Foreign AffairsWritten evidence from The Bahrain Federation of Expatriate Associations (BFEA)


1. For decades the lifeblood of Bahrain’s workforce, consisting of both blue and white collar workers, has been comprised largely of an expatriate labour force drawn from every continent on the planet. Bahrain has long been known for its warm and diverse culture and generous warm hearted people that have welcomed expatriates with open arms. The government of Bahrain realise the vital role the expatriate worker holds in its society and thus the creation of The Bahrain Federation of Expatriate Associations was established as an NGO in order to protect, monitor and advance the interests of this pivotal segment of the population, which totals over 600,000 people or more than 51% of the total population of Bahrain. Expatriates are the majority and our collective voice must be heard. We have Rights too.

2. Recent events that have rocked the usually peaceful daily environment of Bahrain have greatly affected expatriates living on the Island and it is the collated testimonies of many of these people that The BFEA is submitting to this Inquiry .This will shed new light on the state of affairs in The Kingdom and provide a different point of view that is often overlooked or considered mute by foreign governments, their respective NGO’s and the world’s media.

Standard of Reporting by the World’s Media:

3. A common frustration felt by locals and foreigners in Bahrain is the regular mis-communiqué of some of the world’s media when reporting on events. Many feel that the all too commonly careless and often lazy form of journalism has seen an increasingly reckless trend in its inability to capture the true happenings and events that mar the daily lives of ordinary residents striving to live within the laws, customs and traditions of the country.

4. Huge frustration is felt by those living and working in Bahrain when events or opinions are reported with a level of inequality and a lack of thoroughness. It is a common grievance shared by many, that only a certain segment of the total population’s voices are heard and only specific areas of the situation are afforded coverage. It is felt that the majority view is simply not being represented by various media outlets and in particular BBC and Sky News. Among other consequences, this disparity in presenting the facts accurately, thoroughly and impartially leads to a gross level of confusion for those not present in Bahrain which is ultimately damaging to Bahrain’s image to the outside world.

5. This indolent and ill-informed journalism has resulted in appropriating Bahrain’s issues as a defining part of those countries that have been affected by the “Arab Spring”. This hasty grouping of Bahrain within this bracket has produced a grossly misrepresentative characterisation of the actual issues that are current and beset the Kingdom. One unfortunate consequence of this is that a general misconception develops and seems to grow which allows the issues specific to Bahrain to become associated with those of say Egypt, Syria or Libya. This provides an easy route for any opposition functioning in Bahrain to capitalise on such media generated misconceptions. It plays into those hands which would have one believe that Bahrain’s issues are purely sectarian. (Shia’s having universal grievances with Sunni’s and vice versa) Nor is it accurate to suggest that Bahrain’s issues are as severe, deep rooted and intractable as the other countries affected by the “Arab Spring”. Equally, it is misrepresentative to create an impression that Bahrain’s issues and the common route to effect changes are views shared by the majority of her people. While it may be true that the overall majority wish to see constructive dialogue and implementation of reforms towards greater democratisation, equal rights, transparency and accountability at all levels, it is by the same token not representative to report only those views which are in fact expressed by the more radical factions of what is in fact the overall minority.

Further Misconceptions Perpetuated by Media:

6. The issue of “majority” versus “minority” argument fuels the illusion that Bahrain’s government are proactively sectarian in favour of Sunni’s, yet the majority of the population are Shia’s ruled by a Sunni minority and that the ‘majority’ are somehow in complete political unison. This is a sad and unjust distortion and does nothing to address the bona fide concerns of all sectors of the community irrespective of their religious faith or political alliance. This is another sensationalist tactic employed by the media to portray this “struggle” as a juxtaposed David versus Goliath situation. That the Government of Bahrain is recognising and addressing concerns and making considerable progress in implementing reforms does not make sensationalist news and therefore in most cases it makes no news at all. This is a constant frustration for Bahrainis and expatriates.

7. Testament to this is the numbers that many in the country including expatriates, witnessed at the Pearl Roundabout, (shamelessly dubbed “Pearl Square” to further draw comparison to Egypt’s Tahrir Square by the world’s media) was once more very much unlike other Arab countries affected by the “Arab Spring” such as Egypt’s Million Man March to Tahrir Square. There did not seem to be the relative numbers present nor was there the unified agenda present, as in “Arab Spring” countries. Another confusing element was that expatriates who did visit the site noted a lack of understanding as to why or how the demands of the opposition (whose identity was a further mystery with regards to party representation) were going to go about their change.

