Bahrain’s reputation as a relatively liberal and modern Arabian Gulf state has made it a favorite with travellers in the region and an excellent introduction to the Gulf. While their neighbours staked everything on oil, Bahrainis diversified their economy and created some of the region’s best education and health systems. Years of British influence have made English widely spoken. Development has been swift, but it hasn’t swallowed up everything. Site of one of the oldest civilisations in the world and thought by some to be the site of the Garden of Eden, Bahrain is packed with archaeological digs, historical museums, dhow building yards and back-street souks.
- Area: 707 sq km (274 sq mi)
- Population: 600,000
- Capital city: Manama (pop 175,000)
- People: Bahraini (63%), Asian (13%), Iranian (8%), other Arab (10%)
- Language: Arabic, English, Farsi, Urdu
- Religion: Shi’a Muslim (70%), Sunni Muslim (15%), other religions and indigenous beliefs
- Government: Absolute monarchy
- Head of state: Shaikh Hamad bin ‘Isa Al Khalifah
- Head of government: Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa
- Crown Prince: Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa
- GDP: US$7.7 billion
- GDP per head: US$13,000
- Annual growth: 3%
- Inflation: 0%
- Major industries: Petroleum processing and refining, aluminum smelting, offshore banking, insurance & re-insurance, tourism
- Major trading partners: Saudi Arabia, India, US, Japan, UAE
Visas are required by all except:
- Passport holders of AGCC (Arabian Gulf Cooperation Council) States, (i.e. nationals of Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates).
- Citizens of the UK for a maximum of 4 weeks(providing they hold a passport with at least 6 months validity).
- Those continuing their onward journey within 72 hours, hold confirmed tickets, and appropriate travel documents and on condition they remain within the transit area. (a fee of BD. 0.500 will be charged)*
Entry Visas :
Foreign nationals may enter Bahrain with a tourist visa (for individuals or groups), 72 – hour visa, 7 – day visa, visit visa, business visa, family visa, dependent visa, or an employment visa. Generally all types of visas (except certain categories of tourist visas which can be obtained from Consulates abroad) are to be applied for by local sponsor in Bahrain.
- Tourist Visa
- Tourist visas can be obtained at the Bahrain International Airport or at the King Fahad Causeway for :
- Citizens of the European Community, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan or Hong Kong.
- Visitors who have been resident in the GCC for a minimum of six months, and who posses a return visa for the country of GCC residency.
- All the above must have a valid passport and return ticket, they must have no criminal record or involvememt in activities that could threaten public order or national security. Visitors must not seek employment while in Bahrain.
- Fee: For a stay of 2 weeks, BD. 5.000 each (approximately US$ 3.76)*
- Groups who wish to visit Bahrain are advised to contact a Tourist Company to make the necessary visa arrangements.
- Groups may obtain visa to Bahrain for a duration of up to 2 weeks which is renewable once a for a similar period.
- Entry visas are obtained through hotels, travel and tourist agencies and other firms, licensed to carry out tourist activities in Bahrain.
- Fees: Groups of upto 30 tourists are charged a fee of BD. 3.000 (US $ 8.000 approximately) per person. Groups comprising more than 30 tourists are charged BD. 2.000 (US$ 5.30) per person.*
- Tourist visas can be obtained at the Bahrain International Airport or at the King Fahad Causeway for :
- 72-Hour Visa / 7-Day visa
- Can be obtained on arrival at the Bahrain International Airport or at the King Fahad Causeway. These visas are mainly intended for business visits, trade delegations, attending exhibitions and seminars. Apart from the passport, the passenger must possess a confirmed return or onward journey ticket for his/her visa application to be processed. Foreign nationals who have lived for six months in a GCC State are automatically granted a 72-hour visa on arrival.
- Fee: 72-hour Visa – BD.10 7-day visa BD. 15*
- Visit Visa
- Issued to foreign nationals who intend to visit Bahrain to meet their relatives or friends. The application for a visit visa must be made by a local sponsor to the General Directorate of Immigration and Passports (GDIP). The visit visa is normally valid for one month’s stay in Bahrain, but can sometimes be extended up to a maximum of three months. A person on a visit visa cannot work or engage in business activities during his/her stay in Bahrain.
