MANAMA Bahrain's King Hamad opened one of the largest theatres in the Middle East this week as part of a drive to smooth over months of unrest that have rocked the Gulf Arab state.
But the creation of an elegant cubic glass structure with a golden-coloured roof by the seaside may do little to quell lingering unrest between the minority Sunni ruling elite and majority Shi'ite population of a small oil-producing Gulf kingdom that is also home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
The new 1,001-seat Bahrain National Amphitheatre was built at a cost $50 million with an Arabian Nights theme and will stage a busy season of performances that include Russia's Bolshoi Theatre and Spanish tenor Placido Domingo.
"This theatre adds a great deal, through cultural activities that bring people close and embodies the dreams of every citizen," Bahraini Culture Minister, Sheikha Mai bint Mohammed al-Khalifa, told Reuters.
Bahrain's government put down an uprising by Shi'ite Muslims demanding a bigger say in government just a few months ago. But violence has already picked up again and discontent lingers despite reform, including more powers for an elected parliament.
The government said last week that five home-made bombs killed two people in Manama and accused the Lebanese Hezbollah group of being behind the attacks. Hezbollah, a Shi'ite group allied with Iran, has previously denied interfering in Bahrain.
Bahrain also revoked the nationality of 31 leading dissidents, parliamentarians, clerics and human rights lawyers last week in a step that was condemned by rights organisations.
In April, the kingdom hosted guests from around the world at the Bahrain Grand Prix, signalling efforts to emerge from protests that had forced it to cancel the event last year.
"Bahrain is no exception to what is happening in the world," Sheikha Mai said. "We are living a reality that consecrates the culture of hope and which presents all that is beautiful to residents and all those who love Bahrain," she added.
Decked with all the amenities of a modern cultural centre needed to attract world events, including a 100-seat rehearsal hall, the 11,669 square metre national theatre is the latest artistic foray in the conservative Gulf region.
Last year, Oman opened the first opera house in the Gulf region in a move that also signalled a drive to push ahead with cultural activities despite protests over lack of employment and perceived corruption that briefly rocked the country.
The Gulf's tourism and trading hub, Dubai has also unveiled plans to build its own opera house.
Bahrain, an archipelago of 33 islands located between Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter, and gas-rich Qatar, is also home to the ancient Dilmun civilisation, containing one of the most ancient burial sites in the Arabian Peninsula.
Before the United Arab Emirates began attracting foreign investors in the 1990s, Bahrain served as a regional tourism, information and banking hub.
Much of the international media covering the Gulf region are based in Bahrain, where some 600,000 people live. Bahraini officials say they want to regain the edge that once made the country attractive to foreign investors.
Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is reported to be planning to launch his satellite news channel, Alarab, from Bahrain.
The prince, who walked side-by-side with King Hamad as the monarch inspected the spacious seaside theatre grounds, is also reported to be planning to shift some of his media and cultural investments from Dubai to Bahrain.
Bahrain's Minister of State for Information, Samira Rajab, said Bahrain was determined to find a way out of the crisis that will pave a way for it to showcase its cultural advantages.
"What is required today is for all the parties with sectarian differences to sit down and reach understandings," Rajab said. "What is agreed upon is what will be implemented, not one side's wishes against the other's. The Bahrain issue will be resolved through dialogue." (Additional reporting by Ahmed Seif, editing by Paul Casciato)
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