Gulf business hub Bahrain faces uncertain future
Traffic flowing into the Bahraini capital's business district appears to signal a return to normal, but the Gulf financial hub faces an uncertain future after police crushed a pro-democracy uprising.
Security remains tight in the district, home to a multitude of banks and investment firms which have earned Bahrain its reputation, and a heavy police presence has been kept in place across the archipelago.
Traffic would normally be a nightmare in Manama's business district which also houses ministries and embassies, but the flow of vehicles this week has been light during the day before vanishing at night as a daily curfew starts.
"It is still quiet," said a waiter at a cafe next to the Bahrain World Trade Centre tower, where only three tables were occupied.
Bahrain faces an uphill battle to re-establish its reputation as a safe place to do business, after images of riot police and army tanks evicting protesters from central Manama's now destroyed Pearl Square were circulated worldwide.
According to the opposition group Al-Wefaq, 15 Bahraini Shiites have been killed since anti-government protests broke out last month.
Three Bangladeshi workers and three policemen have also been killed, Al-Wasat newspaper reported, bringing the total death toll to at least 21. The interior ministry, meanwhile, says four policemen have died in the unrest.
Tanks remain stationed around business centres, malls and ministries, while masked policemen toting shotguns man checkpoints around Shiite neighbourhoods and villages.
Many Shiites have not been turning up to work, in line with a general strike called by the main trade union, which said roads were not safe for many employees to leave their villages as many faced arrest.
The labour union on Tuesday suspended the action, saying it had received assurances that Bahrainis on their way to work would not be targeted. But it is unclear if employees will heed the call.
"Most people don't want to go back to work until the army is pulled out," said an accountant who took part in the protests. "Some are not returning out of fear, but also because we have demands that haven't been answered."
The man, who declined to give his name, said checkpoints also still control the roads to Shiite villages on the outskirts of Manama.
Human Rights Watch on Sunday urged Manama to "end its campaign of arrests of doctors and human rights activists," after seven leading opposition activists and others were rounded up last week, while many others are still missing.
The interior ministry insisted the next day that security in Bahrain was "stable" in the wake of the March 16 operation to crush the protesters' camp in Pearl Square.
Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman, whose Sunni family has ruled Shiite-majority Bahrain for 230 years, said Bahrain will not only "overcome" the crisis but "emerge stronger."
But in a clear indication of the impact on businesses, Khalifa urged banks to "ease" pressure on indebted small- and medium-sized companies.
King Hamad, who called in troops from other Gulf states to help suppress the protests, said on Sunday a "foreign plot" against Bahrain and its Gulf neighbours had been foiled, apparently referring to Shiite Iran across the Gulf.
Diplomatic tension has soared between Manama and Tehran, with both capitals recalling ambassadors and expelling diplomats.
Bahrain's national carrier, Gulf Air, said on Tuesday that its flights to Iran and neighbouring Shiite-majority Iraq would remain suspended until the end of March.
The mainstream opposition led by Al-Wefaq had called for major reforms leading to a "real" constitutional monarchy under which the prime minister would be elected rather than appointed by the king.
But hardliners within the Shiite majority have gone much further, demanding the ouster of the Al-Khalifa royal family and for Bahrain to become a republic.
Crown Prince Sheikh Salman last month invited opposition groups to take part in a wide-reaching dialogue on the political crisis. But first they insisted on the resignation of the premier, who has been in office since 1970. The future of the dialogue remains unclear.