Wednesday, March 16, 2011

GDN, you cannot be serious

This in todays Gulf Daily News. I mean seriously, nothing says confidence and stability like a state in chaos, right? I guess you can't blame them for trying to put a positive spin on things!

Emergency 'may revive business confidence'  

MANAMA: The decision to impose a three-month state of emergency in Bahrain could prove a saviour for the country's business and financial community. Leading businessman, economist and Mashal Group chief executive director Dr Yousef Mashal said that after a month of chaos the declaration of a state of emergency will give peace of mind to both local and international investors.
"The state of emergency is the best thing that could have happened at this time after a month of chaos has brought the economy to a standstill.
"It will also bring more safety to banks and will be good in restoring the reputation of Bahrain that has been shaken by recent events.
"Hopefully this will put Bahrain back on the map as an oasis of peace and harmony."
"Businessmen, both locally and internationally will be watching Bahrain with wider eyes in the coming days to see how this decree will be implemented and how it brings back safety to our roads and streets.
"The economy is based on money and investment and for it to work we must have security."
Prior to the state of emergency yesterday one senior commercial property expert, who asked not to be named, said that unless something was done to deal with the unrest businesses and financial institutions would start leaving Bahrain and heading to Dubai.
"Companies operating across the regional markets are reviewing where they should be and Bahrain is close to losing its credibility.
"Most of the international companies here are in offices with short-term leases and they would have no problems in moving to Dubai to run their regional operations.
"The world is risk averse at the moment and if something does not happen soon Bahrain is going to suffer."
The board of Dutch asset management firm, Robeco yesterday announced that it would be moving its people out of Bahrain.
Robeco Middle East chief executive officer Douglas Hansen-Luke said he hoped the government in Bahrain could unite its people and bring to an end the disturbances. "If we can resolve this situation then Bahrain has the prospect of becoming an even more powerful financial hub of the Middle East."

State of Emergency

Ok, so maybe rumour about 'martial law' was not so ridiculous after all. Things seem to have deteriorated further and the King has called for 'a state of safety', clearly less alarming wording than 'a state of emergency' but we think it's the same, although still trying to figure out what that even means.

M went out to buy some essentials and he said there was lots of panic buying. Lots of friends are flying out of the country, so there is panic travelling too. If their home countries are close by, they are travelling there. Others are flying off to Dubai, just to get away until things calm down a little - there is still a feeling that they will. After three days of staying indoors M took H over to a friend's house for a quick play. He said the roads were clear enough at that point. H is going bonkers staying at home, so she returned refreshed.

3am now - I can't sleep and can hear sounds of activity in the distance and the last few nights have had an eery quality to them. It's been particularly windy for this time of year, so the whistling of the wind up against my window doesn't help. Helicopters are whirring above and I'm wondering what's happening at the Public hospital which is just up the road from us. News reports telling us that there are many injured and even dead.

We are now planning an exit strategy. Tickets booked but do we stay and sit it out or do we go and watch this unfold from somewhere else? (Tickets to Abu Dhabi is booked for Thursday evening - we can have a break and return to make long term plans when things settle down). Honestly, we just don't know where this is going. There are assurances that things will be fine in a couple of days time, but what if they just get worse?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Oh no, here we go again:(

On Sunday morning we awoke to news of more unrest in Bahrain.

A month after protests began, it seems that negotiations between the opposition parties and Government have stalled, in part because the six opposition parties (ranging between soft and hard line reformists) are at odds with each other. After some dialogue, an agreement has not been reached and protesters demands have not been met, so civil disobedience has been amped up a notch... or two, or three.

Last week US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates visited Bahrain and he advised that baby steps towards reform were not enough to stave off unrest in Bahrain. Clearly, this has turned out to be the case.
Earlier this week, anti-government protesters managed to shut down Bahrain's financial sector. Using their own make-shift blockades (eg, couches, metal railings, bricks and sand dunes) protesters caused chaos on the major freeway and significant disruption to morning traffic. Ten minutes after M dropped H off at school on Sunday morning (Sunday being the start of the working week in Bahrain) we received the following text message from the school:

"The situation has escalated - major traffic jams, teargas and police activity in Manama. Please collect your child ASAP. School is closing."

Needless to say, M rushed back to collect her and bring her back home.

Later that morning, we heard news that the protesters blockades had been challenged by police as rubber bullets and teargas were fired. And then last night rumors of the Saudi army being called in by the rulers were confirmed when a convoy of tanks entering Bahrain were shown on all the news channels. Images of the "Peninsula Shield" coalition force soldiers with big grins, holding rifles and signing victory with their fingers were shown on the Bahrain news channel - an attempt by the State to instill confidence, perhaps? In most people, those images seemed to have struck a chord of fear as all sorts of ridiculous and not so ridiculous rumors have surfaced.

Yesterday a friend of ours sent us a message saying that she had heard that martial law was to be imposed and that the British Embassy had sent out an alert. A quick check on the British Embassy official Facebook page revealed that this was a hoax. According to them, things are not so dire.

Aside from the unpredictability of it all, the most annoying thing about being here is that most of our news is hearsay. There's a lot of information floating around and we have to decide what is reliable. BBC and Al Jazeera are understandably focusing on Japan at the moment and the Bahrain news channel is too one sided to be reliable - refer to para above about scenes of happy soldiers.

I have a lot more to say, but my mind is a little scattered at the moment. We are deciding on a game plan in case things get worse but trying to stay calm. Alert but not alarmed:). It's sad to see this nation coming undone. It's  been our home for almost three years and in our experience, Bahrainis are down to earth, lovely people.

