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Bahrain, the smallest of the Gulf States, is not much bigger than the Isle of Man, and like a lot of countries in the Gulf, oil has made this tiny island nation a rich country. Our Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Bahrain only lasted thirty minutes but was the emptiest airliner Angela and I had ever flown on. Almost every seat was deserted. I counted nineteen people on an aircraft with a capacity of 178. “Imagine our carbon footprint,” quipped Angela as we headed for passport control.
Manama, Bahrain's capital, seemed cut from the same piece of cloth as other major cities in the region. It had a long and curving corniche filled with super-modern skyscrapers, palm fringed highways, and extensive building work going on everywhere. Like Doha and Dubai, some parts of the city resembled a huge building site with scaffolding and high fences blocking some of the views. Along every road were large pictures of the current ruler, King Hamad ibn Al Khalifa. It was him who brought radical changes to Bahrain (such as allowing women to vote and allowing parliamentary elections) making his country one of the most liberal in the Middle East.
Taxi drivers will want a lot of these!
I were soon at our hotel, the Best Western Juffair, on a sunny afternoon in December. Picking up the guide book we headed outside wondering what the country would have to offer. After living in Qatar for four months we'd met plenty of people who'd already been to Bahrain. “There's nothing there!” some people had warned us. “It's even worse than Qatar! I wouldn't bother going if I were you.”
The Al-Fateh Mosque was the largest in Bahrain, capable of holding 7000 people. It wasn't far from our hotel and it looked quite impressive. I was surprised to learn that the main dome was made of pure fibreglass, making it the largest in the world. As we stood staring, I told Angela this fascinating fibreglass fact. She raised her eyebrows and I knew then that there would no chance of getting her into the Currency Museum, an establishment so underused that it didn't even have its own carpark.
The road that led us along the corniche was filled with hundreds of Bahrain flags, all flapping in the soothing breeze. We passed an amusement arcade which offered ten-pin bowling, swings and even bumper cars. We could see the Arabian
Sea beyond it, but the view was spoilt by a massive construction sight. Eventually we came to the Bahrain National Museum, which promised exhibits showcasing life in Bahrain before the discovery of oil, but it was closed.
“What day is it?” I asked Angela. She told me it was Sunday, which was what I'd thought. Sunday in the Arabic world was a normal working day, but if that was true, then why was the museum shut? Not that we were particularly bothered about going in a museum, but the fact that it was closed was a bit perturbing. A bit further along, we tried to reach the corniche seafront but were stopped by the presence of another huge building site. Large photos showed us what the finished construction would look like, but all we could see were diggers, scaffolding, and men playing cricket. They were clearly the ex-pat workers from Asia having a day off from their toiling. But why were they off? Had we arrived in Bahrain on a public holiday?
We turned along the King Faisal Highway, which led us past the best skyscrapers of Manama, which were thankfully complete. The highway was named after the
King's fifteen-year-old son who had died in a traffic accident following a collision with a bus. Disturbingly, according to reports, the prince's car, driven by a body guard, had impacted with a large sign displaying a picture of the King.
Along the highway was the spectacular Bahrain World Trade Centre. Built in 2008, it was the first skyscraper to integrate wind turbines as part of its design, which meant that up to 15% its power was powered by wind from the Persian Gulf. Angela and I looked up towards the points of the twin towers, marvelling at how architects came up with such ideas. (Later I learned that the company who designed the Bahrain World Trade Centre was also responsible for Dubai's seven star hotel - Burj Al Arab.)
“Let's find the souks,” I suggested. We followed our map until we felt sure we were close to them but the place seemed deserted, hardly the thronging mass of traders we'd been expecting. We eventually came to the Gold Souk, which was also closed but had a sign explaining why. Closed: December 27 for Ashoura.
“What's Ashoura?” Angela asked. I told her I didn't know but said that
it explained why everything was so quiet. (Later we learned that Ashoura was a Muslim festival and national holiday). It seemed we had indeed come to Bahrain at precisely the wrong time. Not exactly kicking at the best of time, during a public holiday the place was dead. Bore-ain
I dubbed the place, thinking we should've heeded the warnings of our friends back in Qatar. We crossed the highway towards an area known as the Old Dhow Yard, a quite picturesque part of Manama, where old sailing boats puffed along watched by families sitting on the edge of the corniche. As the sun began to set, we could at least see some of the beauty of this small but rather dull country.
