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POPULATION: 727,000 (2006)
LANGUAGE: Arabic (official); English; Farsi (Persian); Hindi; Urdu
RELIGION: Islam (Shia, 70%; Sunni, 24%); Christianity; Hinduism; Judaism; Baha'i


Bahrain (meaning "two seas") has been the only safe port on the Persian Gulf throughout history because of prevailing wind and weather patterns. Therefore it has played an important part in the life of the Gulf since civilization began there. This tiny island nation has been of strategic significance since Sumerian times (4000 BC) to the present. Despite this, it has had a relatively peaceful history.

The entire northern coastal region of the Arabian peninsula was once known as Bahrain, with present-day Bahrain known then as Dilmun. It is described in the Sumerian herotale The Epic of Gilgamesh as an island of immortals where heroes went after death to live in eternal bliss. In fact, Bahrain hosts the largest cemetery in the world: more than 170,000 burial mounds, dating from 2500–1800 BC, are located on the island of Bahrain. They range from slight lumps in the ground to mounds as high as 12 m (40 ft). The mounds have been pillaged by grave robbers for 3,000 years, however, and few archaeological artifacts remain.

For a time in ancient history, and later in modern days, Persia (now Iran) claimed Bahrain as its territory. The Portuguese laid claim to it in 1521, but they were forced back out by the Bahrainis in 1602. In 1782, the al-Khalifa Arab family took over the islands and have been the ruling family ever since. (They are cousins of the al-Sabah ruling family of Kuwait and are distantly related to the al-Saud ruling family of Saudi Arabia.) Pirates long used Bahrain as a base for attacking ships in the Gulf. In 1820, Bahrain signed an agreement with Britain to become a British-protected state, meaning that Britain would protect Bahrain's sovereignty in return for safe sailing up the Gulf for Britain's ships. Therefore, while Bahrain kept the pirates from attacking Britain's ships, Britain kept the Iranians (and others) from attacking Bahrain. This agreement lasted until Britain decided to terminate it in 1968. By 1971, all British troops had left Bahrain, although British soldiers still supervise Bahrain's army and security forces. On 15 August 1971, Bahrain proclaimed independence. The constitution of 1972 provided for a parliament, or National Assembly, the first in the nation's history, and elections were held in 1973. Two years later, in 1975, the Assembly was disbanded by the king for security reasons; the king claimed that some Assembly members were involved in subversive activities.

In 1993 the king created a 40-member Consultative Council, all of whose members serve by appointment. The 2002 constitution also created a 40-member Chamber of Deputies, whose members are directly elected by universal adult suffrage. Women have not only the right to vote but can also stand for office, and the Bahraini Chamber of Deputies typically has a few elected female members. Known as "the land of sweet waters," Bahrain's first wealth was in the form of fresh water that bubbled up in artesian wells and springs, even through the saltwater of the Gulf just off the islands' shores. Bahrain had more easily available fresh water than anywhere else on the Gulf coast. Pearls were the other big moneymaker, collected from offshore oyster beds. When the Japanese introduced cultured pearls in the 1930s, Bahrain's economy was in danger. However, oil was discovered in 1931, giving Bahrain the first oil well, and then the first oil refinery, on the Arab side of the Arabian Gulf. Although Bahrain has always produced less oil than other Arab states, oil continues to be the major source of income for the tiny island nation.


Bahrain is an archipelago in the Persian Gulf, lying 24 km (15 mi) off the northeast coast of Saudi Arabia, and 21 km (13 mi) northwest of the Qatar Peninsula. Of the 33 islands, only 5 are inhabited. The six major islands are Bahrain (also known as as-Awal), Muharraq, Sitrah, Umm al-Nassan, Jidda (used as the Bahraini prison), and Nabi Salih. The 27 minor islands include the Muhammadiyah and Hawar groups. There is dispute between Bahrain and Qatar over the possession of the Hawar Islands. The total area is 678 sq km (262 sq mi), of which 85% is the island of Bahrain. There are 126 km (78 mi) of coastline. The capital city, Manama, is located on the north coast of Bahrain island. A causeway 2 km (1.5 mi) long connects the islands of Bahrain and Muharraq (the second-most important island, where the ruling family lives). A bridge joins the islands of Bahrain and Sitrah. There is also a long bridge, the King Fahd Causeway, linking Bahrain to mainland Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain is essentially a desert surrounded by water. Although freshwater springs bubble up from beneath the sea floor just offshore (these "wells" are marked with iron posts that rise above the surface of the water), and other artesian wells flow out of the ground at the north end of Bahrain Island, the land is otherwise dry and sandy. The climate ranges from hot (up to 48°C [120°F]) and humid in the summer to chilly (down to 10°C [50°F]) and damp (as high as 90% humidity) in the winter. Only about 7.6 cm (3 in) of rain fall per year, always during the winter. In recorded history there has never been any rain during the months of June through September. The shamal is a wind from the southeast in the winter that brings damp air and occasional dust storms. In the summer, gaws blow from the southwest, bringing hot air and frequently blinding sandstorms. The climate has probably changed over time. In Sumerian times (4000 BC), the prevailing winds were most likely from the northeast, bringing more temperate weather.

