Bahrain used to be the Middle East’s hotspot in the 1980s. It’s the overseas base of the US 5th Fleet, and it had the reputation of being a good place to spend R & R time from the mid-70s onwards, whether you were a US serviceman, a tourist, or just a traveller transiting at Bahrain’s International Airport, en route from somewhere to somewhere else.
Then along came Dubai. Actually, it had always been there, but some time during the 1990s, Dubai’s plan to be the one and only place to be on the Arabian Peninsula, or for that matter the Middle East, must have reached some kind of critical mass, and its name began to be whispered in more and more ears.
Dubai’s reputation now is taken for granted: Emirates Airline, the world’s only seven (or is that eight?) star hotel, the tallest building in the world, the architecture, the beaches, the free-wheeling lifestyle – the list could just go on and on.
So, why would one choose Bahrain ahead of Dubai, or Abu Dhabi, or any other emirate of the United Arab Emirates?
Back in 2006
I’ll confess right at the beginning that my personal experience of Bahrain is now almost ten years out of date. Back then, in early 2006, I was enjoying a weekend break in Bahrain, visiting old friends from Dubai who had just relocated and were keen to show us their new home.
Like Qatar, Bahrain is only about a 50-minute flight from either Sharjah (where I actually live) or Dubai. It might even be quicker from Abu Dhabi. We’d anticipated a quiet, pretty laid back weekend, and while it started that way, it ended anything but!
The Bahrainis have a very good reputation locally for being a very pleasant, friendly people. Now that’s not to say that Emiratis or Qataris aren’t friendly, but to illustrate my point, one memory that has really stuck with me is this:
While we were queuing at Immigration to have our passports checked and stamped, a Bahraini airport official noticed a mother with two small children in the queue: recognizing that even a relatively short wait would be a greater trial for her than for the rest of us, he took her out of the line, to the head of the queue and ensured that she was dealt with next.
And so it was for the rest of the next day – Thursday, the first day of the Bahraini weekend back then; later in 2006, Bahrain changed its weekend to Friday and Saturday. Cultural centers, drives to places of geographic interest, cafés, bird-watching, shopping centers – all had a very familiar feel to them, but with a much less hurried feel than Dubai.
It was the same in the evening – a walk through the central old commercial district of Manama, Bahrain’s capital city, felt like Dubai but without the crowds or any sense of crush.
How so? Well, here’s where demographics (and politics) come to bear. Bahrain has far fewer immigrant workers from the Indian sub-continent than Dubai and all the other emirates of the UAE. Local Bahrainis seemed to be doing more of the routine manual jobs – gas station attendants, shopkeepers, and from memory, waiters in restaurants.
Put bluntly, the 30% Sunni population is in charge and economically much better off than the 70% Shia, so much of the work that is done by immigrant labor in other Gulf states is done by native (and Shiite) Bahrainis here.
There were two highlights that Thursday night. The first was a very pleasant meal at a local restaurant, which was licensed to sell alcohol – something that you don’t see in the UAE (you can eat at licensed restaurants in Dubai hotels, but very few stand-alone restaurants are licensed).
So here we were, enjoying a bottle of wine at our table, and a Bahraini gentleman and his wife enjoying non-alcoholic drinks with their meal. Very normal, very nice…
The second highlight was getting tear-gassed on the fringe of a sectarian riot close to the apartment block where we were staying – a little bit frightening, but very, very exciting.
So, Bahrain is capable of contrasts and surprises in a way that Dubai isn’t, or at least hasn’t been to me.
The best Dubai surprise I can relate by way of competition with the above was a woman driving an SUV with a chimpanzee on her lap. From our vantage point, it looked as though the chimp was driving, but that was a long time ago.
Don’t be put off…
Bahrain has lots to offer. For a start, it has some very, very nice hotels. Unless you can’t be satisfied with anything less than seven stars (maybe eight now), a five star hotel anywhere is always going to be a pretty good experience.
Shopping? Well, OK, no Dubai Mall, but you won’t have the crowds to contend with at Bahrain City Centre, Bahrain Mall, or Seef Mall. Getting between malls on a shop-a-thon is a doddle too, because taxis (driven by local Bahrainis, not immigrants) are cheap and plentiful, and best of all, you don’t have Dubai traffic conditions to contend with.
Restaurants? Look no further than the in-house restaurants in your hotel, but if you do venture out onto the streets, here are a few you might like to check out. Some of them are outside Manama’s municipal limits, but it’ll be a lot easier and cheaper to get to them by taxi than it would be to try, say, Sharjah’s Sanobar Seafood restaurant, a bit of a local UAE legend.
And don’t forget, in most of Bahrain’s street restaurants, you can order wine with your meal. You can’t do that in Dubai.
Is it safe?
I won’t lie: right now, Bahrain is under pretty tight military control. The other Gulf States are very worried about the influence of another power just across the Gulf, which is quite sympathetic to the grievances of Bahrain’s Shia majority.
That being said, check the net to see just how many “terrorist” attacks have been staged in Bahrain in the last five years, or ten years – the time lapsed since my experience with the tear gas.
There have been some attacks against policemen, but tourists and foreigners are not targets.
Tear gas or no – I’d go back!