Getting out of Saudi Arabia, even after a short time 'in Kingdom', is always something to look forward to. As part of the petroletariat of the Eastern Province, I work, week after week, in clinically austere, rigidly controlled surroundings: in an enclosed 'camp' that resembles the futuristic, hermetically-sealed colonies in space or on the moon one read about as a child. The absorption of life's amenities must take place elsewhere. Bahrain is the nearest place.
The anticipation of a prospect of leave is heightened by the fact that you cannot leave the Kingdom spontaneously: an exit visa must be obtained weeks in advance, signed by one's boss who in so doing gives his permission for you to depart from his personal custody. The long-awaited three-day weekend at last arrived. With temporary manumission secured, I was tingling with excitement as I took my bag and my passport, with the precious exit/re-entry visa, onto a bus to the nearby town of Al-Khobar, where I would board another bus to Bahrain.
AI-Khobar is a white breeze-block sprawl, a commercial town that burgeoned during the good old days of the oil boom and is still robust with commerce generated by the oil industry. You can buy anything there, people say.
This impression is created by the sight of plate-glass showrooms filled with rows of cement mixers, air compressors, pumps; dentist's chairs, barber's chairs, dining chairs, armchairs; bunsen burners and cross-sectional models of human organs for classroom use: the sort of goods not usually sold in the main shopping centre in a western town, in addition to displays of watches and gold jewellery .It has the slapdash vigour of a boom town with none of the funkiness. The place is flavourless and colourless, despite its activity and mixture of races and nationalities.
Rushing along in my still-fastened collar and tie in the afternoon heat, I attracted the attention of some old men sitting under a bus shelter. They waved me in the direction of the Bahrain bus. It was obvious where I was going. I boarded a bus which was old, dusty, beat-up and nearly full: an eyesore for sore eyes.
The causeway that connects the two countries was opened in 1986. At the Saudi end the entrance is marked by two huge billboards, at each side of the road, depicting King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and Shaykh 'Isa of Bahrain. In his portrait, Shaykh 'Isa is smiling radiantly; King Fahd's expression is pale, pious and restrained. Beside Shaykh 'Isa’s portrait are the words 'Hayakum Allah', God give you life, while King Fahd's blessing is the more cautious, less lusty 'Ma'akum Allah', God be with you. As a prelude to a jaunt to Bahrain the messages could be interpreted as sang, Enjoy yourself, but remember you've got to come back, too. They formed a perfect antithesis: King Fahd -- red light, Shaykh 'Isa -- green light. I was enthusiastically voting for the latter's friendly face.
The causeway is a highway that leads out of Al Khobar, onto the flat, white sandy expanse at the edge of the Gulf, and then rises up on to a colonnade of supports that carry it over the calm, shallow water to a man-made island, and then on to Bahrain. Small vessels can pass under it. Citizens of the 'baladayn shaqiqayn', the two sisterly countries, can come and go across the causeway as they please. Bahrainis come to Saudi Arabia to shop in Al-Khobar, and Saudis go to Bahrain to do things they're not allowed to do in Saudi Arabia. This cultural exchange programme has been very successful, and the Saudi government regularly publishes in the newspapers the number of vehicles that have used the causeway for that month. The rare revelation of a number other than a percentage is never done accidentally in Saudi Arabia. The motive is left to the reader to judge.
In this case, I suspect, the numbers reflect the economic advantage to Bahrain of being physically connected to Saudi Arabia. It helps the Bahrainis, many of whom are Shi'ites and speak Persian as well as Arabic, make up their minds about where their loyalties lie. Moreover, by connecting Bahrain to itself physically, Saudi Arabia makes clear to other states in the region, particularly Iran, which once held the island and would like to do so again, that any thought of seizing it is out of the question. That's one scenario, in a region that breeds scenarios.
The bus swooped across the causeway. The sun was setting, and one could enjoy twenty minutes of uninterrupted travel until we came to the dismal isle of bureaucracy halfway across where customs and immigration formalities are conducted. This took two hours, the longest part of the trip.
Once in the capital, Manama, I took a taxi to my hotel, the Holiday Inn, flung open the door of my room and ran to the mini-bar. With grateful hands I cracked open a miniature of real whisky and poured myself a huge drink. Thank God! Then I lay on the bed and watched the evening news. The top story was the visit to Bahrain of the ruler of Qatar. The Qatari notables waited in a reception line and kissed the diminutive, cheerful Shaykh 'Isa's hands and cheeks. This cut to a shot of several jubilant dignitaries sitting on sofas. The camera ranged slowly about the room; for one used to the splashy immediacy of American TV news, it was like watching the grass grow. A sprightly march -- 'Anchors Aweigh' -- came onto the sound track. Then sentiments of amity were expressed between the baladayn shaqiqayn, and the next item began. Iraqi foreign minister Tariq Aziz arrived, was met at the airport, and the same routine was repeated. At the end of his visit, Tariq Aziz waved from the door of his aircraft. Down on the tarmac, the Bahrainis waved back. You could tell what was happening without knowing any Arabic. The 3O-second news-bite isn't part of the political theatre of Arabia.
