MANAMA — In Bahrain, a Muslim country situated in the gulf between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, lives 1.4 million citizens who do not live equal or balanced lives. The country’s diversified economy is a result of low oil production, thus creating not-so-prosperous lives for a portion of the population. Tension is higher as the Shia majority and Sunni population are divided over rule of the Sunni King, with the Shia population claiming class and systematic discrimination in the job market. So with all the political and public tensions, why is Bahrain poor?
For most of the people living in Bahrain, life is good. There are those who can afford to lead luxurious lifestyles, shopping in malls and driving expensive cars, but the rich-poor gap increases and the poor, living just miles from major wealthy cities, do not get the same privileges. The Shiites make up 75 percent of the population, yet are excluded from work and are qualitatively outnumbered by Sunnis who hail from other Arab countries under the protective eyes of the ruling al-Khalifa family.
Wealth is unevenly distributed among these populations as a result of the oppressive and unfair monarchy. Most jobs out of the oil industry or in other undesirable fields go to foreign workers instead of poor Shiite locals, leading to violent protests and demonstrations against the country’s political and economic agenda throughout the 1990s.
Widespread Reach of Extreme Poverty
A report from the Bahrain Center for Human Rights released in 2004 detailed the extreme poverty affecting half of the country’s citizens. Studies showed that 20,000 Bahrainis were unemployed, and 80,000 people were living far below the poverty line. Additionally, the conditions of the poor population were blamed on a lack of housing for a great portion of those 200,000 people living in poverty. The unemployed and those receiving financial assistance from the government were unable to get government-granted loans. Further, the government charges 23 different types of fees on people for its services.
The report concluded that poverty and poor living conditions are caused by a corrupt government through unequal distribution of wealth, waste of public money, poor policy planning, dependency on low-wage foreign workers who constitute more than half of the labor force, and administrative and economic faultiness. The report predicted that by 2014, the unemployment rate would exceed 80,000 people and that increasing poverty would reflect negatively on the political and social realms of the country.
The Ibda’a Bank
In 2009, Bahrain took a big step to combat poor living conditions by launching The Ibda’a (Creativity) Bank which would extend micro-credit facilities for poor families, allows low-income citizens to start their own businesses. Bahrain was the first country in the Gulf to do so. The bank had an initial investment of $5 million and aimed to help 1,000 Bahrainis in its first year of operation. With the hope of creating a rise in employment and improving the social and economic lives of Bahraini women, especially, the bank would begin helping people live as independently from government assistance as possible.
Though the new bank made lives easier for businesswomen and men seeking a rise from poverty, the country saw a kind of setback in 2011, when a feeling of hopelessness hit poor Bahraini communities. Protesters once again tackled the government and the royal family’s unfair rule during an active campaign to vie for proper living conditions and jobs for Shiites.
A promise of building a spansive waterfront in the poor city of Karazan left many wondering how funding would support the new project, and a spokesperson for the Ministry of Social Development noted that the government needed to improve budget spending and move money toward people living below the poverty line. Protesters ultimately demanded Bahrain adopt a constitutional monarchy and become a fully democratic nation.
The issues of poverty and poor living conditions in Bahrain circle back to government behavior and unequal wealth in the Sunni and Shiite communities. Citizens of the country simply want less job discrimination and more say in how government spending reaches those most in need. As it stands, what is the real answer to why is Bahrain poor? Perhaps it lies in the hands of those with the direct power to make change for the well-being of the entire nation.
– Olivia Cyr