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'Business-Friendly Bahrain' Disappears; Ex-Pats Exit

"A sense of calm with an undercurrent of mild panic."

Passengers line up for flights out of Bahrain at the country's airport March 17.
CNBC.com
Passengers line up for flights out of Bahrain at the country's airport March 17.

That's how one Bahraini described the scene at Bahrain International Airport Thursday morning, just one day after the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF) cleared the country's Pearl Roundabout area of anti-government protestors, bulldozing and burning their camp and killing at least three people.

A mass exodus of expats and their families began on Tuesday after government sources began leaking information about a major confrontation planned between Gulf Cooperation Council-backed Bahraini forces and the anti-government movement.

King Hamad al-Khalifa instituted a "state of security," tantamount to state of national emergency Tuesday, prompting several businesses to began evacuating staff. On Thursday, there were reports that Bahrain arrested opposition leaders for communications with foreign countries and incitement to murder.

Credit Agricole, Norton Rose, Robeco and HSBC were officially closed from Monday and workers told either to work from home or, in some cases, given a timeline for moving to Dubai.

HSBC and Standard Chartered closed all of their branches in Bahrain on Wednesday. Robeco got the last of their people to the airport late Tuesday night.

A government curfew for the downtown financial district and the Pearl Roundabout area ended this morning at 4 am local time.

Robert Speed, a Bahrain resident for more than 30 years, walked to get himself a taxi this morning to the airport.

Middle East Turmoil
Middle East Turmoil

"This three months of emergency law will kill business," Speed said. "Companies will not accept curfews for three months.They have to be able to do business here. These companies are invested in this region."

Speed, head of channel sales for education-based company Promethean, which employees both Sunni and Shiite Bahrainis, told CNBC he was headed out of the country this morning, but only for a pre-planned business trip.

While many members of the business community refrained from going on record about the recent unrest and the political situation in general, Speed stressed the need to speak out about what he says is the problematic government response to protestors.

"They have completely ruined their business-friendly image and I think the business community needs to be vocal. We have a life here, we have a business. It is right to voice our opinion," he said.

'Hear the Gunshots Outside'

One family on their way out of Bahrain Thursday morning also said they plan to return.

"The company advised us to evacuate," said Jan, a German real estate investor based in Bahrain. "Our Budaiya compound seemed safe, but we could hear the gunshots outside and you just can't get any work done like that."

Anti-government protestors open their arms in front of military vehicles near Pearl Square in Bahraini capital Manama, on March 16, 2011, after Bahraini police killed at least two protesters and wounded dozens more as they assaulted a peaceful protest camp in the capital's Pearl Square, an opposition party official said. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
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Anti-government protestors open their arms in front of military vehicles near Pearl Square in Bahraini capital Manama, on March 16, 2011, after Bahraini police killed at least two protesters and wounded dozens more as they assaulted a peaceful protest camp in the capital's Pearl Square, an opposition party official said. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

Jan, together with his wife Anya, his daughter, their au pair and their housekeeper were all headed to Dubai.

"By driving the protestors out of the roundabout, where they were contained, the BDF has forced them back into the villages where they're now literally in pockets," he told CNBC.

"For a family it's far better to see this all from the outside, you can't do work or focus here right now."

The continued presence of Saudi-backed GCC troops, the arrest of at least five opposition movement leaders Thursday morning and the ongoing dispute among members of Bahrain's royal family as to how to deal with the crisis have left the business community on edge about when the country will once again be on track.

"If it stabilizes we might return," Jan said. "But the short-term and medium-term effect on Bahrain's economy is devastating. Even if government restores order it doesn't mean investments will come back. I mean, would you buy a house in Bahrain right now?"

- Reuters contributed to this story

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