- Fee: BD. 22.000*
- Business Visa
- This type of visa is a similar to that of a visit visa, except that the purpose of the visit is business.
- Fee: BD. 42.000 (multiple entry, valid, for 6 months)*
- Family Visa
- Granted to a wife and children joining the husband/father.The family visa holder may not take up gainful employement in Bahrain but can stay in Bahrain as long her husband stays.
- Fee: BD.22.000*
- Dependent Visa
- Granted to dependants of a Bahrain resident. The visa holder cannot take up gainful employement in Bahrain but can stay as long as the head of the household stays.
- Employment Visa
- Required to work legally in Bahrain and become a resident of Bahrain. A work permit is required from the Ministry of Labour and a No objection Certificate from Directorate of Immigration before this visa is granted.
- Fee: BD.15.000*
Facts for the Traveler
Health risks: None
Time: GMT/UTC plus 3 hours
Electricity: 230V, 50Hz (British style plug – 3 square pins)
Weights & measures: Metric
When is the best time to visit Bahrain
The best time to visit Bahrain is between November and March, when it’s not too hot. Avoid visiting during Ramadan, the Muslim month of daytime fasting, when things slow down considerably. (Ramadan ends in January or December through 2002.) You might also want to stay away during the Muslim festivals marking the end of Ramadan and the annual pilgrimage to Mecca (ending in March for the next few years), or over New Year’s Eve. At these times accommodation becomes very hard to find, especially at the lower end of the scale, where prices sometimes double.
The Islamic holidays of Eid Al-Fitr (the end of Ramadan), Eid Al-Adha (the end of the pilgrimage season) and the Islamic New Year are all major holidays in Bahrain.
Ramadan, which is scheduled according to the lunar calendar, occurs around the Gregorian December and January through 2002; the pilgrimage season ends in March for the next few years.
Bahrain’s large Shiite community also commemorates the religious festival of Ashoora (the tenth of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar) which marks the death of Imam Hussein (peace be upon him), the grandson of the Prophet (peace be upon him), at the battle of Karbala in 680 AD. Processions, led by men flagellating themselves, take place in April and March for the next several years.
Money & Costs
Currency: Bahraini dinar (BD) – pegged to the US Dollar – 1BD = US$2.65 – US$1 = BD 0.377
- Budget: US$5-7
- Mid-range: US$7-10
- Top-end: US$10 and upwards
- Budget: US$5-20
- Mid-range: US$20-80
- Top-end: US$80 and upwards
Though an inexpensive stopover, Bahrain isn’t a cheap destination. If you want to travel comfortably, rent a car and load up on artifacts, expect to spend around US$150-200 or more per day. Taking the bus and bargaining will bring your costs down closer to US$50-100 a day. If you walk a lot and have no huge appetite for food or booze, it’s possible to get by on around US$25 a day.
There are a number of banks and moneychangers in Manama, and it pays to shop around for the best rate. American Express offices will cash cheques for card holders, and some banks will advance against Visa cards. There are ATMs in Manama linked to international networks.
A service charge is added to almost every bill in Bahrain, but it generally goes to the shop, not the waitstaff. An appropriate tip in a good restaurant is 10%. While tips aren’t expected (especially in less expensive places.)
Manama is the very new capital of a very old place. Many of the newer hotels and official buildings along the northern edge of the city sit on reclaimed land, while there are neighbourhoods a few blocks inland that have changed little in the last 50 years. Manama is located at the north-eastern tip of Bahrain Island.
The city’s major attraction is the National Museum, a modern building with excellent exhibits well-marked in both Arabic and English. The museum covers 7000 years of Bahrain’s history, including its many grave mounds and temples; its Dilmun, Tylos and Islamic periods; and Arabic writing and calligraphy. Next to the museum’s parking lot is a number of reconstructed traditional buildings and boats. Even if you’re not an aficionado of Islamic calligraphy, plan on hitting Beit Al-Qur’an, a museum and research center downtown. Calligraphy is central to Muslim culture and is closely connected to religious life. The centrepiece of the museum is its large collection of Korans, some dating from the 7th century. You’ll need a magnifying glass to read the Koranic verses written on a grain of rice.
