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Political turmoil mars Bahrain’s arts and culture reputation

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Manama, Bahrain — The hotels are quiet and the shopping malls desolate. The sex and alcohol tourists from Saudi Arabia, who once poured over the causeway connecting this relatively liberal island nation to its fundamentalist neighbor, no longer flock to the bars. A thin veneer of normalcy prevails on the streets by day, but at night a curfew descends, amid persistent reports of political arrests, physical attacks and destroyed mosques, as the Sunni-led government continues its crackdown against a mostly Shiite opposition to the governing monarchy.

Bahrain, the so-called “Pearl of the Gulf,” has lost its luster. As international human rights groups and Western governments condemned Bahrain’s reprisals against participants in the Arab Spring uprisings, one particularly cherished part of the country’s image took a hard hit — its reputation for promoting arts and culture. The ruling al-Khalifa family is struggling to preserve its global stature as cultural patrons, sponsors of an ambitious program of museum building and historical preservation, and generous hosts to international visitors who once flocked to Bahrain for art and sport.

In the latest blow, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has scrubbed plans for Bahrain to host the cultural organization’s annual meeting in June.

“Now they will have it in Paris,” says the furious minister of culture, Sheikha Mai bint Mohammed al-Khalifa. “It’s unfair. Everything was on track, a thousand delegates, the first time it was to be held in the region.”

This comes after a major Formula One race was canceled and a renowned Lebanese composer and oud player, Marcel Khalife, pulled out of the annual Bahrain Spring of Culture series, most of which was canceled as the protests and killings continued into March.

Sheikha Mai’s anger, like that of many Sunnis associated with the government of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, is intensely focused on the protesters.

“They don’t care about the image of Bahrain,” says the elegantly dressed member of the ruling family.

The opposition, however, says the ongoing campaign of arrests, torture and beatings is what’s destroying the reputation of the country, which is divided between a Shiite majority, with little political or economic power, and a ruling Sunni minority.

Cultural branding

Image is everything in the Persian Gulf, and Western cultural credibility has been an essential strategy for countries such as Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which are small, undemocratic, dependent on investment, and eager to be both cultural and commercial hubs.

Abu Dhabi has hired star architects Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Tadao Ando and Jean Nouvel to design museums, concert halls and other palaces of culture. Dubai hosts an annual film festival and Art Dubai, a global art forum. In 2009, Qatar opened the Museum of Islamic Art in a gleaming, geometric ziggurat designed by I.M. Pei, the same architect who designed the East Wing of Washington’s National Gallery of Art.

“These aren’t just destinations or city-states; they are also brands,” says Toby Jones, professor of Middle Eastern history at Rutgers University. Cultural trophy events, he says, not only satisfy the egos of the ruling elites, which wish to be seen as progressive and cosmopolitan, they also diversify the economy, bringing in tourist dollars and foreign investment.

The cultural branding of the gulf states, Bahrain in particular, gives them influence far beyond their shores. In 2009, Bahrain was a major sponsor of the Kennedy Center’s Arabesque festival and hosted its opening-night dinner, which was personally designed by Sheikha Mai.

But with the spotlight comes risk. In April, the crown prince of Bahrain canceled plans to attend the royal wedding in London, citing his country’s political turmoil as explanation. No one knows when, or if, the bad odor of Bahrain’s political oppression will dissipate.

The cultural aspirations of Bahrain, as defined by its Sunni government, haven’t been widely embraced by the Shiite population. Shiites are barely represented at the Ministry of Culture, says Nabeel Rejab, a prominent human rights activist. And the country’s impressive cultural infrastructure, including a substantial National Museum in Manama, feels like it was built more to attract foreign visitors than to grapple with serious cultural issues, such as the sectarian divide.

“History for them starts with the royal family,” Rejab says. He echoes a common Shiite understanding of Bahrain’s cultural politics that views the Khalifa family, which arrived in Bahrain in the late 18th century and took power through an alliance with British colonial interests, as a foreign overlay on an indigenous Shiite people.

“Bahrain was rich. It had a culture and education,” he says. “We are the only non-tribal society ruled by a tribal society.”

