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Bahrain's Poor Live In The Shadow Of A Monarchy

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Bahrain's Poor Live In The Shadow Of A Monarchy

Middle East

Bahrain's Poor Live In The Shadow Of A Monarchy

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To Bahrain now, where protesters are in their fourth week of a campaign to topple the government. The royal family there has been in power for more than two centuries. Far from the demonstrations, some Bahraini villagers say they feel left out of the island's prosperity and they blame religious discrimination, official corruption and neglect.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from the back alleys of a gulf monarchy.

FRANK LANGFITT: Bahrain's capital of Manama is lined with glass and steel skyscrapers that reflect the blue-green waters of the Persian Gulf. Less than 10 miles away is another Bahrain.


LANGFITT: The poor village of Karzakan. The sprawl of concrete houses is home to thousands of Shiite Muslims. Shia make up the majority in Bahrain and many say they are treated like second class citizens in a country ruled by the minority Sunnis. Hasan Mohammad Al Sheik(ph) studied to be a history teacher.

HASAN MOHAMMAD AL SHEIK: (Through translator) I put forward my application. They wanted to see my credentials, and then they said, wait, wait, wait. And then afterwards, Sunnis came and took the jobs.

LANGFITT: He says the work went to Sunni Muslims from other Arab countries. After two years, Al Sheik took a lower-paying job as an electrical maintenance man. Of course, he has no way to prove discrimination. But his complaint is one heard over and over again at protests here. He says giving up on a career he dreamed of still hurts.

MOHAMMAD AL SHEIK: (Through translator) You feel burnt inside. You're living in your own country and other people are given preference over you.

LANGFITT: Al Sheik shares a dilapidated courtyard home with several generations of family. The roof of a shed is collapsed next to the chicken coop and conditions for people are cramped. Al Sheik opens the door to a tiny room with a double bed.

MOHAMMAD AL SHEIK: (Speaking foreign language)

LANGFITT: One of his relatives, a middle-aged woman, appears. She speaks from behind a veil. Her name is Zanib(ph). She won't identify herself beyond that for fear of government reprisals.

ZANIB: (Through translator) We're very lost here. You call this living?

LANGFITT: Jassa Mohammed Hasan(ph) serves on Karzakan's municipal council. He shows me what used to be Karzakan's beach, which looks out towards Saudi Arabia. Hasan grew up here and remembers playing at a locally-owned farmland along the water's edge.

JASSA MOHAMMED HASAN: (Through translator) We used to enjoy a lot of our time here. We used to go inside the farms, play on the beach, swimming, fishing, everything.

LANGFITT: Today, Karzakan has just 200 yards of shoreline. The rest is dominated by huge walled villas. Hasan says royal family members and their friends put pressure on local people in the 1990s to sell it below market rates.

MOHAMMAD AL SHEIK: (Through translator) About 20 percent to the west, the land was worth a lot of money and they got very little.

LANGFITT: Just before protests erupted last month in Bahrain, the government built a concrete block near the water's edge here with a message. It promised the community more than a mile of new waterfront. Hasan says he has no idea where that waterfront will come from.

Maha Hussein Al Mandeel is an official in Bahrain's ministry for social development. She says the problems in villages like Karzakan are complex. Al Mandeel says only a small percentage of people in Bahrain actually live below the poverty line. But she says the government should do more to lift people up and ensure stability.

MAHA HUSSEIN AL MANDEEL: It's not the economics. It is how the government is spending the budget. It should be towards moving people from the poverty to the middle class.

LANGFITT: She says poor residents had been frustrated by this for years. Then, protests in North Africa inspired them.

HUSSEIN AL MANDEEL: They have been complaining. Just they have the chance now because everywhere in other countries they have riots. People wanted to do the same.

LANGFITT: Al Mandeel says Bahrain's King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa has improved government. But speaking personally, she says the protests show it's time for a fully-elected legislature. Not like the one now, where the upper house is appointed. And she says the king should play a more ceremonial role as royals do in England.

HUSSEIN AL MANDEEL: My opinion, having a kingdom or having the king makes the country more stable. But the government should be a more democratic one.

LANGFITT: On the streets of Manama these days, that is protesters' minimum demand that Bahrain become a constitutional monarchy and the first fully democratic nation on the Arabian Peninsula.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Manama, Bahrain.

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