There are no forests in Bahrain, and the plant life is restricted to date palms and desert plants. Wildlife includes desert rats, gazelles, mongooses, snakes, lizards, and rabbits. A large wildlife refuge at al-Andareen provides protected space for various exotic birds, gazelles, oryx, and ibex.

In 2006 the Bahraini population was estimated at about 727,000, with 63% Bahraini Arabs; 27% Pakistanis, Indians, and Iranians; 5% other Arabs; and 4% Europeans. The population is increasing rapidly, but as more women enter the workforce, the birth rate is expected to slow. Bahrain is a largely urban nation. A full 85% of Bahrainis live in cities, and only 15% live in rural areas. The largest city is Manama, the capital, with a population of more than 150,000. Muharraq is the second largest city with 75,000 people.


The official language of Bahrain is Arabic. English, introduced during the time Bahrain was a British-protected state (1820–1968), is also spoken by many Bahrainis. Farsi (Persian) is spoken by the Iranians in Bahrain. The Indian population speaks Hindi and the Pakistanis speak Urdu.

Arabic, spoken by 300 million people worldwide, is spoken in different dialects from country to country, and the same words may have different shades of meaning in different areas. Even within the small nation of Bahrain, the Arabic dialect used by the rural population sounds "uncultured" to urban Bahrainis. The written form of Arabic is called Classical Arabic or Modern Standard Arabic. It is the same for all literate Arabs, regardless of how different their spoken forms are. Arabic is written from right to left in a unique alphabet that has no distinction between upper and lower cases. It is not necessary for the letters to be written on a straight line, as English letters must be. Punctuation conventions are also quite different from English.

Arabic speakers tend to use emotional appeal, exaggeration, and repetition in their language. They are very interested in the poetry of the language. "Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan, to which one replies, marhabtayn or ahlayn. Other common greetings are As-salam alaykum ("Peace be with you"), with the reply of Walaykum as-salam ("and to you peace"). Ma'assalama means "goodbye." "Thank you" is Shukran, and "You're welcome" is Afwan; "yes" is na'am, and "no" is la'a. The numbers one to ten in Arabic are: wahad, itnin, talata, arba'a, khamsa, sitta, saba'a, tamania, tisa'a, and ashara.

Arabs have very long names, consisting of their first name, their father's name, their paternal grandfather's name, and finally their family name. Following Islamic tradition, women do not take their husband's name when they marry but rather keep their father's family name. Popular Arabic names include Mohammad, Abdullah, Hamad, and Ahmad for boys and Fatima, Laila, Hessa, and Shaima for girls. Because the majority of Bahraini Muslims are Shia, many are named for the great Shia Imams such as Ali and Husayn.


Bahrainis tell their children a popular legend that explains how the freshwater springs or wells bubble up from beneath the sea just off their shores. According to the story, falling stars knocked holes in the ground and Allah, the One God, cupped them up for his faithful followers to use. The ancient Sumerians (4000 BC) believed that the springs came from a freshwater sea that lay beneath the regular saltwater sea. This submarine sea was called Abuz, and it was ruled by a god known as Abyss, whom it was very important to please. In English, the word abyss has come to mean any bottomless depth. Geologists now believe the freshwater springs come from the Tuwaiq Mountains in Saudi Arabia—the water seeps through the porous layers of rock to flow towards Bahrain.

