I should have been in Bahrain this week, attending a conference organised by a new Bahraini research centre (the Bahrain Centre for Strategic, International and Energy Studies) in partnership with the Royal United Services Institute, a prestigious British think-tank. I had been invited by the British co-organiser and, somewhat to my surprise, given my vocal criticism of the regime’s crushing of the pro-democracy uprising my participation was approved by their Bahraini partner. I was keen to accept as I wanted to use the opportunity to see for myself a troubled country that I last visited in late-2009. Accordingly, I made my travel arrangements and submitted my details to the Bahrain Centre who would sponsor my visit. And I waited, and waited, and waited, for an electronic visa which never materialised. I was not alone in being unable to travel to Bahrain.
Entering Bahrain used to be straightforward for British (and many other) nationals; three-month visas were issued on arrival in Bahrain and were stamped into passports bearing the slogan ‘Welcome to Business-Friendly Bahrain.’ On this basis, I made five visits to this small archipelago in the Persian Gulf between June 2007 and October 2009, and got to know the country and its people fairly well. On one visit, a Bahraini friend (from a government background) took me on a tour of some of the poorer Shia villages dotted around Manama. With the gleaming towers of the Bahrain Financial Harbour and Manama’s World Trade Centre visible in the background, we drove through poverty-stricken streets where nearly every wall bore anti-government slogans. Even then, in 2008, seen with hindsight as the beginning of the end of Bahrain’s reformist era, the depth of political inequality and socio-economic deprivation was unmistakeable.
That level of access would be unthinkable today. Quite apart from the roadblocks and police checkpoints that would restrict freedom of movement within Bahrain, prospective visitors to Bahrain now have to apply for e-visas before they depart, unless they wish to run the gauntlet of long queues and possible rejection at Bahraini immigration. Thus, the Visa eNOC (G) is valid for a single entry of up to one month and is emailed to the applicant. Significantly, its grant conditions state expressly that “Applicant’s entry must not violate the security and national welfare of Bahrain” – an open and sweeping definition that could encompass almost anything deemed (in)appropriate to the Bahraini authorities. The alternative is to apply for a business or tourist visa at the Bahrain Embassy prior to travelling, but if the embassy in London is representative, this can be a tortuous process often taking many weeks.
Over the past few months a stream of high-profile would-be visitors to Bahrain has become entrapped by this policy of creative ambiguity. In January, a delegation from Freedom House was informed by the Government of Bahrain that it would not be allowed into the country despite already having obtained visas to do so. Visas were also denied to representatives from Human Rights First and Physicians for Human Rights who wished to monitor the implementation of the recommendations of the hard-hitting Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. Journalists from Sky News, the Financial Times, Reuters, and other international media outlets were denied entry over the weekend of the Bahrain Grand Prix in April. Most remarkably, on 1 March the Bahraini government requested that the UN special rapporteur on torture delay his visit – meant to investigate the allegations of torture uncovered in the BICI report – from March to July.
In light of the above, it should perhaps have come as no surprise that I and others were not able to travel to Bahrain, even as invited participants to a conference organised by a government-backed think-tank. While some may attribute the repeated delay in procuring the visas to insincerity or lack of commitment on the part of the organisers, the incident may instead reveal more about the fragmented bases of decision-making within the regime. The Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Bahrain Centre for Strategic, International and Energy Studies lists himself as an adviser to the King of Bahrain. However, even with this level of official backing, the Centre was unable successfully to sponsor the visas of all its participants by acquiring the approval of the granting body. This incident, however trivial in the grand scheme of things, would appear to reinforce the perception held by many observers of Bahraini politics that different branches of the ruling family (and government) may be working to different agendas and priorities.
And what would I have experienced, had I been able to make the trip? Probably not a lot, given that the venue for the conference was a brand-new luxury five-star beachside resort located twenty miles from Manama. Had I arrived at Bahrain International Airport, I would likely have been driven directly to the resort along roads that kept well away from inhabited areas and potential trouble-spots, kept in the resort for the duration of the conference, and returned to the airport along the same secluded route. Accommodating conference delegates in the same hotel as the venue may be a common practice, but in this instance it had the added value of ensuring they did not venture out and about; indeed, in correspondence with the Bahrain Centre, it was made clear that my visa would cover the conference only, and that it would permit no additional research or interviews.
This may signal the way forward for Bahrain’s beleaguered rulers. Amid a report last month on an upturn in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) investment and the restarting of major infrastructure projects, one item in particular stood out. This was the announcement of a direct road link connecting the King Fahd Causeway (from Saudi Arabia) with Bahrain Bay, a new development of upscale properties, businesses, and hotels under construction on reclaimed land off the north-eastern shore. With Saudis forming the majority of tourists and foreign investors in Bahrain, they may soon be able to bypass the country’s local difficulties altogether. While it is facile to make direct comparisons, the idea of routes between ‘secure’ destinations brings to mind the Israeli network of controlled roads linking settlement communities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
While not being able to travel to Bahrain is disappointing on a personal level, it pales into insignificance when compared to the ongoing abuses of power and privilege in the country. More than six months after the BICI report documented the heavy-handed government crackdown on the pro-democracy protestors in 2011, no high-level official has been brought to account. Cosmetic reforms have been introduced but hardly constitute a meaningful process of reconciliation and recovery. Political violence and clashes between demonstrators and the security services continue almost on a daily basis and further widen the divisions in a country polarised as never before. A nadir was reached last month during Bahrain’s periodic review at the Human Rights Council at the United Nations, when the Uruguayan president, Laura Dupuy Laserre, had to issue an unprecedented public statement calling on the Bahraini government not to retaliate against activists who had come to Geneva to testify about human rights violations, after they had been subjected to threatening articles and called traitors in the news and social media in Bahrain.
The Government of Bahrain has demonstrated an obsession with hiring PR companies to present a cleaned-up and unblemished story to the world. Much of this revolves around the island being the front-line of defence against rampant Iranian designs on the Persian Gulf. In this narrative, the Bahraini authorities are the plucky underdog holding back the tide, as much against the scepticism and hostility of the international community as against any real or imagined Iranian threat. Yet the government has shown a curious unwillingness to open itself up to transparent accountability; rather, its behaviour suggests it has a dirty secret it guiltily tries to keep well away from prying eyes. This latest incident, in which a conference has been deprived of several critical voices that would have contributed to a balanced discussion, is more evidence that the government wants to have its cake and eat it, by hosting events with prestigious international partners, but decidedly on its own terms, with absolutely no margin for manoeuvre.