Difference between revisions of "Bahrain"
Revision as of 08:15, 1 May 2012
The Kingdom of Bahrain  is a Middle Eastern archipelago in the Persian Gulf, tucked into a pocket of the sea flanked by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It's an oasis of social liberalism – or at least Western-friendly moderation – among the Muslim countries of the region. It's popular with travelers for its authentic "Arabness" but without the strict application of Islamic law upon its non-Muslim minority. Case in point: alcohol is legal here. Although it has a heavily petroleum-based economy, its more relaxed culture has also made it a social and shopping mecca (so to speak), which has helped it develop a fairly cosmopolitan middle class not found in neighboring countries with just a rich elite and subsistence-level masses.
Bahrain is the smallest of the independent Persian Gulf states, and has often had to walk a diplomatic tightrope in relation to its larger neighbours. The country has few oil reserves, but it has established itself as a hub for refining as well as international banking, while also achieving a socially liberal (by Gulf standards at least) monarchy. Its economy depends to a small extent on Saudis interested in a little entertainment, not available in the strictly Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Officially 220V 50Hz. Most outlets are the British standard BS-1363 type. Generally speaking, U.S., Canadian and Continental European travelers should pack adapters for these outlets if they plan to use their electrical equipment in Bahrain.
The best time to visit Bahrain is November-March, with October & April being just bearable. Be sure to take along a sweater during December-March as evenings can be cool. Bahrain's summer, May-September, is very hot and humid, though occasional cool northerly winds blow to provide some relief. More frequent are the qaws, the hot, dry summer winds that can bring sandstorms.
Citizens of following countries can obtain 14-day visa at all border stations and airports. The fee is 5 dinar or $13.
Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland (3 months), Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Russia, San Marino, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, United Kingdom (3 months), United States, Vatican City
You can also apply in advance online for an eVisa However this is strictly limited to citizens of certain 'VISA NATIONS.It costs BD 7. The benefit of this is somewhat unclear though, as those eligible for eVisas can also get visas on arrival; however, possessing an eVisa will likely allow you to get through Customs faster, as one wouldn't need to obtain the visa at the port of entry.
Bahrain is among the few Gulf states that officially accepts Israeli Passports (although you'll need a visa) and passports with evidence of visits to Israel.
Bahrain International Airport (IATA: BAH), in Muharraq just east of Manama, is the main base for Gulf Air  and has excellent connections throughout the region and London. The airport has good duty-free shopping and a 'Transotel' offering beds and showers (for a fee) to those awaiting flights. Many residents of eastern Saudi Arabia choose to fly out via Bahrain, and Gulf Air offers shuttle services to Khobar and Dammam to cater to this market; inquire when booking.
Taking photographs is prohibited in the terminals
The Saudi-Bahraini Transport Company (SABTCO) , tel. +973-17252959, runs eight buses daily from the SAPTCO bus station in Dammam via Khobar in Saudi Arabia, across the King Fahd Causeway, to the bus terminal next to the Lulu Centre in central Manama.
The service uses comfortable aircon minibuses with a trailer for luggage. Tickets cost SR60/BD6 and can be purchased in advance, although they'll squeeze you in without a reservation if there is space. As crossing the Causeway involves two passport checks and two customs checks, figure on 2 hours for the trip, plus any traffic delays at busy times like Wednesday evenings. At congested times, buses may actually be slightly faster than private cars, as they can use separate lanes at immigration and customs.
Note that, as of 2011, Bahrain Saudi Transport & Tourism (BASATCO)  offers what seems to be similar buses for a slightly lower fare of BD4, although four times a day only.
As of January 2011, the schedule for SABTCO is as follows:
The 26-km King Fahd Causeway connects Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Rental vehicles usually cannot be taken across, but SABTCO's BahrainLimo taxis that seat up to four can take you across for prices starting from BD30/SR300. Unofficial taxis, found hanging around bus stations at both ends, can offer slightly lower fares.
