People & Society
Bahrain is a socially liberal state and, with bars and clubs widespread in the capital city, it might be assumed this liberalism extends to all corners. But many Bahrainis retain conservative views on aspects of social and religious interaction, and this will be apparent to those who venture beyond the capital into the smaller towns and villages.
Bahrainis embrace many local traditions, customs and religious festivals with a vigour that isn't always shared across the region. For example, Bahrainis observe the Prophet Muhammad's birthday and the Shiite festival of Ashura, neither of which are celebrated by many of their more conservative neighbours.
Bahraini people have enjoyed the spoils of oil for more than half a century, and it’s tempting to think that wealth has created a nation of idlers – you won’t see many Bahrainis engaged in manual labour, for example, or waiting on tables, which is usually reserved for the cheap migrant workforce from Asia and Africa. 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.
Despite the imperatives of international business, time with the family is highly cherished by Bahrainis, and the sense of home is extended to the Bahraini community at large through many public-funded amenities and educational opportunities. Throughout Ramadan large mosques, like Al Fatih, often host open iftars (the evening meal to break the fast) that allow anybody to come and break their fast. The same is witnessed during the Eid celebrations, when as well as feeding those less fortunate than themselves, the celebrations of the day are centred around time with the family.
Behind Bab Al Bahrain, in the heart of Manama, there is little besides shop signs in Arabic to indicate that this area is indeed part of the Middle East. There are Indian and Pakistani shop owners, Jewish money exchangers, Filipino hotel workers and occasional groups of US service personnel. The long overdue establishment of Little India, acknowledging the contribution of migrants from the subcontinent, is a testimony to all this.
It is a similar story in Seef, where the manicured gardens and bars of the Ritz-Carlton Bahrain Hotel & Spa and the international chain stores of Seef Mall are peopled largely by expatriates.
In a country where an estimated 55% of residents are immigrants, it is surprising that a strong sense of local identity has survived the influx of migrant workers. This imbalance, while harmonious for the most part, has been a source of political agitation too. In 1997, for example, a series of arson attacks were carried out by unemployed local Bahrainis who were angry that jobs were being taken by workers from Asia. While the government has since actively pursued a policy of favouring the indigenous workforce, tensions continue as educated Bahrainis find it difficult to compete in sectors with entrenched (and often experienced and skilled) expatriate workforces.
There’s a vibrant contemporary arts scene in Bahrain. Exhibitions of local paintings regularly take place at the Bahrain National Museum and at La Fontaine Centre for Contemporary Art. There are also a few private galleries, often showcasing the work of the owner, such as the Al Oraifi Museum on Muharraq Island.
The lanes surrounding Beit Seyadi on Muharraq Island are slowly developing into a centre for the preservation of traditional arts, crafts and social customs under the patronage of the Sheikh Ebrahim Bin Mohammed Al Khalifa Centre for Culture & Research.
The best way to find out what’s on is to consult the listings on English-language websites and in newspapers and magazines.
On the face of it, Bahrain is a modern country that looks forward more often than it looks back. This is changing though: with Manama and Muharraq both recent Capitals of Arab Culture, a revival of interest in Bahrain's artistic heritage is gathering momentum. Several cultural centres, such as the Manama Craft Centre, and workshops, such as Al Jasra Handicraft Centre, encourage the continuation of skills. Crafts are generally carried out in cottage industries or cooperatives, with people working from the privacy of their own inner courtyards. If you head out to the following places, especially in the company of a local guide, you may be lucky and see these crafts in progress.
Pottery and ceramics Village of A’Ali
Traditional weaving Villages of Ad Diraz and Bani Jamrah
Basket weaving with palm leaves Village of Karbabad
Pearl jewellery Gold Souq, Manama
Al Kurar metal thread-work (for decorating ceremonial gowns) Al Korar House, Muharraq
Most people think of Bahrain (741 sq km) as a single scorched flat island with a couple of low escarpments in the middle of a stony desert, surrounded by a shallow, calm sea. In fact, such is the description of Bahrain Island only, which, at 586 sq km, is the largest in an archipelago of about 33 islands, including the 36 Hawar Islands and a few specks of sand that disappear at high tide. When crossing any of the causeways, including the King Fahd Causeway, which links Bahrain with the Saudi mainland, it is easy to see how the whole archipelago was once attached to the rest of the continent.
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 cormorants, serve as a staging post for winter migrants. The Rheem gazelle, the terrapin, the 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.
A unique ecosystem in Bahrain is created by the sea grass 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.
Located in the middle of Bahrain Island, Al Areen Wildlife Park & Reserve is more a zoo than a national park and was set up to conserve natural habitats to support research projects in the field of wildlife protection and development. In common with most Gulf states, the 20th-century passion for hunting left the island virtually bereft of natural inheritance. At least at Al Areen visitors can see the last specimens of indigenous fauna, such as gazelles and bustards (large ground-living birds). The park also provides a free-roaming natural habitat for certain native Arabian species, including the endangered oryx.
In addition to Al Areen, there are two other protected areas in Bahrain: the mangroves at Ras Sanad (Tubli Bay) and the Hawar Islands.
Bahrain has made a big effort in recent years to clean up its act environmentally, and beautification projects have brought a touch of greenery back to the concrete jungle, although most of the changes are cosmetic rather than meaningful. The main threats to the environment remain unrestrained development, perpetual land reclamation, rampant industrialisation, an inordinate number of cars (about 200 per sq km), pollution of the Gulf from oil leakages and ocean acidification. Little has 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, Bahrain invited international companies to drill for oil, though this is no longer being pursued as Hawar's main island is tentatively opened up as a tourist destination.
Pearls in Bahrain
Pearls are created when grit enters the shell of an oyster. The intrusive irritant is covered with a layer of mother-of-pearl, making it smooth and less irksome, and the longer the problem is nursed, the bigger the pearl gets. Large pearls have attracted huge sums of money throughout history, and though size counts, it’s not everything. Other factors include the depth and quality of lustre, the perfection of shape, and the colour of the pearl, which can be as diverse as peach or iron.
Commercial pearling was halted with the pioneering of the 'cultured' pearl in Japan in the 1930s. Cultured pearls are created by artificially injecting a bead into the shell of an oyster. These farmed pearls are more uniform and develop quicker, but are not pure because they have a foreign centre. Pearl farming took the unpredictability and guesswork out of the pearl industry and thus the novelty, yet today, almost all the pearls sold are cultured.
In Bahrain, natural pearls are garnered from the island’s healthy oyster beds in a bid to revive this heritage industry. Occasionally, the sea bed renders up the larger, uniquely coloured pearls that once made the area so famous, but more often than not, Bahraini pearl jewellery features clusters of tiny, individually threaded, ivory-coloured pearls, set in 21-karat gold.
Visit the gold shops of central Manama to see how pearls continue to inspire local jewellers. A perfect pearl can fetch thousands of dollars, but a pair of cluster earrings or a ring can start at a more affordable BD40. Prices for pearl jewellery are more or less fixed, but there's no harm in asking for a discount for oyster shells (BD25 including growing pearl – or free for those willing to dive for their own).