Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Saturday, 16 April 2011 12:01 UK

Bahrain's 'tranquil, liberal' image falls away

Bahrain police at checkpoint
Police checkpoints have been set up all over Bahrain

Bahrain's government has announced plans to close down the main opposition party, driving it underground. The BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner, who used to live in Bahrain, returned to assess life under a state of emergency.

The sheikh sounded nervous.

"I am asking you not to go to that village," he said.

"If you do, the police will arrest you, take away your tapes and I will have to come and get you out of the police station."

Our team was indignant. This was surely outrageous.

Had the Bahraini Foreign Ministry not promised us freedom to interview whomever we wanted?

They had, except that they were not calling the shots.

What the sheikh - a rather junior member of the ruling al-Khalifa family - was trying to tell us was that he did not have the power to protect us from the country's heavy-handed security forces.


Since the middle of March, when martial law was declared, the hardliners in this tiny - but strategically important - Gulf kingdom have triumphed over the moderates.

For three weeks, the Western-educated and reform-minded crown prince held the police at bay while he negotiated with the opposition.

Anti-government protesters face riot police and soldiers from behind makeshift barricades in March 2011
The authorities have clamped down on protests and removed barricades

He offered them, amongst other concessions, an elected parliament with proper executive powers, something the rest of his family were less than comfortable with.

But the Shia opposition leaders hesitated.

They saw what was happening in Egypt and Tunisia - whole regimes were being swept away on a wave of popular protest. Maybe, thought the younger protesters, we can do the same here?

I mean, why settle for sharing power when you have a chance to have it all?

The sizeable Sunni minority and the expatriates were horrified. They wondered how far this would go.

Was cosy, liberal Bahrain heading towards becoming an Iranian-style Islamic republic?

Meanwhile the protests, which had already drawn lethal gunfire earlier by police, were getting out of hand.

Vigilante roadblocks were being set up by youths with scarves across their faces and pickaxe handles at their sides.

At a given signal, Saudi troops streamed into Bahrain while the security forces cleared the roadblocks

The capital Manama was paralysed, economic activity was grinding to a halt, people were afraid to leave home.

Just across the causeway that links Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, the princes there were running out of patience - this could get contagious.

Either you sort this out, they told Bahrain, or we do.

A flurry of phone calls followed and, at a given signal, Saudi troops streamed into Bahrain while the security forces cleared the roadblocks.

The time for dialogue was over, a state of emergency was being declared.

Unnaturally quiet

So there we were last week, pitching up at the same hotel where I used to play backgammon with the Tornado pilots, as they rested from missions over Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm 20 years ago.

The Sheraton was running at less than 10% occupancy, its Iranian restaurant closed, its Chinese restaurant closed, its coffee shop totally deserted.

Night after night, burly men with black balaclavas and machine guns are crashing into homes and lifting suspected opposition activists

An armoured personnel carrier sat beneath my old office next-door, with a portrait of the prime minister plastered onto its side.

Bahraini troops in body armour watched the traffic and, not far off, a row of very old cast-off American tanks guarded the empty roads leading to the bulldozed remains of Pearl Roundabout, the epicentre of the earlier protests.

The capital seemed unnaturally quiet, as if it had been given some kind of sedative.

But out in the Shia villages, we found a rather different picture.


Night after night, burly men with black balaclavas and machine guns are crashing into homes and taking away suspected opposition activists.

More than 400 have been detained and some have not come back.

We attended the funeral of one man who had turned himself in to the police, only for his death in custody to be announced a week later.

The impoverished back street, with its peeling walls, was lined with mourners.

Anti-government protesters at funeral of protester Ali Isa al-Saqer in Manama
Ali Isa al-Saqer turned himself in to police and died in custody

Martyrdom has always been central to the Shia culture, and to the mourners the body that arrived from the hospital, battered, bruised and lacerated, was that of a martyr.

The crowd erupted into chants of "Down with King Hamad" and "Down with the regime".

A police helicopter hovered overhead taking pictures, some said with a high-definition camera.

The crowd shook their fists in the air, shaking with defiance.

The funeral procession surged past me, anger in motion, the women drawing their black abaaya shrouds round their faces and shouting in unison.

The helicopter peeled off: perhaps they had enough photos for today.

The next afternoon, I grabbed the chance between interviews to revisit my old house, hidden in a village on the west coast of the island.

Little had changed.

Doves still called softly from the dusty fronds of date palms and flies still drifted over from the nearby stables.

This was Bahrain as I remembered it in the early 90s - tranquil and untroubled, a place where I would wander over to a neighbour's house, sit on his carpet outdoors and chat in Arabic as the heat of the day subsided and the sunset call to prayer went out across the palm groves.

Nothing would stir save perhaps for the rustle of a mongoose in the undergrowth.

Now, that Bahrain was there before my eyes.

And yet somehow - given all that has happened here - I felt that, if I reached out to touch it, it would vanish. The Bahrain I had known was not there at all.

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