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November 26, 2005

An island in the desert?

Bahrain is a small group of islands, tucked in neatly between Qatar to the East and South, and the Saudi Arabian shore of the Arabian landmass to the East. It is in fact a group of 36 islands, many linked to each other by causeways and bridges, surrounded by shallow seas and numerous reefs. Until the discovery of oil and it's exploitation, this was a land, ruled by the Emir, of agriculturalists, camel herders, goat herds, pearl divers and fisher folk. It was also the first country "outside" of the Arabian Peninsula to adopt Islam as it's state religion - just 8 years after the Prophet fled to Medina from Mecca.

One of the new bridges linking Manama to the island on which the airport is located.

Civilisation here is ancient, it stretches back a little over three thousand years to the "Dilmun" peoples who lived here 3,000 years ago. They left a legacy of numerous burial mounds, temple ruins and even traces of small (by our standards) cities. Their culture stretched across into Saudi Arabia and Qatar and traces of their civilsation have been found in Kuwait, the Euphrates delta and many other islands in the Arabian (or Persian if you are not an Arab!) Gulf. Bahrain is the modern name for an island that, in antiquity, was known as Awal and was then, as it is once more becoming, an important centre for trade in the Gulf area.

Old and new rub shoulders across this small nation as old traditions make way for new enterprises. The culture is an open one with Islam being predominant, but markedly tolerant of Christianity and other religions and their practices. The primary tensions one observes here are between Sunni and Shi'ite communities, with the Ruling Family being Sunni and the majority population being Shi'ite. The Sunni Rulers and their friends hold all the reins of power and most of the wealth, which leaves the remainder, if not exactly in poverty, certainly cut off from the means to become wealthy!

A motorised dhow powers up an inshore channel, the clarity of the water shows the reefs lying close inshore.

The capital is Manama, which is also the name of the central and largest island in the group. It is a bustling place with much new building going on as the island has succeeded in attracting financial and banking organisations to invest and build their corporate operations centres here. It is interesting though to walk the streets and one soon finds that the new buildings along the sea front mask the old city and it's maze of narrow streets and alleys. The Old Souk is an amazing place, vibrant with jewllery manufacturers and sellers, clothes and clothe merchants, spice sellers and cafe "bread" shops.

One of the streets leading through the Old Souk.

Outside of the central city, the accommodation becomes less opulent and much more traditional, small flats above shops with roof terrace space for families to get out of the indoor heat and even screened balconies for the women. Out in the vilages the dwellings show their age, and the tradition of Grandparents, Parents and Siblings all sharing one dwelling is much in evidence. As in other "young" nations (in the sense of having only recently joined the "democratic" and "technological" "Western" model of nationhood) there is a distinct lack of a "local" "Middle Class". One is either very wealthy, or a worker, with a further underclass of "guest" workers, usually from the Indian Sub-Continent or the Philippines. These latter usually live in "Camps" - batteries of hostels set up in compounds outside the city.

This was, hopefully, the first of a number of future visits to this fascinating nation. By contrast to the surrounding nations, Bahrain is much more open, relaxed and far more mature in their thinking on a range of issues. I hope that they can continue to develop the best of their society in a forward thinking way. The one cloud on the horizon is that the "disadvantaged" Shia community look towards the Iranian Ayatollahs for spiritual and political guidance. That could be their downfall!

Posted by The Gray Monk at November 26, 2005 10:26 AM

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Just wondered who you are, Gray Monk - I am an old Selbornian from 1967, living in the UK

Posted by: Peter Yiangou at November 27, 2005 10:39 AM