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Behind Bahrain’s economic success lurks a darker side

Although Bahrain is a small island state with a comparatively tiny population to match, it’s also one of the most forward-looking countries in the Persian Gulf and wider Middle East. With a highly educated English-speaking workforce and modern facilities and infrastructure, Bahrain represents an attractive location for overseas companies looking to capitalise on rising income levels and the growing consumerism now prevalent across many parts of the Arab world.

The state’s lively banking sector, which includes major multinationals such as HSBC and Barclays,  has eagerly stepped up to the plate over recent years, matching the increasingly complex needs of international trade with innovative financial products. For example, export and import services in Bahrain offered by banks are not only wide-ranging, but they’re often tailored to suit the specifics of the individual company.

However, away from Bahrain’s dazzling economic success story lurks a darker side which is causing concern in some quarters. French-based non-profit organisation Reporters Without Borders, which has consultant status at the United Nations and UNESCO, has been particularly critical of online surveillance in various parts of the world which, the organization says, is a growing danger for journalists, bloggers, citizen-journalists and human rights defenders.

Bahrain has one of the best levels of internet coverage in the Middle East, the organisation points out on its website. The online penetration rate of 77% means most people in the country are connected. Depending on where you live, connection speeds can be fairly good, too, ranging from 512k to more than 20M. The number of internet service providers is also very high, some 23 for 1.25 million inhabitants. Batelco, operated by Bahrain’s royal family, is the most important one.

Street protests have taken place in Bahrain to varying degrees since the Arab Spring of 2011, says Reporters Without Borders, adding, “While the speed of Bahrain’s internet connections is among the best in the Gulf, the level of internet filtering and surveillance is one of the highest in the world. The royal family is represented in all areas of internet management and has sophisticated tools at its disposal for spying on its subjects.

“Reporters Without Borders added Bahrain to its list of “Internet Enemies” in 2012. The situation for freedom of information has hardly improved since then amid the continuing street protests that began in February 2011 and were inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.”

The organisation claims a lot of online content is in theory inaccessible to the general public because of filtering. The filtering not only targets pornographic content, but also political and religious opinions that are at variance with that of the regime. Content about the royal family, the government and Bahrain’s Shiite community is strictly regulated. The online activities of dissidents and news providers are closely monitored and the surveillance is increasing.

Reda Al-Fardan, a member of the NGO Bahrain Watch, is quoted by Reporters Without Borders as saying that the Bahraini activist community is organized and active online, especially on social networks, but also very exposed. “The number of attacks or emails containing malware has increased steadily since March 2012,” he said.

Malware sent as an email attachment and IP address capturing have been used in cyber attacks, with dissemination methods becoming more and more pernicious. Reda Al-Fardansaid,“Those responsible for these attacks are becoming more and more intelligent and are using topics such as human rights and media freedom as baits.”

In a report last year, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab research centre claimed it had intercepted some of these malware attachments and analysed their content and origin. One piece of malware, forwarded to Bloomberg journalist Vernon Silver by the Bahraini journalist and writer Ala’aShehabi, was found to have an IP address which originated from the headquarters of Bahrain’s biggest ISP, Batelco.

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