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May 2010

Swearing-In Day, redux

The U.S. Department of State's official Flickr page has uploaded a photo from April 30, 2010, the day Sec. Clinton officiated the Swearing-in Ceremony of our Foreign Service Officer Orientation Class: the LEGENDARY 152nd A-100! (Mr. Crab is in the front row, about half-way down the aisle).

Bahrain 101

   Ba-map Mr. & Mrs. Crab are only 5 weeks from moving to Bahrain. Some fun facts and figures about our new home:

  • The Kingdom of Bahrain (Arabic: مملكة البحرين‎, Mamlakat al-Barayn, literally: "Kingdom of the Two Seas"), is the smallest Arab country in the world. It's archipelago of 33 islands in the Persian Gulf (aka Arabian Gulf), situated between east coast of Saudi Arabia and Qatar peninsula. It's about 3.5 times larger than Washington, DC
  • Bahrain is approximately 7,000 miles from Washington, DC. It is 8 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.
  • The capital and chief port of Bahrain is Manama
  • Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy, ruled by the Al Khalifa Royal Family.
  • Arabic is the official language of Bahrain, though English is widely used. Bahrain is a former British colony, hence English is common.
  • While Islam is the main religion, Bahrainis have been known for their tolerance, and churches, Hindu temples, Sikh Gurdwara and a Jewish synagogue can be found alongside mosques.
  • Bahrain-wtc1
  • Bahrain is considered one of the most liberal countries in the Middle East. Women have the right to vote, drive and currently serve in the government. Alcohol is widely available. American chains including McDonalds, KFC and other Pizza Hut are common.
  • Bahrain so liberal that it is often described as "Middle East Light."  A common saying is that Bahrain is located "In the Shadow of Allah."
  • Bahrain is home to a huge US Navy Base: The United States Fifth Fleet.
  • Favorite pastimes include horse racing, boating and Formula One racing. Bahrain was the first Middle Eastern country with a Formula One race track and hosts two major races every year. 
  • The population of Bahrain is about 1 million (estimates range from 650,000 to 1.1 million). Nearly half the population are expats from India, Pakistan, Philippines,  UK, US and elsewhere. 
  • Bahrain is 70% Shia Muslim, but is ruled by minority Sunni Muslims - a source of resentment that has escalated into growing but peaceful demonstrations.
  • Oil was discovered in Bahrain in 1932 but has very little compared to its neighbors. Facing declining oil reserves, Bahrain has turned to petroleum processing and refining and has transformed itself into an international banking center. Tourism is a small but growing part of Bahrain's economy, mainly driven by Saudis.
  • 800px-Flag_of_Bahrain.svg
  • Bahrain is connected to Saudi Arabia by the 17-mile long King Faud Causeway. A new 25-mile long bridge between Bahrain and Qatar is currently under construction; when completed it will be the longest fixed link in the world.
  • Bahrain is one of four Arab countries (including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar) in negotiation to launch a single, Euro-like currency.
  • Bahrain is only a 45 minute flight to Dubai (The Las Vegas of the Middle East) and 2.5 hours to Cairo, Egypt. 
  • United Airlines now has a non-stop, 15-hour flight from Dulles to Bahrain
  • Winters are pleasant (15°C-24°C / 15F-75F). Summers are very hot and humid (average temperature 36°C-50°C / 97F-122F).

Manama. Not to be confused with Manamana:

Bid Lists & bonding

I'm obsessing over bid lists...again.  Since starting this long road to the Foreign Service, I managed to get a peek at every A-100 bid list since spring 2009. When we got our 152nd bid list, everyone raved about the awesomeness and diversity of our list. It was the coolest bid list ever....until now.

Last week, the new 153rd class received their bid list and, WOW, is it awesome! It is by far the greatest bid list I've ever seen. Tons of Western Europe, Caribbean and Pacific "dream posts" that are not normally found on a first-tour Entry Level Officer bid list.

Argh! Oh well. But I wouldn't trade my class for the world. We have become such a close-knit group of friends that we've sparked envy among our peers. Unfortunately, contrary to public opinion, the Foreign Service is not one big happy family. It's no different than any other job. Sure, DOS has its share of back-biting and office politics. There can be rivalry and competition among A-100 classes, and even among classmates within the same class. Some classes (like ours) get along famously. Others, not so much. I've heard unfortunate stories of classes that are dominated by a handful of type-A personalities, or classes that have split up into little Lord of the Flies cliques. Don't be that person/class!  Remember, there's no 'i' in Team! It's all about group dynamics and what you make of it.

 I feel very fortunate that our class has truly bonded and that we've made some lifelong friends. Some of us are even making plans to visit each other's post countries! Honestly, I would be proud to serve alongside anyone in my class. The LEGENDARY 152nd!

Greetings from Shenandoah

The Two Crabs and 16 other members of the 152nd A-100 class just returned from a weekend camping trip to Shenandoah National Park (aka 'God's Country'). A fun time was had by all!

Bahrain votes to ban alcohol ... for Muslims

MANAMA (AFP) – Bahrain on Monday inched closer to imposing a ban on Muslims drinking or trading in alcohol in the Gulf kingdom, a favourite watering-hole of Saudis who use a causeway linking the two Arab neighbours.

Its all-appointed upper chamber adopted an amendment to the penal code, banning imports and consumption of alcohol for and by Muslims, in a move subject to King Hamad's approval.

The council authorised Bahraini authorities to decide where alcohol can continue to be served to non-Muslims.

Bahrain's elected parliament, dominated by Shiite and Sunni Islamists, last month voted for a total ban on alcohol.

But the move stirred an angry reaction from the chamber of commerce and from Bahraini liberals, who warned that the proposed ban would harm the economy and the country's tolerant image.

