The cost of catering to the new plutocrats

Durrat Al Bahrain, Persian Gulf photographed by member of International Space Station Crew 26 on January 23, 2011

In an editorial today the New York Times, referring to a brutal crackdown by police against protestors seeking political reform which resulted in 5 deaths, says: “Bahrain’s brutality is not only at odds with American values, it is a threat to the country’s long-term stability.” The second part of that sentence is undoubtedly true. As for the first, I’m not so sure.

Bahrain is a tiny archipelago, covering an area of only 760 kilometers, or slightly smaller than New York City. It’s mostly a desert; only 2.82% of its land is arable. According to the CIA Factbook, Bahrain has 0.1 cubic kilometers of renewable water resources, but uses 0.3 cubic kilometers of water per year (more than half of it used in agriculture).  Given that it consumes more water than it naturally replaces, and given that the islands are subject to droughts and have a long-term desertification threat, the country decided to open the largest water park in the Middle East.

As of July 2010 it had a population of 738,004 of which 235,108 were non-nationals. A quarter of the population is under the age of 15, and almost 90% live in cities. In 2005 the unemployment rate was 15%. The problem was serious enough that the monarchy suspended its importation of foreign workers. That and currency devaluation and an unemployment insurance program, together with development assistance from the United Nations, brought the unemployment rate down to under 4% by last year according to Bahraini Labor Minister Majeed al Alawi. Running out of oil reserves, and in any event running out of oil industry jobs, Bahrain has tried to become a banking center, the Islamic banking center, and more recently, a Persian Gulf resort.

Hard as it might be to believe, there is intense competition for Persian Gulf tourism dollars what with Dubai, the “shopping capital of the Middle East,” planning to host not only a Holy Quran Park (like a cross between a sacred botanical garden and the Creation Museum) but also a not-yet-clearly-explained park concerning Marvel comic book characters. Dubai also has an Olympic sized ice skating rink and an artificial indoor ski area complete with ski-lifts for those fabulously wealthy tired of the average summer temperatures above 100° F. In the works is a 12 year project for luxury residential apartments.

It is the latter scheme that Bahrain hoped to cash in on. So out of one of the most degraded waterways on the planet (20% of the world’s oil is shipped on the Persian Gulf, representing millions of barrels a day) 14 artificial islands have been created off southern Bahrain to cater to the rich tourist and leisure set. This is all for residential living and tourism. The Durrat Al Bahrain comprises 21 square kilometers (8 square miles) of new surface area for more than 1,000 residences, luxury hotels, and shopping malls. It includes: The Islands (six “atolls” leading off five fish-shaped “petals”), The Crescent, Hotel Island, and Durrat Marina in the north. (See the satellite photo above.)

Now when you spend immense sums to cater to the whims of the filthy rich, you are sort of mortgaged to their predilections. Many of these well-heeled are Arabs, naturally, so you can expect sensibilities a bit different than in tourists spots in New York City. On February 5, for example, Gulf News reported that 127 people “mainly gays from the Gulf countries, for holding a ‘depraved and decadent’ party.”

“The revellers hired a sports hall in Hidd, a conservative village on Muharraq island in the north of Bahrain, and organised on Wednesday evening a fee-paying party that brought together gay men from the Arabian Gulf countries.

“Most of the gays were between 18 and 30 years old and one Lebanese and one Syrian were among those arrested following the police bust, Al Ayam daily reported on Friday.

. . .

“An undercover agent paid the 20 dinar entrance fee and was allowed into the hall where he saw dozens of cross-dressers drinking and smoking shishas. More patrols were called in and 127 people were arrested in the police swoop, the daily said.”

Homosexuality is a criminal offense that usually brings a prison term and deportation. So if you’re planning on buying a time share in Bahrain’s new Desert Inn, don’t expect Vegas-style entertainment.

Now, if you were the head of state that set its future on catering to the banking transactions and entertainment needs of the world’s wealthiest, what would you do if a bunch of frustrated, poor, young, futureless protestors (of a different sect to boot) started massing in the street to explain how you should run the country? You didn’t invest all that money just so all the wealthy tourist and banking aristocrats would become émigrés. So, really, you didn’t expect Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to don the tricolor cap despite what he said, did you? The police must have thought rubber bullets were a merciful response.

So what about the sanctimonious finger-wagging of the Times? Of course the editors could give a fig about the long-term stability of Bahrain’s monarchy. (When was the last time before today that you saw the Times editors offering advice to his majesty?) It’s simply a pose by the editors. It’s what they do.

But what about the bit about brutality being un-American? Of course, it once was. Way back at the beginning. Unless of course you were a Federalist administration that had just engineered a tax on the possession of home-made distilled liquor and a group of yahoos refused to pay. Then you would equip an Army larger than the largest army the rebels mustered during the revolution, to go out there and bring the leaders back to try them for treason. Or if you were the leaders of a slave-owning party and found that the rest of the country was insufficiently sympathetic to your need to expand the territory in which you could enjoy owning slaves. Surely then a bit of violence is excusable. Or if you were Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie were away when a bunch of rabble-rousers started up a strike. How could you be blamed for calling in a few Pinkertons? Or say you are trying to start up a proto-fascist organization in the face of rampant socialism. Wouldn’t it be right to encourage your followers to take guns to political rallies? Just in case?

Of course our society is sufficiently complex and the working stiff is insufficiently independent of the forces that can crush him that real blood violence is not the normal first tool of our homegrown plutocrats. But if, say, our ruling class gets spooked that they will not be able to rake in their usual return on the sweat of others’ brow, and say some one of them sets off a panic and the mortgage derivatives start losing the value they expected. Well, then, a little brutality is in order. First, though, you get the country to pay you back for all the inconvenience you went through while patriotically harvesting the brow-sweat here, rather than in, say, Dubai or Bahrain. Then of course you foreclose on every last sum-bitch of them whether you have the legal documentation or not. You can accomplish a lot more brutality here by a call to your lobbyist and lawyer than any number of Pinkertons could imagine. After all, what are the poor working fools here going to do about it, elect a government of, by and for the people, uncontrolled by the money-interests of the filthy rich? What tea have you been drinking?

  1. June 11th, 2011

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