(eTN) – Bahrain is the only island state in the Middle East and the smallest Gulf member. We have heard a lot about Bahrain recently, but where is it exactly? Bahrain is actually a chain of 33 islands in the Arabian Gulf and is situated between Saudi Arabia’s east coast and Qatar peninsula. Bahrain is the largest of the islands and is about 48 km long.
The islands are strategically located at the center of the ancient world’s richest civilization. Gold and silver came to Bahrain from Africa and India, and the islands of Bahrain have made it the center of sea-born trade for millennia of Gulf sailors in Sumerian times, 3000 years before BC, and was called Dilmun, the “Land of Sweet Waters.”
There were only 2 ports of refuge on that hostile coast – one was Muscat and the other one was Dilmun Bahrain. Of the two, Bahrain was much preferred and welcomed the exhausted traveler, as it was a green oasis in a hostile ocean in those days.
The Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq) , were widely believed to be the first to discover the art of writing. Later, the fleet of Alexander the Great Hellenized the archipelago and set up a flourishing business, benefitting from increasing commerce between Greece, Rome, Persia, and Arabia, by exporting frankincense from Oman and pearls from Bahrain.
Bahrain was known as “The Pearling Center” in the world, and it had benefited for decades from its pearling industry, which was the principal source of the country’s revenues. French jeweler, Cartier, came in 1912 to buy pearls and reported that the conversation was a bit difficult. “I spoke in English, Setna translated what I said into Hindustani, and Mr. Yusef Kanoo translated it into Arabic to Shaikh Isa,” Cartier said.
But then the decline of of the pearl industry came in the 1930s with the Japanese‘ first cultured pearl. In 1930, more than 500 boats with 20,000 people were involved in pearl fisheries, which had dwindled down in 1943 to 83 boats and 2,000 divers, and sadly disappeared in late 1950. The government banned all imports and sale of cultured pearls – a decision that is still in place today.
A gemstone and pearl testing laboratory was established to authenticate natural pearls and to ensure that no cultured varieties entered the country. Due to the latest technologies, pearls are x-rayed, examined, and stamped. Tons of gold are also examined for purity, checked, and laser stamped, explained Mr. Ali Muhammed Safar, Director of the Directorate of Precious Metals & Gemstone Testing. Ninety percent of pearl used in India, the USA, and Australia are examined in Bahrain, he added.
Where the Dhows used to anchor once upon a time, land was reclaimed. Only 40 years ago, ships anchored here and busy streets on the reclaimed land now lead to a causeway that connects to the new, modern capital of Manama. The old town and capital of Muharrag, Bahrain, retains its old world charm.
Bahrain was the first state in the Gulf where oil was discovered in 1932 and the first refinery was built in 1936. It benefitted from oil wealth long before most of its neighbors. But the country never reached the levels of production enjoyed by Kuwait or Saudi Arabia and had to diversify its economy.
For the 60th anniversary of the discovery of oil in Bahrain, the Late Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifa set up the Oil Museum Dar An-Naft of the Bahrain Petroleum Company. It tells the story of Bahrain’s transformation from a “pearl state” to an “oil state” It also traces how a search for drinking water led to a search for oil.
But there’s more. The Gulf’s first university opened in Bahrain in 1912. Bahrain also serves as a banking hub, and it holds the 13th position worldwide as a major financial center. Furthermore, it is the base for the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which is another important income source for the hotel industry.
This year, Manama is celebrating the 2012 Cultural Capital of the Arab World. It is the first time Manama has been selected for this honor since the initiative was launched by the Arab League in 1996 as part of UNESCO’s cultural capitals program . A woman, H.E. Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, is the driving force behind it, and she also set a milestone by preserving the capital’s cultural heritage.
Mrs. Nada Ahmed Yaseen, Assistant Undersecretary of Ministry of Culture & Tourism, stressed earlier this month the importance of preserving Bab Al Bahrain (Gateway of Bahrain) and the old Manama Souq in the heart of the capital as one of Bahrain’s tourist and commercial landmarks. Bab Al Bahrain once stood close to the water’s edge. Due to extensive land reclamation in the later years, one needs to walk more than 10 minutes to get to the sea. The souq was designed by Sir Charles Belgrave, Adviser to the Emir, and was completed in 1945.
While people told me not to go to Bahrain, I was glad that I went during Christmas. It was peaceful, and I met very open and friendly people. There is a lot to discover, and unlike neighboring countries, it is easy to get in touch with the local people. Mild temperatures of up to 24 °Celsius during the day, brings the local people out to cafés and open restaurants, which is a great difference compared to neighboring countries.
The Bahrain Fort, built by the Portuguese in the 14th century, has layers of history dating back to the Dilmun era and is a good spot to take in spectacular sunsets in the late afternoon. A new restaurant next to the fort is going to open in February, directly on the waterfront.
Not to be missed is the modern Museum of Bahrain, which keeps its history in 6 halls. Here, one should take one’s time – and a guide – to discover the rich history of the country. Worth finding, is the Beit Al Qur’an or “House of Qur’an” – a unique museum of Korans, including Koran verses written on a seed and Khalid masterpieces, where a single page, written in real gold, took over one year to finish. You can see the smallest complete Holy Quran in the World, not bigger than 4.7 cm x 3.2 cm, and the first translated Koran into German in 1694 ordered by Martin Luther.
Passengers of the AIDA Blue cruise ship, arriving just after Christmas, were most surprised to find a completely different Bahrain from media reports, and the tour guide told me that passengers were most surprised to find a Bahrain that was peaceful and quiet. Moreover, when visiting the Koran House, they received a copy of the Holy Koran translated into the German language to take home – this would never happen in Germany, they said.
