My Year In Bahrain – A Portrait of the “Westworld” of the Middle East

By the grace of God almighty,

And the pressures of the marketplace.

The human race has civilized itself.

– Roger Waters, It’s A Miracle


Sometime last year it dawned on me that, as a white guy, I’ve been a racial minority or near-minority, in every place I’ve lived for the last decade – Corpus Christi, TX (30% non-Hispanic white), Hawaii (25% white), and Jacksonville, FL (58% white). And, yes, the fact this took me so long to realize probably confirms my “white privilege”. I was born in Detroit, moved to Delaware shortly after, and spent the early 90s growing up in an inner-city elementary school in Wilmington, DE – a city with a white population of 34%. My circle of childhood friends included Italians, Jews, Christians, Asians, Blacks, Indians and Whites. My childhood innocence dictated that I not care about what you looked like or what religion you practiced, but only if you liked computers, Star Wars, video games, cool music, or if you knew interesting stuff like how many times Zach De La Rocha said the F-word in “Killing in the Name” (it’s 17).  I say this not to score some dumb liberal “race cred”, but only to highlight that from an early age, living outside the white majority was my normal. It never bothered me, and I’ve never had any reason to think otherwise. So, two decades later when I was offered one-year military orders to Bahrain in the Middle East, I didn’t bat an eye. In fact it sounded really awesome. In taking those orders, I’d be fulfilling the dreaded non-flying “disassociated sea tour” requirement, mandatory for all naval aviators in my career track. Making the deal even sweeter was the fact that I’d be avoiding a grueling two-year boat tour based out of Norfolk, VA. Haze gray and underway in a soul-sucking boat job, or living it up in a posh Middle Eastern city? The decision was a no-brainer. Career implications be damned.

However, despite my comfort with being a racial minority, I still found myself strangely nervous about living in the Middle East. There was something different about being “over there”. My Western conditioning had sewn within me an unexamined “us and them” mentality, teaching me to associate kufiyahs with terrorists and minarets with barbaric old-world values. Weeks before I left, I would spend late nights scouring shock sites like LiveLeak and Ogrish, studying countless videos of gruesome ISIS executions with clinical curiosity – much like the scene from We Were Soldiers where LCOL Hal Moore reviews the chilling images of the 1954 French slaughter at Dien Bien Phu just days before shipping out to Vietnam.   Shot in high-definition close up, edited and stylized for maximal propaganda effect, these modern ISIS videos spare no grisly detail, and are a far cry from the grainy, impersonal images of the Al-Qaeda executions of the early aughties. Watching these videos magnified my hatred of ISIS and rekindled (unnecessarily) my paranoia of living in the Middle East.  This apprehension was partially allayed by watching a few YouTube videos from expats that reaffirmed just how chill and Western-friendly “The Kingdom” actually was. This, however, remained to be seen…

Arrival:

As my plane entered final approach over Bahrain, I remember being overtaken by a very strange, sinking sensation of “wow this sh*t just got real” homesick alienation as the first images of the country hit, perfectly soundtracked as “Metatron” by DARKSIDE played through my headphones – the wildly foreign architecture, minarets, vast networks of pink-tan stucco compounds and villas – all blending into an endless monochrome dull-yellow landscape dissolving into a low, hazy horizon. I might as well have just landed on Mars. But the malaise begins to wear off when I lay eyes on the tall, gleaming towers of Bahrain’s capital, Manama – a modern city of the future whose presence commanded an admiration beyond anything I’d witnessed in the West. Much like its richer Dubai and Abu Dhabi cousins in the UAE, these modern buildings looked like something plagiarized from Sim City 2000, and seemed oddly out of place within the sea of antiquated stucco-clad architecture that surrounded them. Giant, bold, asymmetric shapes of glass and metal synthesizing into a futuristic landscape, manipulated by countless spindly cranes suggesting an old civilization in the throes of rebirth. At night, the city comes alive as a pulsating kaleidoscopic mass of neon lights and exotic cars – Lambos, Ferraris, Audi concept models you never knew existed – the stuff of coke-fueled 80’s fever dreams and Kavinsky synthwave fantasy.

