Earlier this month, the Bahraini gallery Al Riwaq Art Space announced it would be closing, its landlord having opted to rent the space to a restaurateur. Anywhere else such a conversion would be soundlessly slotted into the register of inevitable market-driven misfortunes, alongside out-of-place shopping centers, disappearing laundromats, and forcibly evicted tenants. Anywhere else, in other words, the replacement of one establishment by another would hardly constitute news, given the process of gentrification long since underway in major cities.
While Manama has not been entirely immune to tone-deaf, market-driven planning, the nascent art district of Adliya had, until recently, provided a robust alternative to spaces of consumption. At its center was Al Riwaq, a privately owned space serving a public function, offering entry free of charge and assuring local artists maximum exposure. For this preeminent Bahraini gallery to be supplanted by the latest in a slew of six-hundred-odd restaurants is a troubling development for any venue in the country hoping to provide a meeting place, community hangout or forum for cultural exchange—all areas in which the Bahraini capital is sorely lacking.
Recently, Bahrain, the Gulf’s smallest economy, has suffered the compounded consequences of tumbling oil prices and rapidly declining foreign-exchange reserves, narrowly averting a serious currency devaluation crisis and credit default in 2017 by securing financial assistance from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Bahrain’s oil and gas reserves contribute a meagre 19% to the economy, with financial services and tourism contributing more substantial revenues. It is arguably the latter that has triggered the veritable tsunami of restaurants flooding the country.
With the exception of two forts and a national museum, Bahrain affords its visitors few cultural opportunities: there are malls and there are restaurants, the demand for these seemingly bottomless among locals and tourists alike. The resulting diversity of cuisine comes at steep public expense, however. For at least half a century, urban theorists have emphasized the importance of public space to the quality of life of urban dwellers; these include Jane Jacobs’ celebration of parks and sidewalks as uniquely conducive to spontaneous social interaction, Jan Gehl’s human-centered approach to urban planning, as well as the more controversial Richard Florida, who argues that it is the inherent diversity of a city—its places and activities as well as its people—that attract the creative classes. Cafés and restaurants only partly fulfill the functions of public space, generally attracting a socioeconomically uniform clientele and doing little to curb de-facto segregation between disparate social groups. Where public space pushes social interaction, commercial space prioritizes consumption, rendering discussion and exchange secondary activities.
At a time of heightened tension, if not outright animosity, between supporters and opponents of the current Bahraini government, it may fall to arts and culture institutions to foster the sort of dialogue Bahrainis have vainly sought elsewhere. The loss of Al Riwaq will make it even harder to find this alternative space.