Pearls, long a source of wealth for the Bahrainis, have also inspired much folklore. Bahraini parents like to tell their children that pearls are created when a mermaid's tears fall into an open oyster shell. Certain "magic" pearls have supernatural powers, such as helping to find lost objects or to bind love (if a young woman rubs her eyes with a pearl, she can make a man her slave simply by gazing on him).


At least 94% of the Bahraini population is Muslim. About 70% of Bahrainis are Shia, and 24% Sunni. A small percentage (5%) of the population is Christian, and the remaining 1% is Hindu, Jewish, Baha'i, or other faiths. Although Sunni Muslims are numerically in the minority, they have been the dominant religious community in Bahrain since the 17th century or before. The royal family of Bahrain and the majority of its wealthy merchant class are Sunnis. This has created many conflicts between the majority Shia and the ruling Sunnis. Even among the Sunnis and Shia there are various groups who are not always in agreement with one another, so Bahrain is beset with constant religious conflicts.

Islam is one of the youngest of the world's main monotheistic religions, having only begun in the early 7th century AD when the prophet Muhammad received his revelations from Allah (which means "God" in Arabic). Muslims believe that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God but by different names. Within just a few years of Muhammad's death in AD 632, Islam had spread through the entire Middle East. The Arab tribes were the first to convert.

Born into the Koreish tribe of Mecca (C. AD 570) in what is now Saudi Arabia, Muhammad was later driven from the city because of his outspoken denunciation of the pagan idols worshipped there (idols that attracted a lucrative pilgrim trade). The year of Muhammad's flight from Mecca, AD 622 (July 16), called the Hegira, is counted as Year One in the Muslim calendar. Muhammad fled to the city now known as Medina, another of the holy sites of modern-day Saudi Arabia. Eventually Muhammad returned to Mecca as a triumphant religious and political leader, destroyed the idols (saving the Black Stone, an ancient meteorite housed in the Kaaba [or Cube] building, which has become a focal point of Muslim worship), and established Mecca as the spiritual center of Islam. All prayers are said facing Mecca, and each Muslim is expected—and greatly desires—to make a pilgrimage there (called a Haj or Hadj) at least once in his or her lifetime. Islam is a simple, straightforward faith with clear rules for correct living. Religion, politics, faith, and culture are all linked together for Muslims.

The difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims, which has played an important role in Bahraini history, has to do with the early history of the religion. After the Prophet Muhammad's death, the entire Muslim community was divided over who should become the first political successor, or caliph. A strong minority believed that Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, should be caliph. The rest accepted Abu Baker as the first caliph. Abu Baker assumed the caliphate and eventually obtained the allegiance of Ali.

Ali did not become caliph until after the death of Uthman, the third caliph. At that time, Mu'awiyah, the governor of Syria and a relative of Uthman, challenged Ali for the caliphate using Syrian troops personally loyal to him. The battles between the caliph and Mu'awiyah were inconclusive, and Ali remained in control over most areas except Greater Syria until his death. At that time, Mu'awiyah was able to defeat a number of challenges from Muslims of Muhammad's family and friends to firmly establish himself as caliph. He instituted a system of hereditary rule for his family, thus establishing the Umayyed dynasty. Those Muslims who refused to recognize the legitimacy of Mu'awiyah's caliphate and the Umayyed dynasty were called the followers of Ali, or Shi'iat Ali, while the supporters of the Umayyeds were known as Shi'iat Uthman. Eventually the followers of Ali became known as the Shia.

Although there are doctrinal differences, the fundamental difference between the sects is an argument about authority, not doctrine. The Shia believe that the successors of Muhammad should have come from his close family (or Ahl al-Bayt) and that Ali should have been the first caliph. The Sunnis believe that although Ali was justified in defending the caliphate from Mu'awiyah, once the Umayyeds took control it was more important to maintain political stability than to risk the chaos that might have resulted from a civil war. These political differences have developed into substantial theological differences over the centuries.

In present-day Bahrain, there is political tension between the Sunni ruling elites (including the royal family) and the majority Shia population. Many boycotted the 2002 parliamentary elections, and street demonstrations, which can turn violent, are common.


