Inside the Middle East
June 26, 2011
Posted: 951 GMT

By Jenifer Fenton

Matar Ebrahim Matar, a former MP for the opposition party Al Wefaq, was born in Bahrain on May 3, 1976 into a well-known family. He was the fifth of seven children from his father's third wife. His father, a simple farmer turned wealthy businessman, had 11 additional children with his two other wives.
It is a big family that includes different political and ideological views, a family member said. (None of his family is named out of concern for their safety.) A family member described Matar's brothers and sisters as "leftists, Islamists, Communists, some...conservative and some liberal." Matar was brought up in an environment where politics was a part of daily life, according to a close friend.

(Matar Ebrahim Matar)

Before he resigned from the Kingdom's Parliament to protest the government's crackdown, Matar represented the biggest constituency in Bahrain, approximately 16,000 people. Matar was one of 18 Al Wefaq MPs who resigned. As the youngest Member of Parliament, Matar is described as very intelligent by Khalil al Marzooq, another Al Wefaq leader who resigned. Most of Matar's family are active members of Al Wefaq, the main Shiite opposition group, or the secularist Waad party. Two of Matar's brothers were detained in the 1990s, during a wave of Shiite unrest.
Now, it is Matar who is locked up. He is accused of "public incitement for regime change and deliberately spreading biased rumors, in addition to taking part in public gatherings," according to Bahrain's state run news agency. He has pleaded not guilty.

His family said he was a shy, but bright child. He went to Al Razi primary school in Daih village – the sight of protests earlier this year – where his family still lives. He continued his studies at Jedhafs intermediate school and Naim secondary school. He was always a top student, a close friend of Matar's said. He studied in Kuwait, where he obtained a Masters degree in Computer Science specializing in Artificial Intelligence. Matar left for Kuwait in 1994, the same year an uprising began in Bahrain. "Bahrain went through years of brutal crackdown on protestors just like now," Matar's friend remembers. The unrest continued until Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the King of Bahrain came to power after the death of his father. "The situation in Bahrain calmed down and went through a quiet reform period as promised by Hamad," his friend said. Matar was away during this period, but "he was so concerned about what was going on in Bahrain and decided to contribute (to) any reform process that would help improve the situation of Bahrain," his friend said.

When Matar returned to Bahrain he joined Al Wefaq and helped establish the Bahrain Youth Center, which elected him to be the center's first president. Around this time he met his wife, Dr. Amal Habib. The two were married in 2003. With Amal, "He was very polite and shy," a family member said. "Although when it comes, to politics he becomes very active and vocal." In 2010 he was elected and became an Al Wefaq MP. He was active in the society and people liked him, al Marzooq said.

Bahrain is a tiny Kingdom where a Sunni royal family rules over a majority Shiite population, who for years have complained about discrimination and called for democratic reforms. Matar was at the Pearl Roundabout during the protests that began in mid February. He also attended a couple of protests organized by Al Wefaq during the ensuing unrest. Bahrain declared Martial law on March 15, which was followed by a crackdown by the authorities. At least 1,000 people are believed to be in detention. Matar was at the protests because he just doing his duty as a politician to defend people, to call for their rights, al Marzooq said.

Matar is being held with Jawad Fairooz, another former opposition MP, and others while he awaits his third court appearance scheduled for July 5. Matar was not at his second hearing on Tuesday June 21 for reasons that remain unclear. Guards at the court initially would not allow the family in, saying that Matar's name was not on their court list. The guards later confirmed to his family that Matar's trial would go ahead despite the fact that Matar was not there, a family member said. His lawyer asked to postpone the hearing, but according to his lawyer, the judge decided to proceed. The judge said Matar's case was a minor case so there was no need for him to be there, al Marzooq said. If it is a minor case then "why is there (a) need for him to be in custody for now two months?" Bahrain has not responded to a query about why Matar was not at his own hearing.

