Business travel: Bahrain

An alleyway in the capital, Manama

A few weeks back I had an opportunity to travel to Bahrain, a tiny kingdom off the coast of Saudi Arabia. As a freelancer, I take the gigs as they come, and this one, my second excursion into corporate writing, was unusual. Flights, accommodation and food were paid for, and my job was to write reports on an international conference.

I haven’t blogged yet about this trip because I didn’t know what to say about it. I was in Bahrain for just three days, and worked long hours. I understand that my traveller’s account will be limited and superficial. With that proviso — and I think it was Jamaica Kincaid who said that “a tourist is a dirty animal” — these are my impressions, from a weekend visit.

Bahrain has a fraught recent history. Between 1882 and 1971 the British held influence, and in 1932, the country hit oil. Nor is its present entirely stable, for a Sunni royal family rules a largely Shia Muslim populace.

A bakery -- with images of the royal family

To me Bahrain was strangely sad. I don’t mean that the people were obviously unhappy in any way, but that it appeared to lack a concrete identity or culture, or even a natural world of its own. It was warm and humid, as New York in late summer. A cheery tour guide showed us around a museum in the capital city, Manama, which was “the best museum in the Middle East.” The museum was indeed airy and bright and architecturally pleasing, but its focus on early eras was dismaying, and somewhat suspect. In spite of that, and of course because of it, a somber sense of the recent past escaped the museum’s clean, modern lines.

The museum showcased Bahrain’s pre- and medieval history (then a gap), followed the discovery of oil and what the country gained from it. Yet it seemed to me that much has been lost. Before oil, pearl-diving was the tiny country’s source of income. Men would plunge into the sea bare of headgear, relying just on strong lungs bring them back to the surface. Over the last century, using their new wealth, Bahrainis have built artificial islands to make more space. This activity has destroyed fragile corals, where the oysters and their pearls used to flourish. (Apparently, though, oil arrived just as the international pearl market faltered.)

The cityscape of Manama

Never have I seen the effects of construction, development, and climate change so starkly visible. At one time, our Bahraini guide explained, it was a paradise of foliage, but the creation of artificial land has caused freshwater springs to dry up and allowed deserts to encroach. Now it hardly ever rains, and palm trees are rare and dessicated. Our drinking bottles came from an organic Scottish source: water is more expensive than oil.

With 40% of its population made up of expats — from Europe, the US, India and Asia — it makes some sense for Bahrain to fashion itself as a hub of global business. A sign for the Dallas Plaza Hotel gleamed in the sky at night; my colleagues and I stayed at the Ramada. We went in search of local markets one evening, but were pointed in the direction of malls. We searched for Middle Eastern food, but found Kentucky Fried Chicken and other American-style joints. You might think that we weren’t there long enough to locate local fare, and that may be. Yet another co-worker dined out with a Bahraini-based friend one evening, and reported that they ate well — at an excellent American steak house.

Books at an airport shop: most of the books were about or by women

Bahrain is socially liberal. Many people who work in Saudi commute from Bahrain; others make trips there to drink or gamble. You can consume alcohol in certain establishments, or dine out with a spouse. At a hotel, I saw a man in a check red-and-white (Saudi) headdress, smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer. Still, it’s legal for men to have up to four wives, if they can afford to support them. Although this is rarer than it used to be, we saw an old man with three young women and several children trailing behind.

This is my brief, visitor’s snapshot, and for all I know it may be entirely false. To me it seemed that business has replaced culture in Bahrain, just as slick oil replaced fresh water. On my flight back, American Airlines showed the George Clooney film  “Up in the Air” — fitting, after my first ever business trip, to a country whose soul is fragile and displaced.

A royal palace in Manama at night


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