Bahrain: End of Ramadan Nerves

Gulf States Newsletter, No. 723, Friday, November 28, 2003

Reports that 10,000 people took to the streets of Bahrain to celebrate Jerusalem Day, the last Friday in Ramadan, on 21 November, may have understated the size of the event. Local correspondents report as many as 45,000 attended, a higher-than-normal turnout for the demonstration, which featured the usual anti-American and anti-Israel sloganeering and the burning of a few American flags.

There was no violence or arrests, but a simmering unrest in the normally pro-Western kingdom could have an impact on business interests there, just as the country is trying to make its mark on the international financial scene.

With the recent security warning from the UK embassy in Manama, issued just hours before the 8 November bombings in Riyadh (GSN 722/1), questions arise as to just how contagious the violence in Iraq and Saudi Arabia may be.

Events in Turkey suggest a region-wide phenomenon. But the British warning in Bahrain was later revealed to be based not on any specific information, but simply a generally “high threat from terrorism” in the region, particularly in places where Westerners might gather, the embassy said.

Whether or not terrorism is about to creep across the King Fahd Causeway linking Bahrain with Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, there have been signs of heightened unrest in the island kingdom, which has now reached a level where business interests are beginning to take notice. Some businessmen say that even a mild escalation could have an impact on prospects even as the global economy sputters ahead.

No song and dance
Several recent events point to increased activism on the part of anti-Western groups in Bahrain, though not necessarily to a rise in anti-Western sentiment. In October, Islamist MPs moved in Parliament to cancel two concerts by Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram, charging her show was indecent and provocative. Their motion was soundly defeated, but more than a 100 masked protestors disrupted Ajram’s concerts on 22-23 October, throwing stones, setting rubbish on fire and smashing car windows. There were several arrests over the two nights, but the concerts managed to go on as planned.

A smaller but perhaps more telling disruption came at the end of October, when a child’s Halloween party at an expat compound in a Manama suburb was shut down by an angry mob of approximately 120 Bahrainis, according to the Bahrain-based manager for a major American company doing business throughout the Gulf. The mob brandished mobile phones and threatened to summon many more supporters if the music and partying were not stopped. As the manager put it, “people want to live in a safe place.”

So far, Bahrain has been one of the safest, with a per capita income right in the middle of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states (higher than Oman and Saudi Arabia), and more progressive democratic reforms in place than most if not all its fellow GCC members.

But many more disturbances of the same nature could change the feeling of security there. Western and Bahraini businessmen both tell GSN they view the situation with more wariness of late, though not yet with alarm. Whether the answer is heightened security, economic development, political reform, or progress in Palestine, Saudi Arabia or Iraq is far from clear. But if an answer is not found and things get much worse in Bahrain, there could be real consequences for business there just as the country is hoping its landmark Bahrain Financial Harbour (BFH) project will raise its international profile with investors.

Trouble at the mall
The tens of thousands of demonstrators that turned out for Palestine Day in Manama gathered outside the new Seef Mall, itself a very American icon, where shoppers have their pick of US-brand fast food and 16 theatres showing American and European films. On the street, some marchers carried pictures of the Statue of Liberty standing atop a pile of skulls.

Though life in Manama went on as normal in the days following the UK security warning and the latest Riyadh bombings, at least one other embassy, Germany’s, closed to foreigners for a reassessment of the country’s security situation, officials said. The US embassy in Manama issued no security warnings in the days before or after the bombings.

Though no new domestic security measures have yet surfaced, Bahrain will be eager to dispel any notion that it is a place not conducive to Western business interests. An escalation of anti-Western unrest could endanger not only new business initiatives but also the ones already in place, which have helped the kingdom establish the great deal of security it currently enjoys.