Armed men took Matar from his car on May 2, according to his family. His wife was with him at the time. He was in solitary confinement for at least two months from May 2 to June 12. His wife Amal, who works in the ophthalmology department at Salmaniya Medical Complex, was allowed to see him on Wednesday June 22 in accordance with a judge's order, a family member said. She did not take his children, Ahmed, 4, and Sarah, 3, to see him. She "thought it is better for them not to see their father in this condition," a family member said.

Matar told his wife he has not been tortured. A family member said Amal checked Matar's body to see if there were any signs of abuse. There were not. Matar also reportedly said that he had not been harmed. But a family member says they will not be comfortable unless they "see him released and given the freedom to express his opinion and views." Just because Matar said he is fine "does not eliminate the possibility of him being subjected to other kinds of mistreatment, like psychological abuse...We can't be sure that he is not threatened not to mention any mistreatment he might be facing," a family member said.

A human rights activist said that Matar was beaten on the same day he saw his wife. Matar’s visit with his wife was at court on Wednesday June 22, the same day 21 people were convicted on terrorism-related charges in connection with anti-government protests. The trial was denounced by rights groups. The 21 were forcibly removed from the court and taken to a side room where they were beaten by Bahraini security forces, according to Nabeel Rajab, president of Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. Matar happened to be in that side room following the visit with his wife and he was also beaten, Rajab said. The extent of his injuries is unknown. Bahrain has not responded to a query about the alleged incident.

There have been credible allegations of abuse in Bahrain's prisons. Richard Sollom, Deputy Director for Physicians for Human Rights told CNN previously, that his group could "attest to violent assault and defensive wounds on...detainees who have died in custody. We have analyzed photographic evidence of two such deaths in custody that are highly probably the result of severe abuse including blows to the face, torso, arms, and legs." Bahraini officials have said that they are investigating several security personnel alleged to have mistreated detainees.

The police also questioned Amal for six hours on June 19, according to her family. The authorities asked her about Salmaniya Medical Complex, which was a focal point during the protests. Government officials allege that some of the staff helped turn the hospital into a base for the opposition and denied some patients treatment. Human rights groups believe that the medical workers are being targeted because they treated protesters and witnessed gross violations of human rights by Bahrain security forces.

When Matar resigned from parliament earlier this year, a family member asked if he was fearful about not finding work. Matar said no. "‘The last thing I think about is money,'" the family member recalls him saying. "'People elected me to represent them and to defend them." It is unclear if Matar will have another opportunity to serve as an elected official again.

Posted by:
Filed under: Bahrain •Human Rights

Share this on:
June 19, 2011
Posted: 829 GMT

By Jenifer Fenton

The Sunni “National Unity Assembly” demonstration planned for Saturday afternoon in Bahrain was cancelled.

A twitter statement from the group said the Kingdom’s leadership requested the cancellation.

The cancellation follows a large demonstration by the main opposition group Al Wefaq on Friday, which was attended by an estimated 30,000 people. It was the second such gathering by the opposition since the end of the state of emergency.

The Sunni gathering had called for people to meet on Saturday afternoon at the National Stadium and walk toward the Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa’s palace which is about one kilometer away. The group supports the national dialogue, but is against an elected Prime Minister.

Also Saturday Bahrain’s Justice, Islamic Affairs and Endowments Ministry issued a statement saying steps are underway to lift the ban on the secular Waad political party. The party was closed down earlier this year. Its leader Ibrahim Sharif is jailed.

Posted by:
Filed under: Bahrain •Human Rights

Share this on:
May 26, 2011
Posted: 1502 GMT

By Jenifer Fenton, CNN

Bahrain plans to lift its state of emergency on June 1. Two days later, the country will learn if it can reschedule its Formula 1 Grand Prix, which was cancelled due to the unrest.

The Gulf Kingdom is hoping for a return to business as usual, but the county’s trials and continued detentions are cause for concern to many.

Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa met with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague in London on Wednesday.

