“We’re looking for Kim Kardashian — can you help us?”
And so began our journey that quixotic night in Bahrain in December 2012.
A decade ago, the Arab world was engulfed in a different moment in time. The spirit of revolution was reverberating with a frenzied enthusiasm from country to country. The powers-that-be were starting to shift from being on the nervous back foot to leading the counter-revolution from the front. Nowhere was this more apparent than Bahrain. A royal statelet in the Gulf, Bahrain had been in a seesaw of political turmoil since its independence in 1971, eschewing a union with other Gulf States and conversely a political absorption by Iran.
The constitution in 1973 led to a parliament that refused to ratify laws restricting civil liberties. The then ruler of Bahrain subsequently dissolved the parliament in 1975, and since then, roughly every decade, Bahrain has had some type of political convulsion. So, on February 14, 2011 — not just Valentine’s Day but also the date marking the most recent promulgation of a constitution by decree by the King — the streets of Al Manama erupted, borrowing the thematic thunder from Tunisia and Egypt, as the people marched for change.
At Art Dubai that year (in March), there was one exhibit that surreally captured the mood of the region. It was an exhibit with the flags of the 22 countries of the Arab League, with brooms under the countries whose leaders had already been swept from power. With active protests in over a half dozen other countries, people felt the brooms were coming for everyone. But behind the scenes, it was clear that those in power were re-consolidating after the jolt not only of people power but also the perceived abandonment by the Obama Administration of its allies. The region’s strongmen decided that there would not be a change of regime in Bahrain.
On March 14 the Gulf Cooperation Council sent troops into Bahrain to quell the protests and riots. By May 31, it was clear the monarchy had the upper hand, and the King declared a National Dialogue that on the surface sounded great but there was doubt around whether it was truly going to be an authentic dialogue bringing in diverse voices. Ultimately, the international community (whatever international community means) remained circumspect. Events like the Formula 1 and Manama Dialogue were canceled in 2011. However, everything began to return in 2012. And that is when I made my first trip to Bahrain as well.
The Manama Dialogue was organized annually by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think-tank that received generous contributions from the Gulf (similar to almost every think-tank in the West). It was a deeply geopolitical event, and no issue was off-limits. When its return was announced for December 2012, it was due to be a remarkable scene as it would take place in a country seemingly stalled in transition, while the entire Arab world was also still stuck between revolution and counter-revolution (it would be another six months before the military re-takeover of Egypt and the beginning of the end of whatever the Arab Spring was).
There was a range of ministers of the foreign nature present and resplendent, and a mish-mash of muckrakers in the corridors. On the sidelines, there was a ‘national dialogue’ of pageantry between the Bahraini monarchy and select opposition members. It was an interesting weekend for myself and some friends who I met there for the first time, and who remain friends today — such as Jasmine, Oubai, and of course Josh Rogin. While we were cloistered — under watchful eyes — at the Ritz Carlton, I had resolved to, in addition to my normal irreverent outbursts in the formal settings, to also venture out for two objectives: to report on the feelings of everyday people in opposition areas and to find Kim Kardashian’s milkshakes.
My irreverent outburst came during a breakout session on sectarianism in the Gulf, that also featured then NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow. I had a dust-up with a Saudi government official who spoke of some grand Shiite plot to build a religious empire in Yemen. I interrogated him on if he was aware of the theocratic differences between Twelvers and Zaidis and it was a shallow road to nowhere conversation. Afterward, Vershbow confided to me that the Chair ended our discussion just when it was getting interesting.
My mind though was already on my evening plan. Through a Bahraini connection from many years back, I connected onward to an individual who would pick me up and take me to several opposition strongholds, where I would meet some leaders of movements for change who were still free. It was meant to be for an article that I never ended up writing for fear that I would myself get into trouble on my return. By that point in late 2012, early 2013, the era of ‘free’ range on regional topics was gone in the UAE, and you had to be more mindful of the sharp red lines on issues.
In December 2012, there were still daily protests in Bahrain contesting the increasing re-assertion of government control and growing suppression of the opposition. Yet, the timing of the Manama Dialogue was also during Muharram, and the protests were not regularly occurring — but while there were no protests there were religious processions. It was truly a visible contrast between the confabbing at the Carlton of Ritz and the visceral feeling in these outlying towns of Al Manama. I realized in my conversations that day that people power on its own is no match for the staying power of the status quo. I also felt deep hopelessness. At that time, I was more a storyteller on the region’s politics than anything else and I had many platforms to turn to. Yet, what would one more story achieve?
Josh had no such compulsion but instead the gumption of a gumshoe always hot on the trail and ready to yell from the rooftops at a moment’s notice. So, two peas in a pod we hailed a taxi after my return to the hotel from my aforementioned experiences. Our destination? Millions of Milkshakes and Kim Kardashian. Our journey there turned out to be more interesting than the destination itself as we meandered through Al Manama searching for this mysterious new outlet while hearing from our taxi driver on the teargassing of his village and how his son was shot by some type of shrapnel gun. Now memorialized in a Foreign Policy ‘Cable’, it’s a vivid memory for me that showed the collision of the West’s corrupt capitalism and the East’s ‘klepto-autocracy’ in a naked union for all to see:
“When we arrived at the Millions of Milkshakes franchise at The Walk Plaza in the elite Manama enclave of Riffa on Dec. 9, the columns of purple balloons left over from Kardashian’s visit were halfway deflated, hanging on the door frame like a fading memory. But a 15-foot-high image of Kardashian still towered over customers as high-definition TV screens played the news reel of Kim’s visit in a never-ending loop. The milkshakes were decent; I had the Kim Kardashian special, while Taufiq chose The Billionaire. The price was reasonable for pricy Bahrain, equal to about $8 dollars for the large. We scrambled to memorialize the moment, forcing the confused manager to snap smart-phone photos of us mimicking Kardashian’s sultry and suggestive pose while our milkshakes were being prepared.”
Today the naked union I mentioned is masked in woke confusion, but the underlying notions are still there — money always finds money and the powers that be have a higher interest in self-preservation. Behind the scenes, those who squabble in the spotlight, are often confabbing, and quite frequently at various Ritz Carltons throughout the world. As for Bahrain? It’s all but a forgotten story yet the cast of concerns remains very real. There are many questions but very few answers.
And as for Millions of Milkshakes? Permanently closed.