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Articles Blog

Manama, Bahrain

Karyn Planett

The Keys To The Kingdom 

One thing you can say about the Bedouin … when they settle down and set up camp, they create some pretty spectacular places. Several of these “settlements” just happen to border the Persian Gulf and one of them happens to be Bahrain. In 1783, the Al Khalifa clan, most recently of Zumara in Qatar, attacked the islands of Bahrain. When the skirmishing ended, they liked what they saw, pitched their tents, put the pot on the boil, and stayed. Shaykh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalid is their current Amir. 

The Bahrainis And The Brits 

In the 19th century, England was the big dog in the Persian Gulf. She was at the height of her ability to project British power around the world, and with substantial economic and political interests in the region, she was keen to exercise control over the occasionally unruly rulers of area’s desert kingdoms. At the same time, the Al Khalifa family was just as keen to consolidate their influence over Bahrain, influence that was under constant challenge from other powerful regional clans, especially the Omanis and Saudis. 

In a series of negotiated agreements with the British, culminating in the 1861 Perpetual Truce of Peace and Friendship, the Al Khalifas began to establish a secure regime. Armed with that important sounding document and all the British support it implied, Bahrain became a significant trading center in the Gulf and was on its way to modern statehood. 

The Bahrainis And The Bankers 

Trade brought wealth. Wealth brought an influx of cultures from far beyond the Gulf neighborhood. Soon Bahrain was host to merchants and bankers from Persia, Oman, India and beyond. A multicultural society was established long before the international set arrived in the rest of the Gulf in the late 20th century. Bahrain today still displays an Indian Ocean face rather than one of the Persian Gulf. Currently the economic base of Manama, capital of the kingdom, is financial services with over 200 financial institutions in the city center alone. And what might have led to this ascension to financial leadership? You guessed it … oil. 

The Bahrainis And Black Gold 

Oil. But not just jumping on the oil bandwagon. Bahrain was the location of the Gulf’s very first oil strike. The first well is now officially known as … wait for it … The First Well. It began flowing at 400 barrels per day, eventually growing to 70,000 bpd and has been rebuilt to resemble the original structure with a museum attached. That first strike served to tighten, even further, the Kingdom’s bond with the British. 

Concerned about the political stability of the country with an 80-year-old reigning sheik, the British encouraged him to turn the reins of power over to his son and appoint an administrator to ensure some political continuity and help modernize the state. An advertisement for an administrator in The London Times eventually turned up one Charles Dalrymple Belgrave, veteran of the Frontiers Districts Administration Camel Corps during the First World War. He served as Personal Adviser to the Amir from 1926 to 1957 at a starting salary of 720 pounds sterling. His family and friends knew him as “Carol” (don’t ask). 

Bahrain And The Burqa 

The Islamic Revolution that began in Iran put considerable pressure on Bahrain’s decidedly liberal culture. Previously, Sunnis, Shi’as, and a variety of minor religions had coexisted out of necessity in Bahrain’s open society. Iran targeted Bahrain’s majority Shi’a population as the place to export their revolution, leading to two decades of unrest, an increase of Islamic conservatism, and, as some claim, a loss of human rights. But in 1999, the new Amir led a return to constitutional rule, reinstated women’s rights, released political prisoners, and welcomed home exiles. The turnaround led to a free trade agreement with the United States and placed Bahrain once again on the Gulf’s list of good neighbors. 

Bahrain And Business 

The business of Bahrain today is business, whether commercial or retail. With a society that is one-third expat, it’s neither Islamic nor Arabic in total. Manama’s skyline features a distinctive lineup of modern architecture including its own World Trade Center, the Bahrain Financial Harbor, the National Bank of Bahrain Tower, and tallest of them all, the Almoayyed Tower. Some say it could be Dubai in the making. 

With the malls of the new downtown district of Seef, it exudes the love of luxury found throughout the oil producing countries. And with a 24-mile causeway linking Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, the soon-to-be-built Qatar-Bahrain Friendship Bridge, a sparkling international airport, and a world class Formula One Circuit, Bahrain is no longer an island nation isolated by geography, but a full-fledged participant in regional and world affairs that just happens to be on an island. 

                                                            Karyn L. Planett