“Bahrain’s recent unrest is distinct in that the protests ultimately divided and polarised society rather than uniting it,” Prince Salman said in a statement released by his office. “Undoubtedly, mistakes have been made by all sides during the recent period, but lessons are being learnt.”

Also Wednesday, four were sentenced in a Bahraini national military court to one year in prison for taking part in pro-democracy demonstrations that began in mid-February, according to Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.

In a speech addressing the Middle East, U.S. President Barack Obama said that “mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away.” Calling for dialogue, he added, “You can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.”

This week, Bahrain said it had released 515 detainees since the state of emergency went into effect. It is unclear how many are still being held in custody.

A prominent Bahrain human rights activist said he doubts the government’s figures. At least 1,100 are still believed to be in detention, Nabeel Rajab said. He believes the true number is much higher. The arrests have also continued, Rajab added.

Among those still detained are 46 medical employees, including six women, according to Information Affairs Authority President Shaikh Fawaz bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa. Twenty-nine are facing criminal charges and 17 are accused of committing misdemeanours, Al-Khalifa said on the state news agency's website this week.

Hassan Ali Mushaima, the leader of the hard-line Shiite opposition group Haq, Ibrahim Sharif, the leader of the secular Waad party and Abdulhadi al Khawaja, a leading human rights activist, are also among those on trial accused of attempting “to topple the regime forcibly in collaboration with a terrorist organization working for a foreign country,” according to Bahrain’s news agency.

Others have disappeared. At least two senior members of Al Wefaq, the main Shiite opposition group are missing. Matar Ebrahim Matar, 35, a former Al Wefaq MP, was taken from his car by armed men in mask on May 2, according to a family member. He has not been heard from him since. Bahrain has not responded to queries about Matar from his family or from CNN. His family is not aware of any charges against Matar. Matar represented the biggest constituency in Bahrain, approximately 16,000 people.

According to Human Rights Watch Jawad Fairuz was also taken on May 2. Matar and Fairuz won seats in Bahrain’s lower house of Parliament in October 2010. The two, along with 16 other Al Wefaq members resigned their position in protest of the government’s crackdown.

On Sunday, Bahrain upheld the death sentences of two men in connection with the killing of two police officers during anti-government protests. Two other men had their sentences commuted to life in prison. Approximately 30 people have been killed since the protest began on February 14.

Bahrain is a key ally of the U.S. in the Persian Gulf and the home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet

What will change when Bahrain’s state of emergency is lifted on June 1 remains to be seen. “It is more a decision to attract back businesses that left the country and attract Formula 1.” Rajab said. “I don’t think that it is going to change anything on the ground, it is more cosmetic.”

Posted by:
Filed under: Bahrain •Human Rights

Share this on:
May 22, 2011
Posted: 1414 GMT

Bahrain upheld the death sentences Sunday of two men in connection with the killing of two police officers during anti-government protests earlier this year.

The National Court of Appeal confirmed the sentences of Ali Abdullah Hassan Alsingace and Abdul Aziz Abdul Redha Ibrahim Hussein, according to the Bahrain News Agency, which did not mention when the executions will be carried out. The defendants have another opportunity to appeal the decision.

Two other men who had been sentenced to death have had their sentenced commuted to life in prison. They are Qassim Hassan Mattar and Ahmad Saeed Abdul Jalil Said.

Posted by:
Filed under: Bahrain •Human Rights

Share this on:
May 4, 2011
Posted: 1053 GMT

By Jenifer Fenton

The justice ministry in Bahrain said 47 medical professionals will be tried for crimes that include incitement to overthrow the regime, deadly assault and refusal to help persons in need.

Twenty-four doctors and 23 nurses and paramedics have been charged.

During the protests in the Gulf kingdom, witnesses say security forces in Bahrain stormed the Salmaniya Medical Complex in Manama beating doctors and demonstrators. Bahraini officials deny those accounts.

Activists and human rights groups have alleged that medical personnel have been targeted by Bahraini officials for treating protestors.