8. This is still very much a problem today as there is no clear democratic communication of the needs of the opposition apart from the incessant violence, vandalism and intimidation that is carried out by masked thugs. What has been witnessed by many of us as we travel about trying to conduct our daily lives is that much of the violence is initiated by masked thugs, randomly, entirely maliciously and not as a result of police presence or intimidation. Rather police arrive on the scene to try to maintain order and are attacked with Molotov’s and other weapons. This confusion further polarises the legitimacy of the opposition in the eyes of the expatriates and only achieves an air of terrorisation, fear and extreme frustration, all of which have always been alien experiences for anyone living in Bahrain.

Examples of Common Incidents Affecting the Daily Lives of Expatriates:

9. There are daily tyre burnings and placing of incendiary devices at major junctions and highways around the key traffic routes of the country creating serious traffic delays and producing dangerous toxic fumes.

10. Another tactic that generates great fear is the constant attacks on police patrols with Molotov’s. As these Patrols operate on highways and within residential areas, this often means there are incidents where civilians are inadvertently hit by Molotov’s however, it becomes more sinister when a driver or passer-by refuses to remain in place and tries to flee to safety while they are subjected to a proximal tyre burning and this often results in them being attacked directly by the rioters. There have been several documented cases of expatriate families being attacked in their motor vehicles by heavy rocks, iron rods and Molotov’s.

11. Vandalism and defacing of people’s properties and cars are increasingly common along with destruction of traffic lights, street lights, garbage trucks and vile graffiti on churches, schools and community property and blowing up of gas cylinders has resulted in some residential areas becoming virtual ‘no-go zones’ for expatriates who are forced to relocate at great cost to themselves to ensure the safety of their families.

12. Initially such incidents were relatively benign and passed without major consequences on residents but this has recently become more sinister. Warning notices to expatriates have been placed in some villages (see attachment 1). This was followed by indiscriminate placing and detonation of bombs and incendiary devices. On the 5th of November 2012 five such devices were placed in areas that are predominantly populated by expatriates, these were detonated without any warning. Tragically this led to the death of two expatriates, the serious injury of another, damage to several vehicles and community property. The discovery of other similar devices in the days that followed led to a climate of fear and panic. The BFEA have been inundated with calls for help and advice from both expatriates and Bahrainis who implore us to make the truth of their plight known to the outside world. Many expatriates are now reconsidering their position in Bahraini society with some being forced to leave to other Gulf Countries or return to their respective homelands. This has been a very difficult decision for some families as many have been in Bahrain for decades, many are well established members of the community and have invested heavily in properties, businesses, seen their children born and raised in Bahrain and very much feel safe, valued and comfortable. If this continues it will leave a great void in the community both socially and economically.

Longstanding Racial, Social, Religious and Cultural Diversity of Bahrain:

13. The expatriate community in Bahrain has always been a vastly diverse one. We all enjoy the diverse cultural, religious and social freedoms that are part and parcel of the Bahraini community. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists have lived together in harmony for centuries. The number of churches, synagogues, temples and mosques is testament to Bahrain’s belief in Freedom of Religion which allows all faiths to openly practice their religion without hindrance, unlike some of her GCC neighbours where such practices are deemed illegal.

14. Socially Bahrain is a haven for expatriates. This is evident particularly within the British segment of the population and is a legacy from the time Bahrain was a Protectorate of Her Majesty’s Empire. Most predominantly the British Club and Bahrain Rugby Football club enjoy members from many nationalities and backgrounds and people are free to enjoy their time as they please. This freedom has prompted a “self-policing” of the behaviour of those that attend these social clubs, ensuring they have a self-conforming attitude in respecting the local laws, customs, religions and cultural traditions. This attitude of mutual respect and tolerance is why multiculturalism not only survives but thrives in Bahrain where many communities such as Indian, Pakistani, French, German, Pilipino and Egyptian nationals have formed their own Clubs and Societies.

15. These freedoms have allowed a mutation of the Bahraini culture and it has pervaded many aspects of society including the educational sector. The country has enjoyed a long pedigree in promoting education (Bahrain being the first Gulf country to promote Women’s education) and many specialist schools for expatriates are evident. Examples of these include Indian, Pakistani, French and British Schools which allow expatriate children to not only achieve a first class education, but also preserve their ethnic and linguistic background.

Current Human Rights Situation in Bahrain

“A Welfare State”

16. A fundamental need for any human being is the maintenance of their health. Expatriates both established and recent enjoy comfortable and easy access to free healthcare. A wide range of hospitals and clinics, including a brand new state of the art government hospital that caters to any medical from emergency to consultancy based. These facilities provide a mental safety net for any expatriate in the country and are a major asset in attracting expatriates considering Bahrain as a destination to live and work.