Secular holidays include New Year's Day on January 1 and National Day on December 16. Because 94% of Bahrainis are Muslim, their holidays are the official ones. Muslim holidays follow the lunar calendar, which moves back by 11 days each year, so their dates are not fixed on the standard Gregorian calendar. The main Muslim holidays are: Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year, during which Muhammad received his first revelations, and which is celebrated by complete fasting from dawn until dusk each day of the entire month; Ayd Al-Fitr, a three-day festival at the end of Ramadan; Ayd Al-Adha, a three-day feast of sacrifice at the end of the month of pilgrimage to Mecca known as the Haj (families who can afford it slaughter a lamb and share the meat with poorer Muslims); the First of Muharram, or the Muslim New Year; Mawoulid An-Nabawi, the prophet Muhammad's birthday; and Ayd Al-Isra wa Al-Miraj, a feast celebrating the nocturnal visit of Muhammad to heaven. Friday is the Islamic day of rest, so most businesses and services are closed on Fridays. All government offices, private businesses, and schools are also closed during Ayd Al-Fitr and Ayd Al-Adha.

Ashura is only commemorated by Shia. It is a formal day of mourning marking the anniversary when Muhammad's grandson, Husayn, and a small band of loyal followers were massacred by Yazid, the son of Mu'awiyah, who was named caliph by the Umayyeds after Mu'awiyah's death. Yazid was almost universally despised by the Muslims for his impiety and oppression but maintained a strong army personally loyal to him. The massacre occurred at Karbala' in Iraq. The Muslims who had asked Husayn to oppose Yazid failed to show up at Karbala' to help him against Yazid's army. Today the holiday has political overtones as Shia cry and lament the failure of the Muslims to defend Muhammad's family and as they celebrate the bravery of Husayn in opposing an unjust ruler despite terrible odds.


Bahraini rites of passage are similar to those in other Arab and Islamic cultures. Marriage and family are the focus of most Bahrainis' lives. Typically, marriages are arranged, although young men and women are consulted about prospective partners and in most cases can refuse a potential spouse.


Arab hospitality reigns in Bahrain. An Arab will never ask personal questions, as that is considered rude. It is expected that a person will say what he or she wishes without being asked. Food and drink are always taken with the right hand, because the left hand is used for "unclean" purposes, such as cleaning oneself. When talking, Arabs touch each other much more frequently and stand much closer together than Westerners do. People of the same sex will often hold hands while talking, even if they are virtual strangers. Members of the opposite sex, however, even married couples, rarely touch in public. Arabs talk a lot, speaking loudly, repeating themselves often, and interrupting each other constantly. Conversations are highly emotional and full of gestures.


Bahrain has one of the highest standards of living in the Persian Gulf region. A rapidly increasing population is beginning to put a strain on housing and water supplies, however, raising the cost of living and causing poorer Bahrainis to live in substandard conditions. To help alleviate overcrowding in other cities, the government built a new town in the center of Bahrain Island called Madinat Hamad (Madinat is Arabic for " city" or " town" and Hamad is the name of the king who initiated the project). It encompasses 1,300 hectares (3,212 acres) of desert land, reaching 8 km (5 mi) from north to south and 2.5 km (1.5 mi) east to west. A road was built to connect Madinat Hamad to Manama and also gives access to the causeway linking the islands of Bahrain and Muharraq. After the first Gulf War (1990–91) many Kuwaiti refugees were resettled in Madinat Hamad. In 2001 the new city had a population of 126,000.

Bahrain's oil wealth has enabled the government to make many improvements in Bahrain's standard of living, including better health care, housing, and education. Technologically advanced medical care has led to the eradication of smallpox. There are government-subsidized medical facilities, as well as private ones. Bahrainis needing specialized care not available at home are flown abroad at the government's expense. The government also provides social security coverage for pensions, industrial accidents, illness, unemployment, maternity, and a family allowance.

Although there is no railway system in Bahrain, there are now 225 km (140 mi) of paved roads, which is more than adequate for such a small country. Bahrain also has one of the most modern communications systems in the world, with two communications satellites in space (the first launched in 1968, the second in 1980). A state-of-the-art international airport serves more than 3 million passengers per year, and Mina Salman, located east of the capital city of Manama, is one of the most modern and efficient ports in the Middle East. Members of the older generation can still remember making their own shoes—that is how quickly the "industrial revolution" has happened in Bahrain.