“We found doctors were simply providing ethical and life-saving medical care to patients whom Bahraini security forces had shot, detained and tortured,” wrote Richard Sollom, Deputy Director of Physicians for Human Rights, in an email to CNN.

“We documented a systematic attack on medical staff in Bahrain including the beatings, torture and disappearances of more than 30 physicians,” Sollom wrote.

Approximately 30 people have been killed since the protest began on February 14. Hundreds have been detained.

Posted by:
Filed under: Bahrain •Human Rights •Protests

Share this on:
May 3, 2011
Posted: 1312 GMT

By Jenifer Fenton

The United Arab Emirates dissolved the elected board of directors of the Teachers’ Association on Monday, according to activist Mohammed al-Mansoori. The 11 members of the board were replaced by five state appointees.

The decree signed by Social Affairs Minister Mariam Mohammed Khalfan Al Roumi said the Teachers’ Association violated the UAE’s Law on Associations, which bans nongovernmental organizations from interfering "in politics or in matters that impair State security and its ruling regime," according to Human Rights Watch.

Last month, the UAE dissolved the elected board of directors of the Jurist Association, also replacing the board with state appointees. The two groups signed a petition to President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the members of the Supreme Council of the seven Emirates on March 9 asking for direct elections. The petition also asked that the Federal National Council be granted legislative powers. The body is only an advisory one.

In April, Emirati authorities arrested a prominent human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor and four others on accusations that included opposing the government. The five were "held in preventative custody" on accusations that they committed crimes that include undermining the public order, opposing the government system and insulting the president, vice president and crown prince of Abu Dhabi, the state-run WAM news agency reported.

Mansoor is a "leading human rights activist who had publicly called for political freedoms and an elected parliament," Human Rights Watch said. Mansoor, who signed the petition to the UAE president, is also a member of Human Rights Watch's Middle East advisory committee

Posted by:
Filed under: UAE

Share this on:
April 28, 2011
Posted: 1340 GMT

Saying “I Do” in the Gulf

By Jenifer Fenton

If you have a question about anything Emirati, “Ask Ali,” real name Ali Alsaloom, is the one with the answer. The Emirati author and television host has his own online portal where he answers queries about his culture. Alsaloom also has a cultural consultancy Embrace Arabia dedicated to intercultural awareness. He studied hospitality as an undergraduate, has a Masters in Business Administration and has travelled extensively. I asked “Ask Ali" about weddings in his country.

How are marriages arranged traditionally in the Gulf?

The term “recommended” marriages would be a more appropriate term since this is actually what families would do – they would “screen” the social circles of the family for potential matches. Once potential partners for single relatives get into the focus of the families, a bit of research will be done to find out more about this potential partner. Only then a formal contact will be initiated between the families. If both families agree to a potential partnership, the two “candidates” will be asked their opinion. And only if both agree, they will be formally introduced and meet in the presence of some relatives. Only after this meeting and only with agreement of bride and groom-to-be will the engagement and marriage be arranged.

What happens at a royal wedding in the UAE?

The legal paperwork is all based on our Islamic Sharia Law, so nothing is different from the public weddings. Basically royal weddings are nothing more than other weddings when it comes to the formalities. The father or guardian of the bride and the groom sign the marriage contract in the presence of the religious leader and the witnesses – and like this, the marriage is formally acknowledged.

But the main difference is that our royal families, because of their tribal background, definitely consider the importance of tying the knot with other royal members from other Emirates or other royal families from neighbouring sheikdoms to strengthen their political position; also to strengthen the relationships between both royal families and the countries for the future. This is something that existed in most royal weddings around the world and not just here in the UAE. But having said that, there is also the regular royal weddings which consist of a sheikh from royal family “x” to a “y“ sheikha from another Emirati royal family or from a well known tribe from the UAE. So a mix of both do exist.

