Published on 9 Jan 2012

The Arab Spring's forgotten pearl

A friend of mine is just returned from Bahrain. He seeks to go back there so does not want me to disclose his identity. What he saw makes salutary reading.

In many ways the uprising in Bahrain, and its suppression, is among the most shocking and under-reported of the entire ‘Arab Spring’.

He describes the streets of Manama largely deserted. Many cranes on building sites are stilled. The few people out tend to be Filipino servants who scurry about running errands or purchasing goods from behind closed Bahraini shutters.

The centre of the uprising – the Pearl Roundabout has been uprooted and now plays host to troops from an indeterminate Arab force. Where Bahraini forces end and Saudi or Qatari troops begin is a moot point. The Saudi ‘occupation’ continues but, as far as possible, out of public view. The Qataris are more open.

One Bahraini blogger calls the Pearl roundabout – ‘the heart of darkness’. But the gloom is endlessly perforated by spray-painted slogans. One reads F*** (King) Hamadi’. There are many stenciled faces of those who have been killed by the Arab forces. Every morning new banners of protest sprout and then disappear. Tyres are burned in the Shia neighbourhoods. In all but the most contested areas, the spray-painted slogans (always in black) are crudely whitewashed.

Much higher up the city’s buildings are posters depicting the ruling Sunni elite.

My friend describes nightly clashes on the edges of the Shia neighbourhoods.  Bahrain’s protest movement is far from subdued.

However bad things get, weekends see the causeway from Saudi Arabia thronging with civilian Saudis coming into what they have always regarded as their Amsterdam. A Saudi woman in a chauffeur driven Bentley draws up 20 meters past the Bahraini border post, sheds her hijab and reveals tight jeans and a tank top.

Saudi men cruise in their blacked-out Hummers. They all make for the clubs and dives as quickly as they can.

The other residents here en masse are the US 5th Fleet. Bahrain used to be their safe bunkering spot in the Gulf. Not any more. The Americans are finding the Arab Spring’s manifestation in Bahrain increasingly awkward.

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14 reader comments

  1. Richmarshall says:

    Ive been to Bahrain. Regardless of the omission of the background details to the issues in Bahrain (i.e. mass Shia immigration after the Iranian revolution) which makes the uprising there nothing like the ones in the rest of the region, you hit a key point in the final paragraph. Bahrain has long been a bastion of freedom in the region, with the most liberal attitude towards women’s rights especially, but also with regards to drinking and elections. To accuse Bahrain of a crackdown but then highlight (in a negative light e.g. “dives”) its liberal nature is a bit hypocritical.

  2. John McKay says:

    And Bernie Ecclestone seriously proposed to contest a Formula 1 Grand Prix here!

  3. British Expat says:

    A Saudi female gets out a chauffeur diving car and sheds her abaya ? so what business is this of yours ? You have got a bit lost here on your comment on the ‘political’ situation in Bahrain have you not ? and Saudi men coming over at weekends or whenever to go to nightclubs ? again so what ? Western and Bahraini men do it every night !I don’t hear anyone criticizing them do you ? You want to comment on the situation in Bahrain, come and live here like I have for five and a half years and please do your homework on the whole situation from February 13th onwards then put a comment ! Good place to start is youtube where you can watch the video of the policeman they ran over in a four by four three times then broadcast it on Iraninan tv as the police driving over a protestor !or expats of Bahrain 3 this is comments on the people who live with these ‘peaceful demonstrators’ day in day out ! I thought the first rule of good journalism was check your facts ? I suggest you view this video of the ‘peaceful protestors’.

    1. F says:

      How about you get your facts straight?? Wow, a whole 5 and a half years? I’ve been here for 18, and was there throughout the entire unrest. Did you enjoy listening to people screaming and crying every night whilst being targeted in their homes by tear gas and rubber bullets? Did you enjoy hearing about children and babies dying from toxic gases? Are you happy with how the majority of citizens are being completely and utterly suppressed from having any say in the future of their own country? People like you disgust me. As your name suggests you’re an expat from the UK. What do you think would happen if something like this happened in Britain? Nothing, because it is absolutely out of the question. Before telling someone to get their facts straight, how about you get your head straight and stop posting things you obviously have no idea about. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  4. adrian clarke says:

    All is not well in the Arab countries,where dictatorial leaders have long supressed their flocks.We have yet to see what the outcome will be even in those countries where the so called “Arab Spring “has succeeded.Will there be democracy or entrenched non democratic Muslim societies.It is a very dangerous time,not just for the countries themselves,but Israel and the West too.We would do well to keep out until the dust settles

  5. Mark says:

    Jon, it’s called hypocrisy or what neoconservatives like to call it: realpolitik (and enriching the arms industry). Sunni elites are in power at the whim on the West.

    Bahrain’s majority Shia will have to put up with arrest and state repression as long as the US 5th fleet wants its huge base. When Saudi troops rolled in, it was barely reported. Syria is the West’s current target with eyes firmly focused on Iran. Egypt is still firmly in the control of the compliant military and the likely contiued success of the Muslim Brotherhood will be dismissed.

    And in case anyne isn’t paying attention, Iraq is a mess, Afghanistan is little better outsidd Kabul than it was almost eleven years ago and US drones have killed more civillians under Obame that George W. Bush.

  6. margaret brandreth- jones says:

    I don’t seem to know much about Bahrain, so sitting here and eating lunch researching on the web and in particular wikipaedia.

    As a past centre of trading particularly with India there may be many reasons why it has been under reported. I am not sure which made Manama more lucrative pearls or oil , yet I do know it is usually money matters which create stirs either covert or overt. Maths teaches us to work with what we know to find a solution , therefore the less we know the less chance there is for those causing chaos to be discovered and dominate.

