Bahrain's Rainbow Nation in ManamaCarleton Cole
With a population that is a melting pot of different groups, tiny Bahrain points the way to what the future may look like for many countries. The hippest state in the Gulf, it draws not only visitors from neighbouring countries, but also from further afield. They come for the relatively relaxed lifestyle and charming attractions, such as its stately mosques and nifty souks.
A small Arabian island chain at a busy watery crossroads in the Persian Gulf, Bahrain was three times colonised and three times won its independence—from Portugal (1602), Persia (1783) and the United Kingdom (1971). It is estimated that the island is 10 per cent Christian—a high amount by regional standards—and 90 per cent Muslim.
Of the Muslims, two-thirds are Shiite and one-third is Sunni—the latter of which includes the royal Al Khalifa family, headed by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah. That statistic keeps the government on its toes. Other members of this rainbow nation are the Ajam (ethnic Persians), Baharna Shiite Arabs (divided between those indigenous to the islands) and Afro-Arabs (descendants of African slaves from East Africa).
But that's not all. There are also Bahraini Jews, Banyan Indians, tribal Sunni Arab Bedouin tribes, Howala (descendants of Sunni Arabs who migrated to Persia and returned later) and Najdis (non-tribal urban Sunni Arabs from Najd, Arabia). Chatting up the friendly locals is indeed a highlight to visiting here.
Such diversity helps describe the recent advent of an indigenous middle class, and a liberal society in which getting along with other races is of primary importance. The country’s reputation for liberalism and openness is furthered in its status as the biggest publisher of books in the Arab world.
The constitutional monarchy is the smallest of the several Arabian-majority states. It is kept from being isolated by the King Fahd Causeway, which connects Bahrain with Saudi Arabia. The bridge is most heavily used at weekends, when fun-starved Saudis head across the causeway in their luxury limousines to have fun in Bahrain's more open society.
Although Bahrain’s capital, Manama, means ‘Sleeping Place’ there’s plenty of nocturnal action here, for its night bazaars, chic nightclubs and energetic bars. The joints are especially thriving at weekends. The Qatar-Bahrain Friendship Bridge is being planned and will connect the island with the thumb-shaped country jutting out of the Arabian Peninsula.
Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, and Arabs have left there mark here, with the Arabs making the most influence in converting the population to Islam. However, islanders would become the only country on or near the Arabian Peninsula to forgo Sunni for the more radical Shiite denomination.
Lonely Planet calls the nation ‘an excellent introduction to the Persian Gulf’ for its unique pairing of classical Arabian culture with an old history and a society slowly opening up to international ways. Perhaps the second biggest event that changed the nation, behind the advent of Islam, was the oil wealth that flowed into the country, after the set up of the first oil well in 1932. This led to great modernising programmes.
Most sights are in or a short drive from Manama. One must-see sight, which is open to non-Muslims outside of prayer times, is the Grand Mosque (Al-Fatih Mosque), which sports gorgeous interiors that are well explained by local volunteers. In addition to the many mosques and a few churches that dot the landscape, there are also Hindu temples, a Sikh Gurdwara and a Jewish synagogue worth visiting. Bahrainis are known for their religious tolerance.
Another of the island nation’s biggest attractions is the Lost Paradise of Dilmun Water Park, which has water slides that are a treat for the whole family. It is named after the ancient local Dilmun civilisation mentioned by Mesopotamian societies. For shopping, the place to go is Bab el-Bahrain Souk, which is a great place to find a range of local and regional handicrafts and practical items.
The informative Bahrain National Museum condenses and puts the island’s culture into bite-size perspectives. The Beit Al Qur specialty museum has a great collection of old and noteworthy versions of the Islamic holy book. And the Museum of Pearl Diving spells out what the kingdom’s biggest money earner was before the ongoing oil boom.
Qalat al-Bahrain castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site is worth a trip. Atop this 12-metre high mound lies the fabulous Qalat al-Burtughal, a Portuguese castle. Also worth a look are Ad-Diraz Temple with its preserved altar stone and columns, which dates to the second millennium BC. There are excavation areas of archeaological sites scattered around the area.
Bahrain has its own Formula One racetrack—Bahrain International Circuit—and hosted the first Gulf Air Grand Prix in 2004, a unique event for an Arab country. The small nation of 724,000 is dwarfed each year by about eight million international visitors, most of them from other Arab lands. This year's victor was Jenson Button.
Bahrain Island is the biggest island in the 33-island archipelago. The country is mostly flat and dry desert. The small nation is gradually growing physically though—much of the island’s shores are shallow enough to have made way for several land-reclamation projects.