Turmoil driving foreigners away from Manama's suburbs

Bahrain's urban landscape is being upended as protests in the villages and suburbs surrounding Manama spark a flight of expatriate professionals, with many relocating to high-quality apartments on the opposite side of the island.

Black paint conceals a graffiti in Budaiya. Razan Alzayani / The National
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BUDAIYA // A cooling breeze blowing down the Gulf once lured expatriates to the fertile villages and suburbs to the north-west of Manama.

Now the outskirts of Bahrain's capital are undergoing an upheaval as constant protests spark an exodus of expatriate professionals and local business activity grinds to a halt.

Walls, street signs and shop fronts are covered in protest slogans and drawings of the monument that once stood at the centre of the Pearl Roundabout but was demolished by the government.

Its image remains a potent symbol of last year's unrest. Trails of unsightly black paint, used to conceal protesters' graffiti, extend as far as the eye can see.

Expats are resigned to the protests that are now a frequent occurrence in a political contest that has ground to a stalemate. Many have decided that enough is enough.

"It's been hardest on the people who have businesses here," said one American resident of the area, who asked not to be named. "You can't count on going out in the morning and being able to come back, because of the demonstrations."

Customers have learnt to time their trips to avoid encountering unrest, he said.

The restive atmosphere in the kingdom's farming villages, where a number of expat compounds and international schools are located, has forced many foreigners away, said Mike Williams, a senior director at CBRE.

"You've seen in the last few years a mass exodus from those villages. People with young families don't want to expose them to that kind of environment," he said. "Sales to expatriates have disappeared altogether."

Rents for compounds in areas affected by unrest have fallen back to prices last reached in 2006, while occupancy is estimated at 30 per cent.

Such villa and apartmentsales that have occurred have been on the opposite side of the island in places including Amwaj Islands on the north-east coast and Riffa, Bahrain's second-largest city.

Government efforts to address social issues in the villages led to Bahrain's ministry of housing signing in January a US$550 million (Dh2.02 billion) public-private partnership to build 4,100 homes. About three quarters of the homes are planned as social housing.

The government had sought to accelerate homebuilding to cut waiting times, said Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, a government spokesman.

"It was one of the most important projects to tackle - the government isn't cash-rich and therefore opened up to private sector to develop housing projects," he said. "If that's a solution to the waiting time and numbers, so be it."

However, with house prices falling, doubts remain about whether Bahrain's affordable housing can be sold above cost price.

"As long as the political situation is unstable, nobody can be sure where the bottom of the market is," Mr Williams said.

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