Traditionally, Bahraini homes were made from palm fronds, or barasti. Modern homes are made of cement and lime brick. Rooms are built around an inner courtyard, and houses are built vertically (rather than horizontally, like ranch houses) to catch the breezes that blow higher in the air. "Wind towers" on the upper floors of many houses and other buildings catch these breezes and funnel the air down to the lower floors through air shafts. The most prized furnishings in Bahraini households are handwoven rugs, either imported from Iran or locally crafted.


Bahraini women are more publicly active than in most other Arab countries. With the increase in higher education and paid employment for women, traditional women's roles are beginning to change. Fewer marriages are arranged by the couple's parents as more couples choose their own partners. The dowry or "bride-price" paid by the groom to the bride's family is disappearing. These changes are taking place only among the upper-middle and upper classes, however. Only those with sufficient money can afford to send their daughters for higher education, and only wealthy women can afford to hire domestic help so that they may work outside the home. The lower and lower-middle classes of Bahrain remain much more traditional.

The family is the center of life for Bahrainis. Family lineage is very important, extending out to the whole tribe. Bahrainis continue to be fiercely loyal to their tribes. Children live with their parents until they are married, and sometimes after marriage as well. Polygamy (up to four wives) is legal, but few men practice it. Divorce is fairly simple, for both men and women, but it rarely occurs.


Bahrainis have never been as conservative as many of their Saudi neighbors. Women were never as strict about covering themselves completely in public, and many modern Bahraini women no longer veil their faces at all. (Most do still choose to wear some sort of head covering and long sleeves.) Bahraini men wear a thawb, which is a long outer robe reaching from neck to ankles, made of white cotton, to keep them cool in the hot sun. They also wear a ghutra, a large rectangular piece of material draped over the head and held in place with an agal, a thick, black woven band. This headscarf protects them from the sun as well as from sandstorms (it can quickly be drawn across the face).

Western-style clothing is becoming more popular in the larger cities of Bahrain. The large numbers of expatriate workers normally dress as they do in their homelands, so it is a common sight in Bahrain to see, for example, cinema lines containing women in black abayas, Indians in saris, Pakistanis in shalwars, and Westerners in jeans and t-shirts.


Meals are taken very seriously by Bahrainis. All talking is done during the hour or so before sitting down to eat; there is no conversation during dinner. After the meal, coffee is served, and then any guests leave. Coffee is also always served as a welcome to guests when they first arrive. It is most often drunk unsweetened and flavored with cardamom. Fresh vegetables, lamb, fish, chicken, and beef are common foods. (Pork is forbidden by Islam, as is alcohol.)

Meals always include a dish made with basmati rice. Khoubz is the name of the local flatbread, and samouli is a white bread (like French bread) that is glazed with water or egg and then sprinkled with salt or sesame or caraway seeds.

One of the most popular dishes is ghouzi, which was developed by the Bedu (or Bedouin) nomadic Arabs (seeBedu). A lamb is slaughtered and left whole, and then a chicken stuffed with rice, nuts, onions, spices, and shelled hard-boiled eggs is placed inside the lamb. The lamb is sewn up, trussed, and cooked on a spit. To serve ghouzi, the chicken and stuffing are removed and arranged around the lamb. Diners break off chunks of meat with their right hands (the meat is not carved).

Date groves, fruit orchards, and vegetable gardens are located along the well-watered northern and northwestern coasts of Bahrain island. Bananas, citrus fruits, pomegranates, and mangoes are grown there, along with dates and other produce.

Bahrainis love desserts, and they love dates. Here is a recipe that combines both:

Date Bars

1 cup rolled oats, plain or instant
1 cup melted butter or margarine
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 eggs, well beaten
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup finely chopped pitted dates
½ cup dark brown sugar
1 cup chopped nuts (walnuts, peanuts, or pecans)
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup confectioner's sugar for garnish
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease 8-inch-square baking pan. Put oats, flour, baking powder, brown sugar, salt, and cinnamon in large mixing bowl and mix well. Add butter or margarine, eggs, dates, and nuts, and mix well using clean hands. Put mixture into greased baking pan and bake in oven for about 35 minutes, until firm. Remove from oven and cut while still warm into 1½-inch squares. Sprinkle with confectioner's sugar. Makes 16 date bars.

