Thursday, January 22, 2015


Oil, Islam and severe repression under a traditional monarchy.

Bahrain does not generally permit controversial subjects to be argued, but this is not going to hold me back from asking the most profoundly existential question about the country: namely, is it an archipelago, or is it an island, or is it a peninsula? The argument between Sunni and Shi'a and Wahabi Moslems may be fundamentalist (the Sunni rule, the Shi'a are in the majority, but only just), while that between those who regard soccer and those who regard basketball as the true religion are simply radical, and anyway this latter debate has been altered by the arrival of the new religion of Formula 1 Grand Prix, revealed by the Prophet Ecclestone in 2012; but it is the island-archipelago-peninsula dispute which will ultimately determine the future geography of the country, and to resolve it we need to go back to the original revelations of the cartographers, the scriptural definitions, and to the hadith, the traditions that surround these concepts.

Properly speaking, an island is a space of land completely surrounded by water (Malta, Cuba, Sri Lanka, etc, though not Australia, which does indeed meet this definition, but is so large that it is named a continent instead), whereas an archipelago is usually a group of islands that may or may not be connected to each other (the Keys of southern Florida, the Antilles, the Greek Aegean islands, etc), and a peninsula is a piece of land almost surrounded by water (almost is a terribly difficult word to define precisely, in the same way as Truth, Mercy, Justice, Peace and Compassion are), or projecting out into a body of water, which could be a cape, a promontory, a point, a head, a headland, a foreland, a ness, a horn, a bill or even a bluff, but not an island, let alone an archipelago. 

Where does this leave Bahrain? Technically it is an island, though the peninsula of Qatar (definitely a peninsula, though it favours the religion of Blatter over that of Ecclestone) protrudes at its south-eastern end. But in 1986, after a decade and a half of planning and construction, the King Fahd Causeway was opened to the public, allowing drivers to move freely between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia (there is another level of dispute in this, which I shall mention but not debate; and that is whether Bahraini women, who are permitted to drive, may cross the bridge at all, or must hand over the driving to a man before setting out on the bridge at the Bahraini end, or may complete the bridge journey and only move to the passenger seat at the Saudi end; because Sharia law applies in both countries, there is no dispute that women, whether driving or seated as passengers, must wear the burka). Does a man-made bridge (an Allah-inspired man-made bridge) meet the technical requirements for transformation from island to peninsula, or is the transformation dependent upon a natural phenomenon, one given by Allah in the original creation? True Moslems insist that it does, and that it does not; this is because both sides of the argument insist that they and they alone are true Muslims (each side also favours its own English spelling of the nomenclature), and while one side can demonstrate that the Prophet always cracked his boiled egg at the little end, the other supports the case for the big end, and Wahabi Moslems deny that Muhammad (or Mohammed, or Mahmoud) ever ate boiled eggs at all, and would not have approved of the writings of Jonathan Swift which opened the egg-debate in the first place, because it is satire, and one would have to be a right Charlie to attempt satire in any part of the Moslem world, but especially in Bahrain, where the Sunni al-Khalifa family has reigned with considerable lack of ruth since 1783, as a British protectorate for many years, as an independent kingdom since 1971, and under threat of extinction since the Arab Spring of 2010 (fortunately the bridge was open; Saudi troops, invited to assist the king in the suppression of demonstrations and protests, arrived over the King Fahd bridge,and as far as anyone is aware there were no women drivers in any of the tanks). People have gone to jail, been flogged, even beheaded, for engaging in arguments such as this; I am therefore going to say no more on the subject and yield to each individual reader's own version of what constitutes an archipelago, what an island, and what a peninsula.

The CIA World FactBook does not generally go in for criticism of countries on whom America depends for oil, so it is worth quoting in full what it has to say about this delightful corner of the Middle East:

"Bahrain is a destination country for men and women subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking; unskilled and domestic workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Eritrea migrate willingly to Bahrain, but some face conditions of forced labor through the withholding of passports, restrictions on movement, nonpayment, threats, and abuse; many Bahraini labor recruitment agencies and some employers charge foreign workers exorbitant fees that make them vulnerable to forced labor and debt bondage; domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to forced labor and sexual exploitation because they are not protected under labor laws; women from Thailand, the Philippines, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, China, Vietnam, Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern European countries are forced into prostitution in Bahrain."

The Americans have placed Bahrain at tier 2 on their Watch List, stating that "Bahrain does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so." A statement somewhat undermined by what comes next: "The government has made few discernible efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict trafficking offenses; cases of unpaid or withheld wages, passport retention, and other abuses - common indicators of trafficking - are treated as labor disputes and taken to civil court rather than criminal court; the government has made no indication of taking steps to institute a formal trafficking victim identification procedure and referral mechanism, resulting in the majority of victims seeking shelter at their embassies or the NGO-operated trafficking shelter; most victims have not filed lawsuits against employers because of a distrust of the legal system or a fear of reprisals."

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