Expats who have spent time in the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain have probably spent the last week or so in a state of shock. Bahrain has always been a live-and-let-live sort of place. The violence of the last few days is unprecedented.

Except that it’s not.

Without wanting to go off on too much of a tangent here, few people in my experience are more isolated from the cultures around them than western expatriates living in the Persian Gulf and Bahrain, in this regard, has always been something of an extreme example.

Most Americans or Europeans who have visited will remember a small, socially relaxed city. Bahrain Island is about 30 miles north-to-south and 11 miles east-to-west at its widest. The southern half of the island, however, is mostly uninhabited. The country’s population of 1.1 million (about half of whom are actually Bahrainis) is mostly crammed into the northern end of the main island (in the capital, Manama, and in various small towns and villages to its south and west) and onto the neighboring island of Muharraq, where the airport is located. The US navy base you may have read about – the home port for the Fifth Fleet – is just south of downtown Manama in an area called Juffair (though there is also a huge military airfield in the southeast corner of Bahrain Island, the exact function of which neither American nor Bahraini officials are much inclined to talk about). The protests of the last few days have been taking place at the Pearl Roundabout, about two miles west of the base (i.e. at the other end of the city center).

In an irony of history, Bahrain was once the richest place on the Arab side of the Gulf but is now, arguably, the poorest. Britain established a protectorate over Bahrain in the mid-19th century. After WWI the island became the UK’s administrative headquarters for all Gulf affairs. As a result, Bahrain, in the 1920s and 30s, offered far more advanced infrastructure, better schools and better medical care than any place else in the Gulf. American missionaries built a hospital in Bahrain as far back as 1903 (to this day it carries the mailing address: PO Box 1, Manama, Bahrain). Bahrain was even the first place on the Arab side of the Gulf where oil was discovered a fact that, in the 30s, added even more to its prosperity. The oil did much to mitigate the collapse of the pearl industry in the early 30s, following the Japanese invention of cultured pearls (the importation of which is still banned in Bahrain).

After WWII, however, when the Gulf oil industry really took off, it quickly became clear that Bahrain had far less oil or gas than any of its neighbors. The British pulled out in 1971 and when oil prices skyrocketed a few years later, in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Bahrain, with its well-developed infrastructure, was well-positioned to serve as the commercial and communications hub for the region. In later years it also emerged as a banking center and developed a lucrative shipyard repair industry.

Overseeing all of this were/are the Al-Khalifa family, Bahrain’s rulers since the mid-18th century (by far the longest tenure of any of the Gulf’s ruling families). The Al-Khalifas are Sunni Muslims. The bulk of Bahrain’s population (about 70%), however, are Shiites, many of whom are at least partly of Persian ancestry. The Shiites believe, with more than a little justification, that the ruling family and the rest of Bahrain’s elite – virtually all Sunnis – have cornered both political power and the national wealth.

The result has been consistent political unrest since the early 90s – a fact of which even many expats living in Bahrain have often been unaware. Ignorance was an easy thing to cultivate. This was partly because past protests were never anything like those of the last few days and partly because the expat community lives in a bubble far removed from the dirt poor villages west of Manama.

The result has been a generation of rising political tension in Bahrain – one that, this week, has finally boiled over.

More on that tomorrow.

 


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