Just south of Government Ave is the souk, or marketplace. Electronic gear, gold and women’s clothing seem to be the main stock in trade at the souk, but in the great tradition of Middle Eastern bazaars almost anything can be found if you look long and hard enough. The backstreets of the souk are great places to wander even if you’re not in the market to buy.
The Al-Fatih Mosque offers non-Muslim visitors a rare opportunity to enter a mosque. You can’t miss it: large enough to hold 7000 worshippers, it’s the largest building in the country.
Central Manama is about 10km (6mi) west of Bahrain International Airport and is accessible by bus.
Also known as the Portuguese Fort, Qal’at Al-Bahrain is the country’s main archaeological site. Beginning in the 1950s, excavations revealed the fort to be sitting on a tell, a hill formed from the rubble of previous cities. In all, seven layers of occupation were discovered, the earliest dating from 2800 BC. There are structures from different phases of the city’s past, including its Dilmun, Assyrian and Portuguese eras, and the dig is on-going. The site is about 5km (3mi) west of Manama and is best reached by car or taxi, as buses don’t get very close.
Barbar and Ad-Diraz temples
The Ad-Diraz Temple is a small second millennium Dilmun site. Its centrepiece is the stone base of what was probably an altar, surrounded by the bases of many columns. The site is about 5km (3mi) west of Manama and accessible by bus. Barbar is a complex of three 2nd and 3rd millennium BC temples, probably dedicated to Enki, the God of Wisdom and the Sweet Waters under the Earth. Walkways give excellent views of the excavated complex, which is about 10km (6mi) west of Manama. The site is a 20 to 30 minute walk west from the bus stop at the Ad-Diraz Temple.
Al-’Areen Wildlife Sanctuary
This small park is a conservation area for many of Arabia’s indigenous species, including the Arabian oryx. You can also see zebras and other animals that have been introduced to the island from elsewhere. The nearest bus drop-off is Az Zallaq, about 5km (3mi) north of the wildlife sanctuary and 25km (16mi) south-west of Manama.
Off the Beaten Track
Muharraq has been spared much of the modernising that’s transformed Manama in recent years. Its souk is funkier and even more interesting than the one in the capital. There are a couple of well-preserved traditional houses, the Bayt Shaikh Isa (Bayt = House in Arabic) and the Bayt Seyadi, both dating from the early 19th century. Bayt Shaikh Isa features beautiful plaster work and carved doors and has a working wind tower – an ingenious structure designed to direct the slightest breeze into the interior.
Put on your best smile and visit the 16th century Abu Mahir Fort, where if you ask nicely your escort might let you climb the watchtower and take in the excellent view of the Manama skyline. Its sister fort, the Qal’at Arad, also dates from the Portuguese era and has been beautifully restored in places. The small dhow building yard is a good spot to see Bahrainis at work on their traditional fishing boats. Buses run regularly between Muharraq and Manama. Muharraq is a few kilometres east of Manama and is accessible by bus.
The Royal Tombs are the largest and most impressive of Bahrain’s 85,000 burial mounds. Located in the village of A’ali, about 15km (9mi) south-west of Manama, the tombs may or may not have been the final resting places of kings, but they’re definitely large: up to 15m (50ft) high and 45m (150ft) in diameter. A’ali is also the home of Bahrain’s best-known pottery workshop, and many fine pieces are available for purchase. Buses connect A’ali and Manama.
This small village is famous for its cloth weavers, whose cloth comes in many different patterns and can be bought at their shacks. The shacks are located a few hundred metres outside of the village proper – a subtle indication that visitors are welcome to drop in on the weavers but not on the villagers. The shack across the road from the cemetery is the one where most visitors go to see demonstrations of weaving and to buy cloth. To reach the village, located about 10km (6mi) west of Manama, take a bus from the capital to the Ad-Diraz Temple and walk the remaining few hundred metres.
Most activities on the main island involve clubs, societies and sports organisations. Swimming isn’t much of an option at the beaches, as the water is so shallow that you can wade out as far as half a kilometre and still only be up to your knees. You’re better off at clubs or hotel pools (especially if you’re a woman). Otherwise, social life on the island consists mainly of eating and drinking out.
Bahrain, unlike the majority of its neighbors, does allow the consumption of alcohol! There are many “watering holes” around the island, mainly in the hotels with various themes from Arabic belly-dancing and singing through to Mexican.
