The island kingdom sinking beneath its own weight
Most recently a British protectorate with a Persian, Portuguese, and Arab past, the Kingdom of Bahrain wasn’t actually a kingdom until 2002. Floating snugly between Qatar and Saudi Arabia with Iran a mere 200 miles across the Persian Gulf, their history, political ties and location create for an interesting political and religious situation. This is especially true, given that the kingdom’s population is majority Shi’a with Sunni leadership and heavily backed by Saudi Arabia . Currently in the throes of Arab Spring revolution, the last four years have been marked with ongoing demonstrations and protests, which continue regularly and can be violent
With no oil, Bahrain is an international banking center in the land of oil. In the not too distant past, the kingdom’s economy was based on pearls, not oil (see below). But like most Middle Eastern countries, that money is heavily consolidated amongst the upper echelon with lots of political corruption; which sounds like a recipe for Arab Spring.
Let’s add more tension when we consider that according to UN data (July 2014), immigrants make up almost 55% of the total population (Asians comprising the large majority), which means locals are probably being edged out by immigrants who will work for less. Not all of these immigrants are there legally, nor do all want to be there: Forced labor and sex trafficking are common here.
What to see:As an island, the kingdom claims 760 km2 of land with 160 km2 of coastline. This does not provide a lot of room for tourist attractions, but here’s some highlights:
- Al Khamis Mosque: Biggest mosque in Bahrain, houses national library. Built in 1990s.
- Tree of life: Tree growing out in the middle of the desert.
- Dilmun burial mounds: 10,000+ burial mounds, dating between 3,000 BC and 600 AD.
- Traces of the past: Small, but not without history, Bahrain is one of UNESCO’s Small Island Developing States and has two UNESCO sites
- If you love desert and ocean they’ve got lots of both.
Why you might want to think twice (…Spain is beautiful this time of year):
- Things go boom here: Most recently explosions were reported on 9 December 2014.
- Constant demonstrations, many turn violent.
- Driving can be dangerous, it’s improving, but accident rates are still over twice that of most European countries.
- 40% of traffic deaths are pedestrians. Look twice before crossing.
So why all the demonstrations? The general elections held in November 2014 were boycotted by the Shiite party claiming social and economic marginalization. Elections went on despite the boycott and post elections, some opposition party leaders imprisoned (after being re-elected) which resulted in another wave of protests and instability across the island kingdom. So much for the king’s Bahrain National Dialogue movement – Ironically, even the BND website has been taken down.This is not a new trend. According to the Dept of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices for Bahrain, “The most serious human rights problems included citizens’ inability to change their government peacefully” though I would argue that, “arbitrary deprivation of life” would be the most serious human rights issue.
Why do the demonstrations turn violent? The circle escalates when protesters are arrested, “…on vague charges, in some cases leading to their torture in detention; and lack of due process in trials of political and human rights activists, medical personnel, teachers, and students, with some trials resulting in harsh sentences.” All things which would piss off a population.
The social sphere is awash with locals and activists reporting in real time against the current situation, with Freedom House indicating that Bahrain is tied for fifth in the world for biggest backslide between 2009 and 2013 in their “Freedom in the World” report.
More security details from the US and Brit international services:
- Security sitch per FSO.
- Country profile per US State Dept
- Country per RYP: Pelton gives Bahrain the same danger score as Syria (and Baltimore). What does that tell you?
Things to know:
- Country Police – In case of emergency dial 112 or 999
- Visa requirements: All American tourists require a visa for entry.
- Embassy website will on occasion provide details for planned demonstrations here, FCO will also list information on demonstrations here when available.
- Demonstrations historically can be violent. Avoid them, here’s how.
- This is a muslim country; dress and act accordingly, know what to expect during Ramadan. Alcohol is allowed, public intoxication is not.
- Fun fact: The water is shallow enough here that you can get heatstroke while swimming.
- You cannot walk across the border on the King Fahd Causeway. That’s right, you have to be in a vehicle. Which means, unlike in Tijuana, you can’t take a Saudi taxi to the border, walk through, then hop in a Bahraini taxi.
- If you get in an accident while driving, both parties must stay until the police arrive. More driving tips from Trip Advisor.
As always – when traveling:
- Let State know you’ll be in country, enroll in STEP to make it easier for them to contact you should there be an emergency.
- Take U.S. Embassy contact info:
- Address: Building No. 979, Road 3119, Block 331m Zinj District, Manama
- Emergency: (+973) 1727-5126 *After hours number
- Non emergency: (+973) 1724-2700
- Follow alerts via the State Dept Twitter feed or click Follow @TravelGov
- Let your friends and family in on your travel plans. TripIt offers a great app.
- Travel insurance: In case of emergency, trip cancellation or lost luggage. The concierge service alone is worth it. I’ve had great success with TravelGuard.
Bahrain is still evolving… though establishing a kingdom in 2002 could hardly be considered progressive. The Arab Spring has yet to fully play out here and will continue until true change has taken place. If you’re going here for work, play it safe and watch the local news for updates on protest locations and times. If you’re traveling to Bahrain on vacation… well… honestly, I’d have to wonder why.
Have you been? What did you think?
*Thanks to Jassim Madan via flickr for the title photo.