Bahrain: A somewhat familiar Kingdom

IMG_71883 February 2017

The evening flight from Kuwait was slightly delayed. My airbnb host Jessie asked her friend Cristina to pick me up and what do you know? I waited for ages at immigration. Battery was running low and the staff didn’t allow me to use my mobile so I stood in line- waiting and waiting with no means to make contact. Then my bag got placed elsewhere so I spent some time trying to find it. In the end, I was late for 2 hours. This is one of the many annoyances that comes with travelling and not exactly how I wanted to start my Bahrain trip.

The ride to the apartment was like Doha and Kuwait city- wide streets, business and residential areas, waterfront and all the signs of modernity. Meeting Jessie and her pet doggie Zoey was great. Airbnb certainly does a good job in connecting people around the world. This is my first time in Bahrain yet it felt as if I’m visiting an old friend….I like this sense of familiarity. Before my departure at 2pm, I had to see Bahrain so Jessie, being the lovely host that she is asked another friend Saurabh to show me around the hood. This tour started at 5:30am (yikes!) and one thing that I completely forgot about was the weather. I’ve mentioned that I have blind spots when I travel and tend to forget things. Weather was one thing that I’ve underestimated. I didn’t pack any warm clothes for this trip and if I thought that Kuwait was windy and a tad cold then Bahrain proved to be even more windy and chilly..and let’s not forget about the sandstorm.

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Although closed, due to how early it was, we were still allowed into the Grand Mosque. Built in 1988, it is the largest place of worship for Shia Muslims in Bahrain (70%). Sunni Muslims also live in Bahrain and along with other religions, they have co-existed for centuries. However, 2011 hinted some lingering issues. How did I came to know of this?- from my chats with Jessie. Prior to my Bahrain trip, I emailed Jessie that I wish to drive pass the Pearl Roundabout. She told me that it is no longer there…in fact, it was taken down by the government.  I wanted to know why….politics and religions ( like so many other problems around the world) played a part. Inspired by the regional Arab Spring, the Shia Muslims protested against the Sunni rulers. Protest gathered around the roundabout and after one-month, Bahrain declared a three-month state of emergency. The government, who initially tolerated the protest, began to crackdown on opposition. Daily clashes occurred and people died. I followed the Arab Spring closely but never heard much about Bahrain’s own internal issue. The lack of coverage by Arab media meant that ‘leading’ media outlets will not cover it.

We drove along the highway and made our way South to see ‘The Tree of life’. Yep- it’ll be in the middle of a desert and it is only a tree but I still want to see you. 400 years old, almost 10 m high and covered in lush green leaves, it is a national landmark.

DSC08781 IMG_7087Surrounded by endless sand, barrenness, dry deserts and the occasional gas pipes and oil drills, it is very much like me: random and alone in the middle of nowhere. I could not see another tree in the area and due to the high temperature and multiple sandstorms, the question that everyone will ask is: where does water come from?   While some say that it draws water underground from the nearest water source, others say that it extracts water from the breezes that blows from the Persian Gulf. Others claim that it was once part of the Garden of Eden.  IMG_7084

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No matter what, I hope it will remain for years to come since given the degree of vandalism/ graffiti ( love messages carved on the branches) and lack of guards + fencing to protect this landmark, it is slowly deteriorating. This will be a shame since I’m sure people back in the Dilmun civilisation would have gathered around the many trees that once stood in this vicinity. 2010 yielded great archaeological results since potteries and artefacts have been unearthed there. I might fly amongst the dust to see a stone, a rock and a tree but imagination is all you need to realise how wonderful it is and to appreciate the beauty and intelligence of human civilisation.

IMG_7095After answering all of my questions on petroleum and oil drills ( Saudi Arabia has substantial petroleum shares in the country), we decided to hop over to the National Museum (1 BDinar). It lies next to the National Theatre and contains many archaeological artefacts which covers nearly 5000 years of Bahrain’s history.  It is like a upscale version of Kuwait’s National Museum.

The drive back to the National Museum was nice and smooth. Saurabh’s car swayed suddenly as we crossed the bridge: ” Argh- the wind! Look at the sandstorm!”. Yep- we just drove through a sudden mini sandstorm. If you google Bahrain, Manama’s skyline, financial harbour area and boulevards with high-rise buildings will end up being the result. However, 92% of the country is  covered with sand and deserts which is why much of the one million or so people live in the north of the country.

IMG_7053IMG_7189The south of the country is mostly empty with oil drills and other recreational areas. As we headed towards town and left the more deserted part of Bahrain behind us, I couldn’t help but think about some of the environmental issues that face the country. Desertification is definitely one of them- lack of water, limitation of useable land (2.82% of arable land)  and above all, coastal degradation ( most obvious near the Fort area). 

My final and favourite spot in Bahrain- Bahrain Fort (Free Entrance, no staff on site, no pamphlets, no audio guides available) is  the cheapest and loneliest UNESCO site out of all my trips.