Bahrain's relatively liberal environment has turned the Gulf archipelago into a draw for visitors from neighbouring strict Muslim countries, mainly Saudi Arabia.

A large number of Saudis cross the causeway to Bahrain every weekend.

Swearing-In and Flag Day, redux!

IMG_2258  So It's all come down to this moment: Swearing-In Day! I am officially now a U.S. Foreign Service Officer!!! 

In the days leading up to Friday's ceremony, our class speculated on who our speaker would be. Contrary to popular opinion, the speaker is not usually the Secretary of State. Due to her schedule, it's simply not feasible, especially nowadays with seven or eight A-100 classes per year.  But a few days before Swearing-In, we started getting hints that our commencement speaker might be Sec. Clinton herself.  For starters, she had no foreign trips planned during our graduation week. Two days before Swearing-In, we actually ran into Sec. Clinton at State HQ in DC, giving a speech across the hall from our classroom. 

On Friday morning, we reported as usual to our A-100 classroom at FSI and our instructor teased us: "Do you know who is swearing you in?" People started shouting names of various notables, from POTUS to our teacher. I casually offered, "The Secretary?"  A big grin spread across our instructor's face and she nodded. Everyone screamed, cheered and clapped.

A few hours later, we made our way from FSI to State Main. The Swearing-In Ceremony is much more formal and pomp and circumstance than the Flag Day ceremony. There is a lot of pageantry and speeches. Dozens of family and friends sat in the audience, snapping photos or shooting video.

After a speech by our class mentor and other notables, we waited anxiously for our main speaker. Some classmates filled time by standing and sharing stories of why they joined the Foreign Service. One of my classmates, who actually has rejoined the FS after several years away, put it best: "Trust me. Once you’ve been in the Foreign Service, going back to a regular American life will seem intolerable!”

In a rock star entrance, Sec. Clinton walked into the room to a standing ovation and roar of applause. She began her speech by thanking the spouses and family members for their support. Sec. Clinton spoke for about 15 minutes, thanking us for our service to our country, reminding us that there are thousands of other applicants wishing they could be sitting in our seats, so she's expecting a lot from each of us. Talk about pressure! There were also some light-hearted moments, like when she shared a story about failing French class! 

Then, Sec. Clinton herself , administered our Oath of Office:

“I ________, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

State_Department_Seal So let me backtrack to last week: Flag Day. This is the informal ceremony where students (and their families) learn where they will be posted for their first tour as foreign service officers.

Even before I passed the FSOA, Mrs. Crab and I were already fantasizing about all the exotic places where we might want to be posted. Paris? Sydney? Fiji? For the first three weeks of A-100, we stressed over the bid list. There were 93 people in the class, and 103 spots on the bid list. We spent many days researching posts before deciding whether to rank each post "high," "medium," or "low."  It was a nerve-racking experience because you know that, at the end of the day, now matter how you bid, the needs of the service come first. And so it came to be.

Flag Day takes place at FSI, exactly one week before Swearing-In Day.  It's a much more casual event, with many family members in jeans. Of course, we students were all wearing our obligatory business suits. Because there were more spots than people, the event started with an announcement of which posts would go unfilled. San Jose!  Bangkok! There was a chorus of "awwwwwws" when several of these "dream posts" were removed from the bid list.

Finally, the event began. A city and country was announced, the country's flag was displayed on a large screen, and a classmate's name was called up. Many of us clutched copies of the bid list, crossing out posts and scrawling names as they were called. Some classmates, myself included, were playing a brackets game, a la March Madness, trying to guess who would be posted where.  One by one, a name was called and somebody (usually happy) walked down the aisle to collect their flag. One young woman was so ecstatic that she practically bounded down the aisle like a tiger. Others were more composed, or surprised.

Throughout this whole process, I had pretty much convinced myself that we would end up in Latin America due to my Spanish-language skills.  Our bid list was heavy on Spanish-speaking countries, with a handful of Western European dream posts (Paris, Brussels, Oslo) thrown in for good measure. And because I really would like to attend FSI language school, most of my posts were language-designated posts.

I was so involved in my brackets that I barely heard my name announced.  My A-100 buddy nudged me. "What? Did they just call me?" I looked up from my brackets sheet at the big screen and saw a flag... a flag that I immediately recognized because, as a journalist, I had traveled to this country several times whilst covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan!


I was gobsmacked!  I walked like a zombie up to the podium, collected my flag, shook hands with our class mentor, smiled for the cameras, then returned to my seat, waving the flag at my wife. My entire family and my classmates were equally surprised at my post!  It's an English-language, Economics Officer post! (I'm a CON officer. I have never taken an econ course in my life!). And because I won't be attending ConGen or language training, we are reporting to post in less than two months!

It's taken a few days, but the initial shock has worn off. We've done some research. And we're pleasantly surprised and very excited to begin our new adventure! Several friends and family have already made plans to visit. We're now full swing into preparing for our pack-out.

And If you haven't identified the above flag yet, here's a clue: It's an island nation in the Middle East. It's a liberal, predominantly-Muslim country and home to the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet.

It's Bahrain.

MapBahrain  Bahrain, officially the Kingdom of Bahrain (Arabic: مملكة البحرين‎, Mamlakat al-Barayn, literally: "Kingdom of the Two Seas"), is a borderless island country in the Persian Gulf and is the smallest Arab nation. Saudi Arabia lies to the west and is connected to Bahrain by the King Fahd Causeway (officially opened on November 25, 1986), and Qatar is to the south across the Gulf of Bahrain. The Qatar–Bahrain Friendship Bridge currently under construction will link Bahrain to Qatar as the longest fixed link in the world.