Dilmun. The Ancient Garden of Eden. Wonder about the civilization that left behind 85,000 burial mounds that lump, curdle and honeycomb 5% of the island’s landmass leads one to imagine that the people responsible for such sophisticated care of their dead were equally sophisticated in matters of life.
Although Bahrain has a Stone Age history that dates back to 5000 BC, and evidence of settlement from 10,000 BC, it was the home to the lost and illustrious empire of Dilmun, (3200 to 330 BC), who controlled north to Kuwait and eastern Saudi Arabia. They were commercially active plying the busy Gulf waterways and buried their dead in elaborate chambers suggesting considerable social and economic development, assisted by the perpetual abundance of potable, water on the island. Dilmun was often referred to as the fabled Garden of Eden and described as ‘paradise’ in the Epic of Gilgamesh (the world’s oldest poetic saga). Dilmun’s economic success was due in no small part to the trading of Omani copper.
When the copper trade declined, in around 1800 BC, Dilmun’s strength declined and by 600 BC it was absorbed entirely by the empire of Babylon who ceded it to Greece. The Greeks called the island ‘Tylos’, a name it kept for nearly a thousand years (from 330 BC to AD622) despite Greek rule enduring for less than 100 years. Little distinguishes the history of Bahrain from the rest of the Gulf thereafter until the 16th century.
Pearls & the Founding of Modern Bahrain. The presence of sweet-water springs under the sea, mingling with the brackish waters of the shallow oyster beds, contributes to the peculiar color and lustre of Bahrain’s pearls. With pearls Bahrain grew into one of the most important trading posts in the region. Dating back to 2300 BC, in Dilmun, pearling was an unglamorous industry. At the height of the pearling industry, some 2500 dhows were involved in the industry and loss of life was common.
The rich pearl industry attracted the big naval powers of Europe, first the Portuguese in the early 1500s and then the Al-Khalifa, the family that now rules Bahrain. The Al-Khalifa were responsible for driving out the Persians from Bahrain in about 1782. They were themselves routed by an Omani invasion, but returned in 1820 never to leave again.
British. The British are part and parcel of the island’s history. The origin of that special relationship can be traced to the 19th century when piracy was rife in the Gulf. Although piracy never gained a foothold in Bahrain, captured goods were traded for supplies for the next raid. The British, anxious to secure their trade routes with India, brought the Al-Khalifa family into the system of protection against piracy that operated throughout the old Trucial States; that is, the Gulf states that signed a ‘truce’ or treaty with Britain against piracy and which largely make up today’s United Arab Emirates.
By 1882 Bahrain could not make any international agreements or host any foreign agent without British consent. On the other hand, as a British protectorate, the autonomy of the Al-Khalifa family was secure and threats from the Ottomans thwarted. Today, a special relationship still exists between Bahrainis and the sizable expatriate British community.
Bahrain regained full independence in 1971.
Oil. Roughly in the middle of the island, stands a small museum marking the spot where, in 1932, the Arab world struck gold and with it, the entire balance of power in the world was transformed forever.
The discovery of oil roughly coincided with the collapse of the world pearl market, and started a course of rapid modernization that was a beacon for other countries in the region to follow.
When the oil began to run out, troubles began in 1994 when riots erupted after the emir refused to accept a large petition calling for greater democracy, culminating in the hotel bombings of 1996. Despite many concessions, including the establishment of a constitutional monarch in 2002, the political tensions have yet to be fully resolved.
Today. Until the Arab Spring of 2011, the red-and-white flag of Bahrain was as a symbol of a seemingly contented nation – a nation confident of its place as an offshore banking center and commercial hub and a valued member of the UN, Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). But dissatisfaction had simmered for more than a decade, partly based on the slow pace of political development but also largely due to sectarian differences.
On 14 February 2002, Bahrain was declared a constitutional monarchy where both men and women are eligible to vote and stand for office in a fully elected parliament. But the fact remains that a Sunni monarch, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, is at the helm of a country where Shiites form the majority of the population. In 2006 Al- Wifaq, a Shia political party, won the largest number of seats in parliamentary and municipal elections. This helped pacify the political aspirations of the Shia majority until 2011, when tension erupted in street demonstrations and major disturbances. After November 2012, the government banned public gatherings in an attempt to quell the rising tensions, but fears of civil unrest remain. The death of an Indian expat in November 2012 in roadside bombs, and regular attacks on schools, has added to the growing sense of unease.