The night could also be spent away in several discos, most with resident bands or excellent DJ’s.
Bahrainis have a great love of the Arabian Horse. The island boasts the only pure-bred Arabians throughout the world, with the world famous Amiri Stud owning and managing the majority of Arabian horses on the island.
There are quite a number of stables around the island, mainly in the Budaiya (northern ridge of the main island) where you can rent a horse and go treking through the desert.
There are a number of horse showjumping, dressage and horse-racing competitions every weekend (Thursday and Friday) from September through April.
Bahrain’s history goes back to the roots of human civilisation. The main island is thought to have broken away from the Arabian mainland sometime around 6000 BC and has almost certainly been inhabited since prehistoric times. The archipelago first emerged into world history in the 3rd millennium BC as the seat of the Dilmun trading empire. Dilmun, a Bronze Age culture that lasted some 2000 years, benefited from the islands’ strategic position along the trade routes linking Mesopotamia with the Indus Valley. In the midst of a region rapidly becoming arid, Dilmun’s lush spring-fed greenery gave it the image of a holy island in the mythology of Sumeria, one of the world’s earliest civilisations, which flourished in what is today southern Iraq. Dilmun had a similar cachet with the Babylonians, whose Epic of Gilgamesh mentions the islands as a paradise where heroes enjoy eternal life. Some scholars have suggested that Bahrain may be the site of the biblical Garden of Eden.
It was a long ride, but Dilmun eventually declined and was absorbed by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. The Greeks arrived around 300 BC, giving the islands the name Tylos. Bahrain remained a Hellenistic culture for some 600 years. After experimenting with Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Manicheism, in the 7th century many of the islands’ inhabitants accepted the personal invitation of the prophet Mohammed to convert to Islam.
After a series of Islamic rulers, Bahrain was conquered by the Portuguese in the early 16th century. The Portuguese used the islands as a pearling port and military garrison. In 1602, the Portuguese governor made the fatal mistake of executing the brother of one of the island’s wealthiest traders. The trader, Rukn El-Din, proceeded to lead an uprising that soon drove the Europeans from Bahrain. The islands then became part of the Persian empire, but that association was cut short by the arrival of the Al-Khalifa clan, Bahrain’s current ruling family.
In the 1830s, Bahrain signed the first of many treaties with Britain, who offered Bahrain naval protection from Ottoman Turkey in exchange for unfettered access to the Gulf. This arrangement kept the British out of Bahrain’s internal affairs until a series of internecine battles prompted the British to install their own choice for emir in 1869. Although oil was discovered in the area in 1902, large-scale drilling and processing didn’t happen until the 1930s, right about the time the world pearl market was collapsing. Oil money brought improved education and health care to Bahrain. It also brought the British closer: the main British naval base in the region was moved to Bahrain in 1935, and the senior British official in the Middle East followed suit in 1946.
Another mark of British influence was the long tenure of Charles Belgrave, who arrived in Bahrain in 1926 as adviser to the emir and stayed for over 30 years. Belgrave helped create the country’s educational system and oversaw much of Bahrain’s infrastructural development. When Emir Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifa ascended the throne in 1942, he capitalised on Bahrain’s superior level of development to take advantage of the oil boom happening in Saudi Arabia and other neighbouring countries, making Bahrain the Gulf’s main entrep?t. The waves of Arab nationalism that swept through the region in the 1950s led to increasing anti-British sentiment in Bahrain. Rioting flared during the Suez crisis of 1956, bringing British troops. Britain announced its intention to leave the Gulf 15 years later, prompting Bahrain to proclaim its independence on 14 August 1971.
As the price of oil went through the stratosphere during the 1970s and 1980s, the country grew by leaps and bounds. The Iranian revolution touched off a few violent pro-Iranian demonstrations in Bahrain in 1979 and 1980, but Islamic fundamentalism failed to capture widespread support. Despite the Gulf-wide economic downturn of the late 1980s, Bahrain remained calm and prosperous thanks to its earlier efforts at economic diversification. The country’s main shipyard did a roaring trade in the late 1980s, patching up tankers that had been hit by one side or the other during the Iran-Iraq War. The opening of the King Fahd Causeway between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in 1986 gave a boost to business and tourism.
