BLACKPOOL, United Kingdom — The Kingdom of Bahrain, or simply Bahrain, is an Arab archipelago in the Persian Gulf. Its neighbors are Qatar to its southeast and Saudi Arabia to its west. Sunni monarchy is currently leading Bahrain and it has governed the nation since its independence in 1971. Bahrain is a financially troubled nation that has often relied upon the exploitation of migrant workers and financial assistance from its close allies to sustain itself.
Whilst House Al Khalifa has held onto power in Bahrain, this hasn’t happened without causing division and moments of unrest amongst the Bahraini population. Most notably during the 2011 Bahraini uprising, which according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) happened because of the “Al Khalifa family’s tight grip on power and discrimination against the substantial Shia population” residing in Bahrain.
To the wider media and population, Bahrain seems to have been put in the same category as its neighbors who are known for their extreme wealth, giant oil reserves and state investment funds. However, having significantly fewer oil reserves than its close neighbors and lack of ability to diversify its economy has led to poverty in Bahrain and Bahrain often requests significant financial assistance from its close allies. In fact, Abu Dhabi has recently helped fund Bahrain’s new passenger terminal at Bahrain International Airport.
Division in Bahrain – A Propped-Up Government
In 2011, the protests rocked the nation. The protests largely consisted of Shia Muslims unhappy with the Sunni government. The uprising has largely been attributed to the lack of representation and opportunities for the large Shia population in Bahrain.
In a desperate attempt to keep control of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Al Khalifa government agreed to the deployment of 1,000 Saudi troops in Bahrain to quell any protesters that had overrun police.
Since 2011, the financially and militarily propped-up Al Khalifa dynasty has implemented a major crackdown on protesters and has reportedly committed many human rights violations in the process. “Authorities continued to restrict freedoms of expression and assembly and to hold prisoners for exercising these rights,” Amnesty International reports.
In the case of Bahrain, due to its worse financial position in comparison to its neighbors, the government is unable to provide significant economic benefits to its population. It is often the case that Sunni communities receive more benefits and opportunities in comparison with the larger Shia population.
According to Reuters, in 2018 Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and The UAE agreed to give $10 billion to support the country’s funding requirements to prevent a financial crisis and possible collapse of the Al Khalifa government. Bahrain had a projected $3 billion budget deficit in 2018.
The combination of financial instability, perceived bias towards Sunni Muslims and continuing human rights abuses could be the main factors towards why Bahrain has been so divided in comparison to other Gulf nations. It remains unclear if House Al Khalifa would still be in control without financial and military support from its close allies.
Poverty in Bahrain – OneHeartBahrain
The Borgen Project spoke with Birthe Van Der Heijden, the founder of OneHeartBahrain, a movement that helps to provide a social safety net mainly through the form of food support and redistribution of goods for those in need. She helps to shed light on the current situation in the country and the harsh reality for migrant workers living under extremely tough conditions.
The migrant population in Bahrain accounts for the majority of the nation’s total workforce. OneHeartBahrain is a “goodwill movement that promotes unity between all people,” with the aim of “increasing social cohesion to enable a thriving socio-economic climate.”
Birthe and her movement primarily provide a social safety net for people in need mainly in the form of food support and the redistribution of goods. In just four years, her movement has been able to support thousands of migrant workers and their families with food packages and second-hand clothes, toys or even school supplies, reducing poverty in Bahrain.
Birthe founded OneHeartBahrain in 2019 after already living in the nation as an expat. “The expats, the wealthier expats, they live in compounds and have nice facilities. Even the cheaper compounds will have swimming pools.” However, Birthe who enjoys integrating culturally wherever she travels noticed that she would “go out and drive around and see migrant workers under the scorching sun working in 45 degrees Celsius.” She further explains “I thought, ‘Am I the only one seeing these people?’ I just felt so extreme. The contrast between my life and theirs”
Bahrain has approximately 458,000 migrant workers, “about 77% of its total workforce.” According to HRW, there are hundreds of thousands of mostly South Asian workers in Bahrain who face exploitation and abuse despite government reforms.
Despite government reforms, there are serious allegations that employers continue to violate migrant workers’ rights. “Withholding wages, charging recruitment fees, working in dangerously hot weather and confiscating passports” are just some of the practices that employers use, without facing any charges or penalties, according to HRW.
Mistreatment and Lack of Social Care
The mistreatment and lack of social care for migrant workers could be the primary issue causing poverty in Bahrain. OneHeartBahrain aims to help those migrant workers in need as they largely receive fewer rights in Bahrain. In fact, due to the lack of a safety net for migrant workers, charities and non-profit organizations must fill the gap.
Birthe stated explains that “Many people are made redundant or don’t receive their wages on time. They kind of get stranded in the country. This is where poverty comes in because they literally have nowhere to go. There is no social support system in the country, there’s no government that helps. It is the charity sector that then steps in to help these people.”
Whilst this is the case, movements such as OneHeartBahrain, regarded as one of the trailblazers in the nation, remain an unofficial charity due to the severe limitations and red tape surrounding charities in the Middle East. Birthe stated, “I have considered many times incorporating it as a charity, but there are serious limitations because you cannot do fundraising.” This clearly makes the job that much harder for Birthe and her volunteers that inspiringly continue to support exploited migrant workers despite the challenges.
Living Conditions of Migrant Workers
Birthe talked about the living conditions for migrant workers, stating that there aren’t any rules in place and health and safety appears to be non-existent. “They’re not in any kind of official accommodation. They can be in a tiny room, with eight people sleeping in one bed.” She goes on to say that these accommodations are often very primitive, often with no fire alarms or fire extinguishers and a basic gas stove. “It’s so dangerous and there are many accidents. People end up blowing themselves up. Because there is no health and safety and no rules in place, you end up with overcrowding and accidents.”
Whilst all is not sunny for the many migrant workers in Bahrain that helped to build the nation despite government reform, movements such as OneHeartBahrain will continue to strive to make the situation better for them and reduce poverty in Bahrain.
The quick growth and transformation of a movement such as OneHeartBahrain in just four years proves that there is huge support and demand for help in Bahrain especially among migrant workers. The movement is currently launching a campaign to feed 2,000 less fortunate in the Kingdom during Ramadan.
– Josef Whitehead