Report: Discrimination against the Ajam minority in Bahrain

Ajam are an ethnic group in Bahrain composed of Bahrainis from Persian ancestral backgrounds.


* An island kingdom in the Gulf region.
* Shia Muslim citizens are the majority population with a significant minority proportion from the Ajam community.
* Bahrain is reigned by the Al-Khalifa family through hereditary rule. Al-Khalifa are a tribal family from the Sunni minority population in the country.

Short historical background and presence of Ajam in Bahrain

Ajam is a word used in both the Persian and Arabic languages. Literally, it has different meanings, such as “stranger” or “foreign”. The term is now commonly used to refer to Persian Bahrainis.

Persian presence in Bahrain began when the Greek Seleucid Kingdom, which was ruling Bahrain at the time, fell and the Persian Empire successfully invaded Bahrain. Though it is believed that mass migration of Persians started during the 1600s when Abbas I of Persia invaded Bahrain. From 6th century BC to 3rd century BC, Bahrain was a prominent part of the Persian Empire by the Achaemenids, an Iranian dynasty. From the 3rd century BC to the arrival of Islam in the 7th century AD, Bahrain was controlled by two other Iranian dynasties, the Parthians and the Sassanids. In the 3rd century AD, the Sassanids succeeded the Parthians and controlled the area for four centuries with Ardashir the first ruler of the dynasty. Later, Shapur, the son of Ardashir was set as governor of Bahrain. At this time, Bahrain incorporated the southern Sassanid province covering the Persian Gulf’s southern shore plus the archipelago of Bahrain. The southern province of the Sassanids was subdivided into three districts called nowadays al-Hafuf province, Saudi Arabia), al Qatif and Bahrain Island.

The influence of Iran was undermined at the end of the 18th century when the ideological power struggle between the Akhbari-Usuli strands culminated in victory for the Usulis in Bahrain. An Afghan invasion of Iran at the beginning of the 18th century resulted in the near collapse of the Safavid state. In the resultant power vacuum, Oman invaded Bahrain in 1717, ending over one hundred years of Persian hegemony in Bahrain. The Omani invasion began a period of political instability and a quick succession of outside rulers took power with consequent destruction. In 1730, the new Shah of Persia wanted to re-assert Persian sovereignty in Bahrain. He ordered the admiral of the Persian navy in the Gulf to prepare an invasion fleet in Bushehr. While the ruler of Bahrain was away, the Persians invaded in 1736. The invasion brought the island back under central rule and to challenge Oman in the Persian Gulf. He sought help from the British and Dutch, and he eventually recaptured Bahrain in 1736.

In 1753, the Sunni Persians, who ruled Bahrain in the name of Persia, occupied Bahrain. The BaniUtbah tribe from Zubarah managed to invade and takeover over Bahrain after a war broke out in 1782. Persians attempts to reconquer the island in 1783 and in 1785 but failed. Due to internal difficulties, the Persians could not attempt another invasion. In 1799, Bahrain came under threat from the Sultan of Oman. The Bani Utbah solicited the aid of Bushehr to expel the Omanis on the condition that Bahrain would become a tributary state of Persia. In 1800, Sayyid Sultan invaded Bahrain again in retaliation and deployed a garrison at Arad Fort, in Muharraq island and had appointed his twelve-year-old son Salim, as Governor of the island. According to the 1905 census, there were 1650 Bahraini citizens with Persian ancestry. Persians migrated to Bahrain in large numbers in the 20th century.