The next day I ventured into steamy Manama. The heart of the old town is a maze of winding streets. After the sensory deprivation of Wahhabi Arabia, Manama presented a bombardment of visual stimuli. 3-D postcards on a news-stand depicted Hindu gods in garish colours. Women walked with their faces exposed, in gowns that allowed the charm of decoration. They drove cars. Black banners hung from the portals of Shi'ite mosques, and were festooned with Arabic slogans. I even saw a church, something I hadn't seen in months. There were cinemas showing melodramatic Indian movies: As I walked the narrow streets of old Manama, I felt as if my head had been released from a vice. In the visitors' book of the Bahrain Heritage Centre museum, I read the following entry, written by a Mr Sultan Mahmood of Pakistan: 'Bahrain is a very beautiful and lovely country in the Gulf. It has shown me kindness and taught me how to respect the human body. I love the Bahraini people and respect them by heart. ' I felt the same way.
The museum was formerly the law courts during the days of British power in Bahrain. It was a stately whitewashed mansion of two storeys, built around an inner courtyard. The courtroom was on the ground floor. It has an excellent collection of photographs of old Bahrain. Although much is made of the great glass temples of finance that have risen here in recent decades, Bahrain has considerable character and charm, compressed into a very small area.
With a seller of old coins and banknotes I had a conversation in fragments of Arabic, Persian and English. As a tribute to my making an effort, linguistically speaking, he offered me a Maria Theresa dollar for 15 dinars, a 'special price', but still far too much. Everything is expensive in Bahrain.
In the twilight of the Holiday Inn bar, I could discern the usual mixture of nationalities, including several knots of Saudi men over for the weekend, here to forsake the minbar for the mini-bar. One of them called out to a waitress, 'Darling, I am thirsty!' -- behaviour unfairly considered uncouth by those with less catching up to do on life's pleasures.
Soon it was time to go back. The Saudi-bound bus was full of expatriate drunks. The Britons were especially conspicuous in their inebriation, falling about everywhere. One of them, his rough, lobster-red complexion suggesting long service in the oil patch, sang 'I did it my way' with his arms dramatically outstretched, as an amused Saudi customs official frisked him for contraband. They also checked our photographs one by one and the titles of our paperbacks, and took long sniffs of our aftershave.
On my second visit to Bahrain, I had the good fortune to meet the Amir himself. The Amir, or Ruler, of Bahrain, whose full name is 'Isa ibn Salman al-Khalifa, is the last of the Gulf rulers to hold an open majlis every Friday morning, to which all may come who want to submit a petition to the Amir, or simply to pay him their respects.
Whereas the ceremony of greeting on the airport tarmac is the ritual drama of foreign policy, the majlis is the ritual drama of domestic politics in most of the countries of the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. It cements ruler and ruled, by demonstrating a direct, in- formal, even intimate channel of political communication. It demonstrates the power of the ruler (and in modern times, consequently, the state), while also strengthening the important Arabian view that all men are essentially equals.
Before I went to the majlis, I consulted a resident Briton about how to go about attending it. He was quite reassuring. 'If you are going to be in Bahrain for any length of time you are expected to attend. I go every six weeks or so. ' The Amir wants to know what's going on. In a country lucky enough to be very small, he has the luxury of being able to find out personally.
A recent episode illustrates the importance of this principle. Last Easter, a group of American senators, led by Senator Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, were on a junket in Europe and the Middle East, reviewing the troops. There is an American naval base in Bahrain and they wanted to attend a daybreak Easter mass on the deck of an aircraft carrier, have their pictures taken, and then fly on to Cairo. They had tactlessly not included on their schedule a visit to Shaykh 'Isa. When he found out they were in Bahrain, and not planning to visit, he put his foot down, and the delegation changed their plans to allow for a visit to the Ruler. No wonder Arab states sometimes think the United States doesn't like them.
The event begins at seven o'clock in the morning at Riffa' Palace, a few miles south of Manama. When we arrived, a friend and I, a smiling policeman pointed the way: it was all terribly easy. We were shown into a courtyard and onto a carpeted porch that led into the diwan. No one patted us down for weapons.