Excerpted below are a couple of paragraphs from an email my friend J sent out yesterday to her friends in Bahrain and abroad. It's good to read her perspective and with her permission, I am sharing it with you:

There is talk on the TV of an introduction of martial law - again no idea if this is accurate as the TV news has been wildly lopsided and inaccurate - and that made me think of why now and why at all - I guess it means you can start to see and treat some of your civilians as a threat to the nation's security and bring in your allies to support a crack down.  There is no doubt that things need to be brought back to order but it seems like a very tough line to take after a month of very little attempt to return things to order.  There has been dialogue but the opposition is not united - and those who want to overthrow the royal family have no interest in a discussion - and so I guess there was a timeframe in mind - it has been almost exactly a month.  I am sure that the terrible news coverage last month left the authorities not knowing how to bring order without attracting similar coverage - it was shocking how one-sided the coverage was and how irresponsible much of it was - and how flat footed the authorities seemed in the face of a tech savvy population communicating amongst themselves.

The strange thing about the last month is that things went back to normal quickly, people accommodated the protests - although it has been a nightmare for local businesses - hotels, restaurants, factories, small newly set up consultancies - and the Pearl roundabout took on the air of a music festival on its third day - people really settled in, a bit jaded but happy - little stalls selling water, shisha tents, paintings, haircuts, protest traffic control in the morning, kids there all day - people really enjoying the camp atmosphere.  A couple of days ago there was an extension - they moved across the freeway and started to block (four tents) the financial harbor and there were some violent clashes and bad tempered exchanges and then yesterday it got very serious, very quickly as you have all seen. 

I am very sad that there will be more violence and at the moment the poorly paid expats from Pakistan and Bangladesh/Bengal seem to be targets for local thugs - and that is really tragic.  The tradition here for people to be welcomed and to work their socks off for very little money, sometimes in terrible working conditions in order to support their families back home has enabled Bahrain to be built - for people to resent this now, to see these poor people as somehow taking jobs they don't want away from them is tragic and is as inhuman as the exploitation was to start with.  I know exploitation and resentment happens all over the world, including the UK - but it is so stark and visible here - and I know a lot of these guys personally and really respect how they work and am in awe of their capacity to earn so little and to be able to support others as a matter of course.

I am also very sad for my Bahraini friends - they are rightly known for being friendly, down to earth, enterprising and are fiercely proud of Bahrain - I understand that family members have really fallen out across sectarian lines and many friendships will take a long time to heal - hearts have hardened and that is always sad.  This is not a sectarian fight but is one of equality of opportunity - and reforming from the position of privilege must be possible - and I am optimistic (possibly naive) that the Crown Prince wants to do this - as he can't fulfill his purpose without doing this - but I am not sure he will get the support to do this quickly enough.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Fresh food people

As a child, one of my favourite pastimes when visiting my grandparents in Pakistan was shopping. Of course, I loved shopping for the obvious 'girly' reasons - new clothes, new shoes, new jewellery... but apart from that, I loved to go grocery shopping too. Being used to mundane supermarket shopping in Australia, my five senses were utilized to their full potential in the markets of Karachi. At the utility store, my grandmother would buy all her spices, pulses and grains in bulk and speak to me about their different qualities and uses. And, at the markets, I would listen to my grandfather explain the difference between the dozen varieties of mangoes that were on offer (I have already written at length about my family's fascination with mangoes). We would smell our way through the market stalls before we decided on that one, premium, aromatic crate.

But, my market experiences weren't all good. Buying meat was one kind of shopping that I did my best to avoid. In those days, chickens would be slaughtered at roadside stalls and the task of selecting one chicken, to be plucked, skinned and beheaded right before my very eyes would render me almost unconscious. It would get worse when the chopped chicken would be handed over in a bag, still warm from its final heart beat. The very process revolted me. I could not touch that night's chicken biryani let alone any meat for weeks afterwards.

Those childhood memories have been flooding back to me these days. Whilst I usually shop for produce at the supermarket in Bahrain, when it's a pleasant 25oC outside, I cannot resist getting out and about to the various roadside fruit and vegetable stalls around our neighbourhood. Most of the fruit and veg stalls stock run of the mill varieties of carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes and apples but then they also have exotic vegetables in stock, some of which I don't even recognise let alone know how to cook.

And then there is the fisherman's stall that takes me back to those quease-inducing meat shopping days. M is a fan of fish, but only if it is fresh (me, not so much). He is convinced that this stall is as fresh as we can get (and even I have to admit that it's good). The fisherman turns up at the same spot every day with his many catches of the day, stored in a row of Eskies. Once you make a selection from a variety of local fish, you stand and wait whilst the fish is cleaned/gutted/de-boned/filleted to your liking. The stall is by no means hygienic looking and when you hand your cash over and wait for your change, you're not sure you really want it as the shopkeeper passes you a fishy five hundred fils note. You then bring the fish home and hope that cooking it at a high temperature will eradicate any possibility of food poisoning. I can happily report that there haven't been any issues to date.

Below, the fish filleter doing his thing:

Below, a basket of crabs at the fish stall.


Friday, March 4, 2011

Lulu update

Lulu is the Arabic word for Pearl, so the Pearl roundabout it also known as the "Lulu roundabout".

In Arabic culture (and I suppose in every other culture as well) a pearl signifies something very precious. I guess it could also be seen as a symbol for those that have been camped at the roundabout (for two weeks now) for what they view as a 'precious' cause. I drove past again yesterday and there is still plenty of action and folks are well and truly settled in what the Government is regarding as a shanty town. There seems to be something of a stalemate with their negotiations, as neither the protesters nor the Government look as though they are going to compromise, although there have been some developments with the appointment of a couple of new Government Ministers.

A friend of mine who lives in a building only metres away from the Pearl has had to temporarily relocate, not because she is concerned about her safety, but because of all the noise; loudspeakers, lights, cameras and mics all over the place.

Another pic from my drive-by yesterday: