MANAMA, Bahrain —A few weeks ago, I returned from my first trip to the Middle East. Having lived in and visited many parts of the U.S., and having lived for short stints in Canada and Europe, I felt a calling to make the long journey into an Arab nation. I wanted to see with my own eyes this world that is so often projected as remote and completely foreign from our own. Put simply, I wanted to see “the other,” and at the same time, I wanted to be “the other.”
First and foremost, it is a privilege to be able to travel, one that many Americans cannot indulge in. Our immensely large country and geographic isolation do not allow us to easily travel in the way that is so common in other nations. The current economic and employment crises make travel even more difficult, and so it is with humility that I offer a small glimpse of my experiences and revelations.
I first heard of the Kingdom of Bahrain during the Arab Spring of 2011. A quick map search provides ample reason why this tiny nation is of strategic importance to the Western world, bordering Saudi Arabia and directly across the Gulf from Iran. As the first Gulf nation to begin oil production in 1932, Bahrain has long held U.S. interests. It has for decades housed both the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and United States Fifth Fleet. A U.S. military facility in Bahrain that once belonged to the British is currently undergoing more than $500 million in expansions.
It is no surprise that the U.S. has a vested interest in the stability of this nation within an unstable and often hostile region. This past week, President Obama and Vice President Biden met with Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, to discuss relations between our two countries. Recent heated protests and renewed calls for intervention against human rights abuses undoubtedly have Washington nervous. With the ongoing turmoil in Syria, the recent mass protests in Turkey, and the looming war with Iran, there exists an urgency to keep Bahrain under status quo control.
Construction of new high-rise buildings litters the capital of Manama. Oil production is now secondary to banking and tourism growth. Saudi Arabia provides much of the pipelines and infrastructure necessary to keep the economic boom moving forward. This includes the building of the King Fahd Causeway. Connecting Bahrain directly to Saudi Arabia, it is sinking into the cool Gulf waters due to the enormously heavy tanker trucks that journey in and out of this curiously “liberal” Arab nation.
Women are not required by law to cover themselves and can drive vehicles. Alcohol is legal, and nearly every Western chain restaurant is represented throughout the country. Kentucky Fried Chicken is so popular that many operate 24 hours a day. The banking giant HSBC has advertisements, billboards, and ATMs located throughout the capital. There are multiple malls—huge facilities with every store you can find in America. Moda Mall is exclusively high-end retail, located below the Bahrain World Trade Center, the only location where I saw white men in business suits.
This image of growth is in stark contrast to the poverty of the Bab Al Bahrain souq (street market), or the many dilapidated buildings within the upscale, bohemian-themed district of Adliya. Shortly after I arrived in Bahrain, the director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, notable activist Nabeel Rajab, disappeared from his prison cell after informing his family that he had witnessed the torture of children in prison. Within a day, a moderate cleric’s home had been raided, and by the time I visited the souq myself, there were riot police patrolling the streets. Eventually they told me and my travel companion that we needed to leave. Westerners were not supposed to see what happens on a regular basis.
There are Red Zones throughout Manama that are off-limits to U.S. military and American government workers. The taxi drivers will not willingly take tourists there, so we had to walk on foot under the blistering Arabian sun. The defining image taken from this area in Juffair, not far the NSA Bahrain base, is written in spray paint outside the high walls of private property. It reads: US Gov. Stop Arms $ale to Al Khalifas. These are the very arms President Obama and Vice President Biden have further pledged in support of the Al Khalifa dynasty in order to further Western security concerns.
These same arms are provided to the crown prince, who is not the first in his family to be accused of routine torture of political prisoners. The same tear gas fills the narrow passageways of the souq, and the citizens cry out to the few Americans they see on the street, “Down with Hamad!” — the king and his untouchable family. Those tear gas canisters bear the mark of our foreign policy: “Made in U.S.A.”
Surrounded by “the other” as a very obvious foreigner—a white, Western woman—it became clear that our worlds are not so different. Poverty is poverty, and struggle is struggle. What was evident is the power of being an American to witness the truth for one’s self. The privilege my passport brings—the United States of America—is the same burden that pro-democracy civilians fight against in the streets of Bahrain. I cannot help but question that privilege, knowing so many in this small nation fight for the same human rights and equality as my fellow Americans, and that we share a common barrier to freedom—oppression in the name of profit.
– Laura Gentle