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Upon arrival to my hotel (The Westin), I’m intimidated by how posh and elegant it looks. An overenthusiastic valet rushes my Uber (BMW 5 series) to open my door, nearly getting hit in the process. I feel grossly out of place as I fumble through the entrance wearing shorts and a t-shirt, awkwardly hauling my Fender Stratocaster guitar and giant military seabag over my shoulders like some kind of rock ‘n roll refugee.  A young female concierge wearing a sharp three-piece suit and skirt warmly introduces herself and guides me to the front desk. I might as well have just been greeted by Talulah Riley of Westworld. My self-consciousness immediately subsides when, asked for payment, I proudly brandish my new American Express Platinum, sliding it across the polished granite counter for the maître d’.

Exhausted, I get to my room and pass out for what seems like a lifetime. I awaken to the sound of Islamic prayer music, eerily reverberating off the surrounding buildings. It’s now dark, and my sense of time nonexistent save for the digital clock beside me claiming it’s eight o’clock. I feel refreshed, but a moment of sheer panic grips me before remembering where the hell I am. I’m relieved to discover my 24th floor hotel room looks nicer than I remember. But this brief moment of respite dissolves when, gazing upon the otherworldly glow of Manama’s cityscape, I am haunted by a loneliness I hadn’t felt since childhood. The dark, eternal poetry of “Bladerunner Blues” by Vangelis washes over me, as if trying to warn me about some phantom threat that had yet to reveal itself. I lose myself in this moment for what seems like another lifetime, but a gnawing hunger motivates me enough to leave the sanctuary of my room in search of food. Terrified by my newly acquired status of “stranger in a strange land”, I find the courage to set foot into this new world – beginning with the enormous mall connected to my hotel below…

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First Night at Mall:

A strong, exotic aroma of incense and perfume overwhelms me, but it doesn’t bother me. In fact I kind of like it. Marble floors, three stories tall, immaculate presentation. Far newer and cleaner than anything I’ve seen in the States. The floors are so polished they look like glass. I marvel at the sheer diversity of the crowd as I struggle to hold my best poker face, trying to stay cool while resisting random urges to stare and grin at the absolute strangeness of the situation before me – being a lone white American in a sea of non-white foreigners wearing clothes I’ve never seen before. I had never been so conscious of my race. Ten seconds pass and I’m convinced this is the most densely multicultural place on Earth. Mostly Arabs and Asians, with a few random whites and Indian/Pakistani folks here and there. Dudes wearing anything from traditional Muslim white robes (called thobes) to ripped jeans and punk t-shirts, to slick cashmere suits to shorts and flip flops.  Saudis wear checkered kufiyah headscarves, Bahrainis and Emiratis wear solid white – though the Bahrainis like show off their progressive style by wearing trucker hats with their thobes, or if they’re super chill – no headwear at all. Arab women walk around sporting anything from traditional black burqas to less conservative, more personalized abayas, to chic Western outfits with headscarves (hijabs) or simply wear their hair down – always with heavy makeup, strong perfume and an expensive handbag draped over their shoulder. I walk past a Starbucks, totally packed even though it’s 9 o’clock at night. Mostly chilled-out Saudis glued to their iPhones, usually with headphones, drinking coffee or tea with some kind of pastry. I walk by a few more upscale coffee shops. Equally as packed. Coffee shops are apparently a big deal here.

