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Friday , February 18, 2011 at 11 : 54

My memories of Manama


The Manama I see on TV these days looks nothing like the Manama I visited last year in May and December. I enjoyed the modern, tidy little city with a distinct Arab feel to it. The cafes, the malls, the souks, the gleaming highways, the perfect palms, the luxury hotels, the mosques all co-existed. Alcohol flowed freely. Nightclubs with Russian dancers were an open secret. There was a political opposition in parliament, more reform was being demanded. In short, the Kingdom seemed more progressive, less repressive than its Arab neighbours. In some ways, even a model for reform for its neighbours.    

The Bahrainis took great pride in the Kingdom's status as the region's banking and financial powerhouse. "We didn't have as much oil as Saudi so we were forced to come up with a substitute", a local journalist told me. Asians were a very obvious part of the thriving service economy - behind the currency exchange window, cleaning my hotel room, serving at a local restaurant, being lifeguard at the hotel swimming pool.        

And yet there were all these mixed signals. Sure, the Saudis were rich and big spenders but they were also louts. As he pointed out the highway that connected Bahrain with Saudi Arabia, a highway built by Saudi money, my taxi driver cursed his neighbours. "They come to Bahrain to party, to womanise, to get drunk, they trash Manama, they are flashy, they lack breeding and culture. They show no respect for Bahrain."

The Shia-Sunni divide was less obvious to me as an outsider than the contempt for the Saudis. But I distinctly remember one well-heeled professional, a co-participant in the international conference that I was attending, lean across and whisper to me, "some Bahrainis are more loyal to Iran than their own country". We had been discussing a Wiki cable where Bahrain's king was wishing America would take out Iran's nukes. I suspected then she might have been a part of what's called the minority Sunni elite, but never did confirm.

Manama is in turmoil today. I am invited to return to the city in May again. I don't quite know how much it would have changed but I'm willing to bet people won't speak about King Hamad in quite the same way. After the tanks and the gunfire, I'd be very surprised if I hear the King being described as a benevolent autocrat.


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Paarull Malhotra is CNN-IBN's Chief Diplomatic Correspondent. When she's not reporting, she's a newscaster. She considers herself very lucky because she enjoys what she does - which is covering India's relations with the world, with a special focus on the neighbourhood. Her areas of interest are Af-Pak, West Asia and China. She's an East West Centre fellow, and prefers to relax by blogging, tweeting, reading and travelling. You can reach her on her blaze page via ibnlive.com or on her facebook page. Paarull's twitter handle is @paarull