Bahrain Travel | Life in the Least Foreign Gulf-State Island
A few years ago, I found myself suddenly moving from the U.S. to Bahrain for work. I hadn’t heard much about the tiny Gulf-state island until I started working at my company, which has a presence there.
Often forgotten by Westerners in favor of oil-rich Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai, Bahrain serves as both an economic and defense hub in the Middle East. The US, UK, and many Gulf and Western nations maintain a large defense and diplomatic presence there. It’s nearly impossible to go out to a boozy brunch on a Friday afternoon without also meeting scores of Western military personnel.
There are always jarring reminders of exactly how far you are from home. Some you get used to, some you don’t.
Bahrain is connected to nearby Saudi Arabia by a causeway, which means that every weekend, scores of Saudis pore into Bahrain to partake in activities that are strictly forbidden in their own country. Bahrain is one of the more tolerant of the Gulf Countries. Some of the visible manifestations of this are the fact that alcohol is easily obtainable in hotels, bars, and restaurants. It’s also the only Gulf country I’ve been to where local women often wear the abaya (long flowing black robe) with no hijab (headscarf).
Bahrain nearly fell into a civil war during the 2011 Arab Spring due to sectarian conflicts between the Shi’a majority and the Sunni royal family, and there have been daily protests ever since. The island remains very safe. The civil unrest is largely concentrated in specific neighborhoods where Westerners will seldom find themselves. However, inexplicable traffic jams that are miles behind one of these protests or seeing tire fires are almost-daily occurrences.
Westerners called it the “land of not quite right.” Some of the non-western expats I met there, largely from South Asian countries and the Phillippines, who have come to work in service jobs, also agreed that there is a simultaneous comfort and uneasiness about living in Bahrain.
An American friend who came to visit me said that it was the “least foreign” foreign country she’d visited. There are scores of great restaurants and luxury hotels. English is widely spoken. You can get sweet potato fries at the Chili’s in American Alley in Juffair.
Bahrain Travel: Life in the Least Foreign Gulf-State Island
Yet there are always jarring reminders of exactly how far you are from home. Some you get used to. Some you don’t. It could be anything from the creepy clown who made balloon animals at the brunch at the Movenpick, to the call to prayer wafting through the air during the day at the beach, to being constantly heckled by SUVs full of drunk Saudis, to witnessing a roadside bomb exploding while driving between the Janabiya Royal Camel Farm and a 16th-century Portuguese fort.
Many expats experience the phenomenon of friends becoming family whilst living thousands of miles from home. This is doubly true in Bahrain. It is geographically small, and the Western expat population is proportionate. You see the same people at Monsoon on Mondays, Trader Vics on Tuesdays, Wine at Camelot on Wednesdays, Lanterns on Thursdays, brunch on Fridays, and so forth.
Every weekend is a celebration of people being welcomed to the island at the going-away parties of those returning home. During my first weekend in Bahrain, I went to a birthday brunch of a friend whom I knew from back in the U.S. When you’re new in town—especially if you’re a woman—people swarm about you. Some want to befriend you and make your transition easier, others hope to strike up romance (or have less noble intentions).
Every weekend is a celebration of people being welcomed to the island at the going-away parties of those returning home.
That afternoon at the Movenpick. I met many men and women who would become my family in Bahrain, and remain close friends. We’d smoke hookah on a rooftop on a work night and spend hours talking about life. We had our own holiday parties. Even a Jewish Passover Seder.
National and cultural divisions between fellow western expats became less pronounced; celebrating the Queen’s Birthday, ANZAC Day, and Bastille Day were all met with the same enthusiasm as when a few Americans dressed up like Revolutionary War heroes and jumped in the pool at the Brit Club on the 4th of July.
When it was finally my turn to return to the U.S., I was ready. Intolerable heat was setting in. I missed my parents and driving my own car. But it was bittersweet. I did not want to say goodbye. Some friends still remain there. But most of us are across the globe in our home countries now, promising to visit one another—some have even made good on this promise. But, I fondly remember my time in Bahrain. The culture, the camels, the welcoming Bahrainis, and my family, my family of friends.
Bahrain Travel: Life in the Least Foreign Gulf-State Island.* For a comprehensive guide to sightseeing, lodging, activities, food and nightlife in Bahrain, visit the Fearless Flashpacker. Have you traveled to Bahrain? Comment below and tell us about your trip! We can’t wait to hear from you.