[Adapted from Albyn and Webb, The Multicultural Cookbook for Students, p. 73]


Bahrain has had the highest literacy rate in the Arab world for decades. More than 90% of Bahrainis are literate. The public school system was established in the early years of the 20th century. The first school for boys in the Persian Gulf region, the Hadiyya al-Khalifiya school, was opened in Bahrain in 1919. The first school for girls in Bahrain opened in 1929. Education is compulsory and free for all children. Government primary and secondary education facilities are still segregated by sex, but the education received by boys and girls is comparable. Private institutions have mixed gender classrooms. Primary education runs from the age of 6 to the age of 11. Almost 100% of Bahraini children attend primary school. Secondary education lasts from age 12 to age 17. The University of Bahrain and the College of Health Sciences are two of the older universities in Bahrain. Foreign universities from the west have branch campuses in Bahrain, as they do in many other Gulf countries. The New York Institute of Technology, for example, has a campus in Manama.


Bahrain has a well-established artistic community, including some of the most respected writers in the Persian Gulf region. Ibrahim al-'Urayyid and Ahmad Muhammad Al Khalifah write lyrical poetry about heroes and romance in the classical Arab style. Younger poets have developed a more Westernized style, writing non-rhyming poems on personal and political subjects. Qasim Haddad (b.1948) is the best-known contemporary Bahraini poet. He has published several collections of poetry, including The Good Omen (1970), Doomsday (1980), and Shrapnel (1983). Hamdah Khamis (b.1946) is a journalist and a contemporary poet. Her collection of poetry, published in 1978, is called An Apology for Childhood.

Arab music is much like the Arab language—rich, repetitive, and exaggerated. The oud is a popular instrument; it is an ancient stringed instrument that is the ancestor of the European lute. Another traditional instrument is the rebaba, a onestringed instrument. A traditional Arab dance is the ardha, or men's sword dance. Men carrying swords stand shoulder to shoulder, and from among them a poet sings verses while drummers beat out a rhythm.

Islam forbids the depiction of the human form, so Bahraini art focuses on geometric and abstract shapes. Calligraphy is a sacred art, with the Quran being the primary subject matter. Muslim art finds its greatest expression in mosques.


The pearl trade was the big money-maker for Bahrain until the Japanese introduced cultured pearls in the 1930s. Before that, divers would go down to depths of 30 to 120 ft, with just a nose clip and earplugs, to collect oysters. The best divers could hold their breath for up to two minutes. It was a dangerous trade for the divers, and not a lucrative one. Although profits were supposed to be shared by all on the pearl boat, the captains kept the largest share and gave the divers a minimal share, not even enough to repay their captain for the cost of food and expenses he had advanced to them. In this way, pearl divers were kept in virtual slavery by debts that were passed down through the generations.

Since 1931, oil has been a major industry in Bahrain, as well as natural gas. Although small in comparison to other oil-producing nations in the region, the income from oil and natural gas has paid more than 70% of the Bahraini government's expenses in the past few decades. Unfortunately, Bahrain's oil reserves are quickly being depleted. Its offshore natural gas reserves are somewhat more plentiful, but still small in comparison to major producers in the area, in particular Qatar. Therefore, the government is attempting to diversify the industrial sector to prepare for the depletion of the oil and gas reserves. Bahrain has developed state-of-the-art technology for petrochemical plants and oil refineries that it will be able to sell to other oil-producing nations. It has also begun manufacturing plastics and producing aluminum.

International offshore banking has also become one of Bahrain's mainstays, in these days of large economic transactions. Like Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, Bahrain has become an important banking center in the region. Many international financial institutions have set up offices in the kingdom. A stock exchange was opened in 1989.

Shipbuilding has long been a respected trade in Bahrain. Some of the shipbuilders of today can trace their lineage back through many generations, with skills passed down from father to son. Bahrain currently constructs everything from huge, industrial oil tankers to small wooden dhows, which are built in the same style that has been used since ancient times (with motors added today).

Because of the desert climate, there is not much farming in Bahrain, but fishing is a significant industry. Bahrain is known for its fist-sized shrimp.


Football (known as soccer in the United States) is the national sport of Bahrain. It was introduced during the time when Bahrain was a British-protected state (1820–1968). Other popular modern sports include tennis, water sports, and dune-buggy racing. Ancient sports that are still greatly enjoyed are horseracing and -breeding (the famous Arabian horses, probably the oldest domesticated breed, date from 1500 BC or before), camel-racing, and falconry. Falconry is a sport for the rich because birds are very expensive; a well-trained falcon can cost up to $15,000.

