabia. Travel is no longer possible between Bahrain and Qatar.
Bahrain has been diversifying its economy towards tourism for quite some time. Despite the 2018 offshore discovery of a huge oil field, which potentially makes the country a major player in the global market, it continues to improve tourism infrastructure and aggressively protect what is an increasingly important source of income for the country, all of which bodes well for visitors arriving in Bahrain.