“Prosperous Days Are Yet to Come” – Bahrain

I had to comment on recent events Bahrain. They are catching the spirit of revolt from Egypt and are having large protests. When I was in Bahrain for three weeks over the Christmas holidays I did notice somethings. So far the protests have been limited to the city, especially the area around the Pearl Circle. This is a traffic intersection with a huge statue in the middle consisting of 5 curved beams holding up a pearl. Bahrain used to be a pearl producing island before the discovery of oil in the 1930s.
My sister-in-law works at an international school in Bahrain. Her school is about a 30 minute drive outside of the main city of Manama and is quiet in that area. They are in a “lockdown” situation and are not leaving the area except for essentials. They are holding classes with low attendance.

I photographed this billboard during our holiday in Bahrain. It is one of literally hundreds showing the king on all of the streets and highways in the island. Any government that has that many pictures of its leaders on billboards is trying to say something and trying to stay in control of a situation they are not. The royal family named Khalifa, came from Saudi Arabia in the 18th century and are Sunni Moslem. Most of the Bahrain people are Shiite, probably because Bahrain was a Persian (Iran) island for many years before the Khalifas took over. Iran is prominently Shiite. Driving around Bahrain, one sees in the poorer neighborhoods all kinds of Shiite flags and signs. Driving home from the city during our stay, we always saw the police stationed outside of these areas on a permanent patrol.

The Kahlifa family has a tight grip on power on the island. The main three are pictured below. They are the king in the middle (Hamad), his uncle the Prime Minister (Khalifa ibn Salman), and the King’s eldest son, Salman bin Hamad, as the Defense Minister. Nadia jokingly referred to the three as “Los Tres Ridiculos.”


During the month we were there, all of the Shiite areas had black flags and banners posted everywhere. If one of my Arabic readers could translate for me, I would appreciate it.

I don’t think it is just about power sharing and a Shiite versus Sunni conflict that is going on in Bahrain and the other countries in the Middle East. I think it is bad economies with a poor education system that is not creating enough jobs and allowing companies to compete in the global market place. Plus, a big portion of the brain power, women, doesn’t have the same access to helping these nations. They will have to figure out a way to keep their young people engaged and making a contribution to society and the economy. I hope “Prosperous Days are Yet to Come” but it will take a complete make over and time to do so.

I’ll be closely monitoring the situation in Bahrain. Today’s Wall Street Journal has an excellent analysis of the situation.

Reflections from a Holiday in Bahrain

 It was the perfect time to go to the Arabian Peninsula because the weather in the winter is great. We had temperatures in the 70’s with cool evenings. I heard much about the stifling heat for most of the year, and I am not sure if that would be great to live in.

My perception of Arabs changed because of my visit. From the US media, I had a different impression of the Arabs. You hear much about the stern, fundamentalist Muslims, but the majority I met were kind and gentle. It was shocking to first see women covered in black robes and the men wearing the robes and headdress also, but after a while, one gets used to it.   Modesty is one thing, but I don’t think I’ll ever agree with covering up women and separating the sexes so much in daily life. It is very unnatural and bad for the psyche and well-being of both men and women. I do like the lack of alcohol in the society. Alcohol and drugs have ruined many lives and it was refreshing to see people drinking coffee and smoking from the communal pipes, rather than getting drunk.

Bahrain is regarded as the “Las Vegas” of the Arab world for it relaxed social mores. The Bahrainis were very accepting of western culture, and my family never felt any negativity. We had very little contact with actual citizens because most of the day-to-day business is handled by expatriate workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and the Philippines.

The effects of so much money being pumped into the region because of petroleum can be seen everywhere. The changes brought by this were overwhelming. I wonder what the place looked like before petroleum? The money has brought the Bahrainis the ability to build a modern city-state, with world-class highways, skyscrapers, shopping malls, Formula One racetrack, magnificent mosques, palaces, PGA golf course, etc. It also allowed them to import foreigners to not only do the menial labor jobs like security, construction, etc., but also skilled British, American, and other nationalities from the west to manage businesses and make it a financial hub. They do spend much time in shopping malls and I was impressed with the quality of variety of things one could buy. Manama had several malls that were bigger and better than the Usce Mall here in Belgrade. I wonder what effect that much money would have on any society? I see that with another 100 years of petroleum cash as well as an increase in communication around the world, these two factors will eventually change the Arabs into a less religious and more Western or consumer oriented society.