Historian Nasser Hussain says that many Iranians fled their native country in the early 20th century largely due to the king Reza Shah’s anti-religious governance, which included the ban on women from wearing the hijab (Islamic veil), as well as fear experienced by some Iranians after fighting the English.Others migrated to find employment opportunities. The majority of those leaving Iran were coming to Bahrain from the Bushehr and the Fars province, especially during the years between 1920 to 1940. In the 1920s, local Persian merchants were prominently involved in the consolidation of Bahrain’s first powerful lobby with connections to the municipality in effort to contest the municipal legislation of British control.
Matam Al-Ajam Al-Kabeer is the first Persian Matam (Shia religious centre) and the largest Matam in Bahrain. The matam was founded inFareej el-Makhargaby by Ali KazimBushehri, a rich Persian merchant. Himself an immigrant from theDashti region of Iran, he organised processions, collected donations and hired orators to speak at the matam. Construction started in 1882 as a specialized building where Ashura, a holy day in Shia Islam, would be marked with processions, ceremonial flagellation and passion plays commemorating the death of Imam Hussain. The matam is still used for this purpose. It was originally built with simple construction material such as palm tree trunks and leaf stalks. The matam was formally established in 1904 where it was decided that the matam would be renovated with rocks, clay and cement. Initially in the 1890s, the matam was primarily supported by Persian merchants, with two-thirds of the donation coming from the Bushehri and Safar family, respectively. For much of the 20th century, the matam had relied on yearly donations of money and land from rich and poor members of the Persian community and from Waqf (endowment) revenue. The matam also had an emergency relief fund that was to be distributed to the poor and to needy individuals; the matam provided financial aid and shelter to people following the collapse of the pearling market in the 1930s.Upon the death of Ali Kazim Bushehri in 1932, Abdul-NabiBushehri, himself a Persian immigrant and a well-respected figure in the Persian community, took control of the Matam. Unlike his cousin, Bushehri ran the matam with other notables of the Persian community, forming aboard. Upon Bushehri’s death in 1945, the board took over. In order to prevent confusion, the board appointed an official board to run the matam, although there were prominent names among them including Bushehri, Biljeek, Ruyan, Kazerooni and others, although in reality the Bushehri family (the children and then the grandchildren of the founders) were always in charge of the Matam until 2003. In 1971, an administrative board consisting of a president, vice president, secretary, treasurer and others was set up, all of whom were rich merchants.

Historian Ali Bushahri estimates that the Persian population is now about 100,000 or 20% of the 550,000 Bahraini citizens’ population.

HUWALA: The word Huwala also means those who have moved from one location to another.Huwala is a term used in some Gulf littoral countries to describe peoples of varying ancestries and Sunni background originating from southern Iran, with a significant amount of these peoples being the descendants of Persians and Afro-Persians who migrated to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf during the 19th century. One does not have to profess the Sunni faith to be considered Holi, however, he or she must be of Sunni southern Iranian background as in their ancestors who migrated to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf must have been members of the Sunni sect. A Sunni of Shia southern Iranian background will still be considered “Ajami”.


The Ajam people are mostly bilingual. They do indeed speak Arabic but also southern Persian dialects depending on the cities they have originated from. The Persian language has the biggest foreign linguistic influence on Bahraini Arabic. The indigenous Bahrani dialect of Bahrain has also borrowed many words from the Persian language, along with names of some towns and Bahraini cultural foods.

The current situation in the country

As it is provided in the Constitution, the system of governance in Bahrain purportedly aims to be democratic, under which sovereignty lies with the people, the source of all powers. The citizens, by way of the Constitution, have the right to participate in the public affairs of the State and enjoy political rights, beginning with the right to vote. Article 22 of the Constitution provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of worship, and the freedom to perform religious rites and hold religious parades and meetings, in accordance with the customs observed in the country. However, the Bahraini Government placed serious limitations on the exercise of these rights.

The Bahraini Government exerts its control on the Ajam, and continues to discriminate against them in certain fields. Problems continue to exist, stemming primarily from the Bahraini Government’s unequal treatment of Ajam in the country.