    My rapid history lesson informs me that many different groups have been involved in shaping Bahrains history : survival of the fittest continues.

  7. Philip Edwards says:


    I warned you of this possibility when the Cairo unrest first started. Now, here it is in all its fascist worst. And don’t kid yourself the Americans haven’t had a hand in it somewhere, probably as “advisors” to the Saudi Establishment. As you must surely know, the Americans have a heavy military presence in Bahrain.

    Now tell me again…..what excuse have Brit mainstream media for ignoring this? Why are they attacking Syria (a la messrs Miller and Rugman)while seemingly the Arab Spring has disappeared elsewhere?

    In short, who do the Brit media think they’re kidding, apart from themselves?

  8. Kathryn says:

    “He describes the streets of Manama largely deserted.”

    I’d advise your friend to have another venture out into the streets of Manama as they are hardly deserted.

    Also funny as how a few paragraphs down you describe the weekends as ‘thronging’ with Saudis (who by the way did stop coming for a while when a state of national safety was declared so “However bad things get…” is a bit of a sweeping and very incorrect statement).

    This post is just so misleading for people who don’t already know much about Bahrain and the political situation there. It seems you may be one of those people.

    If you’re only relying on hearsay from your mate then I wouldn’t recommend writing a blog post about a very complex situation/country when you know a lot of people read what you write.

  9. Employee in Bahrain says:

    I am absolutely shocked that someone like Jon Snow, a supposedly respected Presenter/Journalist would even consider posting such a misleading blog article.

    This “friend” of yours saw what he wanted to. What was his reason for visiting? This may or may not explain alot.

    Furthermore I agree with Kathryn (above). People reading this post who don’t already know much about Bahrain would think that our country is a military zone, which is NOT the case and completely unacceptable.

    As a young working man, i keep active by going out to local and international events, alot is going on. The events scene has picked up after the loss of F1 last year. Just go onto Google and type “Bahrain Events” and you should deduce that it is not a “Deserted” country of “Filipino servants who scurry about running errands….”. Ridiculous.

    All of my friends are British expats having lived here for many years. Clashes between police and anti-government protesters are commonplace but rarely impede day to day life. (one such rarity was dumping vats of oil on main highways as a form of “protest”). Heavy police presence is vital to ensure things like that don’t happen.

    Absolutely appalling Jon.

  10. byrdele says:

    Wow! Jon, you have taken a beating on this blog. Whom to believe and whom not to believe? Jon has a friend who has been there. True, it’s not the same as living there, as the expats have pointed out. However, I ask the expats – do you have many friends among ordinary Bahrainians? I don’t mean one or two. And I do not mean among the elite who might work with you. I mean enough to count beyond one hand amongst the Shia. Although language might be a barrier there are plenty who speak English, as they are well educated and English is very much the lingo franco today. When overseas with other Americans, I knew those who almost exclusively (note, I said “almost”) hung around each other. And I knew those who hung around the citizens almost exclusively – I fall amongst the latter (except in one garden spot, where my husband and I were newly weds, thus hanging out mainly with each other…:) The take on the people, culture and events from both groups were entirely different. I knew an American who, much to my embarrassment, had no desire while we were in England to make British friends. She opined something very horrible about British with Britons nearby. You don’t want to read it…

  11. byrdele says:

    … I have a bit more to say. You know, we Americans, so garrulous… I do wish our fleet was not sitting off of the coast. Things might be different were it not. However, there is not much I can do about that. The situation is very complex. Jon, you are an outstanding newsman. That doesn’t make you right or wrong on this issue. But I tend to believe you would not just throw info out without a sound basis for it. That is not your M.O. But, I am not going to question the validity of the expats’ opinions, either. It’s a complex situation. I’ve never been to Bahrain, so I don’t know first hand what is going on there. I have heard about the situation from people who have lived there and it corresponds pretty much with what Jon reported, but then again, that is second hand info.

  12. Kathryn says:

    byrdele whether we hang around Shia (although it’s not just Shia people who are revolting) is not really the point as no one is denying that there is no political turmoil or that they have no reason to be protesting.

    The main point, or at least my main point, was that this blog post is full of inaccuracies and crude stereotypes which do not offer much insight at all. I would have to question why this blog post was written at all as there seems to be no point other than to relay a couple of his friend’s slightly inaccurate observations.

    So for instance:

    “One reads F*** (King) Hamadi’.”
    – It would not have said that as the King’s name is Hamad. A quick Google search would have sorted that out.

    And as I already mentioned – the Saudis did stop coming for a while.

    And the roads are far from deserted (perhaps they were yesterday on the revolution’s anniversary because of the expectations of what was going to happen but on a daily basis they are not).

    The portrayal of a scurrying Filipino servant and chaffeur-driven Saudi woman in tight jeans and a tank top is generalised to the point of being insulting to these nationalities.

  13. Kathryn says:

    Jon rightly picks up on points such as Bahrain’s uprising being underreported (it was talked about yesterday but only because it was the anniversary. The clashes reported happen more or less on a daily basis but because they’re not on the scale of say Syria it is deemed not important enough to make headlines over here), Bahrain being Saudi’s Amsterdam and Americans feeling increasingly awkward but it’s as though he plucked these themes from the air and squashed them in to a short blog post about his friend’s trip and in the end explained nothing of any substance. It feels lazy almost. And there is no room for laziness in journalism especially when you have a reputation and people will actually listen to what you say.

    I’m just saying the situation and this country far more complex than he could have possibly portrayed in such a word count and so perhaps he should not have even bothered.

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