Location: Middle East (Persian Gulf)
Capital City: Manama
Population: 1.3 million
Government: Constitutional monarchy
Currency: Bahraini Dinar (BHD)
Main Language: Arabic
Main Religions: Islam, Christianity
The Kingdom of Bahrain is a Middle East island country situated in the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with Iran lying 124 nautical miles to the north. Bahrain is made up of an archipelago of 33 islands which are mostly desert. The capital Manama lies on Bahrain Island, the most densely populated area, with over two thirds of Bahrain’s 1.3 million people residing there. Following over a hundred years as a British Protectorate country, Bahrain officially claimed independence in 1971. It is estimated that over half of the country’s residents are non-Bahraini, mainly coming from other Arab nations and Southern Asia.
Bahrain is a Muslim country which has been ruled by the Khalifa family since 1783, with a bi-cameral legislature made up of a Chamber of Deputies elected by the people and a Shura Council appointed by the King. The cultural, religious and political divide between the ruling Sunni minority and the majority Shia population has led to long-running tension in the region, which has erupted in violent protests in recent years. Bahrain was one of the first Middle East nations to discover oil in the area and build a refinery. However, oil production has never reached the same heights as that of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain’s economy has had to diversify into other areas such as banking, finance and tourism.
Bahrain’s culture shares many similarities with those of its Arab neighbours in the Gulf region. Islamic rules govern the country’s cultural, economic and political life and those from western nations may initially find Bahrain highly conservative. However, Bahrain is regarded as relatively liberal and cosmopolitan compared with its near neighbours of Iran and Saudi Arabia, indeed its culture has been described as ‘Middle East lite’ with less restrictions on women’s rights and tolerance of other religions. Bahrainis are known to be friendly and welcoming towards expats and have a relaxed attitude towards other cultures.
Bahrain is a small country with a wide range of things to do. Popular pastimes include shopping -either at the country’s large air-conditioned malls or in the colourful souks (markets) - or soaking up the sun on one of Bahrain’s beautiful beaches. Football is the most popular sport along with horse-racing and the more traditional sports of gazelle and hare hunting, usually reserved for wealthier Bahrainis. The Bahrain F1 Grand Prix held at the Bahrain International Circuit is also religiously followed by residents. Bahrain also has a number of important archaeological sites which are open to tourists, such as the The A'ali Burial Mounds thought to be the largest prehistoric cemetery in the world.
Food and Drink
Bahraini cuisine comprises a medley of flavours influenced by its non-national population from Iran, Lebanon, India and Saudi Arabia as well as the recent incorporation of many western cuisines. Traditional Bahraini dishes include machboos, (a dish of rice and meat) and ouzi (grilled lamb served with rice, eggs, onions, spices and mixed nuts). Flat breads, hummus and tabbouleh (a type of salad made with bulgur, tomatoes, lemon and garlic) are also Bahraini staples. In accordance with Muslim beliefs, meat is halal and pork is strictly avoided, although visitors will find pork products in cordoned off sections in some supermarkets. The end of Ramadan is celebrated by festival of Eis el-Fitr where Bahrainis eat dishes consisting of meat and fish with grains and vegetables, sweet pastries and sago.
Coffee is by far the most popular drink in Bahrain, followed by tea, soft drinks and fruit juices and smoothies. As a Muslim country, alcohol is not widely available in Bahrain and is mainly found in hotels catering to foreign visitors.
Arabic is the official language of Bahrain and is spoken by around half of the population. Among the non-Bahraini population many people speak Urdu, the official language of Pakistan and Farsi, the official language of Iran. However, Arabic - spoken by over 200 million people around the world - remains the most widely understood language in Bahrain. Bahrain’s role in international business and its considerable influx of western expats means that English is widely spoken and taught in many schools. Bahrainis speak a good level of English with two of the country’s newspapers – The Bahrain Tribune and the Gulf Daily News - written entirely in English.
Accents and Dialects
Bahraini Arabic is the most widely spoken dialect in some parts of Manama and within the Shia community. The dialect differs slightly to the Modern Standard Arabic used around the world. However, standard Arabic is taught in schools and used in all formal communication. Sunni Bahrainis speak a dialect which is most similar to the urban dialect spoken in Qatar. Many Bahraini words have also been borrowed from Turkish, Hindi and English and there are distinct differences in accent between urban and rural areas.
Bahrain’s climate features extremely hot and uncomfortable summers and mild winters. During the summer months (between April and October) temperatures can reach 50°C and expats not used to such extreme weather may find it difficult to venture far from air-conditioning. In winter (between November and March) temperatures are mild, generally hovering around 10 to 20°C. Bahrain sees very little rainfall (average 70mm per year) which usually comes in short, intense downpours lasting less than an hour. Powerful sunscreen and adequate clothing coverage is a must for visitors to Bahrain.
Safety and security
Bahrain has traditionally been a very safe destination for travellers and has low rates of crime. However, recent political unrest has caused problems in the Kingdom, meaning potential visitors should be aware of any upheaval prior to travelling. It is also important to be aware of strict laws surrounding sexual relationships, which are illegal outside of marriage. Alcohol consumption, although not illegal, is limited to hotels. Drunken behaviour in public is a punishable offence which can carry a hefty fine and prison sentence.