World Trade Center - Bahrain

The trip also got me to understand the Islamic world a bit better. I see four major groups of people, the Turks, the Arabs, the Persians and the Indonesians. There are struggles between the groups, which also have a Shiite versus Sunni undercurrent. It was palpable in Bahrain. The island was pearl and fish trading port for most of its existence and was controlled by the Persians for centuries. I had a reader comment on my use of the term Persian Gulf, when discussing our trip to the beach. The Arabs refer to it as the Arabian Gulf.

The pictures of the royal ruling threesome were everywhere. There were literally thousands of pictures of the king, the prime minister, and the king’s son. It was a clear reminder that democracy is not favored by the Arabs.

It was my first time in a non-Western country and I was fascinated with the exoticism. It made me want to visit other parts of the world that are different from what I’ve experienced. It was also great to stay with a “local” so we could see the places and meet people that ordinary tourists would not have the chance.

Latest Reading: “Dining With al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East” by Hugh Pope

In preparation for my trip to Bahrain, I read Hugh Pope’s memoir of his 3 decades of reporting from the Middle East. He worked for several newspapers and news agencies, including the Wall Street Journal. He begins as a student in 1980 and finishes with the US war in Iraq and Afghanistan. He lived and reported from almost all of the countries in the Middle East from the Sudan to Turkey, to Lebanon to Afghanistan and many in between. He knows the region like few others. He speaks fluent Arabic and practically grew up there, beginning with trips with his parents as a child, to studying Arabic and Persian history in university. Pope stayed in the region throughout his career and this book is the culmination of his experiences. Below are some quotes from the book with my comments. I learned much about the region and recommend the book.

Interesting Quotes:

“Jean Pierre taught me how to use a magic cloak of unprejudiced openness that guarded him from all suspicion. It was a gift that would serve me well.”

– Pope is discussing his first mentor of the region, a French academic. I would use the term unprejudiced curiosity instead of openness. I have taken this attitude in my travels around the world. The people I meet will most always answer my questions and show me insights into their culture.

“I had no idea of the homosexual current that runs through much of the Middle East. Unlike in the West, consorting with another male is usually not a statement of sexual identity but mostly a pragmatic solution to the lack of available women.”

–          The Islamic traditions keep boys and girls separated during their most hormonal times. I see why this unnatural condition could lead to this kind of stuff. I also never thought about “Arabists” who specialized in studying the region because of the opportunity to meet men. Pope does not fit in this category.

“…Family legend has it that at the age of four I built of cairn of stones amid the colonnades of Palmyra, an ancient city in the Syrian desert, and announced, “I shall come back here.”

–          I hope that the travels we take with our children influence them to explore the world as I have, or at least profoundly change their personalities and intelligence.

“Brought up as I was in an Anglo-Saxon world of self-improvement, opportunity, and entitlement, I tired of hearing outsiders blamed for everything. Usually, it was an excuse never to try. The same defeatism applied to politics all over the Middle East. With the exception of the first centuries of Muhammad’s Arab and Islamic empire based in the Arabian Peninsula, this crossroads between continents has always been a cockpit for battles between the marcher lords of stronger powers elsewhere. From a Middle Eastern perspective, this has bred a sense that since foreigners controlled one’s fate, there was no point in trying to cure one’s own ills. It was so much easier, and politically much safer, to blame all problems on foreign spies, global conspiracies, and imperialist plots.”

Hugh Pope had some interesting views on Israel. I didn’t know that only 1/3 of the world’s Jews live in Israel. The USA is associated with Israel because of the US government support of their military. I don’t have an opinion of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, but someday want to visit Israel to see for myself. He writes that the Egyptian playwright, Ali Salem, when after visiting Israel, believed that the explanation for why Israelis got on so badly with their neighbors was the very Arabness of their country – “Is there any one more cruel to an Arab than another Arab?”

– That sounds like the conflict between the Serbs and Croats.

“Drink wine, Hafez, be glad, be wild! Don’t copy those who make the Koran a hypocritical trap.”

-This quote is from an Iranian poet. I didn’t understand the Arab-Persian rivalry in the region. It is sad that the US does not have a closer relationship to Iran, which is a big country. The Islamists who control the government are not in the majority in my opinion. The Persians are like the crazy Latinos.

“The Koran allows Muslims to have up to four official wives, if they can support them equally.”

–          Marita showed us the four huge homes of a rich Bahraini. They are all identical in a compound downtown, except for one detail. The wife that sired him a son, has her home painted brown while the others are white.