The Al-Fateh Mosque, also known as the Al-Fateh Islamic Center & Al Fateh Grand, is one of the largest mosques in the world, with the capacity to accommodate over 7,000 worshippers at a time. The huge dome on top of the Al-Fatih Mosque is made of pure fibreglass and weighs over 60,000 kg. The dome is currently the world’s largest fiberglass dome and is located in Manamas’s former central business district and marks the main entrance to the Manama Souq and Government Avenue, which runs alongside Bab Al Bahrain and the new highway that leads to the causeway to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which was built on reclaimed land. Currently, the Bahrain Financial Harbor is being constructed on further reclaimed land. The Gold Souk is also worth visiting, where all the gold is pure. One can only find 18K and 21K gold items here. A gold barrel is always nice to have.
Bahrain has been a haven for tourists from the region who take advantage of its relaxed and friendly environment. However, the ongoing unrest throughout the region eliminated international group business last year, and tourism has dropped accordingly, according to the latest survey in the EuroMonitor. Business was booming until 8 month ago, back when the Saudis used to drive to Bahrain for shopping and would stay over for the weekends.
In December, for the national holidays, over half-million Saudis used to come for the festivities, but this year, there were a lot of empty hotels and shopping malls. Shopkeepers in luxury malls in Manama are getting worried and are starting to have difficult times paying the suppliers. The Saudis used to spend a lot of money and were good customers for international luxury brands, but they are now staying away due to attacks on some of their cars – a result of its government sending troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to aid in crushing down the protests.
It takes only an hour’s drive to get from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain on the 25-km-long causeway, which links Bahrain with Saudi Arabia. This causeway is one of the world’s longest bridges between two countries. Tourists, however, are not permitted to drive between Saudi Arabia 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 UAE and Bahrain. It is a unique experience to drive to the midpoint of the causeway and enjoy the great view from Tower Restaurant.
Work is soon scheduled to start on a new causeway to Qatar. It will be 40 km long, and will be named the Qatar-Bahrain Friendship Causeway (QBFC), and will be one of the longest bridges in the world when finished. In November 2009, the Qatar-Bahrain Causeway Foundation General Manager, Jaber al-Mohannadi, said at an industry conference that it was evaluating the final design, the cost of the project, and construction was expected to start early this year. Construction was initially scheduled to start in 2009, but the addition of rail lines delayed the project. QBFC is part of a $100 billion master plan to connect all six Gulf Cooperation Council members and to further strengthen trade ties among them
What about hotels in Bahrain? There are over 75 hotels in Manama, with more to come. The Ritz Carlton Bahrain was the first waterfront hotel on the island and belongs to the King of Bahrain. It is a palace-style hotel, where no expense was spared when creating its magnificent interiors, luscious gardens, pools, lagoon, and white sandy beach that is lapped by the turquoise waters of the Arabian Gulf. The royal treatment is guaranteed at its 21 luxury villas, located on Bahrain’s north coast, amid 20 acres of beautiful landscaped gardens.
I stayed at L’Hotel – Bahrain’s first boutique hotel, which offers a chic and intimate retreat from the urban metropolis. L’Hotel-Bahrain is located in the heart of Manama’s Seef District, within walking distance (in a place where nobody walks –but it has pedestrian walkways) to the city’s important business and shopping areas, including Al Moayyed Tower, and Seef and City Centre Malls. The very popular Lebanese restaurant, L’ Sultan, is one of the best in town and serves exceptional Lebanese dishes.
And how about Formula One? Former world champion, Damon Hill, has spoken out in favor of Formula One returning to Bahrain this year, despite continuing civil unrest in the Gulf kingdom, reported Reuters this week. Last year’s Grand Prix was postponed and then cancelled after pro-democracy protests in Manama, but the race has been reinstated on this year’s calendar for April 22.
Hill strongly opposed racing in Bahrain last year, but told the Times newspaper on Wednesday that he had changed his mind about the coming race after visiting the country with Jean Todt, head of the sports governing, FIA. “A lot has changed there since then. I listened to a lot of people there, including eye-witnesses. I believe they are making change for the better. There is no question they have issues, but every country has issues; we had riots here in the UK not so long ago,” said the Briton, who will be an F1 pundit for SKY television this year. “This time, Formula One can go to Bahrain with a clear conscience and not just as a tool for some sort of cover-up,” he said. The Bahrain International Circuit at Sakhir last week announced that it was reinstating employees sacked after last year’s unrest.
For the economy, it would mean a gigantic step forward and the best that could happen to Bahrain in order to put it back on the racing and touristic track.
The Rotana Group – the region‘s largest entertainment company, is launching the first Media City in Baharin by the end of December 2012. The Rotana Group is owned by Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, and Manama will be the group‘s headquarters. The Saudi-based Rotana Group will also launch its latest news channel, Alarab, by December of next year, which is operated in cooperation with Bloomberg.
And the New Yorker reported this week, in February and March of 2011, in all the revolts that roiled the Arab world in 2011, Bahrain’s government was the only one to manage a tactical, perhaps even ephemeral, victory through force. But in doing so, it may have destroyed a society that once took pride it its cosmopolitanism.
The country called the “Capital of Arab Culture” has this year established many projects through a year of celebration, which will highlight the history of Bahrain , their 21st International Music Fesitval, an international conference on early archelogical sites and World Heritage Convention, the pearling heritage of Bahrain, a showcase of the Arab International Fashion Show, the 5th Bahrain International Sculpture Symposium, and many more events to look forward to at the Shaikh Ebrahim Bin Mohammed Al Khalifa Center of Culture and Research.
In Bahrain, I encountered great hospitality and was frequently invited home, which is rather special and would rarely or never happen in other GCC countries. Bahrain was a surprise I will treasure.