x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Expats in Bahrain 'feel like a guest in someone's home when they are having a family row'

Arrival of soldiers from Saudi Arabia, a more culturally conservative country than Bahrain, worries some expats: 'I don't know how Saudi troops would treat me as a single woman, uncovered and driving.'

BAHRAIN // When Robert Hempel moved to Bahrain with his family just three weeks ago, he never envisaged leaving so soon.

Mr Hempel, a 45-year-old Briton travelling with his 10-month-old daughter Natasha, was among the crowds waiting for flights at Bahrain International Airport yesterday evening, after expatriates were urged to consider leaving the country amid growing unrest on the island.

The stay-at-home dad said his wife's company had advised family members to leave Bahrain, following a government crackdown on protesters calling for reform.

His wife, who is remaining in Bahrain and did not wish to be named, said the family relocated from Qatar just three weeks ago when she took up her new job.

"Me and my daughter are going to London," said Mr Hempel, an engineer. "If things look like they are calm, we'll try to come back soon."

New travel advisories were issued yesterday by several countries, including the UK, Canada and Australia, who have upped their warnings about travel to Bahrain, while advising their citizens on the island to leave if possible.

Commercial flights continued to operate yesterday from Bahrain International Airport, which remained busy, as some expatriates and visitors took heed of the advice and left the country.

British foreign office staff have set-up a booth at the airport to provide assistance to those trying to leave, such as issuing emergency passports for infants who have not yet been issued with travel documents.

The Australian government has issued a "do not travel" warning and urged Australians in Bahrain to leave "if safe to do so", while the Indian Embassy, which caters to the island's approximately 400,000 Indian citizens, has advised people to avoid movement around the Manama city-centre.

Satish Muthiylu, who has lived in Bahrain for ten years, was waiting in the queue to reach the airport check-in area with his wife and 10-year-old son. He said the family had decided to bring forward their annual holiday to India because of the unrest.

"This is the first time we have left for a reason like this," said Mr Muthiylu, a 42-year-old engineer. "We took our own decision from a safety perspective as a preventive measure. Bahrain has been a very good place to live and it's our second home." Many of the island's hundreds of thousands of expatriate residents chose to remain in Bahrain, where schools have been closed until further notice. While there have been isolated reports of panic buying, the mood, according to one long-term Western expatriate, who did not wish to be named, remained "unpredictable".

"I just don't know what to expect hour by hour," she said, speaking at a location in the city centre before the curfew had come into force. "I have thought about going, but I've not put plans in place and I'm considering the options."

The woman's friend, another Western expatriate, said she did not want to leave the island where she raised her children and has called home for her entire adult life.

"It's about having to get up and leave your home, you need to consider it carefully. Over the last month, I haven't heard anyone talking about leaving, until the last four days," she said. "For us long-term expats, we know all sides of the story. I'm not Bahraini, but I feel like a guest in someone's home when they are having a family row. You don't take sides, you are polite and you listen."

Both of the women, who did not wish to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation, were in Bahrain in the 1990s during a previous period of violent unrest. However, both agreed that the current instability felt more serious.

"The feeling has been very empathetic to the country in general, and the Bahraini community," said second woman. "It's just profoundly sad."

Adding to the uncertainty, they said, has been the arrival of GCC troops on the island. Among at least 1,500 troops are soldiers from Saudi Arabia, a more culturally conservative country than Bahrain.

"I don't understand politically why [the forces were brought in], but personally I don't know how Saudi troops would treat me as a single woman, uncovered and driving," the first woman said. "I'm not sure if they would hassle me. I'd prefer to meet a Bahraini at a checkpoint."

Many of the island's expatriate residents live in compounds, some of which are located close to the predominantly Shiite villages that have borne the brunt of the government crackdown and subsequent clashes.

However, there are many living in areas that have been relatively unaffected by the unrest. The Amwaj residential area on the island of Muharraq has been nicknamed the "green zone" by some, because of its isolated location, far from the violence that has spread from Pearl Roundabout, following the raid on Wednesday morning that once again cleared the area.

 

zconstantine@thenational.ae