We travelled to Bahrain, where despite a generally positive economic situation and relatively high GDP per capita, there is still a portion of the local population that is left on the sidelines of economic prosperity.
According to a recent United Nations report, 15% of Bahrainis live on less than $5 a day.
Visitors usually see the archipelago’s capital, Manama, with its steel and glass skyscrapers jutting into the blue sky, expensive cars and, once a year, the exclusive Formula 1 race on Bahrain’s brand new racetrack.
Bahrain isn’t strictly “oil rich – its reserves dwindled several decades ago- but it has attracted foreign investment and financial institutions over the years.
The story was supposed to be about how and why poverty and unemployment continues to be a problem in some parts of the country. But it quickly turns into something else: sectarian tensions between the majority Shiite population and the minority Sunni ruling class.
I’d never truly ventured outside of Manama on previous visits to Bahrain. This time, we drive out to surrounding villages – mainly Shiite – with decrepit houses, run down and dirty streets and idle, angry young men willing to say things against the Bahraini ruling family that I never thought I would hear in a television interview.
In one house, the head of a Shiite family complains that two of his sons are out of work and that the reason is not lack of opportunity, but systematic discrimination against the Shiites. In an open-air courtyard with broken tiles, plastic basins filled with water and the day’s clothes washing and exposed electric cables, a family of about a dozen men and women are eager to prove to me that they live in unacceptable poverty.
Satisfied with the interview, I prepare to turn to the mother, who seems upset and impatient to share her grievances when a young man named Youssef drops a bombshell:
“There is no future. If Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa (the Bahraini Prime Minister) is here in the country there is no future. Let him listen. Let him know. What is this life? This is a bad life. Really, this is a bad life. “Are you afraid if you say this and it appears on camera? I ask. “I don t care about them. Let them see anything they want to see. I have something good to do, I will do it. I m not afraid. “Is it okay if we use this on TV? “”Yeah, you can put it on a Bahraini channel, no problem.
Time and time again, when I ask about poverty, I hear claims of deliberate discrimination.
In an interview the same day, one of the heads of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab tells me this about the ruling class:
“. They want to make sure that the Shi ias stay very low, they don t want them to be economically empowered. As always, our royal family and our government have fears that the Shi ias could take over the government one day. Sectarian tensions are not new in Bahrain. There were demonstrations in the early to mid-1990’s that turned violent. Some demonstrators were jailed.
So is poverty in Bahrain a result of discrimination? Is the problem not poverty, but uneven redistribution of national wealth? And is it all done on purpose to subjugate the Shiite majority?
I visit several high ranking government officials, including the minister of Housing, Fahmi Bin Ali Al Jowder. According to him, the claims are baseless. He tells me energetically that, especially in terms of housing for the poor, authorities cannot be accused of neglecting anyone in Bahrain:
Look at how much the government has done in terms of housing from the period from 1975-2001. We developed around 44,500 units (.) In the period from 2002-2006, the government provided service to another 14,000 families. So this is almost everyone in Bahrain. So if you come and say the government didn t do much, I think it is unfair.
The Minister of Social Development, Fatima Al-Balooshi admits there were unemployment problems in the country but that the government is enacting programs to train poorer Bahrainis.
But Shiites claim they are left out of the military and the police and that Bahrain invites citizens of other Sunni countries like Syria and Jordan to hold security posts, rather than trusting their own.
The reason why you see lots of expats here in Bahrain especially for the lower and middle jobs and especially for constructions Al Balooshi explains in her Manama office “is because many Bahrainis don t like to go into those jobs. At the end, when businessmen come they say okay we try to employ Bahrainis, but they don t stay. They don t like those jobs. They don t want hard working jobs. They prefer having a job in an office.
On a visit to another Shiite village, several young men follow us to our car. They hand me a DVD and a laptop and ask me to check the pictures and the video. Unsure what I am going to see, I hesitantly click on the CD icon. They are pictures of demonstrations, similar to those that take place almost every week in Shiite villages across Bahrain. They point to one picture of a man with his shirt lifted over his shoulders and what look like signs of beating on his back. I have no way of confirming these are genuine, when they were taken or how the man received his injuries so I will not use this material in my final report.
All I can tell for sure, however, is that this story is about much more than poverty.
‘Inside The Middle East’hosted by Hala Gorani, can be seen at the below timings: (All local time) June 2 10:30 am, 4:30 pm, 9: 30pm, 3:30 am; June 3, 2:30 pm, 8:30 pm; June 7, 4:30 pm, 8:30 pm.