I happen upon a Virgin store, relieved to see a familiar sight from home. I spend about thirty minutes looking around. First the book section, chuckling as I come across what appears to be a Donald Trump biography, hardcover, printed in Arabic. This amuses me enough to flip through the pages, but I get confused before realizing that Arabic books read right to left – opposite of English. I make my way upstairs and look around the CD section, amazed at how a “brick & mortar” store can even have, let alone profit from a CD section in this new age of streaming and digital downloads. The small Arabic music section is dwarfed by the larger selection of Western pop music. I flip through copies of Taylor Swift Reputation, Ariana Grande Yours Truly (my favorite) and the new Cardi B. A few Pink Floyd vinyls are showcased prominently on the shelves nearby – Darkside, Animals and Obscured by Clouds – falsely implying they’re more popular than they really are, which annoys me for some reason. I check out the small musical instruments section. Mostly Yamaha stuff. The Filipino salesman shows a customer one of the acoustic guitars. Painfully out of tune. He lets me try one of the Ukuleles and the only song I know how to play is “Deep Water” by Portishead, a fact which probably reveals more about me than it should. Afterwards I check out the impressive selection of electronics. iPods, iPads, Asus gaming laptops, waterproof Bluetooth speakers, Bose headphones. As usual, the curmudgeonly PC-gamer within me scoffs at the giant wall of Xbox and Playstation gear, lamenting over the decline of PC gaming and the rise of consoles. I purchase a few voltage converters and head back into the mall’s giant vaulted thoroughfare, smooth jazz echoing throughout.  A little Arab kid wearing a Captain America shirt nearly runs into me. His burqa-clad mother scolds him, the thin slit over her mascara-brimmed eyes revealing what looks like a frown. Two young Saudi guys hold hands while nursing cups of Caribou Coffee.

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I swing by the local telecom office, Batelco, to purchase a Bahraini sim card. The store is packed. Little kids running around or zombiefied by handheld screens. An attractive blonde and brunette, mid-twenties, halter tops, wait nearby, both unpacking new iPhone X’s, speaking what sounds like Russian. Probably hookers. Also wearing ripped designer jeans (the brunette), a not terrible-looking nose piercing (the blonde), and expensive rose-gold watches by Michael Kors. Definitely hookers. Somewhere Lana Del Rey sings “it’s enough just to make you feel crazy, crazy, crazy, sometimes”.  A smartly-dressed Bahraini woman wearing a suit and hijab takes my passport and enters my information into an iPad. I opt for the 500GB, unlimited voice month-to-month plan for 5 dinars ($15) and think to myself, “not a bad deal”. Speaking perfect English, the agent explains the process for renewing my plan every month, but I’m too distracted to care, knowing I can just get the Batelco rep on the Navy base to do it for me anyway. She smiles warmly while handing back my iPhone with the new sim card installed. I pay and head over to the atrium to make sure my data is working but get interrupted by a Pakistani mall cop who yells at me for leaning on the railing. I pretend to be sorry and continue to cruise around the mall, still overwhelmed by the bizarre menagerie of familiar and foreign sights. Going down the escalator I pass by a ‘Pottery Barn for Kids’, which I didn’t know was a thing, but lots of rich people here so I guess it makes sense. A young Arab girl wearing a t-shirt that says ‘fierce femme’ smiles at me from the other side.

I make my way down to the Carrefour, which is basically the Walmart of Bahrain.  On the way, I stop at a virtual reality kiosk where fellow geeks play a high-framerate racing game while sitting in a specially designed gaming chair with Bose speakers built in to the back. A Saudi father and son wearing pristine white thobes currently occupy the seat, having what looks like the time of their lives. The output is displayed on a giant flatscreen TV and I’m impressed with the responsiveness of the headset relative to the gamer’s head movement. I get impatient waiting in line so I continue to the Carrefour and walk around scouting the wares, impressed by the selection, ranging anywhere from fresh produce, wireless routers, garment bags to Kitchen Aids.  I pick up two bottles of kiwi-lime juice and some Canterbury chocolates imported from the U.K.  Lots of U.K. stuff here.  “No Love” by Eminem ft. Lil Wayne plays on the giant flatscreen OLED television on display, which interests me enough to stop and watch the entire video before heading to checkout. The cashier, a depressed-looking Asian woman stares blankly into space while swiping my stuff. I look around to notice all the cashiers are depressed-looking Asians.

