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In mid-December 2018, a few days before Bahrain’s national day, the capital’s high rises are lit by millions of red and white lights. The same goes for the thousands of neatly trimmed palm trees lining the main roads. Every crossing and traffic light is adorned with an enormous billboard congratulating the king, crown prince and prime minister. Red and white flags fly from government buildings and houses in Sunni suburbs.
There is none of this in the Shia villages, of which there are about 30 scattered over the island. There, the flags are black, left over from the month of Muharram, and the posters depict Shia clerics and saints. Festive lights are nowhere to be seen.
“Obviously, the government is not spending a penny on the decoration of our villages,” said a prominent community leader of the Baharna (as the original Shia habitants call themselves), who asked to remain anonymous. He does not blame them, admitting it would be a waste of money, considering that the Baharna have little to celebrate these days.
If anything, their situation has worsened. Discrimination in the job sector is on the rise and opposition members are being silenced, detained and stripped of their nationality. Villages are neglected, roads and houses are poorly maintained, and more and more public land, such as beaches, is falling into private hands, blocking access to villagers.
The recent elections for – a rather powerless – parliament were boycotted by many, although the Sunni-dominated government tried its best to attract people to the ballot boxes. Under pressure, that is. ‘If you vote, you’ll get a stamp in your passport. Without a stamp, you’re assumed to be part of the opposition, and there are many places in the government where you have to show your passport.’
But why is the government continuing to antagonize and exclude the majority of the indigenous population? Money could very well be one of the reasons. In a virtually bankrupt country, one may wonder how all those decorative lights were paid for. Or the new luxurious shopping malls such as The Avenues and the Kingdom Mall. Or the five-star hotels and residential complexes.
The answer: with money from abroad, mostly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. These largely Sunni states have been propping up Bahrain’s failing economy for several years with injections of billions of dollars.
The malls and other prestigious projects are funded by private investors, mostly from the same countries (and some from India). The Avenues, for example, is a Kuwaiti venture and the Kingdom Mall is said to be an Emirati investment. After the failed uprising in 2011, Bahrain managed to attract significant foreign direct investments.
But who is actually spending money in these shopping malls and hotels? “For most of us, these malls are too expensive,” said the community leader. He recalls the opening of Ikea earlier this year. “For some reason, Ikea made its products here more expensive than in its branch across the border in Saudi Arabia. We all drove down there. We think carefully about the money we spend.”
Walking around The Avenues it becomes clear that most of the visitors are Saudi Arabian. An older couple strolling along the waterfront said a major attraction is the greater degree of freedom here. It is no longer only young men who cross the bridge between the countries for drinks and girls; Bahrain has become a family destination as well.
The foreign currency is much needed, but being dependent on one or two (the Emiratis play their part as well) sources of income is politically risky. Bahrain has effectively become Saudi Arabia’s backyard, kept afloat by the Saudi government, Saudi investors and Saudi tourists.
With both the public and private sector heavily relying on money from this particular neighbour, it is no surprise that the ruling Khalifa family cannot afford to think about seeking rapprochement with the Shia majority. Saudi Arabia would not let that go unpunished either. One only needs to think of Qatar, which has faced a Saudi-led sea and land blockade since mid-2017, to see the danger. Bahrain has no money of its own to withstand the fury of this neighbour, so that is an absolute no-go.
Possible relief may come from the newly discovered offshore oilfields, although it will take years before production generates significant income. It also remains to be seen who will benefit from this ‘black gold’. Will it bring relief to the impoverished Shia population?
Maybe, but on two conditions: 1) a true intention by the House of Khalifa to find a peaceful solution for the disgruntled majority; and 2) the oil must generate enough money for the country to become financially independent. With regards to the first, there have been signs in the past that the intention is there, at least in some parts of the government. As for the second, if the money is not enough, the neighbours will keep chipping in and dictating the country’s politics. As such, the Khalifa’s hands are tied.
Theoretically, this impotency could benefit the Shias. Creating unrest would ultimately harm the government. New investors and tourists would stay away, projects would go unfinished and so on. However, as the community leader pointed out, “We only have car tyres and stones, the government has formidable security forces.” In addition, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is just a bridge away.