Bahrain has hosted a Formula One race, the Bahrain Grand Prix, since 2004. It was the first Formula One Grand Prix in the Middle East.


Camping is perhaps the favorite Bahraini family recreation. Men spend a great deal of time in coffeehouses, drinking tea and chatting. Educated and upper class women also congregate in coffee shops in upscale districts. There are many cinemas in Manama and they provide an important cultural gathering point. On weekends, Saudis drive across the causeway and fill the cinemas (movie houses are banned in Saudi Arabia), creating a lively, energetic atmosphere. Restaurants in malls are filled on weekends with young people from the upper classes, who have time and money to spare. Because of the intense heat in Bahrain, people spend a lot of time in their air conditioned cars and many young people spend their free time simply driving around and listening to the latest Arabic pop music.


The government supports traditional arts with generous subsidies. Bahrain is known for its elaborate and uniquely designed coffee servers. Metalworking is an ancient traditions in Bahrain, as are ceramics and basket-weaving. Folk music is popular and the traditional music of the pearl divers, called fijeri, is widely performed. Bahrain is home to an important Islamic museum, the Beit al Quran (the House of the Quran). It has a large collection of Islamic holy books, some dating to the 8th century.


The rapidly increasing population has put a tremendous strain on Bahrain's water supply. In 1968 daily consumption of water was less than 4 million gallons; by 1982, consumption had risen to over 30.4 million gallons per day. Freshwater sources are unable to provide for the increasing demand and by 2005, three-fifths of Bahrain's water supply was from desalinization plants. These plants, powered primarily with natural gas, are a great cost to the country and also cause significant environmental stresses. They contribute to global warming by burning fossil fuels and they alter the salinity of the Persian Gulf.

The increase in population has also put housing at a premium, driving the cost of living up. With the focus on new home construction, old homes are not given the attention or repairs they need and are becoming run-down and dilapidated. Many Bahrainis, therefore, are forced to live in overcrowded, sub-standard conditions.

Bahrain has experienced serious challenges to its ruling regime stemming from the lack of full democracy and from sectarian tensions. Although the new constitution did create a democratically elected chamber in parliament, the king retains the most power both through executive powers left to him in the constitution and by his power to appoint all the members of the Consultative Council. The politically and economically marginalized Shia majority regularly engages in street demonstrations and other forms of political protest, but the government typically responds with force. Some Shia look to predominantly Shia Iran for political inspiration, and this also causes great fear in Bahrain, a tiny island not too many miles distant from large, militarily powerful Iran. The United States maintains an enormous naval presence on the Island, and this also has caused social strains. This tension has increased since the U.S.-led War on Terror led to war in neighboring Shia-majority Iraq.


The status of Bahraini women is better than in some Islamic societies, but remains far behind the rights and privileges typical in Western countries. Women have the right to vote and to stand for political office (in 2007 there were two female cabinet ministers), but the Bahraini judicial system is based on Islamic (Sharia) law and women therefore face obstacles in obtaining divorces and in securing custody of their children after being divorced. A major problem is the lack of a personal status system of laws that would ensure some degree of rights to women. In the absence of such a system, legal matters are left to the discretion of judges who are free to interpret Islamic law and issue rulings. The judiciary is made up of conservative, religious men.


Albyn, Carole Lisa, and Lois Sinaiko Webb. The Multicultural Cookbook for Students. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1993.

Cooper, Robert. Bahrain: Cultures of the World. New York: Benchmark Books, 2000.

Cordesman, Anthony. Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE: Challenges of Security. Boulder, CO. Westview Press, 1997.

Fox, Mary Virginia. Enchantment of the World: Bahrain. Chicago: Childrens Press, 1992.

Lawson, Fred H. Bahrain: The Modernization of Autocracy. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1989.

Sluglett, Peter, and Marion Farouk-Sluglett. Tuttle Guide to the Middle East. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1992.

Wheatcroft, Andrew. Bahrain in Original Photographs, 1880–1961. London and New York: Kegan Paul International, 1988.

Winkler, David F. Amirs, Admirals, and Desert Sailors: Bah-rain, the US Navy and the Arabian Gulf. Annapolis, MD. U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2007.

—revised by J. Henry;