“Isa” grew up in Bahrain and lived there until recently. He spoke with several MERIP editors in April 1985. He asked to remain anonymous in order to protect friends and family still living there.
What sort of distinctions and divisions are there among expatriates?
You’ve got the Europeans and Americans and then you’ve got the Indians, Pakistanis, Thais and Koreans. The Koreans come in contingents of a construction company, not free labor. They wear Hyundai uniforms. They go to the market in groups. There’s a much greater language barrier.
Among the Indian expatriates, there are those whose families have been there for 300 years and then the new laborers in the 1970s. The workers have a certain amount of protection, because the labor minister in the late 1970s pushed a fairly progressive law. But they live miserable lives; their salaries are terribly low. Twenty-nine dinars a month is not unusual — that’s about $75 a month in the third most expensive country in the world. The Filipinos must send a certain percentage back to the Philippines, by law. Indians are under tremendous family pressure to do so.
The Indian and Pakistani laborers are treated really badly. The places where they house them are called labor camps. In one camp they had a strike early in 1984. They laid down their tools and said we’re not going to work until conditions improve. The owner of this construction company says he “forgot” about providing water! This is in the middle of Sitra, an industrial area. There’s no shade, just cinderblock barracks, about ten men per room. Of course, the Indian headhunters on the other side collaborate.
They promise them much more than they actually get paid?
A Bombay truck driver says, “Wow, a thousand rupees a month.” Fifty dinars is 1,000 rupees, but what is 50 dinars in Bahrain?
With the Europeans, it’s a different story. Baddaya, on the western side of the island, is just full of beautiful villas. But just behind these villas there are very poor Shi‘i villages. It used to be a rich agricultural area. The Al Khalifa controlled these plantations. Since the 1950s, they speculated on these properties. You’re not going to make any money growing cucumbers. So these guys built villas which rent for about $5,000 a month. The expatriates don’t pay anything out of their own pockets. Their companies rent from the sheikhs and large merchant families.
How many families are we talking about?
The large merchant families would be about 20, plus the Al Khalifa. There are about a thousand of them. The closer one’s relationship to the emir, the more property one controls. There’s a lot of discontent among the Shi‘a who live in those areas.
Are they agricultural workers?
No more. They turned to day labor, or are unemployed.
Who owns the labor camps for foreign workers?
The Bahraini contractors.
Are there many women expatriates?
The women are domestics or retail clerks. Filipino women are much more Westernized than Indian women — they wear dresses, they look more made-up, they speak English better — so they have become much more desirable. There’s a lot of prostitution in Bahrain. Not just Filipinos or Indians — also Europeans.
Is this a recent development?
The last 10-15 years. Gulf Air stewardesses are renowned — not necessarily as prostitutes, but they “garnish” a party, drape themselves on somebody’s arm. One attendant told me you could get a Rolex watch just for sitting on Happy Jack’s yacht. They call the emir “Happy Jack” because he’s always smiling.
What do the Western expatriates do?
They run the big merchant families’ businesses, the big corporations, like Gulf Air. They’re bankers. They tell Bahrainis how to do things. They work as advisers at all levels. The civil service scale is very interesting. You get the salary for your grade and then an “inducement allowance.” If you’re American, it’s 98 percent extra. If you’re English, it’s 60 percent; German, it’s 80 percent. And then you get your housing free, trips back and forth from your home country, domestic help, children’s educational fees. Bahrain American School costs as much as a university education in the States.
How did Bahrainis feel about this?
There’s enormous distrust of Europeans and Americans. They feel most Westerners are not qualified — which they are not, frankly.
What do you think keeps this system going this way?
Without the expatriates the ruling family would have to concede a lot of power to Bahrainis. They are a buffer in a sense. A lot of the English expatriates are interested mainly in protecting their jobs, so under the pretense of ongoing training and consultancy they perpetuate their presence. Life in England would be pretty grim by comparison.
What is Bahrain’s interest in this?
The ruling family and rich merchants are afraid of their own people. Many times they have sensitive information that they don’t want Bahrainis to see.
How did the big merchants get so big?
Traditionally, trade and pearling. Since the oil days the real money is in land speculation. This is why they have a reclamation project. The government sells the land to members of the royal family and to close associates at 200 fils a square meter. This land is then developed through the state’s development contracts. About five big-name contractors sit with the minister of public works and discuss the contracts. Of course, the prime minister has already taken the juicy ones for his companies. Five years later this land is 40 dinars a square meter. That’s where you make money.
