A potential clause for the new driving law being debated in Bahrain’s Parliament would effectively ban expats from driving, unless they could prove that their career required a vehicle.
Think about this: Bahrain is a country where foreign residents are a comfortable majority; Bahrain lacks any kind of public transport system and the road infrastructure and climate make it dangerous or impossible to walk.
So we have a situation where a majority of MPs appear to support a measure that would prevent the majority of those living in the country from getting around.
For example, an Interior Ministry official pointed out: “What about expatriate pensioners who decide to buy homes in residential developments and want to spend their remaining time here? They are of no profession, so how could we deal with them?”
Of course; foreign residents don’t vote; so it’s not surprising that their views aren’t adequately taken into account by elected representatives.
However, the bigger picture is that Bahrain is a state that thrives on being an amenable environment for foreign workers, foreign investment and international tourists: So measures that penalize this unrepresented constituency have a long term negative effect on the country as a whole.
A whole raft of other measures supported by MPs can be seen in a similar light: Islamist and Salafist factions have notched up hundreds of hours of parliamentary time, pursuing laws criminalizing “un-Islamic” practices. This varies from seeking to get pork and alcohol banned; segregation of schools and public places; preferential treatment for Muslim citizens; Islamic banking regulations and much more.
Most of these measures have never seen the light of day, thanks to the fact that the elected house of Parliament doesn’t have unlimited legislative powers; so excesses can be checked by the Shura Council or the Cabinet of Ministers.
Bahrain’s tolerant & family-friendly society
However; if these MPs had been given a free hand to impose their Islamic agenda; Bahrain would already be a very different place. A large proportion of European families who live in Bahrain actually work across the causeway in Saudi Arabia; but because of Bahrain’s relaxed, family-friendly environment, they prefer to be here.
If Bahraini MPs had gone down the “Islamist” path of banning alcohol; reducing the freedoms of women and religious minorities; enforcing dress codes; segregating schools and tying the financial sector up in Islamic regulation; then we would have already lost 90% of what makes the Bahraini economic and social model a success.
In the past Al-Wefaq Islamic Society used their parliamentary weight to block measures for a Family Law to cover the Shia community; providing women with legal protection for issues of marriage, inheritance and child custody.
Over previous years, a number of Islamist MPs have pursued a vicious campaign against our hard-working Minister of Culture, Sheikha Mai Al Khalifa, and her annual “Spring of Culture” events. These spectacular artistic and musical events celebrate the best aspects of local, regional and global culture; but predictably, some backwards figures regard any display of culture as “un-Islamic”.
Once again; Bahrain is lucky that such figures don’t have the last word and aren’t able to mobilize their supporters to force intolerant legislation through Parliament.
Sheikh Isa Qassim’s Religious Bloc
In 1973 Bahrain embarked on a short-lived Parliamentary experiment. The National Assembly was certainly a high point for Bahrain civil society and political life in the years following independence. However, once again the process was hijacked by political groups who sought to use their new-found power to Islamicize society.
The Religious Bloc; led by figures like Sheikh Isa Qassim, Saeed Al Shehabi and Abdulamir Al Jamri immediately put forward a whole series of proposed measures to segregate society; discriminate against non-Muslims and impose Islamic law. The National Assembly was annulled a year later over a failure to agree on the proposed Security Law. However, a major reason why the experiment hadn’t been seen as a success, were the great efforts many MPs put into backing measures that would have totally contradicted the vision for society that Bahrain’s leadership were trying to promote: A Bahrain that welcomed foreign employees and investors, that was open to tourism; with an economy that could diversify away from the dwindling sources of oil.
King Hamad came to power in 1999 and announced that Bahrain from then on would be a Constitutional Monarchy. His National Action Charter received more than 98% of the vote in a popular referendum. However, opposition parties boycotted the 2002 Parliament elections; mainly because they believed that the King had gone back on a promise to institute a single-chamber parliamentary system with full legislative powers for elected representatives.
I hope that we have now shown what a disaster this would have been if the opposition had got its way. When Al-Wefaq Islamic Society (the successor movement to the Religious Bloc) decided to participate in the 2006 elections it got 18 of the 40 seats and hoped to have achieved a majority through electoral alliances with left-wing allies, who failed to perform so well.
However, even though Al-Wefaq didn’t achieve a parliamentary majority, by allying itself with the Sunni and Salafist political societies they could dominate Parliament when it came to measures for Islamicizing society. So it was only as a result of the system of checks and balances provided by a non-elected upper house of Parliament that Shia and Sunni Islamists did not have absolute power to transform Bahraini society according to their vision.
The principle demands of Al-Wefaq today are similarly for a single House of Parliament with full legislative powers and an elected Government; as if this would bring about a free and democratic Bahrain. Yet the inevitable and very rapid result would be a Bahrain that was highly un-free; where women’s rights were curtailed and a much less tolerant society for non-Muslims; with drastically reduced cultural horizons.
As we have seen in Iraq; when there is a society that is divided along sectarian lines; whichever segment of society succeeds in capturing a parliamentary and governmental majority effectively acts as a dictatorship and can bring in sweeping changes that disempower and disenfranchise other sects –hence the miserable situation for Sunnis in Iraq today.
This is not an argument against democratic reform: Bahrain must continue the path of reform and consolidating a system of Constitutional Monarchy. But we should not fall into the trap of erasing overnight the complex system of checks and balances that allows Bahrain to be the tolerant and welcoming society that it is.