The official rates start at ($2.65) BD 1.000 plus 0.200 Fils per kilometer. In practice, though, meters are always "broken", covered, missing or just ignored, and you'll need to agree on fares in advance. Beware that cabbies will often ask for ridiculous prices.
However, a new agreement have been reached between the government and taxis representatives on August 2008; and a growing majority of taxis now use their meters. Rates vary from 3 to 5 dinars for a ride within Manama.
The airport gives guidelines as to the official way of calculating taxi fares. Notice that an extra BD 2.000 will be added if you take a taxi waiting at the airport .
On the whole taxis offer a good service but you do encounter some bandits. Be aware when traveling from the airport to always use the white with red roof or London style taxis. Also there is a rule if the meter is not used there is no charge; hold your ground on this and call the police, and the driver will cooperate very quickly with the correct fare for the trip.
Finding a taxi can be difficult, although major hotels and malls usually have a few waiting outside. Some privately owned companies operate in the kingdom, the most popular of which are:-
Speedy Motor Service Radio-Meter Taxis SMS Radio-Meter Taxi is the oldest & most popular radio-meter taxi company in the Kingdom, and the most reliable. Advance booking of taxi is possible, and they operate a 24-hour service, 365 days a year. Call Tel: +973-17 682999
Bahrain Taxi Online  Get meter taxi online within 10 minutes. Tel: +973-36688614
Bahrain Limo is the newly established Radio Meter Taxi Company in the Kingdom of Bahrain and the sister company of the transport giant "Saudi Bahraini Transport Company" (SABTCO) which provides luxurious bus and limousine services across the King Fahad Causeway.
There are also public buses that run to many parts of the island. Bus fares are low, but understanding the system can be very confusing for visitors, due to difficulties in obtaining bus schedules and maps.
If planning on visiting several sites, consider renting a car. Prices range from 10-20 dinar per day, but allow you freedom to drive around the island.
If arriving by the bus at the Lulu centre parking, simply turn your back from the centre's entrance, walk out of the parking, and you'll find car rentals in the group of buildings across the road. A map or a GPS is strongly advised, as road signs can be scarce.
The Qala'at al-Bahrain (Bahrain Fort) is located off the northern shore and is a five to ten minute drive away from Manama city. It is restored and in good condition although it lacks furniture, signage, or exhibits. Admission is free.
Next door to the fort is a museum, completed in February 2008, which contains many artifacts ranging from the ancient Dilmun periods through the Islamic era, many of which were found at the fort and additional ruins next door. The museum is a large rectangular and white building with absolutely no signs to indicate that it is a museum. The hours are 8AM-2PM daily; admission is free.
Tree of Life. Although trees grow in Bahrain, this one is special because of its location in the middle of the desert amidst the oil wells and other infrastructure of the petroleum industry. You need a car to reach the tree, as it is far from the main roads and not on any public transportation route.
To reach the tree, take the Zallaq Highway heading east, which becomes the Al-Muaskar Highway. You will eventually see a sign for the Tree of Life indicating a right turn. (Although the sign seems to point you to turn onto a dirt road which actually goes nowhere, do not do so, instead wait until the next intersection which is several metres ahead). There are no signs as you travel down this road, but pay attention to a scrap metal yard on your right. Before you reach a hill which warns you of a steep 10% incline, take a right. As you continue straight down this road (including roundabouts), you will begin to see Tree of Life signs again. The signs will lead you down a road which will then be devoid of these signs, but you will eventually see the tree in the distance on the right (it is large and wide, not to be mistaken for other smaller trees along the way). You turn onto a dirt path at Gas Well #371. You can drive up to just outside of the tree, but make sure you stay on the vehicle-worn path, as turning off of it is likely to get your car stuck in the softer sand.
Although it seems like a chore to reach, the Tree of Life is worth the visit for the oddity of it. The tree is covered in graffiti, although this is not visible until you get up close. Try to make your arrival near sunset for a picturesque view of the tree and the surrounding desert.
[Update 2011] There is also a (new ?) much higher quality road.
