In 1783, the Sunni Al-Khalifa family took power in Bahrain. In order to secure these holdings, it entered into a series of treaties with the UK during the 19th century that made Bahrain a British protectorate. The archipelago attained its independence in 1971. A steady decline in oil production and reserves since 1970 prompted Bahrain to take steps to diversify its economy, in the process developing successful petroleum processing and refining, aluminum production, and hospitality and retail sectors, and also to become a leading regional banking center, especially with respect to Islamic finance. Bahrain's small size, central location among Gulf countries, and proximity to Iran require it to play a delicate balancing act in foreign affairs among its larger neighbors.The Sunni-led government has long struggled to manage relations with its large Shia-majority population. In early 2011, amid Arab uprisings elsewhere in the region, the Bahraini Government confronted similar pro-democracy and reform protests at home with police and military action, including deploying Gulf Cooperation Council security forces to Bahrain. Political talks throughout 2014 between the government and opposition and loyalist political groups failed to reach an agreement, prompting opposition political societies to boycott parliamentary and municipal council elections in late 2014. Ongoing dissatisfaction with the political status quo continues to factor into sporadic clashes between demonstrators and security forces.
Low oil prices have generated a budget deficit of at least a $4 billion deficit in 2016, nearly 14% of GDP. Bahrain has few options for covering this deficit, with meager foreign assets and a constrained borrowing ability. In the last year the three major US credit agencies downgraded Bahrain’s sovereign debt rating to “junk” status, citing persistently low oil prices and the government’s inability to more effectively cut spending.Oil comprises 86% of Bahraini budget revenues, despite past efforts to diversify its economy and to build communication and transport facilities for multinational firms with business in the Gulf. As part of its diversification plans, Bahrain implemented a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the US in August 2006, the first FTA between the US and a Gulf state.Other major economic activities are production of aluminum - Bahrain's second biggest export after oil - finance, and construction. Bahrain continues to seek new natural gas supplies as feedstock to support its expanding petrochemical and aluminum industries.In 2011, Bahrain experienced economic setbacks as a result of domestic unrest driven by the majority Shia population; however, the economy recovered in 2012-15, partly as a result of improved tourism. In addition to addressing its current fiscal woes, Bahraini authorities face the long-term challenge of boosting Bahrain’s regional competitiveness — especially regarding industry, finance, and tourism — and reconciling revenue constraints with popular pressure to maintain generous state subsidies and a large public sector. Over the past year, the government lifted subsidies on meat, diesel, kerosene, and gasoline and announced new higher prices for electricity and water, although it plans to roll these increases out more gradually than previous subsidy cuts.