The continuing unrest threatens to destabilize Bahrain’s diversified economy, with a further slump experienced in international tourism. Regional tourism continues to play a significant role in the economy with many visitors, from Saudi Arabia in particular, intent on enjoying Bahrain’s relative tolerance of ‘liberal behavior’ regardless. Bahrain’s role as an offshore banking center and commercial hub is more fragile, with threats to international investment – much-needed to complete the ambitious projects started in the pre-2008 building frenzy.
PEOPLE & SOCIETY
The National Psyche. Bahrain is so close to the mainland it is joined by a causeway to Saudi Arabia. Bahrain is nonetheless an island, and there is something of an island mentality to be felt in Manama and microcosmically in Muharraq, too. It is difficult to pinpoint the differences between Bahrainis and other jizari (people of the Gulf) inhabitants, but perhaps it lies somewhere in the Bahraini identification with the wider world, a feeling engendered by the centuries of international trade and, in more recent times, by the earliest discovery of oil in the region. This latter fact enabled Bahrain to engage in an international dialogue well before its neighbors, and as such helped in developing a sense of greater affinity with Western nations, as well as a tolerance and even acceptance of many Western practices. Even a one-time visitor cannot fail to notice the many bars serving alcohol, the largely unchecked social freedoms and the general party atmosphere that engages the streets of Manama. Naturally enough, a greater degree of conservatism prevails outside the capital area, but this is still not the land of the censorious.
Lifestyle. It’s the prerogative of the inhabitants of busy seaports to select from the ‘customs and manners’ that wash up on the shore. Young Bahraini men at nightclubs sporting a crisp white thobe (floor-length shirt-dress) or the international uniform of jeans and leather jacket, a visitor could be forgiven for thinking that the young have sold out to the West. These same young men, had the rituals of circumcision and maturation,.
As for Bahraini women, while Islam requires surrender to the will of God, it does not imply surrender to the will of man. Bahraini women take their place in many walks of public life, choose to cover their hair, but in the presence of men give them instructions on all matters of life, cardinal and profane.
Bahraini people have enjoyed the spoils of oil for over half a century and it’s tempting to think wealth has created a nation of idlers; you won’t see many Bahrainis engaged in manual labour, nor waiting on tables. But a modern, enterprising, wealthy nation isn’t built on money alone, and the burgeoning financial sector is proof that the locals have chosen to invest their energies and creativity in their traditional trading strengths while importing labor for the jobs they no longer need to do themselves.
As for most Arab nationals, ‘home is where the heart is’ for Bahrainis. Time with the family is cherished, and the sense of home is extended to the Bahraini community at large through many public-funded amenities and educational opportunities. After Ramadan, for example, Al-Fatih Mosque opens its doors to free feasting for non-Muslims during eid: in some countries this would be interpreted as proselytizing; here it is a symbol of the infectious sense of home shared with non-nationals.
Multiculturalism. Though part of Arabia, there are Indian and Pakistani shop owners, Jewish money exchangers, Filipino hotel workers and occasional groups of US servicemen, but the bars, hotels and malls are peopled largely by Western expatriates.
Nearly 32% of residents (44% of the workforce) are non-Bahrainis or expatriates (Western expats 10%), but unemployed Bahrainis are angry that jobs are taken by workers from Asia. The government has actively pursued a policy favoring the indigenous workforce, tensions continue to prevail as educated Bahrainis find it difficult to compete in sectors with entrenched (and often experienced and skilled) expatriate workforces.
In common with other Gulf nationals, and despite a free and excellent education system, many Bahrainis choose to study abroad, particularly in the USA and UK. They generally come back, however!
There’s a vibrant contemporary-arts scene in Bahrain. Exhibitions of local paintings regularly take place and a few private galleries often showcase the work of the owner. Muharraq Island is a center for the preservation of traditional arts, crafts and social customs under the patronage of the Sheikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed Al Khalifa Centre for Culture and Research. The best way to find out what’s going on where is to consult the listings in TimeOut Bahrain or the English-language newspapers.
