Bahrain means ‘Two Seas’, a fitting name for an archipelago of 33 islands in the Gulf, which defines itself in relation to the water that surrounds its shallow shores.
Those shallows once harboured a precious trade in pearls, the most important in the world until the 19th century. Now the shoreline is increasingly dominated by ambitious developments, such as the twin 50-floor towers of Bahrain’s World Trade Centre and the 2,787,000 sq m (30,000,000 sq ft) horseshoe of man-made islands at the southern tip of the country.
To those not in the know, Bahrain can seem a formidable place in the heart of the Gulf. But despite being situated just off Saudi Arabia’s east coast, it is for the most part a welcoming, open country. Manama is an intriguing capital city, if not quite so glamorous is some of the region’s other glittering metropolises. You’ll find a decent culinary and artistic circuit, partly buoyed by westerners living here. Expect plenty of craft markets and pottery workshops.
For history buffs, Bahrain is the location of ancient Dilmun, home to what was an important semitic civilisation in the Bronze Age; Bahrain was later conquered by Babylonians and Persians. There are a number of ruins, burial mounds and forts to explore.
In the middle of Bahrain, not far from where the Formula 1 racetrack now draws the crowds, is the point where in 1932 the Arab world first struck gold – black gold, that is – and oil has been the mainstay of the country ever since. As visitors travel the modest length of Bahrain, they will run into many reminders of this momentous discovery, not least in the relaxed affluence of Bahrain’s multicultural residents. Indeed, there are many signs of Arabian style and influence, along with more cosmopolitan vibes.
Since 2011, when the Arab Spring swept across the region, Bahrain’s fate has been an uncertain one. The initial wave of protests by the largely Shia population against the Sunni rulers were put down with the help of Saudi Arabia, but demonstrations and unrest persist. Check the current situation before travelling.
760 sq km (293 sq miles).
1,396,829 (UN estimate 2016).
1,771.2 per sq km.
King Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa since 1999.
Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa since 1971.
220-240 volts AC, 50Hz (Awali, 110 volts AC, 60Hz). British-style plugs with three square pins are standard.