MANAMA: What a difference eight years make. I had not been to Bahrain since the dark days of 2011, when civil strife ruled the streets and some parts of Manama were virtually inaccessible because of barricades and demonstrations.
In 2019, attending the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop in the presence of US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, the place is unrecognizable from the rather hazy memory I have of those days.
The airport has had a complete makeover. Transport away was fast and efficient, and instead of the tang of tear gas in the air, as there was in 2011, there was the balmy aroma of bougainvillea. It was, as one participant said, karma, and calmer, in Manama.
Back then, I stayed at the Crowne Plaza hotel, which was located pretty much on its own in Manama’s diplomatic area. This time, as I checked in there again, what struck me immediately was the amount of development that had gone on all around the area: New residential buildings, more hotels and big flyovers.
The Financial Harbour, which used to be the center of town, has given way to a whole new area — Bahrain Bay — on reclaimed land nearer the airport. At the heart of the new district is the Four Seasons hotel, where the workshop took place. It is a five-star luxury property, as you would expect, and is a good venue for a forum such as the one that just finished there. It was opened in 2015 as the centerpiece of the new reclamation project.
According to the hotel brochure, it “offers you an urban oasis experience with endless views of the Arabian Gulf on one side and the infamous (sic) Manama skyline on the other.” I can vouch for that. The facilities are good. The main plenary hall, rather than an old-fashioned stage and audience setup, is a circular arrangement where the speakers and panelists were in the center and visible from all around.
At least, I have to assume they were visible everywhere in the room. I, as a member of the media distinguished by a yellowy green wash to my lanyard badge, was not allowed into the main hall. Media were confined to a side room with half a dozen TV screens beaming live coverage of the proceedings.
One quirky thing was that there was no sound from the screens, so the huddled hacks had to use headsets to hear what was being said by the eminent thought leaders speaking just next door. It made tape recording very difficult indeed. Media members were isolated from the rest of the workshop during mealtimes too, with access to the main dinner and lunch gently but firmly denied by door wardens.
If the idea behind this segregation was to prevent news-hungry hacks from door-stepping the eminent sources in attendance at the workshop, it was a failure. The hotel lobby, sweeping corridors and marina-facing terraces were all perfect locations for a bit of good, old-fashioned news networking.