Distinctly poorer than its close neighbor Qatar, Bahrain also boasts a more liberal mentality as well as a greater reliance on its own workforce. Although increasingly democratic, it faces problems between its Shia majority and the Sunni minority who form the ruling class.
Population: 718,306, which includes over 200,000 expatriates
Land Mass: 665 sq km
World Trade Center: Image by Ahmedrabea
Where is Bahrain?
Bahrain is an island located in the Persian/Arabian Gulf. To the East lies Qatar, to South Saudi Arabia and to the North, across the Gulf, looms Iran. Next to these Bahrain is a midget, making even tiny Qatar appear large in size.
Bahrain was not always as dry as it is now - in the last 40 years development has dried up much of the natural springs that used to lure the Qatari bedouin to its shores in the hot summers - and there has even been speculation that it was once the Garden of Eden.
There is evidence that the country has been inhabited for 7000 years, and it was also a major part of Dilmun, a Bronze Age trading empire which lasted for 2000 years. Later on there was a strong Greek influence and the country was renamed Tylos - itself a Greek name. Trading was once again its main activity for 600 years.
In 629, much of Bahrain accepted an invitation from the Prophet Mohammed to accept Islam, and Bahrain was ruled by Mohammed through a governor. However, Bahrain was later taken over by the Qarmatians, who used Bahrain as a base to sack many of Islam's holiest cities, and desecrated the Zam Zam well with the bodies of Hajj pilgrims.
The Qarmatians were in turn replaced by a series of invaders, including Genghis Khan.
In the 16th century Bahrain was invaded by the Portuguese, who defeated and beheaded the local king, but they were kicked out by a revolt in 1602. The Portuguese were replaced by the Persian empire until the Persians themselves were replaced by the Khalifa family. The Khalifas eventually fell under the influence of the British, who flexed their muscles after the Khalifas laid waste to Doha and Al Wakra. Bahrain remained a protectorate of the British until 1971, when the British left the Gulf and Bahrain declared its independence.
After oil was discovered in the 1930s Bahrain boomed, and because of its more relaxed environment, tourism boomed, especially after the opening of the King Fahd causeway to Saudi Arabia. However in the 1990s, there was widespread rioting, caused by a demand for a more equal share of the oil wealth, and religious differences between Bahrain's Shia majority and its Sunni leaders.
Qal`at al-Bahrain: Image by Joe Loe
Culture and Religion
Although an Islamic culture, Bahrain is noticeably more relaxed than neighboring Saudi Arabia and Qatar - no small factor in its popularity with the residents and citizens of both countries. While Islam affects the everyday way of life for Bahrainis, foreigners who respect this are welcomed, are allowed to practise their own religion and can purchase alcohol. Women can also drive and walk around unescorted.
Bahrain men and women continue to dress conservatively. National dress retains its importance, with women wearing the daffa, a long loose fitting black robe, and the men wearing the thobe. As in Qatar, men and women often have separate weddings.
Sunni and Shia Sects
The vast majority of the population of Bahrain are Shia, with a further 10% following the Sunni sect. There are certain differences between Sunnis and Shias. The former pray five times a day and the latter only three, there are also differences regarding the five pillars of Islam and historical disagreements over the caliphate following the death of Mohammed.
The current Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Salman Al Khalifa, has moved Bahrain towards a more democratic system. The reforms he has made include:
There is now a bicameral system of government, consisting of the lower chamber of Deputies and the higher Shura Council. Both have equal legislative powers, but only the lower house is elected, with the Shura council being elected directly by the King.
Bahrain the country consists of an archipelago of 33 islands. However, the island Bahrain (Al Bahrayn), where the capital city Manama is located, makes up 83% of this land area, with a total area of 572 square metres. The island mostly consists of flat desert, although the highest hill, which is in the interior, rises to 132 metres, and is known as Jabal ad Dukhan or "mountain of smoke" because of the mists that often clouds the top. The area surrounding Jabal Ad Dukhan, which is mostly limestone rock, is home to the majority of the country's oil wells.
Bahrain is linked by a bridge to Muharraq, where Bahrain's international airport is located. Al Muhurraq is Bahrain's second largest island - although in fact it is far from large, measuring just six kilometres in length.
With oil reserves declining, Bahrain has managed to reposition its economy towards petroleum. Petroleum production and refining now account for over 60% of its GDP. After oil, Bahrain's second biggest export is aluminum. Bahrain has also become a major international banking centre, with a strong focus on Islamic banking. Expatriates form 38% of the population but 59% of the workforce - yet unemployment remains a problem among Bahrainis.
Summers are hot and humid, although at the end of summer Al Barah - a dry North Westerly wind - blows, bringing release. The most pleasant times to visit are, as with Qatar, in the spring and autumn. Winter brings cooler weather and rainfall.
A Formula 1 Grand Prix is held yearly: See Bahrain Grand Prix.
Links and Resources
Bahrain: CIA World Factbook
Bahrain: Guide by Bahrain Economic Development Board
Airport: Official website of the National Airport