“Later I was to see that friends who married Middle Easterners, men or women, often had to work much harder than other couples to overcome differences of education, outlook, and expectation. It didn’t have much to do with religion, since Middle Eastern Christians and Jews can be just as traditional as Muslims, and similar issues challenged friends who married spouses from any significantly different culture. Perhaps it was just proof that, for everybody, tribalism can matter much more than we expect.”

–          As a person in a “mixed marriage” I understand what he is writing about.

“…the secularists are quite right, as in France, to insist that no head scarves be allowed in schools. A schoolgirl wearing a head scarf implies that I, as a man, might be lusting after her. I find the insinuation repugnant – if people really think there is such a general problem, they should first start reeducating the men.”

-Well said Hugh. I still don’t understand why the women cover themselves up. What a hassle for them.

“I hadn’t realized how problematic it is for husbands, fathers, and brothers. They have to rush home to drive women about, and to do themselves all the things women are prohibited from doing… why Saudi Arabia kept its women figuratively locked up: to sustain its image as the holy land of Islamic pilgrimage”

–          I see women driving here in Bahrain. Most are covered up to various degrees and dressed in black (so men can’t see through it)

Hugh’s explains the difference between the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam. 1,300 years ago there was a civil war after the death of Muhammad. The Shia faction were loyal to the Prophet’s family and are mainly found in Iran, Iraq, parts of the Persian Gulf, and Lebanon. The Sunni faction are of “tradition” and can be mainly found in the Arab heartland, Egypt, Turkey, North Africa, and Asia. The fight was who would head the Islamic movement after Muhammad, would it be a member of his family (Shia) or the best qualified non-family member (Sunni).

Pope writes about Wahhabism, the official doctrine of modern Saudi Arabia. This started in the 1700s by a puritanical preacher who wanted to stop the degeneration of high Islam. His family had and still has today, a strong relationship with the Saud clan of central Arabia. He also sees today the impossible choice between Wahhabi fundamentalism or with the flow of oil dollars, an utterly western lifestyle. Pope interviewed a Saudi who said, “In my family I have no credibility. I’m the Western-educated infidel,” he joked as we…My cousin didn’t finish school but goes to the mosque five times a day. Whenever he speaks, it’s him they listen to.” The religious studies of universities (2/3 of subjects were Islam oriented and 1/3 of students of the students were at all-religious universities) is no way to build a modern state. The Royal family of Saudi costs anywhere between 15-35 % of oil income.

–          Bahrain is a more permissive sheikdom and may be influencing Saudi Arabia proper. I wonder how much of Bahrain government income goes to the ruling family?

“Bedrock loyalty is usually bought pragramatically through a hierarchy of patronage, and if the ruler can tie in the loyalty of at least 1/3 of the population, the regime is probably safe indefinitely. “

“Gulf sheikdoms could seem unreal. They relied on the US to defend them, depended for services on majorities of their resident populations who were temporary laborers with no political rights, and their native citizens numbered so few that the ruler could be in personal touch with most of the people who counted. “  Attract tourists, financiers, and functionality – better than authoritarianism, Islam

–          57 countries in Middle East

–          22 countries in the Arab World

Family Journal: January 5, 2010

We are enjoying our final days of holiday here in Bahrain. The kids are pictured above on the way to the dentist. Oliver fell at the water park the other day and hurt his teeth and gums. We wanted to make sure he was okay. (he is) Yesterday besides going to the soccer game, we watched the partial solar eclipse. I made a pinhole box to view it safely and you can see the image below.

 

Nadia also has been enjoying shopping down at the exotic markets in town. She is shown below with Mohammed the carpet salesman. She bought a nice Turkmenistan rug for our new apartment in Belgrade.

North Korea Defeats Bahrain 1-0

The VIP Section of the Bahrain National Stadium

It was certainly a different experience at the stadium last night as we watched North Korea defeat Bahrain 1-0 in an international friendly (exhibition) game in the National Stadium here in Riffa, Bahrain. The first strange thing about game was admission was free. They don’t have any tickets and do not charge spectators to enter. There were security guards at all the gates and inside the stadium, but a very relaxed atmosphere. The 10,000 seat capacity stadium was probably about 1/4 full. We had a difficult time finding four consecutive seats that were not broken. It is strange that the kingdom has such good infrastructure with roads, lights, etc, and such a poor stadium. The lights were good and the field in decent shape, but the seats, bathrooms, running track, etc. all need to be renovated. I only saw two women in the crowd, one British woman and one local in the black robes. Many fans were chewing sunflower seeds. The only items for sale were pumpkin, sunflower and other types of seeds, soda pop, and “sloppy joes” made with liver.