Bahrain has history dating back 5000 years, from the ancient Dilmun period through the Islamic era. The country offers three forts which have been meticulously restored and opened to the public, although a lack of signs and general promotion by the country's tourist industry sometimes makes finding these sites difficult.
Bahrain's biggest yearly event is the Bahrain Grand Prix F1 race, held each April at the Bahrain International Circuit . Plan well in advance, as flights sell out and hotel prices triple.
The high temperatures in Bahrain make sea activities seem extra tempting and water sports are extremely popular in Bahrain, with tourists and locals indulging in their sport of choice all year round in the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf. Sailing and scuba diving are particularly popular.
Although a desert country, Bahrain boasts an international 18-hole grass golf course, which is about 15 minutes outside the capital, Manama. The par 72 championship course features five lakes and is landscaped with hundreds of date palms and desert plains.
Enjoy riding a camel along a highway.
Purchase souvenirs and buy some authentic pottery at A'ali Village Pottery.
Haggle for goods at the local souk markets.
The currency in Bahrain is the Bahraini dinar (BD), which is divided into 1000 fils. One dinar is worth nearly three US dollars (US$2.66, to be precise, as the exchange rate is fixed), making this one of the world's strongest currencies, and this can get some getting used to: that seemingly cheap ten-dinar taxi ride is in fact almost $27 and thus an extortionate rip-off!
The dinar is a fully convertible currency, and there are currently no restrictions on its import or export. Denominations for coins are 5 fils, 10 fils, 25 fils, 50 fils and 100 fils. Denominations for banknotes are 500 fils (BD 1/2), BD 1, BD 5, BD 10 and BD 20.
The dinar is pegged to the Saudi riyal at 1:10, and riyals are accepted almost everywhere at that rate, although odds are you'll get your change in dinars and hotels may try to screw you out of a few percent. If coming in from Saudi, there's no reason to change your money, but do try to get rid of any excess dinars before you leave the country, as they're hard to exchange elsewhere, even in Saudi.
Like most Gulf countries, Bahrain is not cheap. With recent rising costs a decent dinner can cost around BD 4.0, and car rental at BD 10-20/day is reasonable, but hotel prices will put a dent in your budget: a perfectly ordinary room in a "good" hotel can set you back BD 100. Do not travel to Bahrain during the annual F1 race in April if looking for reasonable prices, as hotels will quadruple their rates. A room at the Gulf Hotel during this race will cost you upwards of BD 300/night.
There are several major malls in Bahrain that offer international and luxury labels shops and botiques, supermarkets and so forth, as well as food courts, contemporary and traditional cafes, play areas and arcades, cinemas (3D & 2D) and even an in-door water park.
A visit to the local souq (sook) is a must. There you can negotiate the price on “rolexes”, jewellery, and many other gifts. The souq is also home to many excellent tailors. If you're there for long enough (say a week) then you can take a favourite clothing item in and they will "clone" it precisely in any material you select from the huge range available.
Bahrain has an impressive dining scene, with numerous restaurants to choose from. The main dining area is Adliya. In Adliya, you can take your pick among numerous cafe's, with Coco's (very well priced and delicious food) and Lilou's (Very popular with locals wanting to see and be seen) among the most famous. Mirai is an incredible Japanese Fusion restaurant perfect for a special occasion. Trendy lounges/restaurants are in the area as well like Zoe's, and Block 338.
Restaurants in Bahrain run the gamut for cheap stalls offering local food to fancy restaurants in fancy hotels. American fast food franchises such as Burger King and McDonalds are ubiquitous. Western (mostly American) style-foods and franchises can be found around the malls and in the city centre, offering food for upper mid-range prices.
Bahrain has relatively liberal laws regarding alcohol and has long been a favorite getaway for visitors from Saudi Arabia and other nearby "dry" countries — don't be surprised to see Arabs in thobe and gutra sipping cool brewskis as they watch dancers strut their stuff in the nightclubs.