The Land. Most people think of Bahrain (741 sq km) as a single flat island with a couple of low escarpments in the middle of a stony desert and surrounded by a very shallow, calm sea is the description of Bahrain Island only, which, at 586 sq km, is the largest in an archipelago of about 33 islands, including the Hawar Islands, and a few specks of sand that disappear at high tide. When crossing any of the causeways which link Bahrain with the Saudi mainland, it is easy to see how the whole archipelago was once attached to the rest of the continent.
Wildlife. Bahrain’s noteworthy wildlife includes the Ethiopian hedgehog, Cape Hare, various geckos and the endangered Rheem gazelle, which inhabits the dry and hot central depression. The Hawar Islands, with their resident cormorant and flamingo populations, give a staging post to winter migrants. The Rheem gazelle, terrapin, sooty falcon and the seafaring dugong all appear on the endangered species list but some of them can be seen, along with a beautiful herd of oryx, at Al-Areen Wildlife Park & Reserve.
The deserts of Bahrain may look sparse, but various twigs are applied in poultices or pastes in a rich tradition of herbal medicine. Another useful plant is the endangered mangrove, which provides a rich habitat for a variety of birds and molluscs among its scaffolding of aerial roots. A unique ecosystem in Bahrain is created by the seagrass Halodule uninervis . Important for the dugong and a large number of migrating birds, this tough plant is remarkably resilient against extreme temperatures and high salinity.
National Parks. Located in the middle of Bahrain Island, Al-Areen Wildlife Park & Reserve was set up to conserve natural habitats and indigenous fauna, such as gazelles and bustards and certain native Arabian species, including the endangered oryx..
Two other protected areas are the mangroves at Ras Sanad (Tubli Bay) and the Hawar Islands. With a huge residential development project underway in one and oil exploration around the other, it’s hard to see what is meant by ‘protection’.
Environmental Issues. Bahrain has made a big effort to clean up its act environmentally and beautification projects have brought a touch of greenery back to the concrete jungle. But these measures are largely cosmetic, and the main threats to the environment remain unrestrained development; perpetual land reclamation; an inordinate number of cars (about 200 per sq km); rampant industrialisation; and pollution of the Gulf from oil leakages and ocean acidification. In addition, little appears to have been done to curb emissions from heavy industry (such as the aluminium smelting plant) to the east of Bahrain Island.
During the stand-off between Bahrain and Qatar over ownership of the Hawar Islands, the wildlife, which includes dugongs and turtles and many species of migratory bird, was left in peace. Immediately after the territorial dispute was resolved, however, Bahrain invited international oil companies to drill for oil.
Bahrain’s main sights are all within day-trip distance of the capital. As a result, most visitors stay in the large selection of hotels available in Manama and its suburbs.
Bahrain has accommodation to fit most pockets, although travellers will find it difficult to find single/double rooms for less than BD15/25 per night.
Many of the cheaper hotels (and some midrange hotels) double as brothels for visiting Saudi patrons. The cheaper the room, the more overt the night-time activity. Pretty women hanging around a hotel foyer does not bode altogether well for a quiet night’s sleep. Ask the price of a night’s sleep in the infamous Hotel Bahrain, for example, gets the reply: ‘this hotel no-sleep – sleep cost more’. Ironically, the Muslim holidays – when a wave of Saudi tourists floods over the causeway – seem to turn even the midrange hotels into a rendezvous for mostly discreet and unobtrusive liaisons. One word “of warning: when a hotel says it has a floor especially for women, it often means just that, with a variety of women of the night plying their trade. As such, women travelling on their own are better off avoiding it. Solo women are unlikely to feel threatened on the capital’s streets.
Camping is not a recommended option.
The main activities in Bahrain focus around the sea, although very shallow coastal waters mean that swimming, snorkelling and boating are all best carried out well offshore. On land, golf is popular at the Awali Golf Club (www.awaligolfclub.com) and Royal Golf Club (www.royalgolfclub.com). Expats will find membership of a club offers big savings and a ready-made social life.
Dolphin watching. Contact Bahrain Yacht Club (www.thebahrainyachtclub.com; or Coral Bay for boat trips.
Horse riding Both Dilmun Club (www.dilmun-club.com) in Sar and Bahrain Riding School (twinpalmsridingcentre.com) offer lessons.