My hunger has now become unbearable, so I start looking for a place to eat. Realizing I have no cash, I swing by the currency exchange kiosk where an upbeat Bahraini clerk wearing a single-breasted suit by Yves Saint Laurent tells me they don’t accept credit card, so he politely points me to a nearby ATM. I take out plenty of cash to justify the withdrawal fee, but am furious when I realize I got shorted on the exchange rate – which should be 2.65 USD to BHD, instead I got 2.40. Fuming, I catch the escalator to the third floor and take a shortcut through the “Souq”, which houses the most expensive local wares in the entire mall. A dense, intoxicating aroma of what I assume is expensive perfume saturates the air, overwhelming my senses nearly to the point of unconsciousness. The patrons are mostly bored-looking Saudis dressed in kufiyahs and full burqas. I try not to stare. I’m the only one in Western clothing. Elaborate displays of gold, Persian rugs, diamonds and pearls adorn gilded storefronts with stylized Arabic print, so opulent and foreign that I begin to feel the pangs of homesick discomfort re-emerge. I waste no time walking to the exit where I’m comforted by a massive corridor of familiar restaurants ranging from Shake Shack, TGI Fridays, PF Changs, Cane’s Chicken and a few Arabic places. I lamely decide to eat at Fuddruckers where, even more lamely, I order chicken fingers with vegetables and a Sprite. A single mom with long straightened hair and chandelier earrings trades an iPad back and forth with her young son at a nearby booth.  A constant trickle of parents and laughing children walk past my table, in and out of some kind of Chuck E. Cheese type fun center attached to the rear of the restaurant, complete with neon-clad bowling alleys, arcades, skee-ball lanes, and some really annoying pop songs that I can’t identify. I catch myself staring at a jovial Qatari family of six across from me, bemused by the mother’s cheetah-skin abeyah. The children are eating burgers. My waiter, a cheery guy from Thailand, provides excellent service despite not expecting a tip. A quick google search confirms that tipping is not a thing here, but I do anyway. A group of Bahraini guys with five o’clock shadows wearing Bluetooth earpieces and denim jackets by Ralph Lauren walk past my line of sight outside.

Jet-lagged and satiated from my first meal in 18 hours, I decide to retire to my room at The Westin. I’m tempted to catch a movie at the multiplex, most of which are American movies playing in English to my surprise, but instead am overcome by an inexplicable urge to watch the Brian DePalma movie Body Double, which I can probably stream for free online anyway.

Welcome to Bahrain. Live Without Limits:

The most common colloquialism used to describe Bahrain is “The Las Vegas of the Middle East”, and it really is 100% true. The island-state is a strange, liberal anomaly nestled within the heart of one of the most conservative regions on Earth, quietly humming along to a cosmopolitan dream logic of alcohol, sex, nightclubs, pork, boozy rock festivals, and Brooke Candy singles. Nearly anything goes. During weekends (Friday and Saturday), thousands of rich Saudis flock over the 16 mile King Fahd causeway (usually driving painfully slow in a decked-out Range Rover or Mercedes Benz) in search of high-end shopping, American cinema, fine dining, waterparks, and other Western pleasures. It’s common knowledge that Bahrain’s strong economy is made possible, in part, due to a laissez-faire culture of human trafficking, which supplies a steady stream of cheap labor from East Asia – predominately Pakistan, India and the Philippines. Prostitution, while technically illegal, is seldom enforced because of the economic benefits wrought by the sex-tourism industry, largely enabled by wealthy patrons from Bahrain’s more “traditional” neighbors. Independent, high-class call girls from all over the world travel to Bahrain in hopes of cashing in. Homosexuality, legalized in 1976, is generally tolerated if public displays are kept to a minimum.  Echoing a familiar sentiment from another desert-city the West, Arabs like to say what happens in Bahrain is exempt from Allah’s gaze (because it’s partially man-made, of course).

The underlying aesthetic of Bahrain is difficult to articulate in words, and after much thought, can only be described as a dark, celebratory cross between Prince “Erotic City”, Pink Floyd “Young Lust” and basically any song off that second Charli XCX record.

While the Vegas comparison is suitable, I would take it a step further and declare Bahrain, more accurately, the Westworld of the Middle East – a jokey, but eerily apt comparison made by my friend Justin in response to a video I shared on social media. I say this because Las Vegas is much too established and accessible, whereas Westworld is a younger, more secluded dreamworld still trying to figure itself out. People come to Vegas to get rich and have a good time; people come to Westworld to find out who they really are.

