Island Reliant Upon Debauched Visits From Thirsty Saudis Looks to Clean Up
The Wall Street Journal – June 10th
MANAMA, Bahrain -- Every weekend, bumper-to-bumper traffic blocks the causeway into this small island nation as visitors from nearby Saudi Arabia flock to delights unavailable at home: movie theaters, bars and, for some, commercial sex.
With few other attractions, Bahrain's booming tourism industry thrives on the island's reputation as a freewheeling oasis just a short drive from major Saudi cities. Bahrain has little oil of its own; tourism, mostly by the four million Saudis who cross the causeway each year, accounts for a tenth of its economy.
All of this is endangered, as Bahraini legislators press to scrap the country's drinking laws -- currently the most liberal in the Persian Gulf -- and to impose near-total prohibition.
Alexander Yee via Flickr
The Twister Club in 2008 in Gudaibiya, Bahrain.
"I'm sorry to say, but Bahrain has become the brothel of the Gulf, and our people are very upset about it," says parliamentarian Adel Maawdah, one of the promoters of the new legislation. "It's not only the drinking that we oppose, but also what it drags with it: prostitution, corruption, drugs and people-trafficking."
The Parliament's elected lower chamber unanimously approved a motion last month to prohibit alcohol in hotels, restaurants, duty-free shops and aboard Gulf Air, the national airline. Lawmakers acted amid outrage over a widely circulated men's Web-site article placing Bahraini capital Manama in the world's "top 10 cities to pursue vice and debauchery." The prohibition proposal must now go to the upper chamber, appointed by King Hamad, and to the government for endorsement.
Not even Mr. Maawdah expects that Bahrain will enact a complete Saudi-style ban in the immediate future. The government, however, is likely to respond to parliamentary pressure with fresh curbs. "Nobody is talking about banning alcohol completely," says Sheik Mohammed bin Essa al Khalifa, chief executive of Bahrain's Economic Development Board and a prominent member of the royal family. Still, "we all want to put restrictions on sleaze, and this will be for the good of Bahrain."
Already, just before last month's Parliament vote, the government forbade alcohol and live entertainment in dozens of one-star and two-star hotels popular with weekenders from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the two Gulf countries that outlaw booze. It also clamped down on prostitution, which is illegal but widely tolerated, rounding up and deporting hundreds of women. In earlier restrictions, Bahrain has begun to enforce legislation that prohibits alcohol consumption during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and has closed popular wine shops in residential areas.
"Step by step, they're tightening up," a Western diplomat says. "In the medium term, it may well come to a complete prohibition."
This drive contrasts with other Gulf monarchies, such as Qatar and Abu Dhabi, where harsh drinking laws have been relaxed lately. "When everyone else is opening up, we're going in the opposite direction," complains Ebrahim Sharif Alsayed, leader of Bahrain's secularist Waad movement. Bahrain's ruling family, he adds, "is allowing the Islamists to gradually Islamize the society."
Bahrain's alcohol debate is part of a clash between religious and secular values throughout the Middle East. But it also has blurred the country's sectarian divide, offering a rare point of agreement to Sunni and Shiite Islamists who've been at loggerheads for decades. While Bahrain's royal family is Sunni, two-thirds of the native population is made up of Shiites whose leaders complain of systematic discrimination.
Like Mr. Maawdah, the initiators of the alcohol ban are all Sunni Islamists aligned with the regime. "The Sunnis don't have any other political issues, so this is their priority," says Khalil Marzooq, deputy leader of the Shiite Al Wefaq bloc in Parliament. "But when they bring up something that's compliant with our religion, you can't expect us to oppose it. We don't want Saudi drunkards, and we don't need their money."
That's a viewpoint shared by Bahraini government officials. They point out that, regardless of alcohol, Bahrain offers wholesome family entertainment options that are outlawed in rigorously Islamic Saudi Arabia: multiplex theaters, a water park, and shopping and dining spots that aren't segregated by sex.
"We'd like to move away from the bachelor tourism to family tourism, where there is a higher spend per person," says Sheik Mohammed, the Economic Development Board CEO.
Not everyone is convinced this strategy will work. Unlike Dubai, the region's main tourism magnet, Bahrain has no beaches to speak of. Its plans for an ocean aquarium and indoor ski slope are years away from materializing, slowed by the global credit crunch. The country's historical sites are largely limited to a couple of medieval forts and the Gulf's first oil well.
"Do you think the tourists come here to Bahrain to see my face? There are tourist places in Saudi Arabia that are one hundred times better than in Bahrain," exclaimed Ahmed Sanad, president of the Bahraini Society of Hotel and Restaurant Owners. "They only come here to drink, and to have happy time with a Chinese or Thai girl."
Mr. Sanad's one-star hotel, Zubarah, is among those already hit with the alcohol ban, imposed on one-star and two-star establishments in April. Sitting in his office on the top floor, Mr. Sanad fished out brown envelopes with recent days' earnings -- averaging about 90 dinars ($238) a day for his 33-room building. Before going dry, he said, Zubarah raked in about 1,500 dinars a day and was packed with Saudis.
The bar on the ground floor was locked on a recent night. The adjoining coffee shop was filled with dozens of bored prostitutes sipping soft drinks, with nary a customer in sight. This was in stark contrast to three-star hotels on Manama's central Government Road that are still allowed to sell booze, and where crowds of Saudi males dressed in traditional Bedouin attire ogled exotic dancers while cradling ice-cold beers.
One of these Saudi visitors, Salman Homairi, says he comes to Bahrain almost every weekend from his home city of Dammam -- and that he will stay away if alcohol becomes unavailable. "You need a drink to be able to enjoy other things," he beamed. Another Saudi, Mahmoud Shammari, a 35-year-old father of two, chimed in to say that he could live with a booze ban as long as he still had access to "girls" in Bahrain, and then proceeded to list the prices for various nationalities of prostitutes prowling the lobby.
Mr. Sanad says he has no choice but to shut down in coming weeks. Instead, the hotelier is opening elsewhere in Manama a three-star hotel at the cost of 2.5 million dinars, hoping to obtain an alcohol license for the new establishment -- and to lure back his usual Saudi clientele.
Some other investors, however, are already sufficiently spooked by Bahrain's campaign against drinking to shelve any further spending. Paolo Arca, the Italian co-owner and manager of the Oliveto restaurant in Manama, says he's putting on hold a project to pour about 500,000 dinars into a second restaurant until there is more clarity on the issue.
"Who's going to come here if they can't drink anymore? Financially, the entire economy would collapse," Mr. Arca said, as Oliveto customers raised glasses of prosecco over a pork-heavy lunch. Should prohibition be imposed, he added, "I'll close down and go back home the next day -- and so would many others."
Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at firstname.lastname@example.org
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A29
Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Un article intéressant sur les moeurs des populations du Moyent-Orient. Surtout, je dois dire, c'est l'art de faire de la politique et de la mêler à la religion que je trouve admirable! "The Sunnis don't have any other political issues, so this is their priority," says Khalil Marzooq, deputy leader of the Shiite Al Wefaq bloc in Parliament. "But when they bring up something that's compliant with our religion, you can't expect us to oppose it. We don't want Saudi drunkards, and we don't need their money."