Although, there are certain disposals in the Constitution referring to the democratic system in Bahrain and equality between all citizens, the Ajam face many problems due to the violations of these rights by the Bahraini Government and the overbearing royal family.
There is a growing issue regarding stateless people, known as ‘Bedoon’, especially of ethnic Persian descent, who have lived in Bahrain for many decades. Their children have been born in Bahrain, and many marry there too. Most of Bahrain’s stateless are Muslims, though some of Bahrain’s stateless are Christians.
In Bahrain, stateless people are denied the right to hold legal residency, are not allowed the right to travel abroad, buy houses, and to hold government jobs. They are also not allowed to own land, start a business and take out loans. Recently, the Bahraini Government issued regulations preventing stateless individuals’ children from attending public schools or for them to receive free medical care. A stateless individual can also get deported at any time, or remain in detention. Since the beginning of the 1980s, the Bahraini Government has deported hundreds of Bedoon to Iran.

Between 2007 and 2009, the Bahraini Government regularly practiced torture and ill-treatment in interrogating security-related suspects and detainees. Although Bahraini Government spokesmen have issued denials, there is no evidence of criminal investigations or proper investigations, and the Bahraini Government has not imposed disciplinary measures on the alleged perpetrators of torture and unlawful interrogations.

In 2011, prominent figures from the Ajam community were again unlawfully targeted, along with the vast majority of the population, when the popular 14 February uprising commenced. People were targeting even if they were not politically active. Thousands were imprisoned and tortured. Torture during the Bahraini uprising (2011–present) has been described as widespread and systematic. According to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report, the NSA inflicted physical and psychological abuses against protesters and detainees, and the Ministry of Interior, in many cases, systematically carried out acts amounting to torture. The BICI report found that the techniques used were similar to those used during the suppression of the 1990s uprising and indicative of “a systemic problem, which can only be addressed on a systemic level”. During the years from the Independence until now, the Bahrain Police Force responses have been described as “brutal” crackdowns on peaceful and unarmed protesters, including doctors and bloggers. In a demonstration in 2012 more than 2,929 people have been arrested and at least five people died due to torture while in police custody. On 23 November 2011, the BICI released its report on its investigation of the events, finding that the Bahraini Government had systematically tortured prisoners and committed other human rights violations. It also rejected the Bahraini Government’s claims that the protests were instigated by Iran. Although the report found that systematic torture had momentarily ceased in parts, the Bahraini Government has refused entry to several international human rights groups and news organizations, and continues to delay a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torure. More than 160 people had died since the start of the uprising – many through torture in police custody, including prominent Ajam businessman Abdulkarim Fakhrawi.

Concerning the expanding citizenship issue, citizenship is still endowed only through one’s father. Women cannot transmit their nationality to their children; therefore, children of some citizen mothers and noncitizen fathers are born stateless. The law grants Bahraini nationality to Arab applicants who have resided in the country for 15 years and non-Arab applicants who have resided in the country for 25 years. There has persistently been a lack of transparency in the naturalization process, and there were numerous reports that the citizenship law was not applied uniformly. Stateless persons according to such a report have limited access to social services, education, and employment, and are excluded from receiving scholarships.

The Bahrain Women’s Association reported that the organization was aware of 213 women with stateless children. The Bahraini Government promised to cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, stateless persons, and others. In 2006, King Hamad issued a decree initially granting citizenship to a small portion of children of Bahraini mothers married to non-Bahrainis; however, children born recently to such families since the decree are stateless.

There were reports of general discrimination, especially in employment practices, against Ajam. Although the Bahraini Government asserted that the Labour code for the private sector applies to all workers, the International Labour Organisation noted that the Ajam and other foreign workers faced discrimination in the workplace.

Documented cases

After the Iranian revolution in 1980s, more than 200 Ajam families were forcibly deported from Bahrain, especially those living in the Muharraq area. Their Bahraini nationalities were also stripped from them. However, after the current king came to power, he showed some intention to deal with the issue, so the affected families were allowed back in the country and their citizenships returned to them. This demonstrated that the original decision itself was unlawful and contrary to the Bahraini Constitution from the beginning.

More broadly, the Bahraini Government sees the Ajam in Bahrain as the lowest class in Bahraini society. As such, it imposes on them an array of discriminatory and harsh treatments, and excludes them from key sectors of society, from employment to governance. Clear discrimination against Ajam is seen in employment within the public sector too, especially the military, the security apparatus, and the Bahraini judiciary. No employment of Ajam is seen in high-ranking posts of the executive branch, with only one minister of Persian ancestry allowed in Parliament. Torture has also been a brutal reality for many Ajam people.