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Soft Power:

A British protectorate until 1971, one can still feel a lingering European presence within Bahrain’s social fabric. English is, effectively, the national language – spoken and written basically anywhere that’s commercially relevant. European-style cafes and bakeries line the city streets, always packed. British Intermediate schools are highly respected, and firmly rooted within Bahrain’s education system.  Cricket and Rugby are highly popular, and it’s not uncommon to see local Bahrainis playing pickup games between buildings in the late afternoon when the heat subsides.

Terrorism was never a concern. I never once felt unsafe, and would often go jogging outside at night (when it cooled to a brisk 90 degrees F). It wasn’t uncommon to see women doing the same, alone.   “High Risk” areas were well known, and clearly delineated on maps. One had little, if any reason, to ever stray into one – and if you did, it would probably go unnoticed anyway (believe me, I’ve done it). Gun violence was non-existent due to a strictly enforced firearms ban. What little violence that did occur was limited to sectarian skirmishes between Sunni and Shia protestors – and for that, Bahrain’s police force is swift and effective – sometimes too “effective” to the point of human rights violations. These human rights abuses have dogged Bahrain’s reputation for a long time, and are fueled primarily by tension between its Sunni-led, Saudi-backed ruling class and Shia underclass majority.

There is effectively zero outward anti-USA or anti-Western sentiment. In fact, one could say there is actually pro-Western sentiment as evidenced by Bahrain’s embrace of Western culture – almost to the point of caricature. “Tribfest” – a huge rock festival that features top tribute bands from the U.K. – is hosted bi-annually at the Rugby club. The  Freddie Mercury act of April 2018 was profoundly entertaining, and I distinctly remember having a near-spiritual experience during the extended guitar outro of “Live Forever” by what was supposedly an Oasis cover band (though they looked and played so much like the real thing it could have been the Gallagher brothers for all I knew) . Coldplay was predictably boring AF, despite apparently being the crowd favorite. However, the spectacle of watching scores of drunk white dudes lamely dancing to “Viva La Vida” more than made up for it.

American cinema is ubiquitous and always in demand. I continued to pay my respects to the Big Screen, frequenting an Arabic cinema near my apartment where I saw Solo (three times), The Last Jedi (also three times),  Avengers: Infinity War, Ready Player One, and Predator to name a few. In March of 2018 I attended my very first comic-con, which featured local artists, promotional displays from big-name brands like nVidia and Blizzard, guest appearances from the cast of Game of Thrones, and some really cool virtual reality demos that captivated me for hours (and convinced me of the awesome power of VR for flight simulation). I also wrecked some n00bs in an Overwatch PC gaming tournament, feeling like Allen Covert’s character from Grandma’s Boy as I, the lone thirty-something man-child, fervently gamed alongside my team of Bahraini teenagers (all speaking perfect English).  Associated with this comic-con was the annual Formula One race hosted on Bahrain’s enormous 5.4-kilometer International Racing Circuit designed by German architect Hermann Tilke – an enormous, big-budget international event that attracts tens of thousands of visitors per year. The race is advertised relentlessly and the fact that Santana played the 2018 post-race concert should tell one everything they need to know about the enormity of the event. Consequently, racing culture has become hugely popular, as proven every night by the obnoxious sounds of aftermarket exhaust mods (fart cannons) from local street racers living out their “2 Fast, 2 Furious” fantasies. Of note, American muscle cars are considered exotic in Bahrain, and more highly prized than their Audi or BMW counterparts.

Or put simply, Bahrain is the “Austin, Texas” of the Middle East.

The Promise of Globalization:

Yet for all its progressive “excesses”, Bahrain (and the greater UAE) is a fascinating case study in the efficacy of globalization, and how progressive, particularly Western attitudes, are re-shaping the Arab world. Globalization – once a specialized word synonymous with progress and prosperity, has now become a common, xenophobic punchline in the West. But behind the smokescreen of paranoia do lie some very justified concerns – human rights abuses, currency manipulation, financial speculation, worst of all, the erosion of cultural identity. However, Bahrain, for better or worse, seems to be embracing globalization’s promise in full force – and reaping the rewards. Studies have ranked Bahrain as the freest and fastest growing economy in the Arab World, leading its neighbors beyond the (black) gold rush as the first sustainable post-oil economy in the Persian Gulf thanks to its booming financial, tech and manufacturing industries – although headquartering the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet probably doesn’t hurt either.