Tribal is one of the strongest pejoratives used by the opposition and Shiites. Sunni elites, by contrast, speak of Shiites as primitive, as almost automatons, under the control of doctrinaire religious leaders ultimately answering to Iran. Angry young Sunnis speak of their Shiite counterparts as “zombies” and “kamikazes.”

Khalid Abdulla al-Muharraqi, who strongly supports King Khalifa, works as a graphic artist creating images of the skyscrapers and office complexes with which gulf states such as Bahrain are physically transforming their coastal landscape. Renderings such as his are ubiquitous throughout the gulf region, in lifestyle magazines, real estate prospectuses and large billboards. They create a fantasy that not only fuels real estate speculation, but also connects the country to modernity and the global economy.

But his most recent work is a computer avatar, a monstrous figure with green hair, its face covered with a mask showing the Bahrain flag. It represents, he says, the false face of loyalty with which Shiites have masked their true devotion to religious leaders and Iranian puppet masters.

“You don’t know who is sending them messages,” he says of people he once considered friends.

That level of animosity will make it difficult for Bahrain to project what was once its preferred image to the world: a place of stability and a haven of tolerance.

Among the country’s strengths, says Ali Akbar Bushiri, a Bahraini historian, is its rich historical and archaeological legacy, dating back to the age of the Sumerians and Assyrians. Bahrainis believe their island was the center of the ancient Dilmun civilization and that it was visited by Gilgamesh. The island’s history as a trading hub is used to bolster the idea of a long tradition of multiculturalism and tolerance.

“The ancient civilization belongs as a whole to the entire community,” Bushiri says. “Bahrain is a mini melting pot.”

But even the archaeological legacy is subject to dispute. The vast majority of the country’s once extensive fields of ancient burial mounds has been lost to development. Sunnis blame this on Shiite ignorance. Shiites blame it on Sunni greed.

‘The irony of it’

The political crisis in Bahrain has put culture on the back burner. In her office at the Ministry of Culture, Sheikha Mai flips through a book of building designs, evidence of the country’s once ambitious cultural agenda. But most of the projects are unlikely to break ground anytime soon, said one ministry official, who asked not to be identified because she wasn’t authorized to speak for the government.

The government’s repression of the opposition has touched even the small number of Shiites who are aspiring artists. Loyalty to the government is a precondition for participating in any ministry-funded projects, according to one young arts activist, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing funding.

A cultural policy that looks outward and is based on large, international trophy-events may no longer be tenable, some analysts say.

“This was not designed with the vast majority of Bahrainis and their interests in mind,” says Jones, of Rutgers.

The fact that Bahrain’s reputation and economy have suffered so much, so quickly, is also troubling to observers watching other gulf states.

“Bahrain is politically and culturally much more developed,” says an Arab analyst based in Bahrain, who spoke anonymously so as not to attract unwanted attention from the government. “It was the most liberal place in the region. That’s the irony of it.”

Marius Deeb, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, believes that countries such as Bahrain have little choice but to continue to pursue a cultural policy that links them to the international world and the West. The gulf states’ pursuit of high-profile cultural events isn’t superficial image-building but a genuine defense against Iranian government influence, which would drag “them backwards to the Middle Ages,” he says.

But others question the goals and accomplishment of the trophy-culture strategy. Azar Nafisi, author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and a visiting fellow at SAIS, says that Western cultural leaders need to think more deeply about the essential purpose and ethical seriousness of art when engaging with authoritarian regimes.

“There is a spirit of art and literature, a spirit of subversiveness,” she says, which is easily compromised during collaboration with nondemocratic countries. When the political climate is sensitive, she says, art easily becomes “decorative” and loses meaning and power.

Sheikha Mai sees no choice but to go forward in the same way she always has. Real Bahraini artists, she says, are loyal to the government. And although Bahrain may be isolated from the international community at the moment, it can always look to its neighbors in the gulf, including Saudi Arabia, which currently has troops in Bahrain to enforce martial law.

“They care about Bahrain,” she says.

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