Pearl Square

February 23 2011

Gulf regimes

Bahrain is the only Arab country, apart from Iraq, with a majority Shiite population. Like the Iraqi Shiites before 2003-5, they live under a Sunni regime and are often poor and aggrieved. It was the first place in the Gulf where oil was discovered, in 1931, and is the only Gulf country where it has (practically) run out. Before 1931, oil had been exploited in Iraq and Iran. It still has natural gas and oil-related industries.

The unity shown in Tahrir Square cannot be shown in the same way here, because the root of the problem is the disaffection of a group, albeit a majority. There is a sectarian dimension to the problem which was not evident in Cairo.

The story of the Garden of Eden may be connected with Bahrain and with the eastern Arabian oases. There was an ancient society there called Dilmun. Dilmun was on the trading route between the ancient Mesopotamian civilisations and the Indus valley civilisation, which flourished from 3000 to 1500 BC. Why, with that position, was Bahrain not more important throughout its history? Because the important trade routes were overland? Because of Oman?

Bahrain was under the influence of different pre-Islamic and Islamic powers at different times, including Persia. It was the seat of an early Nestorian community, and of a major political experiment in the early Middle Ages as a stronghold of the Qarmatians. The Portuguese had a presence there between 1485 and 1602. The first treaty with Britain was in 1820. It was a British protectorate from 1880 to 1971.

For most of its history, the most lucrative industry was pearl-fishing. That was done in other places in the Gulf too, and in the Red Sea, and down to Ceylon. The lower orders were sent down 100 feet in a single breath.

The Caspian is due north: Bahrain, the Gulf, Iran, the Caspian. I don’t know whether that route to the north was ever significant in Bahrain’s trading history.

In the ’70s, after the oil shocks, Bahrain turned itself into the first modern financial centre in the middle east (perhaps the second, if you count Lebanon, but whose opportunity was ended in 1975). Now it has competition from Dubai and Qatar.

In 1986 the King Fahd causeway was opened, which connected Bahrain to the Arabian subcontinent for the first time (four years before England was connected, for the first time since the last Ice Age, to another subcontinent, via a tunnel). Every weekend, young Saudis head to Bahrain in search of alcohol and sex. Some die on the way or on the way back. One can drive from Riyad to Manama in four hours. I’ve done it. One has the impression of a litter-strewn desert.

It has been amusing to watch the discomfort of the Saudis. They must be dreading the arrival of more rogue exiles. The king of Bahrain will not be one, because the House of Saud, if no one else, will guarantee the survival of this regime. The Bahraini Crown Prince, Salman, has started a “national dialogue”.

Bahrain is the home of the American Fifth Fleet. I wandered around the Bahrain National Museum one day with what seemed like half of it. They are partly there to threaten Iran.

The lack of oil isn’t unconnected with the development of quasi-democracy. There has been more freedom of speech and behaviour in Bahrain than in other Gulf countries. The Bahraini parliamentary system was set up in 2002, when the emirate called the State of Bahrain became a kingdom. But the Al Khalifa, who liberated Bahrain from the Persians in 1783, remain a conquering regime from the mainland, presiding over a population with long-established grievances.

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