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The Loop

Despite unrest, golf in Gulf States should last

February 17, 2011

Everyone we met was so happy -- well, almost everyone. The Gulf States that photographer Dom Furore and I visited the last two weeks of January were surrounded by political violence while we were there, from Tunisia and Egypt to the north to Yemen in the south and Iran on the other side of the Persian Gulf -- or the Arabian Gulf, as it is called in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The segment of the population we met was well taken care of by their government. But that is only part of the story. There was a level of dissatisfaction simmering just below the surface in a portion of the population that does not have much of a voice -- and that was the portion that exploded in violence in Bahrain this week.

The indigenous population of the Arabian Peninsula have it pretty good. They pay no taxes, get electricity for free, have cheap gasoline and occasionally get "bonus checks" from the government in the thousands of dollars as a sort of compensation for political compromise. The tradeoff is that they live under a feudal system of family rule by sheikhs or kings, not under an electoral democracy. Most accept the situation. But the demonstrations in Bahrain reflect the dissatisfaction among foreign workers about their conditions, as well as indicating the tension between Shiite Muslims and the ruling Sunni family of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

Unlike the larger states of Egypt and Libya, there is not much visible poverty in the oil-rich Gulf States. But the political problem that does exists in the Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Dubai is that most of the people in low-paying jobs are from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, The Philippines and elsewhere in poverty-ravaged Asia. Most of those foreigner workers with whom we spoke were not happy. They felt exploited, under-paid and certainly treated as second-class residents. There was a strike by construction workers while we were in Dubai and they were given two choices: Go back to work or go home.

It seems unlikely the situation in the Gulf States will get as bad as it has in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. While Islamic law is the framework for civil law in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Bahrain, the countries are not governed by strict fundamentalist law. Part of the reason there are professional golf tournaments in the Gulf States is because they are trying to direct their economies away from being oil-based to more diverse enterprises like banking, real estate development and tourism. The ubiquitous marketing slogan seen everywhere is: "Business friendly Bahrain."

The Royal Golf Club, where the Volvo Golf Champions was played this year as Bahrain joined Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar on the European Tour Middle East swing -- is about a half-hour drive from Pearl Square in Manama where the violence is going on. It is surrounded by hundreds of newly constructed homes, most of which have been purchased by wealthy Saudis who drive across the causeway for a vacation retreat in Bahrain, which is less restrictive than Saudi Arabia.

Manama itself is a modern city with high-rise office buildings, extremely upscale hotels, elegant restaurants and a quaint "old town" that captures the feel of a more traditional time in Arab culture. The logos of many major multinational firms litter the skyline. While the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" is significant, that is because the "haves" have so much. The safety net below the have nots is significant -- unless you are a foreign worker.

Certainly, part of the risk of placing a tournament on the Arabian Peninsula is the possibility of political turmoil. But oil, as well as the financial resources and willingness to modernize likely will allow the seven United Arab Emirates -- of which Abu Dhabi and Dubai are part -- and the Kingdom of Bahrain as well as Qatar to maintain stability. The most volatile area on the Arabian Peninsula now is Yemen, which is the poorest country on the peninsula, clinging to the north end.

There is also this: Bahrain is extremely important to the U.S. military presence in the Gulf. There are Middle Eastern nations where the United States wouldn't mind seeing unrest, but Bahrain is not one of them. If the dissent in Bahrain continues to come from the foreign workers, they will be given the same message as those construction workers in Dubai: Go back to work or go home. And that's a far different story than what happened in Egypt, where the demonstrators were already home.

-- Ron Sirak