Are the contractors from the big merchant and landowning families?
Yes. The land is how they made the big money. Then they get a Sanyo agency, a Rolls Royce agency, a BMW agency. Some merchants in the late 1970s went into finance and banking, both excellent ways of sucking capital out of Bahrain. After the Iranian revolution, I suspect most of their investments are overseas.
What was the main motive force behind the 1981 coup attempt?
I think it had ties to traditional opposition, elements involved in 1956, 1965, 1971. Then, of course, the Iranian revolution.
Did you see the same kinds of alliances as in 1971 or 1965?
The Iranian revolution has alienated much of the urban, Arab nationalist Sunni opposition. There’s another thing: After 1973-1974, the ruling family became so rich that it could coopt members of the Sunni elite. But the Shi‘a were left out. Now, because they identified themselves as Shi‘a, there’s active discrimination against them in the Gulf. A Shi‘i will seek work in multinational corporations, because he gets better pay there and his affiliation doesn’t matter. But if he applies for a job at a big Bahraini bank, he is turned down because he’s Shi‘i. Personnel says, “We really like you, but we have to check.” They check, and that’s it.
My impression is that both Shi‘a and Sunnis in the middle class and lower middle classes strongly dislike the ruling family. They know the corruption and the incompetence. It would be easy to galvanize the Shi‘a into a political force. The Sunnis would be much more difficult. Things would really have to break down first. But Shi‘a face daily harassment. A guy comes home late at night, and cops are sitting at the door. They ask him where he’s been. He says he just went to visit a friend. He’s taken in and questioned.
Has there been any disillusionment with the Iranian revolution among Bahraini Shi‘a?
Many have no great admiration for the ayatollah, especially because of the war. But there’s a feeling that those fellows kicked the Shah out, they achieved something, and maybe we could do that here.
And do it as Shi‘a rather than as Bahrainis?
Yes. Many Shi‘a have organized schools, using religion to discuss politics. They are quickly suppressed. In the urban areas, the clubs which became great centers of political activity were mainly Sunni, Arab nationalist. The Shi‘a in the villages gathered in what they called funeral houses, where during Muharram they have the processions. Those two groupings had informal ties, and came together in 1956 and 1965. But the government took over the clubs in the urban areas under the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports, and they put a Khalifa at the top. We call him Sheikh ‘Isa bin Sport — to distinguish him from Sheikh ‘Isa bin Airport. They lavished funds on these clubs and completely eliminated all their political content.
The whole surveillance network is pretty tight?
It’s very efficient. The head since 1967 is Henderson, a Brit. The officers are from the ruling family, some old merchant families, landowners, those who helped the Al Khalifa take over. The type of troops you see in Bahrain are different now. You have the old Baluch lot, but now you see Jordanian officers. It was never Bahrainis, except the generals from the ruling family. No soldiers. Give a Bahraini a gun? Are you kidding?
Do you see US sailors in the streets?
They’re told to keep a very low profile. They are not allowed to wear their uniforms on shore.
What are the living conditions of Bahrainis?
If you’re in the government, your income is fairly decent. You’re probably from an urban family. If you’re lucky enough, when they parcel out the houses and apartments, you pay 75 dinars a month for a government apartment and you make 300-400. You can travel to Europe once in two years. You consume a lot.
Are there many poor Bahrainis?
Yes. And they’re quite visible. It’s a small island. They work at the very low rung of the government as tea boys, they work in small shops, some of them own small plots of land, some are unemployed. But you will never see Bahrainis in big shops. Those are Indians, Filipinos. Shopkeepers will never hire a Bahraini who’ll ask for 100 dinars a month. No construction worker is a Bahraini. The contractor will not hire them because of potential trouble. “Those Indians will work harder.” Of course, they’re more insecure.
Does the emir’s immediate family pretty much control the state?
One brother became prime minister. Another one, Sheikh Muhammad, was not allowed to enter the government. He is a powerful landowner. He has a running battle with the al-Zayani family, which is allied to the main wing of the ruling family. They own the Rolls Royce agency. Outside a shop one day, there were three beautiful al-Zayani Rolls Royces. Sheikh Muhammad comes up in his Landrover, pulls out his pistol and shoots up these three Rolls Royces. The cops just stood there. It was Sheikh Muhammad, and they couldn’t do anything. He just got back in his jeep and drove off.