Pearl diving. Al-Dar Islands Resort provides the nosepeg – you just bring the stamina.
Running. For those who prefer to share their pain, contact the Bahrain Hash House Harriers (www.bahrainhash.com) .
Bahrain Island Heritage by Shirley Kay – useful and informative.
Resident in Bahrain by Parween Abdul Rahman and Charles Walsham – helpful for businesspeople.
Looking for Dilmun by Geoffrey Bibby – celebrated book on Bahrain in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Bahrain Through the Ages by Sheikh Haya Ali al-Khalifa and Michael Rice – in-depth coverage of Bahrain’s archaeology.
The main internet service provider is Batelco. There are many wi-fi hot spots around town, especially in Starbucks and McDonald’s and in most hotels.
There are many internet centers in Manama.
Breaking the law can have severe consequences.
Bahrain’s currency is the Bahraini dinar (BD). One dinar is divided into 1000 fils. There are 500 fil and 1, 5, 10 and 20 dinar notes. Coins come in denominations of 5, 10, 25, 50, 100 and 500 fils.
ATMs & Credit Cards. Major credit cards are widely accepted throughout Bahrain. Most banks have ATMs that accept Visa, Cirrus and MasterCard cards, while the Bank of Bahrain & Kuwait (BBK) has ATMs that take Visa, MasterCard, Cirrus, Maestro and Amex cards.
Money Changers. Money (both cash and travellers cheques) can be changed at any bank or moneychanging office. There is little to choose between banks and money changers in terms of exchange rates and it’s rare for either to charge a commission. Currencies for other Gulf States are easy to buy and sell.
Tipping & Bargaining. A service charge is added to most bills in restaurants and hotels in Bahrain, so tipping is at your discretion. Bargaining in the souqs and in most shops, together with asking for a discount, is expected.
The weekend in Bahrain is on Friday and Saturday for most commercial and government organizations.
Banks 7.30am to 3pm Sunday to Thursday
Government offices 7am to 2pm Sunday to Thursday
Internet cafes 8am to 1pm and 4pm to 10pm
Post offices 7am to 2pm (and 4pm to 6pm at alternating offices)
Restaurants 11am to 3pm and 6pm to 1am
Shopping centers 9am to 10pm Saturday to Thursday, 10am to 10pm Friday
Shops 8am to noon and 3.30pm to 7.30pm Saturday to Thursday
In addition to the main Islamic holidays, Bahrain celebrates a number of public holidays.
New Year’s Day 1 January
Ashura Tenth day of Muharram (date changeable) – Ashura marks the death of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet. Processions led by men flagellating themselves take place in many of the country’s predominantly Shiite areas.
National Day 16 December
Bahrain’s telephone country code is 973 and there are no area or city codes. The international access code (to call abroad from Bahrain) is 00. There are several help lines including local directory assistance (181) and international directory assistance (191).
Bahrain’s telecommunications system is run by the government monopoly, Bahrain Telecommunications Company (Batelco). Local calls anywhere within Bahrain cost 20 fils per minute. Blue payphones take coins. Red payphones take phonecards, which are widely available from most grocery stores in denominations of BD1, BD3, BD5 and BD10.
Mobile Phones. Bahrain’s mobile-phone network runs on the GSM system through Batelco and Zain. Visitors can also purchase SIM cards for BD1, BD5 and BD10 at all Batelco and Zain outlets. Recharge cards come in many denominations up to BD20.
Visas are needed to visit Bahrain. For people of many nationalities, these can be conveniently obtained at Bahrain International Airport or at the border with Saudi Arabia. A two-week visa on arrival costs BD5 and is payable by credit card only. You can check your eligibility for a visa on arrival online (www.evisa.gov.bh) as there are some restrictions currently in place (for example, for certain professions).
Multiple-entry business visas are available for citizens of many nationalities. Valid for five years with maximum stays of 28 days; cost is BD20.
Visa Extensions. Two-week visa extensions can be obtained by visiting the General Directorate of Nationality, Passports & Residents (www.evisa.gov.bh; Sheikh Hamad Causeway) . The cost is currently BD5 and they take 72 hours to process. Foreigners overstaying their visas are rigorously fined.
Bahrain is fairly liberal compared to some other Gulf countries, which can be both a blessing (less of the staring) and a nuisance (more of the hassle).
