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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 May 2007, 10:52 GMT 11:52 UK
Inside view of the Gulf
By Frank Gardner
BBC News, Bahrain

Map of Bahrain
When you are seeking opinions about the latest developments in the Middle East, the island state of Bahrain is not a bad place to go.

In the lobby of one of Bahrain's more upmarket hotels a bellboy walks slowly amongst the guests, swinging a charcoal burner of Omani frankincense.

The thin grey wisps of smoke circulate through the atrium, sweetening the air and clinging to people's clothes.

So international is Bahrain's capital Manama, that without the incense this could be almost anywhere in the world.

Security in the Gulf

But as I pause over my cappuccino, waiting for my next meeting, a man approaches, wearing the traditional white robe of the Gulf, the dishdasha.

"Excuse me," he says in perfect English, "but my father would like to meet you. Could you come now please."

Bahrain's Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifah bin Salman al-Khalifah
Bahrain's Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifah bin Salman al-Khalifah
The man looks familiar and I am trying hard to remember who his father is. Ah yes, there we go, the bodyguards give it away - he is Bahrain's Prime Minister, Sheikh Khalifah bin Salman al-Khalifah.

The bodyguards move aside, parting like the Red Sea waves, and I take my seat on an over-stuffed couch.

A Filipino waitress appears, quiet as a mouse, and we tinker with our teacups while the conversation drifts from Iraq to Iran and the security situation in the Gulf.

"We would be happier," says the prime minister, "if our American friends listened more to our advice. We worry about the violence and extremism in this region because of what is going on in Iraq. There have been so many mistakes made there."

Relations with Iran

Later that day I am introduced to the Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmad al-Khalifah, a large, rotund and genial man. He tells me how his recent public embrace with Iran's diminutive President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad had raised a smile in Tehran.

"This must be the only time," he jokes, "that Bahrain is bigger than Iran!"

That evening I head out with Bahraini friends for a dinner at an open-air restaurant beneath the palms.

A musician plucks gently at a traditional instrument and the air is thick with the scent of apple-flavoured hubble-bubble pipes.

Once again, our conversation focuses on Iran - just across the Gulf - a country that used to claim Bahrain as its own.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
President Ahmadinejad: High-speed policy?
Are people worried that the US or Israel will attack Iran's nuclear plants, I ask.

"Oh, the Western expats talk about it the whole time," said my friends, "but look around you - business is booming. There is so much money pouring in here from around the Gulf - everyone's investing and they wouldn't be doing that if they thought there was a war coming."

Suhail, a young Bahraini businessman, leans over to me and says: "We have a joke here about Iran's President Ahmadinejad.

"You know how some young guys in the Gulf like to drag-race their cars at night, you know, they drive flat out at over 100mph and then try to spin the car round as many times as they can without flipping? Well we call this 'tafhees', and we say it sums up Ahmadinejad's foreign policy."

Another friend chips in saying: "Dealing with this guy is like playing a game of chess. You think you've got him in check... but then he just tips up the board and walks away."

Saddam's execution

So what do they think about the situation up the coast in Iraq?

For so many years Saddam Hussein's shadow loomed over this region. During the first Gulf War, the smoke from Kuwait's oil fires that his troops set ablaze frequently blotted out the sun, leaving dirty smudges on my washing every time it rained.

Now, from his grave, Saddam's name still brings a frown, but for different reasons. "His execution was a disaster," says a visiting Saudi banker, toying with his half-drained glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.

"It made everyone here very angry," he went on. "Even some of the Shia mourned him and he was no friend of theirs. Executing him publicly like that turned Saddam into a hero for people in this region. They should have just left him in prison to be a non-entity."

Old charm

As we drive back along the Gulf corniche I wonder if Bahrain really has changed all that much since I lived here in the 90s.

Frank Gardner
An international Formula One racetrack has been built in Bahrain
Superficially it has, at least along the coast around the capital.

A majestic new causeway links the city to the airport, spanning a shallow lagoon where I used to water-ski in my lunch breaks.

There are 21st Century plate-glass skyscrapers shooting up into the cloudless sky, dwarfing the low-rise garden shed of a British embassy with its union jack wilting in the 40-degrees heat.

The building of a waterfront stock exchange is under way and there is an international Formula One racetrack.

But scratch beneath the surface and Bahrain, I believe, has not fundamentally changed.

My Bahraini friends grumble about soaring property prices, traffic jams and rising crime and they say MPs in Parliament are wasting their time arguing over whether men should or should not be allowed to work in women's lingerie shops.

But in a country where old friendships and leisurely conversations still count for something, one of Britain's longest standing allies in the Gulf has not lost its old world charm.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 19 May, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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