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Qal’at al-Bahrain was previously known as Portugal Fort. Once the capital of Dilmun civilisation, it became a UNESCO site in 2005. European archaeologists carried out excavations since 1954 and unearthed many mounds and artefacts which confirms the Dilmun presence as well as signs of it being a very notable Hellenistic site. The area around the fort gave great insight into the Copper and Bronze Ages. 

Screen Shot 2017-02-18 at 5.58.36 PM25% of the site has been excavated revealing different structures: residential, public, religious and military. it was a crucial site for trading and was once the area filled with palaces, houses, streets and necropolis. The place prospered till 1800 BC before being deserted. Remnants remain today to give a hint of tis past glory. This is just like Pakistan’s Mohenjardo and Taxila and certainly every other places that I’ve had the fortune of visiting. Nothing lasts forever- time and certainly the world will not wait and stop for anyone or anything. No matter how great and powerful it is, it will not last forever.  Things rise and fall and it is up to our imagination to keep it alive.

The fort is by far the most historical site in all of Bahrain- it offered a nice break away from the modern buildings that dots the Manama skyline. With around 157,000 people living in the capital, Manama has always been a trading area. The country traded with far off places like China (between 600-1200 AD) since Chinese coins were discovered in Manama. Portuguese and Persian took control then came ruling and invasion from Oman and Saudi Arabia. Humans have settled along the coastline dating back to the Bronze Age. Dilmun inhabited in 3000 BC and was a trading hub between Mesopotamia, Magan and Indus Valley. 100,000 burial mounds were found and evidence did not support urbanisation back in those days. One of Alexander the Great’s ship captains confirmed a thriving rural population in the records.  Dilmun lasted for around 2000 years then Assyrians took control before  Babylonian and Achaemenid rule. No one can say for sure if Greek colonists settled on Bahrain but Alex the Great did have plans to do so.  Heavy Greek influences were evident since Greek was the language of upper class families. Moreover, Bahrain was the site of Greek athletic contests. Around the time of the Parthian and Sassanid empires, Christianity was introduced  then in 628 AD, Islam took over.

18th- 19th century saw diminishing Persian control as well as great political instability which wrecked the city’s economy. Oman invaded in 1800, civil war between co-rulers broke out in 1842, the ports were closed, many feed to Kuwait until hostility ceased. In 1914 World War, British Raj used Bahrain as a military base and 5 years after that, Bahrain came under British rule. Great Depression hit the economy once again then with the discover of oil in 1932 and oil exports in 1934, Bahrain slowly gained significance in geopolitics. For WW2, Bahrain was once again the an airbase between Britain and India. Rising Arab nationalism and a wish to end British influence resulted in Bahrain’s 1971 Independence.

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Manama like Kuwait City and Doha are the focal point of the country’s economy. Petroleum is still an important industry and to boost other sectors, heavy industry, banking, finance and tourism have also seen growth. Saurabh told me that Manama was working towards being a financial hub in the Persian Gulf Region. However, Dubai is catching up fast. The interesting observation that I’ve made during my time in Kuwait, Qatar and now Bahrain is the similarity of their history. They all have ports and are part of maritime trade. They started with the pearling industry then shipbuilding before their economy took a hit from the Great Depression. Oil was later discovered which resulted in the abandonment of the initial industries then the Gulf War halted growth for a while before they made volcanic developments in modernisation. Perhaps one of the challenges for these AGC is how to differentiate their economy and ensure its sustainability. One cannot only rely on petroleum.IMG_7189 DSC08808Manama was indeed “the place of rest” for me before flying back to Shanghai. It has been a random yet enjoyable trip. Milou was by my side the whole way- capturing photos and preserving memories…I was also able to amuse myself. Most importantly, foreign countries and new friends have proven once again why travelling is addictive, enriching and precious. I never really planned to visit these rich Arab Gulf Countries but I’m glad I went. The history of the three places and just how similar they all puts a smile on my face. I love studying countries and making something foreign so familiar.

Random facts about Bahrain

  • Bahrain is regarded as the freest economy in the Middle East and has the fastest growing economy in the Arab world.
  • Petroleum accounts for 60% of Bahrain’s exports/ 70% of government revenues and 11% of GDP.
  • Aluminium production is the second most exported product.
  • Education is compulsory and free for only Bahraini citizens. There are no coeducation schools.
  • Health is free for Bahraini citizens and heavily subsidised for those who are not.
  • Obesity is a major health problem (15% of the population suffers from it).
  • Youth unemployment and the depletion of water and oil are major long-term problems.
  • Women dominated jobless figures.
  • Traditionally, marriage occurred between cousins.
  • Bahrain looks to Saudi Arabia for support and help in the regional + international stage.
  • Rent in buildings along the Bay and financial area are expensive. Saurabh’s company used to rent an office there and it costed them 30,000 USD per month!
  • Post-independence Manama saw great urbanisation where neighbouring villages were turned into a single urbanised area.
  • Construction boom saw great influx in foreign workers.
  • Bahrain replaced Beirut as the financial hub in the Middle East -( Lebanese Civil War).

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