Michael in the Middle East

We look back at the late king of pop's special relationship with Bahrain

Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson
Flowers and tributes adorn Michael Jackson
Flowers and tributes adorn Michael Jackson

‘The world has lost a giant in the music industry,’ Sheikh Adbulla bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the son of Bahrain’s king said on hearing of the death of Michael Jackson.

‘We are all very saddened by that.’ Fans across the Kingdom grieved the King of Pop’s death, early on Friday June 26. Some even said that he was a ‘fellow Bahraini’. But how did one of the most important and controversial music artists in history end up forming a special bond with a place most of his fans probably couldn’t point to on a map?

The link between the two unlikely friends was Jackson’s brother, Jermaine, who converted to Islam after a visit to Bahrain in the 1980s. Sheikh Abdullah also fancied himself as a musician, and wanted to record with him.

And Jackson wanted to get out the States, after being acquitted of child molestation in 2005. Thus a studio was built, Jackson relocated to Bahrain and collaborative musical projects were announced. ‘He’s moving on in life, he’s living permanently in Bahrain,’ his attorney, Thomas Mesereau, announced at the time. ‘He has friends there who have been very loyal and helpful to him in a difficult period.’

After a time as a guest at the palace, Jackson bought a house formerly owned by a Bahraini MP. He moved into a mansion in Sanad, about 10km south of Manama, after reportedly paying US$8 million (Dhs48.3million) for the property. Media reports suggested that one of the Bahrani Royal family had helped him out financially – Jackson was rumoured to be on the verge of bankruptcy and relying on handouts from his hosts – but nothing was ever confirmed or denied.

So was he there for the money alone? The popular belief was that Jackson had simply moved to hide out, let the storm surrounding his acquittal calm down and avoid the paparazzi’s lenses. However, in December 2005 reports surfaced in the media that Sheikh Abdullah had taken over all of Jackson’s business matters and that the pop star had not been in touch with even his closest aides.

In 2006 we headed to Bahrain, curious to know what Jackson was up to on the tiny Gulf island. All the local people we spoke to seemed happy to have Jackson in their midst, even if sightings of their famous guest remained relative scarce. A hotel waitress told us that her sister worked at the Gulf Hotel and that was where Jacko was often seen. ‘He goes there to eat, at a restaurant called China Garden,’ she explained. ‘But he hires the whole place out for himself and stays covered up the whole time. He goes when it’s quiet so there are fewer people about.’

What of his legendary shopping habit? The infamous Martin Bashir film followed Jackson as he went on a spree blowing thousands of dollars on gaudy tat. It made him happy, he explained. So where was the spend-happy star satisfying his retail desires in Bahrain? He was snapped in January 2006, along with his children – wearing an abaya and a veil that covered his face – outside of the Marina Mall in photos that appeared around the world.

Was this a one-off or did Jacko regularly hang with the Bahraini mall rats? According to a member of staff at music store, Euphoria, Jackson did indeed visit. ‘He was covered and at first we were not sure that it was him, but then we saw the security people and we knew for sure. He bought a few action films and the Michael Jackson Ultimate Collection box set.’

Images of Jackson, rattling around empty Chinese restaurants and shopping malls, buying mementos of his own glory days sound desperately lonely. But some musical activity was apparently taking place. Reports suggested he was visited by rappers and was planning a comeback collaboration with 50 Cent. When DJ Whoo Kid (a member of 50 Cent’s rap group G-Unit) visited him in Bahrain the pair became friends and the rapper – hired to DJ a number of parties for the Bahrain Royal Family – said he wanted to help orchestrate a spectacular return for Jackson and bring him and 50 Cent together. Whoo Kid dined with Sheikh Abdullah, singer John Legend and Jackson. He later arranged a phone conversation between Fiddy and Jackson, after telling MTV: ‘I saw Michael Jackson sitting by the pool sipping lemonade. They didn’t tell me he was going to be there – I didn’t even expect Michael to be in the country [Bahrain]. So I’m like, “F****** Michael Jackson is here.” He was supposed to be there for like 45 minutes but he stayed for five hours.’

It seemed that Whoo Kid had also been offering Jackson advice about his image, reports hinted that the King of Pop could emerge from Bahrain as a ‘muscle-bound, shaven-headed rapper’ in time for his comeback. Whoo Kid claimed that Jackson had said to him that he needed to ‘change his whole look’ and the rapper offered his advice: ‘I told him he needs to cut his hair, get some million-dollar earrings, get a million-dollar watch and take all them spaceship clothes off.’ It seems he never took his advice.

Perhaps one of the taxi drivers would know why Jackson chose Bahrain as a second home? ‘I think it is the media. In America and Europe he is followed everywhere,’ a driver said at the time. ‘But the press here do not say anything about him… unless he wants them too. He’s a friend of the prince.’

However, that friendship wasn’t to last. The following June, Jackson parted company with his representatives and legal team in Bahrain and announced he was leaving. His general manager and spokesman Raymone Bain said his music industry work meant Jackson would be ‘going back and forth to Bahrain, but Europe will be his principal residence.

Instead Jackson wound up back in the States, resulting in a US$7 million (Dhs25.7million) lawsuit from Sheikh Abdulla. Jackson, he told the court, reneged on a contract for an album, autobiography and a stage play after accepting millions of dollars in advances.

Perhaps Jackson found some solace in Bahrain but that, it seems, wasn’t enough in the end. With bills to pay and a career to resuscitate, Jackson felt he couldn’t stay in the tiny Gulf state. His sojourn with Bahrain was brief, leaving nothing behind but a few sightings, rumours about his time there, and the knowledge that many more people are now aware of Bahrain’s existence thanks to his stay.

Time line

June 2005
Jackson, acquitted of charges including child molestation, moves to Bahrain.

Visits Dubai where he dines on buffalo chicken wings at the Hard Rock Café and allegedly rents out Wild Wadi, where he tries out the rides clad in a white lycra suit that covers his face and body.

He avoids compulsory jury service in California on a technicality because he has permanently moved out of America. Michael Jackson’s brother Jermaine announces release of a star-studded single to aid Michael’s favourite causes, reportedly written by an unnamed member of the Bahrain royal family. He visits Muscat for 45 days, regularly visiting Muttrah Souk and making friends with locals.

On a visit to the UAE he causes controversy by entering a ladies’ toilet. Jackson’s publicist says he ‘quickly exited’ after realising he had misread the Arabic sign. Jackson announces plans to put out a song called ‘I Have This Dream’ dedicated to the victims of the Katrina hurricane via satellite from Bahrain. It is never released.

January 2006
Jackson is spotted out shopping in Bahrain’s Marina Mall with his three children. Their faces are covered with dark scarves, while he is wearing the veil, abaya and gloves typically worn by conservative Bahraini women. Reports say Jackson is to work with Bahrain-based AAJ Holdings Ltd to advise them on creating theme parks and music academies in the region.

California state labour officials close the Neverland Ranch and fine Jackson Dhs253,443 for failure to provide employment insurance.

Jackson announces that he is moving to Europe, but an exact destination is not specified.

Leaves Bahrain and pulls out of his involvement with the Bahrainri Two Seas record label.

November 2008
Sheikh Abdulla bin Hamad Al Khalifa sues Jackson for Dhs25.7million. The case is settled out of court.

June 2009
Jackson dies, aged 50.

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