One of the restrictions is a blanket prohibition on Ajam from selling or buying properties in the Muharraq province.

Up until today, the Bahraini Government revoked the nationality of more than 270 Bahrainis, commencing this line of action from 6 November 2012, 25 of them are from the Ajam community. Most of them are not politically active. The list include prominent figures, like former members of Bahrain’s Parliament, Jawad Fairooz and Jalal Fairooz. In addition, the list contains Sheikh Husain Al-Najati, a prominent scholar and representative of Ayatollah Sistani in Bahrain, who was forcibly deported from Bahrain in April 2014. There are approximately 5000 stateless Ajam present in Bahrain, who were born and raised in Bahrain along with generations of their ancestors.

During 2011, prominent figures from the Ajam community were targeted and extreme cases of torture were reported. More specifically, on the 29th of September 2011, the National Safety Court, a military court, issued unfair and harsh verdicts against 20 doctors, nurses and paramedics working for the state health sector in Bahrain. The verdicts include 15, 10 and 5 years prison sentences against the 20 health professionals. The list included the physician Dr. Nadir Diwani who was originally handed a 15-year imprisonment sentence. Other Ajam Bahrainis have been sentenced and tortured, such as former MP Jawad Fairooz. One of the most tragic cases was the arrest and subsequent torture of prominent businessman Karim Fakhrawi. The torture that he was subjected to in prison resulted in his death whilst in police custody in April 2011.

Another illustration is the case of Yousef Mowali, who had been medically diagnosed with schizophrenia. Yousef was not politically active. He was arrested and tortured, then drowned in the sea on 13 January 2012. Fincancı, the Turkish Forensic expert who visited Bahrain to examine the body, also consulted other forensic doctors, including FikriÖztop, a specialist in wounds resulting from electrical torture. They concluded that not only had Mowali been electrically tortured, but also found through examining samples from his lungs, that he had been unconscious when he drowned.

Moreover, the Bahraini authorities pursued Ajam families who have been stripped of their Bahraini nationality and commenced aggressive proceedings and forcibly deported them from Bahrain. Those who are deported so far were: Sheikh Hussain Najati , Sheikh Mohammed Khojastah , Dr. Masoud Jahromi , Hussain Khairallah , Ali Esfandiar and finally Hasan Abulqasem. Some targeted Ajam families who are currently subject to this unlawful pursuance are the Karimis, Almosawis, and Darwishes.

It should be noted that there are significant worries that the frustration from the nuclear deal between Iran and the West can lead to the expansion of the racist policy adopted by the Bahraini Government against the Ajam in Bahrain.

To compound this threat, the Bahraini media outlets have consistently described Ajam as a disloyal group that are loyal to foreign entities. They have been described in derogatory and discriminative terms, such as “enemies of the state”, “Safavids”, and “treacherous people”.


1. For the United Nations Human Rights Council to oblige the Bahraini authorities to observe UN legislations and standards, and international declarations and covenants on the rights of minorities.

2. For the Bahraini Government to expeditiously implement the recommendations suggested by BICI Report in 2011 and the UN Human Rights Council’s UPR recommendations in 2012, especially in relation to the rights of minorities.

3. For the Bahraini media outlets to cease hate and discrimination rhetoric against any community, including the Ajam minority in Bahrain.

4. For the United Nations Human Rights Council to request that the Bahraini Government cease its policy of stripping Bahraini citizens of their nationality in general, and Ajam in particular.

5. For the Bahraini Government to guarantee equal political and legal rights for its citizens, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds.

6. For the Bahraini Government to review its institutions to ensure that Bahrainis from minority backgrounds are incorporated and represented fairly in the country’s systems.

7. For the Bahraini Government to redraft inconsistent domestic legislation to ensure that they are within the standards of international agreements on rights of minorities.