The game was quite boring with Bahrain trying to attack but with a lot of backwards passing and North Korea mostly playing a defensive, counter-attacking style. North Korea got the lone goal 14 minutes into the second half with a nice crossing pass to a cutting striker. The Korean goalkeeper made some nice stops, but he was annoyingly slow in retrieving the ball and kicking balls from the goal. I don’t see Bahrain getting out of their group and North Korea definitely has to step up their game to be successful in next week’s Asian Cup.

The Home Team Bahrain is in Red Uniforms

Below is the preview I wrote yesterday prior to going to the game.

Tonight I’m taking the boys to the North Korea versus Bahrain international friendly soccer game.

Both teams are getting ready for next week’s Asian Cup in neighbor Qatar. The cup features 16 teams from Asia with Australia, Japan, and South Korea as favorites. Bahrain will be grouped with Australia, India, and South Korea. North Korea will be matched up with UAE, Iraq, and Iran. It would be funny to substitute Cuba for UAE and add Venezuela to get an “axis of evil” tourney going.

Bahrain has never qualified for the World Cup. The past two cup qualifying competitions however, they lost in the final playoff leg, losing to New Zealand last year and to Trinidad & Tobago in 2006. They don’t have any players I recognize, most play in the Persian Gulf region. One guy plays on a first division Swiss team and another for a first division Turkish team.

North Korea is a more interesting team. They were in last summer’s World Cup, but lost three straight games, including a 0-7 drubbing by Portugal. The regime punished the coach by firing him and putting him on a construction job. In another article by Newsweek reporter Eve Fairbanks, she argues that the team should be banned from international competitions and discusses their star player, Jong Tae-se, a German second division player:

People who dismiss boycotts say they punish ordinary people rather than those in power, and furthermore, that cultural exchanges like orchestra tours and sports matches help dispel the sense of otherness that hangs over pariah peoples, allowing us to recognize our common humanity. Permit me to suggest that, in the case of North Korea and the World Cup, this is idiocy. Consider North Korea’s star player, the striker Jong Tae-se. A vocal and charismatic 20-something nicknamed “The People’s Wayne Rooney,” Jong has asserted that North Korea’s participation in the World Cup will do a great deal to demystify the country, win it respect and understanding abroad, and stoke pride at home. Indeed, Jong himself leads a totally normal and enjoyable-sounding life, by professional-athlete standards. He rolls in a silver Hummer, loves to snowboard, travels with an iPod and a Nintendo, and aspires to bed one of the Wondergirls—the Spice Girls of Seoul. He has also never lived in North Korea. He was born in Japan and continues to reside there, in the better-off Korean diaspora. He was the one who told the newspapers about his North Korean teammates’ quaint penchant for rock-paper-scissors. If Jong doesn’t represent the existence of Joe Ebrahim’s “dual life” in terms of North Korean society—in which a few nation-glorifying stars are allowed to pursue a capitalist lifestyle while most forage for food and dream about basic rights—I don’t know what does.

North Korea’s thrashing by Portugal means the team will not play on past their last group match, on Friday against the Ivory Coast. I suspect Jong Tae-se will manage. As for the regular North Korean fans, however, it’s not clear if they’ll be able to keep watching the Cup, thanks to a dispute between North and South Korea that affects the television signal. As for his rock-paper-scissors-playing comrades headed back to the Korean Peninsula, who knows—which is what makes North Korea’s participation in a sporting event like this one really scary. The team’s spokesman told South African journalists that the team’s one aim was to make the Dear Leader (he really said that) happy. A team whose purpose in winning is to bring honor to an inhumane regime—as South Africa’s apartheid rule was—should not be allowed a world platform to do so, particularly when its players face a dark reward for losing.

The team, except for the two diaspora Japanese ringers (Jong and another guy) were publicly shamed in a six-hour assembly. Weird! I wonder in tonight’s game if they will have any fans? I am looking forward to an interesting experience. I predict a Bahrain win, 2-1.  I’ll have photos and a match report tonight.