Under Bahraini law, any sign of having consumed alcohol may be taken as prima facie evidence of driving under the influence, which can lead to imprisonment and/or fines of up to BD 1,000.
Mostly public schools, but enough private schools to serve majority of overseas. Bahrain School, St Christopher's School  educates to British GCSE and A-level qualifications and has a very diverse base, with students from many ethnic backgrounds, although most British expats working in Bahrain send their children there. There is also a school mostly frequented by the children of Indian expats.
Also many private universities and the University of Bahrain  is in Sukheer next to Bahrain International Circuit.
They majority of the population in Bahrain are expatriates (they make up 62% of the population). A minority of expats work in the financial sector however the majority are engaged as labourers, policemen, drivers and lower class lowly paid artisans. Conditions for many of these people are poor and there are regular alegations of human rights abuses and 'Modern Day Slavery'.
For some expats, life is easy with the clubs, cocktail parties, dinners and balls which remain one of the last throwbacks to the british empire. However for others it is extremely hard and dangerous. In former times is was the tradition that employers provided benefits to expat employees including;
However, this is widely no longer true with 'Lump sum' self sufficency 'local hire'contracts now becoming the norm.
At present, there is a 1% charge on salary (gosi tax) which goes to subsidize the unemployed, but a lot of employers are giving their employees an additional bonus by paying it themselves instead of deducting it from the salary.
Some executive positions used to have their children's education sponsored however this is now dwindling.
Working hours differ across different industries. Government offices work from 7:30 to 2:00 and the private sector now tends to be 7-30 to 1800 or much longer for Asian expatriates. Friday and Saturday is the official weekend for all public sector establishments as well as government schools and universities.
One of the major difficulties for expatriates in Bahrain is debt. The economy is in many ways structured to encourage expats to live right on the edge of their earnings and it is virtually impossible for most people to save money. There are legal processes which result in a global travel ban being placed on expatriates in a matter of minutes if they are unfortunate enough to get into debt. An effect of the travel ban is that the work permit is automatically suspended thus meaning that the expatriate can not work to pay off the debt not can he / she leave the country. Many expats have been stuck in Bahrain for years caught in this dilemma and a significant number have died in the country unable to travel for treatment or afford medical bills.
During 2011, a state of near civil war broke out in Bahrain, with many deaths, hundreds of injuries, and a large number of activists and health professionals arrested and tortured. Though massive demonstrations were brutally put down, the atmosphere remains tense, and demonstrations, riots, and shootings by the police may recur at any time. Travellers should avoid the rural areas and the villages to the northwest of the country. Large demonstrations can occur at any time, can sometimes become violent but are typically not anti-Western. Avoid areas where crowds of people appear to be assembling.
The ordinary social crime rate in Bahrain is low and violent crime is rare. However, burglary, petty theft, and robberies do occur. Most hotels have discos frequented by some unsavoury characters. Though the hotels have proper security systems including cameras installed, there are instances of tourists having their rooms burgled.
Drink plenty of water. April through August can be very hot (up to 50 ºC) and humid. Use an umbrella to protect you from the harsh sun. It is important to stay hydrated, especially if you are outdoors during the day. Bottled water is sold practically everywhere in the city from "Cold Stores" and small restaurants at very reasonable prices. In the souk, walking vendors offer small chilled bottles but you may end up paying more than the bottle is really worth. If you are living in Bahrain for an extended period of time, you can set up an arrangement for a neighborhood Cold Store to deliver bottled water to your flat, or sign up for water delivery through several companies on the island.
Bahrain is a fairly gracious host nation but it is imperative to demonstrate respect and courtesy in reference to their particular cultural practices and religion at all times. When out in places where local Arabs can be found it is advisable to wear long trousers, or shorts, and women shouldn't wear a see-through dress. However, in beach clubs and hotels, swimsuits, bikinis and shorts are okay to wear. Do not show signs of affection to members of the opposite sex in public. People of the opposite sex have been arrested for lip kissing in public and it is just not socially accepted. Always avoid any confrontation and never become involved in an argument, especially with a local.