“These taxis are a rip off,” I said as we careered along the King Faisal Highway back towards our hotel. We'd just had a drink at the Ritz-Carton hotel, a hotel so posh that it even had a cigar bar. Angela had ordered a cocktail and I'd got a pint of Guinness. Ten Dinars (£18) later, we were out, in a taxi driven by a man with fleecing on his mind. It was our own fault really
The King Of Bahrain
I think he's the one in the middle
because we'd got the bellboy at the Ritz-Carlton to ring a taxi for us. For this reason the taxi driver had put us on Tariff 2, the most expensive rate. Ten minutes and £11 pounds later we were at our hotel, wondering about the price of fuel in Bahrain. Back in Qatar, my 4x4 only cost £6.50 to fill up to the brim!
The next day we took another lengthy hike to the corniche, once again marvelling at the World Trade Centre; it really was eye-catching. We walked beyond it to the Central Market, which turned out to be a rather mundane shopping arcade. We decided there and then to go and visit Bahrain Fort to experience a bit of culture, but first we needed some money as we only had eleven dinar left. This was easier said than done.
“Bloody hell!” I said as yet another cash machine refused to dispense any dinar. “What's wrong with this place? It's supposed to be the financial hub of the Middle East! We've never had this sort of problem anywhere! Sri Lanka, Nepal, Cambodia - no problem! Bahrain - no way!” In the end we gave up and hoped that
our eleven dinar would be enough for a taxi to the fort, which according to the map wasn't that far away anyway.
We stood about on a street waiting for a taxi to pass us by but none were forthcoming. Just as we were about to try somewhere else, a pick up slowed down and the Arab gentlemen inside asked us if we needed a taxi. Angela and I regarded his vehicle and we looked at each other. It clearly wasn't a taxi but needing a ride, we said yes. Quick as a flash he did a U-turn and opened the door for us.
I asked him if he was a taxi driver. “Of course!” be bellowed. “Get in!” Standing at his window, I gestured to the lack of seating and asked him where we would sit. “Of course!” he boomed. “Get in!” After agreeing a price of three dinar to take us to Bahrain Fort, we squeezed into the front seat alongside the driver. He seemed a jovial fellow even if his English was rather limited. Angela was pressed against the door while I was pressed up against the driver, being nudged every time he changed gear.
Quite quickly we arrived at a large mall and our car pulled into it. “Bahrain Mall!” the driver told us. “Three dinar!”
I shook my head. “No! We want Bahrain Fort! Not Bahrain Mall. Look!” I showed him a picture in the guide book and he nodded and smiled. We soon set off again and ten minutes later arrived at our destination. We then went through a protracted and quite confusing conversation explaining that we wanted him to wait for us and then drive us back into the city. When he eventually realised what we wanted he demanded twenty dinar (£34). I laughed and shook my head. The man went down to fifteen dinar until I showed him the contents of my wallet. The man took the money and counted the eleven dinar and seemed happy. “I wait!” he announced. “Over there!” I wasn't happy with this arrangement and so tried to grab our cash back but he'd already pocketed it somewhere. We had no choice but to trust him and so Angela and I climbed out to have a wander around the fort, watching as the pickup drove off somewhere. Possibly Saudi Arabia.
Built by the Portuguese
in the 16th century, the fort looked fairly well kept and large. There were a few other people wandering around too, all of them Westerners, all looking at the walls and battlements. One turret resembled a phallus, and so I snapped off a photo, and around the other side of the fort we could see the skyscrapers of Manama, as well as the forest of cranes that grew around them. The Arabian Gulf provided a gorgeous layer of blue to the side and I could now understand why Bahrain Fort was one of the best places in Manama to watch the sunset. After traversing the fort and wandering some of the alleyways within we'd had enough. It was time to see if our pick up was waiting to pick us up.
Incredibly it was; the driver booming a hearty hello to us. Soon we were back at the hotel packing our things. It was time to leave Bahrain. On the drive to the airport, we mulled on our experience in this most tiny of Gulf States. Angela managed to sum it up quite nicely. If neither of us had ever been to the Middle East before, then Bahrain would
Turned around for effect!
have probably wowed us. Even at the end of December, the weather was simply perfect, warm and sunny with just a light breeze. Also, everything was easy and safe, and quite nice looking. The skyscrapers looked dazzling, especially at night when they lit up the sky with a neon lightshow. But there was the problem; we had already been to the Middle East and in fact now actually lived there, so therefore Bahrain didn't offer anything vastly different from what we already knew. We arrived at the airport glad we had been to Bahrain but knowing that we probably wouldn't go back. Strengths:
-The fantastic Bahrain World Trade Centre skyscraper.
-Clean and safe
-The old dhow yard Weaknesses:
-Not much to actually see.
-Taxis waiting to rip you off
-Excessive cost of alcohol
-Large amounts of building work
-A bit boring if truth be told.
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