GETTING THERE AND AWAY
Air. Bahrain International Airport is on Muharraq Island, 12km from the center of Manama, and handles frequent services to many intercontinental destinations as well as other countries in the region.
The national carrier is Gulf Air www.gulfair.com which flies to destinations worldwide. It has a good safety record and reliable departure times.
Departure tax is included in the price of your ticket.
Airlines Flying to/from Bahrain
Air Arabia (www.airarabia.com) Hub: Sharjah.
Bahrain Air (www.bahrainair.net) Hub: Muharraq, Bahrain.
British Airways (www.ba.com) Hub: Heathrow, London.
Emirates (www.emirates.com) Hub: Dubai, UAE.
Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) Hub: Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Kuwait Airways (www.kuwait-airways.com) Hub: Kuwait City.
Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com) Hub: Frankfurt, Germany.
Oman Air (www.omanair.com) Hub: Muscat, Oman.
Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) Hub: Doha, Qatar.
Saudi Arabian Airlines (www.saudiairlines.com) Hub: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Border Crossings. The only ‘land’ border is with Saudi Arabia, across the King Fahd Causeway. Tourists are not permitted to drive between Saudi and Bahrain in a hired car. Residents of Saudi who have their own cars may use this crossing providing they have car insurance for both countries. For those coming from Saudi this can be purchased at the border. A transit visa must be obtained from the Saudi authorities for those driving by car between the UAE and Bahrain. This is not easy to obtain.
Bus. The Saudi Bahraini Transport Co (Sabtco; www.sabtco.biz) runs an upmarket car and bus service between Manama and Dammam in Saudi Arabia. It also acts as the agent for the Saudi bus company, Saudi Arabian Public Transport Co, with regular services to Dammam. From Dammam there are regular connections to Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) and Doha (Qatar) for those who have a Saudi transit visa.
From Manama, Saptco also has daily buses as far as Amman (Jordan) and Damascus (Syria), Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah (UAE) and Kuwait City, all for under BD20. All departures are from the international bus terminal in Manama, where the Sabtco office is located.
You must have a valid transit visa for Saudi Arabia in advance and an onward ticket and visa for your next destination beyond Saudi’s borders.
Car & Motorcycle. All drivers (and passengers in taxis) using the causeway to Saudi must pay a toll.
Anyone crossing the border from Bahrain to Saudi will be given a customs form to complete, and drivers entering Bahrain from Saudi must purchase temporary Bahraini insurance and also sign a personal guarantee.
Sea. Valfajr 8 Shipping Company runs a weekly ferry service between Manama and the Iranian port of Bushehr. The ship departs from the Mina Sulman port in Manama and the agent in Bahrain is International Agencies Company (www.intercol.com). For useful additional information, check out www.irantravelingcenter.com.
Bus. Bahrain has a public bus system linking most of the major towns and residential areas but it is designed primarily for the expatriate workforce. As such, it is of limited use to tourists, with a lack of route guides and timetables, and destinations that do not coincide with places of tourist interest.
Car and Motorcycle. Driving around Bahrain is straightforward and roads are well signposted to the main sites of tourist interest.
Speed limits, the wearing of seat belts and drink-driving laws are rigorously enforced. Speed limits are 60km/h in towns, 80km/h in the outer limits of suburbs and 100km/h on highways. Petrol stations are well signposted, especially along highways.
Car-hire companies have offices in Manama and at the airport.
Rates exclude petrol, but include unlimited mileage and insurance. To avoid the excess of BD100 to BD200 in case of an accident, it’s wise to pay the extra BD2 Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) per day. Rates are for a minimum of 24 hours. Companies normally only accept drivers over 21 years old (over 25 for more expensive models), and foreigners must (theoretically) have an International Driving Permit, although a driving license is often sufficient. There is nowhere “sion Damage Waiver (CDW) per day. Rates are for a minimum of 24 hours. Companies normally only accept drivers over 21 years old (over 25 for more expensive models), and foreigners must (theoretically) have an International Driving Permit, although a driving license is often sufficient. There is nowhere to rent a motorcycle.
Local Transport. Most visitors get around Bahrain by taxi although persistence is needed to persuade drivers to use their meters. If visiting more than one tourist attraction outside Manama and Muharraq, it’s cheaper to hire a car.