Bahrain Diary: 'Too much Honky Ponky'

For a Muslim country, the number of women who work as prostitutes in Bahrain is remarkably high. The sale of alcohol and sex are divisive issues that could spell trouble during October's parliamentary elections. By Malachy Browne

Extreme weather events are not taken lightly by devout Muslims. They regard them as messages from God - either to reward good deeds done, or to reprimand moral transgressions.

So it was when a sandstorm ripped across Saudi Arabia and through the archipelago of Bahrain recently. According to a Bahraini taxi driver (and newspaper reports the following day), the like had not been seen in decades. Within minutes of being mild and sunny, visibility was reduced to a few metres. The storm thrashed date palms, ripped down billboards and flung debris along motorways in Bahrain's capital Manama. It eased momentarily before rearing up again.

It was surely a message from God, the taxi driver said, and worse would come. "Too much honky ponky", he said; Bahrain's open sex tourism would cause the low-lying island to one day be submerged by, well, an Almighty tsunami.

For a Muslim country the only thing more surprising than the number of prostitutes in Bahrain is the freedom with which they transact. So prevalent is prostitution that Google Maps marks out the many bars where sex is sold. The trade is unbridled in bars attached to many hotels; so uninhibited are the bars that the street trade is relatively discreet.

One Australian-run bar is synonymous with prostitution in Bahrain. On entering the outback-themed bar, customers land in the company of tens of smartly-dressed Filipino and Chinese women. The women stand in groups of twos and threes at the bar and by tables along the opposite wall. A Filipino band plays contemporary rock on the cavernous stage to the end of the bar. At the other dimly-lit end of the bar stand older foreign women.

The working women cut straight to business. A Chinese woman grips my forearm as I approach the bar. "I have apartment", she says before negotiating an acceptable price for sex. Other women proposition the male members of our group within minutes. More approach as we sidestep through various groups to find comfortable standing space nearer the stage.

The more industrious women return repeatedly over the next hour. "You want Chinese girl? Where you stay?" I name the lodgings, a reputable mid-ranged hotel. Apparently, staff there will not object to inviting home a prostitute. I am told that a full night will cost 100 Bahraini Dinar (BD) – around €200.

A lurid scene develops at the nearest table. A trim, smartly-dressed European man in his late-40s starts to swivel his crotch against the thigh of a pretty young Filipino woman sitting on a stool. She is probably aged in her early twenties but has a younger-looking face. She is less responsive, but tolerates his attentions. Soon after, they leave the bar.

Adjoining the bar is a hotel with a sizeable lobby area. It is occupied by as many Asian women as are in the bar. I encounter a Chinese girl emerging to the lobby from an elevator. She pauses to brush her hair and tie it into a pony tail. I ask if she has been working. She has earned 30 BD (€60), she says jovially, seeming happy with the take. She met the customer in The Australian bar. A taller woman emerges from the next elevator, issues instructions to the girl who promptly leaves.

Being unable to interview the women working here, except for passing conversation, it is difficult to say whether they work here by choice or are entrapped. It is not imponderable that some prostitutes enjoy their work. A former prostitute in Ireland wrote to the Pat Kenny radio programme this summer. She criticised the usual admonition of prostitution by Irish media. She eloquently described how she enjoyed her work; the satisfaction she felt of providing a good service; knowing she was appreciated by the men she slept with - mostly married men whose relationships had lost physical intimacy.

However, Ruhama this week reported the darker side of prostitution and trafficking - the horrific physical and emotional treatment of women; the enslavement and entrapment of women trafficked and forced to work as prostitutes.

It is known that in Bahrain too prostitution is organised. Indeed, that the Australian bar trades only in Chinese and Filipino bars suggests something more than random assembly. Bars in other hotels are known to 'specialise' in nationalities – Russian, Thai, Filipino, Arabic, Bangaladeshi, and Chinese. One hotel in the Al Jaffir district has bars on four different levels; each one 'offers' a specific nationality of prostitute.

Only Russian women parade on the stage at Platinum bar at the four star Golden Tulip hotel. The silhouette of keffiyah-capped Saudi men reclining in front row seats cuts an atypical scene. Dressed in luminous bikinis, the women gyrate suggestively over stools and perform Russian karaoke. Purchasing a bottle of champagne entitles the buyer to a slow dance with one of the girls when a later rendezvous can be arranged. Two of the younger girls appear to already have had their fill of bubbly.

Perhaps the older women who remain by the rear of the Australian bar are the 'mamsans' reported to lure girls from their native countries on promise of high wages as housemaids. The Gulf Daily News reported in 2007 that 200 Thais "flee" their traffickers in Bahrain every year. Four such escapees said they had to "service" at least five men a day. They showed "clear signs of physical and mental distress" the report said.

A small island nation with lots of sand and few attractions, liberal laws on alcohol and tolerance of prostitution are considered by the King as vital to the tourist industry. Wednesday is the eve of the Saudi weekend when thousands of Saudi Arabians cross the bridge to Bahrain to escape strict laws at home. Foreign direct investment from western companies has brought tens of thousands of western economic migrants to the city.

But these are divisive issues in Bahrain. Bahrain's majority Shia population opposes alcohol and prostitution on religious grounds; blog posts and comments on the issue indicate voluble disagreement. Bills to prohibit alcohol have been passed by the Shia-ruled parliament but revoked by the Sunni–ruled Shura Council – the upper house in the bi-cameral legislature appointed by the King. One member of the Shura council rejected Shia MPs who supported the Bill as members of Islamist movements.

Occasionally, isolated prosecutions occur. A Thai barber was jailed for one month last week for offering customers a massage and sex for 5 BD (€10). But it was only in 2009 after Bahrain was listed in one of the top 10 'Sin Cities' by a men's magazine was there a concerted crack-down on prostitution. Soon after, the tightly controlled media began to report that the prosecutions could affect tourism. Vested interests in the hotel and restaurant trade support the continued sale of alcohol, and hence the main venues for prostitution. An industry representative described alcohol prohibition as "a precursor to driving foreign investments out of the country".

Economic, political and moral grievances among the Shia population have spilled over into riots in recent years. There is a feeling of exclusion among some Shias by the Sunni leadership. The parliament is seen as impotent, as the Bills to ban alcohol and calls to eradicate prostitution demonstrate. October's parliamentary elections could see further disquiet.

Women working as prostitutes in Bahrain live in limbo. Those who choose the occupation work illegally and without protections; those entrapped are in horrendous circumstances. For the Sunni leadership to legalise and regulate the sex trade would be even more divisive. And the rights of migrant workers (from South Asia) are not high on the political agenda. So existing conditions are likely to persist, and Bahrain will continue to be awash with foreign women trafficked and exploited.

Until the tsunami comes.