In his 2000 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman deconstructs, with what now seems like remarkable prescience, the enormous implications of globalization’s new world order. He explains how the slow and isolated world of the Cold-war era has now ceded control to the hyper-connected, hyper-sensitive, “flattened” world of the internet age. Enabled by the microprocessor, the old global rulebook of social and economic interactions changed, effectively, overnight. Those countries who adopted the new rules – pervasive and unrestricted internet access, free market capitalism, the rule of law, government accountability and transparency ­– would prosper (Japan, America, Western Europe). Those who resisted (Russia, China, Iran) would, and continue to lag behind. Despite bringing about the fastest rise in global living standards of any event in human history, Friedman is careful to explain that globalization is a complex beast, and not without its drawbacks. The prevailing metaphor of the book, and its title, poses the fundamental dilemma of globalization – to what extent must a country “sell out” its culture for the sake of appeasing, and thus profiting from, the new rules of the homogeneous global marketplace?

“People don’t compare their lives to their father’s and grandparents’ lives today. They have more information. They now compare their lives to the lives of neighbors and other people. Because they can identify via television, satellite, DVD and Internet. ” 
– Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree

After spending more than 24 hours in country, it becomes evident to anyone that Bahrain seems to be inundated with a prevailing sense of “to join the West is to prosper; to oppose the West is to fail”. Bahrain seems to genuinely take pride in its comfortable embrace of pro-Western sentiment – but not necessarily out of the goodness of its heart (though my inner optimist wants to believe this) – but because their prosperity demands it – because the rules of the global marketplace demand it. And there’s a rich irony in that the “market forces” so highly praised by anti-globalist conservatives are the very thing working in their favor to ensure a peaceful, prosperous, and pro-Western Middle East.

While I won’t pretend to have deeply engaged in the rich cultural traditions of Bahrain’s Muslim majority,  I will say that it does seem they’ve struck the right balance between modernization and cultural preservation – thus solving the globalization dilemma.  Look no further than the large sums of state money devoted toward preserving and renovating its museums, mosques, and historical structures – most notably the Al Fateh Grand Mosque and the Bahrain National Museum and Theater – beautiful works of architecture that house some of Bahrain’s most prized national treasures and customs.

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Conclusion:

The song lyrics referenced in the beginning of this piece hung over me like a specter throughout my time in Bahrain. I once thought its author, Roger Waters, was making a scathing polemic of conservatives’ cult-like worship of unrestricted free-market capitalism. But I now think those lyrics, which he penned nearly ten years before Friedman’s book, might actually be a sincere (and chillingly prophetic) statement about the bittersweet, irreversible truths of globalization – the effects of which have yet to be fully understood.

For centuries the Middle East has been the crucible for countless empires and invasions, and the fact that it still retains so much of its cultural identity is a triumph unto itself. But this new “invasion” of Western soft power is unlike other invasions of the past, and Bahrain is leading the region in demonstrating that the “weapons” of these new invaders can be harnessed and exploited for their own gain, while still keeping their cultural dignity intact. This effect is already beginning to influence Bahrain’s more conservative neighbors, as evidenced by Saudi Arabia’s recent progressive reforms by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s “Vision 2030”, which most notably include allowing women to drive, public cinemas playing American movies, curbing the power of the religious police, and a less restrictive e-visa system to attract tourism. The winds of change are coming, even if slowly.

I will always believe in the judicious use of lethal force when necessary, and am not naïve enough to think jihadist terrorism will ever be totally eradicated. However, my experience overseas has convinced me of the cold but undeniable truth that healthy relations with the Muslim world – the proverbial “hearts and minds” – will ultimately be won not by bullets, bombs, thoughts and prayers; but by iPhones, Twitter, Marvel movies and Ford Mustangs.

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