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Bahrain to Ban Expatriate Drivers – Shock Horror!

June 5, 2014

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If you spend enough time in the Middle East, and especially the Arabian Peninsula, you will accumulate all manner of stories about the eccentricities of decision-making. For every weird decision, you learn to look beyond the obvious reasons, and search for hidden motives and power plays that frequently underlie them.

Nothing is exercising the good people of Bahrain at the moment more than the proposed new traffic legislation that bars expatriates from obtaining driving licences. The law was approved last week by the Shoura Council, the unelected upper house of Parliament, and is now awaiting ratification by the King.

Since the Shoura approval, there have been howls of outrage from Bahrainis and expatriates alike. Talk centres mainly on the provision being unconstitutional, in contravention of human rights and disastrous for business. It seems that there would be exemptions for certain categories of expatriates who the authorities consider need to drive as part of their jobs.

It’s still unclear whether those who already have driving licences would have them revoked. If that were the case, chaos would ensue. Like many of the Gulf countries, Bahrain has thousands of expatriates – many of them from the Indian subcontinent – who get by doing “a bit of this and a bit of that”. Most likely they would ignore the provision, taking their chances that the country’s police force, already stretched by having to deal with regular outbreaks of violence in the Shia villages, would be hard pressed to catch up with them.

Even the rationale for the provision, which the lower house of Parliament inserted into a wider set of regulations, is disputed. Parliament claims that the majority of accidents are caused by expatriates. Not so, say the objectors, who point to the shortcomings of Bahraini drivers as the prime cause. I can’t comment on these claims, but in my four years of living in the country I can certainly recall numerous reports of accidents in which Bahrainis died as the result of collisions at high speed. On the highways, most of the speeding I experienced was by young people in expensive cars that would be beyond the pocket of low-paid workers.

But hey, you can manipulate statistics any way you want, so if you give equal weight to minor dinks and major accidents, you could probably come up with the justification you’re looking for.

Bahrain has form in coming up with regulations that are hard to implement or are quietly dropped.

Most recently there was a requirement that all visitors should obtain electronic visas in advance of arrival. The motive seems to have been to screen out potential troublemakers like those pesky human rights activists who would come to the country during the Arab Spring protests and take to the streets in solidarity with local demonstrators. The process was cumbersome and never fully implemented. People without visas (which are normally issued on the spot by the immigration officer for a small fee) would find themselves hauled into a room and asked to wait while an official did a Google search on the person’s name! Hardly the most effective way of weeding out the undesirables. I suspect that the need to admit visitors easily and quickly for the annual Grand Prix bonanza was the reason why the system was never applied universally.

Then there’s the perennial issue of alcohol. Parliament – which has its fair share religious extremists within its ranks, has on many occasions tried to introduce a total ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol. It has always been blocked by the Shoura Council. The reason is pretty obvious. There are many powerful players within the country whose business interests would be damaged by a ban. The local economy depends heavily on tourists, both Westerners who would not take kindly to visiting a dry country, and the hundreds of thousands of weekend visitors from neighbouring Saudi Arabia who come over to do stuff that is forbidden in their homeland. I fancy that a fair few of them would find somewhere else to indulge in the demon drink if Bahrain shut all the fleshpots and bars. So the hotels, shopping malls and cinemas would undoubtedly suffer, and Dubai, an equally enticing watering hole, would benefit accordingly.

More recently came the attempt to disqualify anyone without a degree from standing for parliament, as if education and wisdom were one and the same thing. My thoughts on that one are here.

I have to admit to having a sneaking sympathy for the driving ban, but not necessarily for the reasons that motivate the parliamentarians.

Like all the Gulf states, Bahrain is heavily reliant on expatriate labour, though less so than the UAE and Qatar. Approximately 50% of the population of Bahrain is foreign, compared with around 80% in Qatar. Bahrain has to ask itself whether it’s viable in the long term to pour money into infrastructure that enables it to support an expatriate population. The country has had far longer than any of its neighbours to develop a workforce that sustains the country without the need for large numbers of foreign workers. Bahrainis are quite capable of building highways, cleaning the streets and maintaining the air conditioners if they are trained to do so. Thanks in part to the influence of its wealthier neighbours the idea has been implanted in society that trade and the professions are OK, but manual labour isn’t, except for the underclass that has grown up in the villages.

The trouble is that while across the causeway Saudi Arabia has ample funds that enable it to outsource the dirty stuff to hordes of foreigners, Bahrain is not so fortunate. Its oil and gas reserves are miniscule compared with the likes of Qatar, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and the big boys next door. Without considerable assistance from its well-heeled cousins the dolce vita that every well-educated Gulf national regards as his birthright would be unsustainable.

In terms of economics, any measure that encourages the local population to rely less on its expatriates would seem to be a step in the right direction, whether the expatriates themselves like it or not. More on the dependency issue in this piece, which I wrote in 2011 just as the Arab Spring protests were beginning to crank up.

In any event, Bahrain being Bahrain, the most likely outcome from this latest uproar with be that the proposed provision will either be blocked at the behest of the great and the good, or it will be implemented in such a diluted form that people will be left wondering what the fuss was all about.

What the Bahrainis will not be asking themselves is why, eighty years after oil was first discovered on the island, they have not gone further down the road to labour self-sufficiency.  How is it that Singapore, a country that in 1945 – after three years of Japanese occupation – was arguably in a far less advanced state than Bahrain at the time, manages to get by with only 16% of the population who are guest workers?

There are many answers to that question depending on your political, cultural and historical persuasion. My suggestion would be to follow the money, as the detectives like to say.

As for the drivers worried about their ability to get around an island notorious for its inadequate public transport system, my guess is that if you were to visit Bahrain in five years’ time, there will be no shortage of cooks and bottle-washers from Kerala and Kathmandu still riding around in their beaten-up old Toyotas.

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