Bahrain – which name means "two seas" – was once viewed by the ancient Sumerians as an island paradise to which the wise and the brave were taken to enjoy eternal life.
The king is the supreme authority and members of the Sunni Muslim ruling family hold the main political and military posts. There are long-running tensions between Bahrain's Sunnis and the Shia Muslim majority. On occasion, these have spilled over into civil unrest.
In 2001 Bahrainis strongly backed proposals put by the emir – now the king – to turn the country into a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament and an independent judiciary.
Elections – the first such poll in nearly 30 years – were duly held in 2002 for a 40-member parliament, the Council of Deputies, which included a dozen Shia MPs.
Over the years the country enjoyed increasing freedom of expression, and monitors said the human rights situation had improved.
However, in early 2011 the government called in the Saudi military to crush protests by demonstrators demanding a greater say in government and an end to what Shias say is systematic discrimination against them in jobs and services.
Thousands of demonstrators gathered for several days in the centre of Manama, inspired by the popular uprisings which toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. Several people were killed in clashes with security forces.
Despite the crackdown, Shia resentment has continued to simmer, sporadically erupting in anti-government protests. The controversial decision to allow Bahrain to host the Formula 1 Grand Prix in April 2012 further galvanised protests.