It is not a happy time in Bahrain, especially if you belong to the political opposition, are Shiite, or any way were associated with the protests that began in February and were violently suppressed in March. Like many Gulf states, the rulers of Bahrain have invested heavily in what I call trophy culture, large museums, international events, even a Formula One race which was popular and prestigious. But culture is on the back burner as the government continues a vigorous crackdown on dissent.
I don’t say it in the piece which ran in the Washington Post today, but I worry that it might be true: Culture is very often an illusion. The “culture” one finds in the Gulf feels false and fabricated, not just because it is an import and part of a public relations strategy. It’s false because it papers over the undemocratic, artificial structure of the society. Undemocratic countries obviously can have deep culture, but it is usually a vestige, a remnant. It is kept alive as a form of protest, or as a survival mechanism. But in the Gulf, there isn’t even a vestigial culture to be nourished. It is a commercial overlay, a mask. It felt that way in Bahrain.