As flashy and modern as central Manama may be, the basic rhythms of life in the island’s many villages (and in parts of Manama itself) remain remarkably traditional. By the same token, where there’s tradition in the Gulf there’s Islamic conservatism: women cover themselves from head to foot and women travellers are expected to wear long skirts and one-piece bathing suits. Bahrain’s population is 85% Muslim and Islam is the state religion. Arabic is the official language but English is widely spoken.
Traditional craftwork continues in several places around Bahrain: dhows (fishing boats) are built on the outskirts of Manama and Muharraq, cloth woven at Bani Jamrah and pottery thrown at A’ali. Goldsmiths still operate in the Manama souk, where every piece of jewelry is franked officially by the government’s Jewelry lab. Bahraini gold is normally 22 or 24 karat.
One of the mainstays of Bahraini culture is the drinking of traditional Arabian coffee. You can’t go far without finding a coffee pot in a shop or a souk. Traditional Arabian street food like shawarma (lamb or chicken carved from a huge rotating spit and served in pita bread) and desserts such as baklava are also ubiquitous. While a bit thin on Arabic food, Bahrain has a bonanza of Indian, Pakistani, Thai and other Asian specialties.
The only island-state in the Arab world, Bahrain is an archipelago of 33 islands with a combined area about the size of Singapore. The main island lies in the Arabian Gulf about halfway between Saudi Arabia to the west and Qatar to the east. Iran is about 200km (125mi) north-east across the Gulf.
Bahrain Island is the largest of the archipelago, around 50km (30mi) north to south and 16km (10mi) east to west. The main island is pretty flat, with Jabal Ad-Dukhan, the highest point, only 130m (426ft) above sea level. Most development is concentrated on the northern third of the island.
Bahrain has long been famous for its greenery in the midst of the region’s deserts. Recently, however, this has been changing. Though parts of the island are still thickly covered in date palms, the island is a lot less lush than it used to be. Some of the trees have been cut down, while others have died as increasing demands are made on the underground springs that water them. Aside from domesticated donkeys, you won’t see many animals outside the Al-’Areen Wildlife Sanctuary. Even that old Arabian standby, the camel, is a relatively rare sight in Bahrain.
It can get extremely hot and humid in Bahrain from June to September, with high temperatures averaging 36?C (97?F) during the day. November to March tends to be much more pleasant, with warm days and cool nights.
Getting Here & Away
Europe has the best air connections with Bahrain; the best fares are usually from Italy or Greece. Flights from the US tend to be expensive and harder to find; fares are cheapest during the low seasons of early January to mid-June and mid-October to mid-December. Routes between Bahrain and other Arab countries in the Gulf are well served. Flights from India and South-East Asia tend to be inexpensive, with especially good deals from Bangkok or Delhi. There’s an airport departure tax of around US$8.
Travellers can pass between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia via the King Fahd Causeway. The bus is a good way to get across, as it has its own lane at customs. There are passenger ferries running between Iran and Bahrain; the trip takes about 16 hours each way, and there’s a port tax of around US$8.
Bahrain has a decent bus service linking most of the major towns with Manama and Muharraq. You can easily cover Manama and Muharraq on foot, though renting a car will make it easier to get to farther-flung attractions. There are agencies in Manama at the big hotels. You’ll need to get an International Driving Permit before entering the country (you can’t get one once you’re there); driving is on the right. Bahrain’s taxis are metered, and while you can hire them by the hour for sightseeing trips outside Manama, you should only do this if you plan to spend lots of time poking around remote spots where you’re unlikely to find another cab.
Looking for Dilmun by Geoffrey Bibby is an Anglo-Dutch archaeologist’s account of early excavations on Bahrain. It also provides a fascinating picture of life in Bahrain and the rest of the Gulf in the 1950s and 1960s.
Archaeology buffs should also check out Bahrain through the Ages by Shaikha Haya Ali Al-Khalifa and Michael Rice, and Bahrain: A Heritage Explored by Angela Clark.
The chapter on Bahrain in John Raban’s Arabia through the Looking Glass, is a good read and contains some pointed observations on expat life on the island during the oil boom of the late 1970s.