Manama, Bahrain’s capital, is the largest city of Bahrain, with an approximate population of 155,000. Its twin city Muharraq, on an island just across narrow straits, permanently grows closer by way of bridges and land reclamation. Originally Muharraq was more or less the capital, but when (during the twentieth century) the main commercial center was established on the main island, Manama outgrew its twin city in importance and size.
In many ways, Manama and Muharraq reflect that Bahrain could have been the dream state of the Gulf, the most blissful place in the region. The city has a rare grace, it feels more settled than Dubai or Doha. This should come as no surprise given the fact that Bahrain was one of the first locations along the south coast of the Gulf to enter modernization, in fact long before the onset of the oil wealth, due to its multifaceted worldly orientated population; for more on the development of Bahrain see the essay. There is a pleasant 1950s cosmopolitan feeling to the city, echoing that past. As said, the oil wealth was not the catalyst of Bahrain’s golden years, but when it came, it helped Manama develop further. And when Bahrain’s oil production had passed its peak, another motor for its continued development came when Manama took over the position of Arab banking capital from Beirut, when capital fled the city at the outset of of the Lebanese civil war, in 1975.
Bahrain and Manama’s domination in the financial field came to a prompt end when Dubai started to copy the trick and outwitted Manama (for more on this see ‘Regional Competition‘ in the essay). In his book Dubai: The Story of the World’s Fastest City, author Jim Krane mentions several examples of the mixture of luck and trick that helped Dubai outpace Manama. For instance, when Gulf Air – the air carrier once shared by Bahrain with the UAE and Oman – was embroiled in a dispute with Pakistan about mutual landing rights, Dubai decided to start its own company and settled the dispute with Pakistan. The result of Dubai’s vigor – Emirates Airline – became well-known, while Gulf Air stagnated.
From the mid-20th Century onward Bahrain developed into a modern state. It had the earliest proper education system in place among the GCC states, and with the oil revenues it invested heavily in culture. This is witnessed by the several larger cultural institutions housed in by now nostalgic low-rise fifties, sixties and seventies buildings.
Women play a visible role in society: the Minister of Culture, Sheikha Mai bint Mohammad Al Khalifa, is a woman, and so are Aisha al Khalifa, Bahrain’s UNO envoy in New York, as well as Hoda Nono, ambassador to the US, who is Jewish, indicating once more the cosmopolitan nature of Bahraini society. Most key positions in government, including these, are occupied by people close to the ruling family.
During the 2011 wave of popular revolts in the Arab world, Bahrain was violently rocked. There were mass protests on the Pearl Roundabout (subsequently torn down by the government) and throughout the country; the government’s forceful reaction was condemned by most of the international community, and initially ineffective. The rebellion was only quelled when neighboring GCC states sent security forces to stabilize their partner state (and ruling family). It is still simmering, as the reforms demanded by the opposition have not yet been addressed. Bahrain has a long history of popular revolt, rooted in economic, confessional, tribal and social disparities, which flared up in the 1950, 70s, 90s and now again.
The indigenous workforce percentage in the country is around 50%, which is much higher than in the UAE and Qatar. Unlike in the Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait, you will find most taxi drivers to be Bahraini.
Contemporary Art Scene
Bahrain has a very prominent Minister of Culture, Sheikha Mai bint Mohammad Al Khalifa, member of the royal family, who is an eloquent promoter of culture (Sheikha Mai has become a bit less prominent since the 2011 uprising). The Ministry is in the same building as the National Museum.
There are four galleries in Manama and Muharraq, the Albareh Art Gallery, the only commercial art gallery as such, the La Fontaine Gallery located in a renovated old house near the main souks, consisting of an exhibition space, restaurant, spa and yoga center, the Bin Matar House, one of a series of renovated old houses in Muharraq with a large exhibition space, and the Al Riwaq Art Space, a venue for workshops and residencies, organizing exhibitions, run by a an NGO set up by Mrs Bayan Kanoo.
The National Theatre is one of the most prestigious newer projects of Bahrain in the cultural field. The massive-looking construction site towers majestically over the National Museum. What it will comprise in the future in this tiny country without a real grand-scale theatre tradition, remains to be seen. Probably, the venue will be suitable for music performances too.
Manama was Cultural Capital of the Arab World 2012. Probably partly due to the troublesome political situation, no spectacular events have arisen from it, except for a relatively low-profile exhibition and some guest performances from abroad. A Museum of Contemporary Art designed by Zaha Hadid Architects has been in the planning for a while. It is unclear when or if it will be built.
Artistic Exchange Opportunities
The Al Riwaq Art Space focuses on residency programs. Mrs Bayan Kanoo is the person to contact. Hasan Hujairy, who is partly involved in Al Riwaq, is a useful contact too.
Haifa Abou Jishi of the Albareh gallery is always helpful. She hosts incidental foreign artist in residencies.
Through the Ministry, past exchanges with musicians have taken place for the Bahrain International Music Festival. Possibly, the future National Theater will provide further opportunities for this.
There are several persons in and around the Ministry of Culture, such as Khalid Al Rowaie, Yacoub Abulrahman and others, who will be ready to lend a helping hand.
The majority of visitors will arrive by air, as Bahrain is an island. Those who arrive from the Eastern regions of Saudi-Arabia can travel over the bridge, but for non-residents of Saudi-Arabia that is not an option. Westerners can obtain visas on arrival. The cost is 5 Bahraini Dinar, which is 10 Euro. A taxi to the city costs from about 5 or 6 BD onward. Fares inside the city are in line with the prices elsewhere in the region. Most drives inside the city should not cost more that 2 or 3 BD, with up to 5 or 6 for longer rides. The major cultural institutions are known by taxi-drivers, but for the smaller it is necessary to get the right directions first, or to ask around.
Bahrain is a favorite budget travel destination for people working in Saudi-Arabia, including middle- and lower-middle-ranking expatriates. This means that in the weekend the hotels are crowded. However, with some luck and planning it is possible to find a reasonably priced lodging. Finding reasonably priced food is also no problem. Alcohol is permitted and widely available. Bahrain is a favorite drinking and dancing destination for people working in Saudi-Arabia, particularly the Corniche and Juffair (close to a US military base).
Several areas of the city are pleasant to stroll through. The Qal’at al-Bahrain (the harbor and capital of the historical land of Dilmun) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. The names of several villages near Muharraq are reminders of a Christian legacy, from the times when Eastern-Orthodox creeds were expanding from Mesopotamia to India. For instance, there is site named Al Dair, which means “the monastery”.
Bahrain is safe, despite the political unrest; which is visible most strongly in some predominantly Shi’a areas.