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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. 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. 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. 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. Apparently, staff there will not object to inviting home a prostitute.