x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Economy tops agenda as Bahrain goes to polls

Just days away from crucial parliamentary elections housing shortages and low wages top the list of worries for Bahrainis.

MANAMA // Just days away from crucial parliamentary elections, one issue unites many Bahrainis from all points on the political spectrum: the economy.

Housing shortages and low wages top the list of worries for Bahrainis such as Ahmed al Shahabi, who mingled with other eligible voters at the election tent of the opposition National Democratic Action Society.

"We Bahrainis can't find houses or jobs, and we're poorly paid," Mr al Shahabi said. Any candidate - liberal, Islamist, opposition or government - who can get him a better wage will win his vote on Saturday, he said. He earns 350 Bahraini dinars (Dh3,500) a month.

Amid this clamour for better-paying jobs and new homes, the inducements distributed by candidates and their supporters from all political parties - or societies, as they are known here - carry weight.

"I have a charity, I fix houses and I pay for people to study at Bahrain University," Adel al Assomi, an independent in the last parliament who is close to the government, said at his election tent.

"It's not because I'm an MP, it's because I'm from this area and this is Arabic culture."

Critics say the charities used by wealthy candidates and Islamist societies are a form of vote-buying. Mr al Assomi, however, sees nothing wrong in handing out air conditioners or refrigerators, or using his influence to speed bureaucratic procedures for his constituents.

Mr al Assomi's benevolence will not affect the result of the election, he said, because his opponent from Al Menbar National Islamic Society also operates a charity.

"We know this man is honest. He wants to solve problems and he's helped us a lot," said Ahmed Wahed, a member of Bahrain's opposition communist party, which does not have a candidate in the constituency.

"The government, they love him, and he can do something about the people's housing needs," Mr Wahed said, alluding to the list of more than 50,000 Bahrainis waiting for a government-subsidised flat.

Besides the state of the economy, the extent of political naturalisation is a source of heated debate in this year's campaign.

The opposition says the government's willingness to grant passports to foreign Sunnis is one of the two main tactics it employs - along with the manipulation of constituency boundaries - to ensure a majority of support in the parliament. Around 70 per cent of Bahrain's population is Shiite, but 23 of the 40 candidates elected in 2006 were Sunni.

Khalil Marzooq, a candidate for the largest opposition group, the Shiite-dominated Al Wefaq, said the government has naturalised around 100,000 people since the 1990s.

"It's a crime because they are bringing illiterate people to disturb the development of this country," Mr Marzooq said. "In 2006, people watched buses coming from Saudi. They brought them to the polling station on the causeway and told them who to vote for." He said most of the Saudis were from the Dosari tribe.

Hassan al Dosari, a candidate who is close to government and one of the tribe's two representatives in the last parliament, said the families of the Saudis who were given Bahraini citizenship were originally from Bahrain and left at the beginning of the last century after a dispute with the British. He said some have returned and his family now spans Bahrain, Khobar and Dammam.

The Dosaris who received Bahraini nationality had to prove their links to the island with paperwork, Mr al Dosari said. "It doesn't change the outcome of the election. I got 1,260 votes in 2006, and only around 100 were from Saudi." He said the opposition is "preparing an excuse before it fails".

Bahraini law allows foreigners from other Arab countries to apply for citizenship after working locally for 15 years and foreigners from non-Arab countries to apply after 25 years. The government says no one has been nationalised before meeting these requirements.

In addition to the Dosaris, the government has imported Sunnis from countries such as Pakistan, Syria and Yemen to work in the security forces and naturalised them almost immediately, the opposition claims.

An unemployed Shiite man sitting with a group of youths among the drab concrete walls of Ma'ameer, where police regularly paint over anti-government graffiti, linked the government's alleged naturalisation policies to his dire economic straits.

"We're not getting jobs, the naturalised get them straight away, and they can work in the military," he said.

A resident of Riffa, one of the Sunni-dominated towns where naturalised foreigners reside, said naturalisation "is in the interests of the country".

"The king, god bless him, is trying to do the best for everyone," said the man, who identified himself only as Khalid. "Maybe some people got citizenship to do security jobs, but who built this country? It's foreigners."

Some of the naturalised foreigners have worked in Bahrain for most of their lives. Khalil Ali Ahmed, a Shiite machine operator from an Iranian family, was born in Bahrain. He is 44 and received his Bahraini passport 10 years ago.

"In other countries it might make a difference if you are Shiite or Sunni, but in Bahrain it doesn't," Mr Ahmed said. "I think the system is fair."

Reem Khalifa, the Sunni diplomatic correspondent for the local newspaper, Al Wasat, said local Sunnis are just as unhappy with the demographic change as Shiites. She said her newspaper has reported "harassment, clashes and fights" between the locals and newcomers in Sunni areas.

"Even the Sunnis believe those brought in to work in the security forces are given houses before them," Khalifa said.