Usually a few weeks after this, there will be separate celebrations for the men and the women. The groom will usually host more of a reception-style party, where relatives and friends – and in case of members of the royal families national and international dignitaries – will come to congratulate. For the bride usually a lavish “ladies-only” party will be held. The groom will usually come in the late hours of the evening to this party to greet his bride, take the official pictures, meet the well-wishers and then take his wife with him. A royal wedding might see more guests, but even the most “humble” local wedding will not see less than 300 guests. Of course, the budget of the couple will determine location and menu, not their status.

Is a marriage ceremony to a second wife different?

Even though a Muslim man can marry up to four wives, if he has valid reasons and is convinced that he can support and treat his wives with equal care and attention, multiple marriages here in the UAE are the exception, not the norm. The formal ceremony is exactly the same: signing the contract in the presence of a sheikh and the witnesses. Parties are at the discretion of the couple and they can range from absolutely nothing to a lavish celebration.

Are there prenuptials in the Gulf States?

We don’t have prenuptial agreements in Islam, therefore a country like the UAE that implements Sharia Law won’t approve a prenuptial agreement. But what we do have is a Sharia Law marriage agreement which automatically entitles the woman, after getting married and God forbid she gets a divorce, to alimony to support her as well as any children. The custom from many men, when they divorce, is to leave their house to their wife along with the children for convenience. Here it is customary that the groom gives the bride the so-called “dowry”, this is an amount of money or wealth for her to have as a financial backup. This is completely hers and she is free to use this as she wishes. However, in our Islamic Sharia Law, as well as our culture, it is entirely the responsibility of the man to take care of his wife and to share his wealth with her.

Ali Alsaloom is the author of “Ask Ali: A guide to Abu Dhabi” and “Ask Ali: A guide to Dubai”. He is from Abu Dhabi.

Posted by:
Filed under: Abu Dhabi •Culture •UAE

Share this on:
January 23, 2011
Posted: 1416 GMT

At.mosphere, the world's highest restaurant in the world's tallest building, is opening its doors in Dubai to diners who are looking for a little haute cuisine.

To get to the restaurant, dinners use the express elevator in the Burj Khalifa, which whisks them up to level 123, 442 meters or 1,350 feet high. You travel 10 meters per second so the trip takes just 57 seconds.

The menu is modern European grilled cuisine. Executive Chef Dwayne Cheer recommends the beef. "Definitely the beef," said Mr. Cheer, who has worked for more than 13 years in Michelin star restaurants.

Marc Dardenne, chief executive officer of Emaar Hospitality Group, which manages the outlet meanwhile recommends the fresh scallops or the lamb flown in directly from New Zealand. For dessert, the soufflé is "just outstanding," Mr. Dardenne said. The food is “all very light, you don’t put on weight.”

When asked if the check was on the lighter side, the answer was, “Hopefully we would like to create a special experience at that restaurant that people keep on coming back,” he said.

Reading between the lines, one might think: expect a pricey meal.

The main courses are all based on a "beautiful magic" oven, Mr. Cheer said. The Josper grill is a BBQ dual oven designed in Spain and fuelled by charcoal, not gas. Temperatures reach 700 degrees Celsius.

So it’s hot in the kitchen. And hopefully hot in the restaurant.

Designer Adam Tihany said he was aiming to “create the sexiest venue on the top of the world." He aimed to design a bar, restaurant and lounge in an iconic location and altitude in a way that diners can still feel comfortable, still feel “grounded.”

"It's an absolutely spectacular opportunity to do a project this iconic knowing that with the current economy there is not going to be competition for quite some time,” Mr. Tihany said. “We are going to be on the top of the world for a while. So it's a great feeling."

Mr. Tihany’s work on the restaurant is done, but the chef’s work is just beginning and he is nervous about the work ahead.

"The expectations are as high as the building," Cheer said. “It's a little bit nerve racking to be honest.”

Posted by:
Filed under: Dubai •General •UAE

Share this on:
January 5, 2011
Posted: 1059 GMT

Music can change the state of the world, stop conflict and bloodshed, and bring peace to war-torn regions.
If that sounds far-fetched then you haven’t met Russia's famed maestro Valery Gergiev.