On this porch, men in formal Arab attire and western business suits were standing about chatting in quiet little groups. A few pairs of black leather sandals were scattered about by a pillar . 'Are we supposed to take our shoes off?' my friend said in a panic. I wasn't sure; then I saw that everyone had their shoes on. 'No, no, don't!' I said, afraid that he would, and embarrass us irrevocably. Everything seemed precarious enough as it was.
A court official of some sort -- a kind of chamberlain -- glided towards us. 'We have come to greet the Amir,' I said. Again, to my amazement, the answer seemed quite normal and acceptable. He led us into the room where the Amir was holding his majlis. It was a long, high-ceilinged chamber, with deep sofas along both walls with coffee tables in front of them. Shaykh 'Isa sat at the far end of the room in an armchair. He was the focal point, of course, but perhaps because of the depth of the chair and its uniformity with the others in the chamber, he was the focal point in a discreet and understated way: giving the impression of a ruler who was primus inter pares.
The sofas were occupied by Bahrainis and a minority of western businessmen. Other Bahrainis, mostly younger, not wearing cloaks, sat on the floor, some of them barefoot. The chamberlain led us straight down the centre of the room to the Amir's chair, past a gauntlet of glances: everyone wanted to know the identity of these two new faces at court. A long line of Arabs in thobe and ghutra were queueing up before the Amir , awaiting their turn to shake his hand and kiss him on the cheek. The chamberlain led us straight past them to the head of the queue, and we shook hands and offered our greetings to the slightly startled looking Amir.
After being introduced, we were shown to a place on one of the sofas. I was much more comfortable here: I could watch the proceedings without being too much involved with them. Four very dark men in turbans appeared, in a well-rehearsed formation military in its precision. Their thobes were white and they carried daggers in their brightly coloured woven belts. They carried brass teapots and cups. Two men worked their way down each side of the room, giving a small cup of tea to each man in turn. The tea server would pour a drop into a cup, and hand it to you; you would gulp it down, and hand it emptied to the second server (after having swallowed a large gulp of very hot liquid), and so they would pass down the line of sofas, giving each man a dose of hot, sweet tea. The same procedure was repeated a minute later with cardamom coffee, and then with orange water, which was sprinkled into each man's palms, so he could refresh his face and forehead. Finally, they bore in smoking censers. The censer was held for a moment in front of each man so he could waft its scented smoke onto his person. It was interesting that two of the four amenities which we were generously given satisfied the sense of smell. One wishes at such moments one could get up and deliver a panegyric in perfect classical Arabic, like something by al-Mutanabbi, praising the ruler for his wisdom and valour and particularly his generosity.
Whither do you intend, great prince? We are the herbs of the hills,
and you are the clouds;
So may you be blessed for the rain shower that you are, whereby it seems to me our skins sprout brocade and embroidered silks and fine woven garments,
and for the liberal giver you are. ..
Such a tribute, however sincerely felt, would have been out of place. The atmosphere was remarkable for the prevailing dignified ease and absence of unnecessary sound. There were many people who had come just to sit and be present with the Ruler, to show him loyalty and silently demonstrate a personal relationship with him. It was enough to sit and stare blankly into space.
Among others, quiet trading and brokering seemed to be going on, I could imagine from the anxious glances of the red-faced western businessmen that they feared that we, strangers at court, were new competitors, with a brash tender for the government cement contract, or bidding to supply computers to the Ministry of Finance at knock-down prices.
One by one, people were approaching the Ruler's chair to submit petitions. They hesitated some distance from the chair, until cued forward by the chamberlain. Then the petitioner would squat beside the chair, say something to the Amir, and hand him an envelope, which the Amir would look at but not open. At eight o'clock exactly, all the morning's petitions having been submitted, soldiers appeared and escorted the Amir out of the room in a rustle of robes. Everyone stood up, and swelled behind the Amir's train as he left the chamber. As we lingered at the back of the pack, an Englishman in a grey suit approached us by way of small talk and casual inquiry as to our business. He was presumably a court official charged with liaison with the western element. I remarked that the majlis began very early in the morning. 'His Highness usually begins work at six every morning, said the official stiffly.
The Amir was greeting each member of the throng as they emerged. We shook hands again. 'Where do you work?' he said. I mentioned the name of my company, and that was a sufficient answer.
After the Amir had met everyone again, and retired to look at the petitions he had received, people stood about outside talking in groups. In their heavy robes and suits and dignified attitudes, they looked like merchants in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, as serenely and luminously depicted by some worldly, craftsmanlike Dutch painter of that period, able to reproduce the reality of a quotidian scene across vast distances of time, space and culture.
By 8.20 it was time to go. The rest of the day was an anti-climax. It
had peaked too soon.