Birding in Bahrain

 

I stopped today and took some photos of the flamingos feeding in the mud flats. There were several colonies near the Sitra Bridge right outside of the capital city of Manama. They seemed quite content despite the large number of cars whizzing by them. We stopped the car and I got out and crossed through a construction area to get these images. The Bahrainis don’t seem to develop their water fronts. I couldn’t believe more people were not out watching these beautiful birds. They turned out to be Greater Flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus).

Flamingos are very cool birds. They wade through the water with their heads upside down, filtering for food. When I went down to the rocks on the shore, I could smell and see a stream of black effluent moving through the water. I wonder if this affects the birds? Reef-Egret as well a thousands of seagulls.(http://www.hawar-islands.com/) Here is an amazing web site about the bird life on the islands of Bahrain. After looking at AJ’s photos, I need to get a better lens and camera.

Bill & Owen’s First Golf Game

 

We ended 2010 with a round of golf at the Royal Golf Club at the Riffa View Estates here in Bahrain. Owen and I played 11 holes against my nephew Sebey and his father, Diego. We played on the “Wee Monty” course, a par-3 short course especially designed for kids.

The Royal Golf Club is a private club located in the gated community of Riffa Views where my sister-in-law Alejandra lives. To have a lush, green golf course in the middle of the desert takes a lot of money and the membership fee for a one-year individual costs over $8,000. The main course was designed by Scottish professional Colin Montgomery. We got a teacher discount and had a fantastic day of camaraderie and spirited competition. It was Owen’s first time golfing and I want to thank Diego for helping him out and inviting us for a great day out.

For the record, on the 11 hole par 33 course we played, Owen shot an 83, Bill 65, Sebey 64, and Diego 42. We lost by two points in match play, with a four-shot handicap. I’ll be watching Euro Sport later this month, when the first stop on the PGA European Tour comes to the Royal Golf Club with the Volvo Championships.

We also said goodbye to Diego last night as he flew back to Ghana. Hermes leaves this evening. We still have a few more days here. It was great to see both of them again.

Hermes, Diego and I at the City Center Food Court in Manama

 

Tourist Attractions in Bahrain

Kids Enjoying the Twists and Turns of the Fort

Yesterday I took the kids to several tourist attractions in Bahrain. I had all of the kids because Nadia and Ale were judging an art competition at a local school and Diego had some correspondence to complete. I loaded up the car with all four kids, took out the map, packed drinks and snacks, and set out to explore the island.

We first went to the Bahrain Fort. The fort rests on top of a “tell” which is an archeological term meaning an area that has been built up to a mound because of through the centuries it has been occupied. The tell around the fort is only partially excavated and it would be a good project to excavate and document the entire site. Bahrain was a trading post since antiquity, first being occupied by the Dilmuns. The Persians (Iranians) controlled the islands for a long time, probably longer than the Arabs, hence the name, the Persian Gulf. A fortress was built on the site by the Portuguese. Bahrain has long been known as a site for the processing of pearls. The site is located near to the water which makes sense. The kids loved playing hide and seek and running through the arches, steps, and corridors of the fort. We spent a couple hours exploring every nook and cranny of the place.

Oliver Collecting Shells

We then drove down to the nearby beach and collected shells. I’ll do a blog post on the items we found later, which I’ll need help deciphering several messages we found from any Arabic readers out there. We ended our morning excursion with a tour of the Al Fateh Mosque.

Ocean Dancing in the Courtyard of the Al Fateh Mosque

The mosque was very impressive. It is huge and magnificent! The place can fit 7,000 worshippers and the amount of money that went into the mosque, from meters and meters of Italian marble in the courtyard, to the main chandelier of the great dome in the hall – the government must have spent millions of dollars. I think it is really nice that it is open to the “infidels” and they have it set up to teach foreigners about Islam. The woman at the desk was quite helpful and gave us complimentary books about Islam for children and in Spanish for Popa. They had signs explaining how to pray and do ablutions (ritual washing before prayer). I taught the kids about Mecca, Allah, etc. We also heard the call to prayer from the two huge towers outside the mosque. I hope to upload it to my flickr account, but am struggling with the internet speed here.

We then met up with the rest of the family for a late lunch in “American Alley.” This is a street just outside the US Naval base downtown that features dozens of US and international fast food chain restaurants. We ate Mediterranean Grill, a restaurant similar to TGIF or Applebees. We stopped in the harbor and took photos of the sunset of the Manama skyline. There are many beautiful skyscrapers on reclaimed land near the harbor. Below on the left of the photo is the Bahrain Financial Harbor building designed to reflect the colors of the sunset.