MANAMA — "I am not a prince of Sunni Bahrain; I am not a prince of Shia Bahrain. I am a prince of the Kingdom of Bahrain." So said Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to an assembled crowd at the Ritz-Carlton. Two large screens beamed his face out to the ballroom; dinner was grilled salmon, dessert was burnt cream custard.
The IISS Manama Dialogue, which was canceled in 2011 due to the government’s repression of popular protests, returned to Bahrain this year — not without some criticism. It’s the sort of event that attracts foreign-policy bigwigs from across the globe, where the most interesting conversations happen away from microphones, and where secretaries general of the Gulf Cooperation Council orate on the history of international mediation in Yemen.
The dialogue, however, gave journalists and foreign officials an opportunity to see for themselves how the wounds of last year are healing in the kingdom, which is notoriously stingy on doling out visas.
The crown prince said that "relative calm" has returned to Bahrain, but the reality is that the island is still profoundly divided — culturally, economically, and politically. The conference is held in a bubble: Police in armored trucks stand guard over deserted roads, armed with guns and video cameras; the bar at the Ritz, Trader Vic’s, features a menu decorated with a drawing of a topless woman serenading a visiting sailor.
But a different Bahrain exists a short drive away. The first hint is the dark purple paint dotting walls and buildings — the government’s attempt to cover up anti-regime graffiti. In the town of Sitra, a predominantly Shia area known for its radicalism, police blockade the main entrances to most neighborhoods. Inside the villages, posters read "Terrorism is an U.S. industry" — condemning President Barack Obama and John Timoney, the American law enforcement officer charged with suppressing Bahrain’s protests, as criminals.
"If you want to see police, wait until 7:30 [at night]," says a man who gave his name as Said Adnan in Mahazza, a village within Sitra. "They break into houses, see women sleeping without their" — he drew his hands around his face to signify a veil. It was the most common grievance of Sitra residents: Ayatollah Isa Qasim, the country’s leading Shia cleric, issued a call to "crush" anyone seen abusing a woman.
Some of Sitra’s citizens are in hiding from the police — but they are doing so in plain sight, depending on a network of lookouts to inform them when the feared security forces are coming. Youssef Hassan Ali, a 35-year old sporting a goatee and wearing a white mesh Nike shirt, was one such man. He says he spent four months in jail earlier this year, and is again the target of the regular police raids into the village. Sitting under a makeshift tent in Mahazza, he claims he still does not know why.
"The purpose of the crackdown is to incite fear and terror in people’s hearts," he says. "The Al Khalifa family, no way they can be the future for us."
Anti-regime demonstrations are officially banned in Bahrain, but protesters have successfully carved out a niche for their revolution that is tolerated by the security services. In the village of Diraz on Dec. 9, the February 14 Movement, a hardline opposition group, strung up posters, assembled a stage, and organized rows of chairs for their demonstration — a two hour-long event that could not have escaped the notice of the police. There was, however, no attempt to break up the rally.
The religious mixed easily with the political in Diraz. One poster featured a drawing of Shiite martyr Hussein Ibn Ali — facing off against him were Bahrain riot police. Another showed a helicopter and tank besieging a mosque: "Are you fighting the house of god," read the inscription.
The masked opposition activists assembled tables of food and set up a video projector — a low-budget version of the crown prince’s presentation at the Ritz-Carlton.
"We were sitting there peacefully," said Ali, an activist wearing a pinstriped suit who led the proceedings at the rally, as a video rolled about the government crackdown on protesters at Manama’s Pearl Roundabout last year. "They were the ones who attacked…and now they are trying to say it was us who attacked the police."
As the rally neared its end, a voice from the crowd shouted "Yasqut Hamad" — down with King Hamad. The crowd burst into life, pumping their fists and repeating the demand as they have done for a year and a half: "Yasqut Hamad, Yasqut Hamad."