Bahrain Travelogue

I love to travel! When I travel, I meet other cultures, learn new things, and broaden my perspective, so that when I get back home, I often see things in a new light. My Bahrain (pronounced Ba-ha-rain) trip was certainly an eye-opener and mind-stretcher.

Most educational of all was making new friends and learning about their cultures and countries. The memorable experiences include dining with the minister from Bhutan, touring Manama with my Bharaini escort, dining with the Azerbaijani delegation, and sitting beside the ministers from Palestine and Pakistan for two entire days. These are experiences that enriched my life immeasurably. At first we would make small talk by swapping statistics on population growth and per capita GNP. Then later, we would start to open up and talk about the problems and opportunities facing our countries!

I learned that one of Palestine's biggest headaches is that Israeli Mobile Operators have more than 56% of the Palestinian market without even having a license! I learned that Arabic call centers serving the Middle East are sprouting up in Pakistan. I learned about the unique catalytic role that Bahrain played in the development of the Middle East.

Bahrain has been a trading center for thousands of years. Looking at it on the map, one can see that it served as an important link in trade routes between Sumeria and the Indus Valley. Forts such as this one below, located in Muharraq City, were built to protect the marine channels.

As can be seen from the interior of the Arad Fort, it has been painstakingly rebuilt using original materials such as sea stones, lime sand, and palm trunks.

Because of its unique geography as an island nation, sheiks and sultans would send their families here for protection in times of conflict. Eventually, Bahrain became the Switzerland of the Middle East; home to the bankers of the oil barons. Sidebar: how do banks here make money if interest is illegal under Islam? They charge an admnistrative fee, for example, when you borrow 100 dinars, you only receive 95 dinars, but you must pay back 100 dinars at the end of the loan term.

Bahrain was actually the first Persian Gulf state to discover oil. Because of limited reserves, Bahrain has worked hard to diversify its economy. So much oil has already been taken out that as early as 1965, it was estimated that almost half had been extracted, and that the oil would run out by 2005!

As a result, the country has consciously shifted to other revenue sources, chiefly banking and insurance which already account for close to 50% of GDP. More than a hundred offshore banking units and representative offices are located in Bahrain, most of them coming over from Beirut in the late 70s, when the Lebanese Civil War was going on. A major reclamation project is being undertaken in Manama city (the capital of Bahrain) to house a new financial services district.

Tourism is also being developed as a major source of income. An ambitious strategy of holding a Grand Prix in the Middle East is already paying off for Bahrain. I paid a visit to the track one evening. The evenings actually get quite cool, even chilly, and I was told that March is their coolest month. So if you plan to visit, come between October and April, and stay away from May to September. My friend Mohd told me that Manama becomes a ghost city in July, with everyone going up to the mountains in Syria to get respite from the heat.

Excellent hotels abound to cater to visitors from other Middle East countries, as well as to the numerous expatriates working in the Gulf. In Bahrain alone, there are over 1,000,000 expatriate workers (compared to less than 500,000 native Bahrainis). There's also a lot of good shopping, especially in the Muharraq Souk where I found this treasure trove of percussion instruments. I promptly purchased 5 new additions to my collection. :-)

But back to the story of oil. When the steam engine was invented, it was good enough for railroad engines, but was unable to scale downwards. It was too bulky and uneconomical for automobiles. So the search for oil went global. In 1932, the Socal company, now known as Chevron, discovered oil in Bahrain, and the wells have been pumping ever since. Bahrain's first oil well is called Jebel Dukhan, or "Smokey Mountain". Sure is different from Manila's Smokey Mountain :-)

I had a chance to visit the Shaikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa House in Muharraq City, the old capital of Bahrain. The shaikh lived from 1869-1932 (prior to the discovery of oil) and was the 7th ruler of Bahrain from the Al Khalifa family. The present King of Bahrain, and 10th in the family line, is his great grandson, His Majesty Shaikh Hamad bin Isa bin Sulman Al Khalifa.

The present king transformed Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy by holding a public referendum in 2001. The new charter passed overwhelmingly, transforming Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy governed by a king who rules over a bicameral legislative body. The constitution states that the office of King automatically passes from father to son, making Bahrain unique among the monarchies of the Gulf area.

The house, built in the late 1700s, is quite simple, yet shows ingenious architectural touches.

The photo above shows a two-story structure. During the cold, rainy season, the king and his family would live on the ground floor, which was well insulated against the wet, driving rains. During the hot, dry season, they would live on the second floor, which was well ventilated with numerous windows in each room! The tall structure on the right is a windtower - it would catch the wind from any direction, cool it through contact with the thick walls, and then channel the wind into the rooms of the king and his family. Voila - air conditioning!

The photo above shows the entrance to the prince's room - a beautiful door surrounded by arches, arabesques and perforated walls. The photo below is the entrance to the king's room (with my friend Mohd inside the room). I invite you to click on the picture in order to get a full-screen view of this wonderful work of art!

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