"The power of music can be (a) very quiet power because your heart feels happy. Beautiful music makes you maybe a better person. Maybe a better person will think twice before supporting a military solution, before seeing yet another conflict,” Gergiev said before conducting the World Orchestra for Peace, which performed Tuesday for the first time in an Arab country, the United Arab Emirates. “Instead of living in this troubled world we will find a way to share the sea, to share the sunlight."

The 75 musicians performing represented at least 62 international orchestras and 30 countries. To have representatives of many nations seated together on stage sends what Gergiev hopes is a transformative message.

“You start to feel that people find it easy to build relationships immediately, of course through music,” Gergiev, who is also the artistic and general director of the Mariinsky Theatre, said. "We don't have to tell each other 'Look we need peace.’ We bring it. Just the very fact of our arrival is already a fanfare for peace."

The orchestra founded by the Hungarian conductor Sir Georg Solti first performed in Geneva in 1995 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. Following Solti's death in 1997, Gergiev, was chosen as his successor. The orchestra has since gathered on special occasions to promote peace and rebirth.

Previously they have played in London on the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Blitz; in Germany, Russia and China on the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II; to mark the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg; for the Easter Festival in Moscow; and in cities that know the devastation war can bring like Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Krakow, Poland.

Solti lived through two world wars and was a refugee. He believed that conflict was pointless, his wife and also patron of the World Orchestra for Peace Valerie Solti said. "What's the point of…bombing each other, shooting each other? Historically we know it doesn't work." The orchestra grew from the idea that people can work together without conflict. "Musicians are global people. Solti had the idea to demonstrate that and orchestra or musicians are citizens of the globe and they all get together and religion and race doesn't come into it."

The sold out performance at Emirates Palace was hosted by the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation. The orchestra played Rossini’s William Tell Overture, Prokofiev’s Symphony No 1 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 5.

“I am blessed with being on stage with the very fine musicians and playing very very fine composition, playing for the people,” said Gergiev who grew up in the Caucasus, then part of the Soviet Union.
“We cannot, we are not military we cannot make a statement that we are going to attack unless you stop doing certain bad things that you do now. That is not the way for musicians we can only send yet another positive signal.”

Posted by:
Filed under: Abu Dhabi •UAE

Share this on:
December 16, 2010
Posted: 856 GMT

Worth $11 million, standing 13 meters high and draped with jewellery, silver and gold colored balls and white lights, the tree at Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi is the world’s most expensive Christmas tree ever – or so the hotel hopes.

The tree is fake, but the jewels are not. There are 181 pieces of jewellery including diamonds, emeralds, rubies and pearls, according to Khalifa Khouri the owner of Style Gallery, which dressed the tree. There is a mix of rings, earrings, necklaces and bracelets. The most expensive item on the Christmas tree is a diamond set worth 3.5 million Dirhams, nearly $1 million.

The hotel will soon make a bid for an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records, says Hans Olbertz, General Manager of Emirates Palace.

The Christmas tree has been at the hotel since its opening. It has been decorated differently every year to try to give visitors the Christmas feeling when they are away from home. This year the hotel decided to elevate the decorations, according to Mr. Olbertz – an understatement. “We wanted to have another record to coincide with the luxury of the palace.”

It is not what is under this tree that counts, but what is on it. The items are insured for 100 percent of their value and security monitors the tree 24 hours a day. Emirates Palace already has a gold ATM and holds a Guinness record for the most expensive alcoholic shot, a cognac which would set a visitor back a couple of grand, according to Mr. Olbertz.

Mr. Khouri, who celebrates his own birthday on December 25, said “with this tree we are saying Merry Christmas to everyone.”

Posted by:
Filed under: Abu Dhabi •UAE

Share this on:

subscribe RSS Icon
About this blog

This blog has now been archived and commenting has been switched off. Visit the Inside the Middle East site for news, views and video from across the region.

Read more about CNN's special reports policy