17. The determination of the Bahraini government to uphold their obligations as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been impressive over the last few years. This advancement is apparent in the aforementioned examples such as religious freedom, universal healthcare and education and the modernization of its legal and punitive framework to ensure the country has the basic foundations to ensure its complete modernisation. The recent creation of a new Ministry of Human Rights and the Permanent Human Rights Committee established by the Upper House of Bahrain’s bicameral parliamentary system, The Shura Council, displays the government’s willingness to improve the overall human rights situation in the country. This allows that any legislation not up to standard is amended to bring it up to a standard that would be on par with any other system in the world. This is an increasingly positive factor in the eyes of most expatriates, particularly those hailing from countries with a long established pedigree in human rights. This initiative is considered a pioneering one when compared to neighbouring Gulf countries. BFEA recently announced the opening of a residential Shelter for expatriates in need and the government and the Minister of Human Rights have been extremely supportive and encouraging in this regard (see attachment 2). It also must be noted that Freedom of Speech and the Right of Assembly are widely practiced with almost daily Marches and growing number of publications, blogs and social media activity. Equal rights for women who enjoy senior positions in all walks of life are to be commended.

Legal and Political Framework of Bahrain:

18. A defining cornerstone of any democratic country is its willingness to harbour and nurture a strong political framework. Although Bahrain’s democracy is clearly a fledging one compared to many in the West, it does have a clear system of transparent elections, the encouragement of multi-party political societies that is supported by a backbone of a constitution backed by an overwhelmingly popular National Charter. This is reflected in Parliament’s make-up that consists of representing officials from all regions, political and religious backgrounds that provides all Bahrainis with a voice in how the country is governed. There is a significant impression made on expatriates that feel Bahrain is on the right path to having an established political culture, in particular Western expatriates who arrive from other Gulf Nations point out Bahrain’s lead in its politics over others in the region.

19. The political culture in Bahrain ensures there is a constantly evolving legal structure to uphold the law and the rights of citizens and expatriates. Any advanced nation should possess the relevant mechanisms to ensure that any laws that are deemed unfair or obsolete are capable of being rectified and that the system that they operate within is enforced and further advanced and updated. Bahrain’s court system is based in the common law system, introduced by the British which still remains today. The government has also ensured local and religious customs are protected by the assimilation of the legal tenets of Sharia Law that cater for both the Shi’a and Sunni segments of the population, providing a fair and affective legal framework for all.

20. The commercial legal system is considered to be the most advanced in the Gulf Region and it is this advancement in both the commercial and labour laws of the country that makes conducting business in Bahrain an easier one compared to other GCC countries. A plethora of already established businesses that are expatriate owned ranging from small to medium enterprises to fully established limited liability companies are protected by law and they provide the entrepreneurial expatriate with an easy route to economic advancement both personally and nationally. However many expatriate businesses are reporting severe losses due to the effect of the current violence and bankruptcy is a realistic threat. Many expatriates bought Properties in Bahrain with a view to becoming permanent residents. Due to the unrest these Developments have halted and many have lost their life savings as a result. Many have no other funds and no other home and they fear for their family’s future.

Bahrain’s Police Force:

21. The advancement and upholding of the law is maintained through effective and fair policing. Due to recent events the government having realised the antiquity of the system, introduced by the British Empire, embarked on an extensive modernisation programme in all areas of the police force. A particular note is drawn to the professionalization of the riot police who are at the forefront of protecting the inhabitants of the country from daily attacks that take place. The employment of British consultants and the creation of the Independent Police Ombudsman have led to the prosecution of several policemen, further creating a benchmark of quality and accountability and transparency in the police force’s daily actions. This modernisation actively discourages any corruption or heavy handed approach when dealing with mass rioting which backs Bahrain’s determination to uphold its human rights commitments and create a solid pedigree for a modern and professional police force.

Conclusion and Recommendations:

22. BFEA research revealed that many Bahrainis and expatriates feel let down by the UK whom they see as unreservedly supporting the Opposition and they feel their voices and human rights are being ignored. The feeling is that the UK Government have abandoned them to a bleak future at the hands of violent lawless thugs. BFEA recommends that the UK take a more balanced and informed approach to the unrest in Bahrain. Respect and loyalty to UK has waned considerably due to her stance on Bahrain and this could have potentially negative implications on trade, cultural and political relations not only with UK/Bahrain but with UK and Bahrain’s sympathetic and sensitive neighbours. UK must re-cement this important historic relationship. It is time for UK to translate ‘words into actions’ that recognise and support the peace-loving, law-abiding majority in Bahrain and restore faith and trust in UK and open wide the doors to a stronger brighter future for bilateral relations.

As David Cameron said, “Bahrain is not Syria”. Nor is she UK or USA. It is BFEA belief that Bahrain must be allowed to develop her own model of democracy in her own way and in her own time without foreign interference or pressures. Support, encouragement and recognition of reforms and urging all parties to unreservedly obey the law, stop violence and enter into sincere dialogue with the Government are the actions UK should now take.

19 November 2012

Prepared 21st November 2013