Bahrain: A small but fascinating country
Years ago I flew to Bahrain from my birthplace in Aden, where I was still living at the time, while both countries were ruled by the British government. Aden was a crown colony under the Taj while Bahrain was a protectorate under some old treaties just like other Arab sheikhdoms that were too poor and weak to fend for themselves. They were content to be protected as long as they were left alone.
At that time the British Overseas Airways Corporation — which later became British Airways — established a small but efficient airline called Aden Airways that served as a link between Aden, Somalia, Bahrain, Kuwait and East African countries such as Kenya, the present Tanzania, and Zanzibar then ruled by the Sultan of Oman, whose ancestors had conquered and occupied the island for many years.
Although the planes were small, largely DC-3 aircraft, the distances were not too long even between Aden and Cairo. Shortly afterwards the airline bought DC-6 aircraft. I remember well the luxury of the new aircraft, which were bigger and served food. The food was cooked in Aden so it had a distinct Adeni flavor that was originally a copy of Indian food complete with curry and masala.
The visit to Bahrain, which was often compared with Aden, was disappointing although the country was greener. It was just as liberal as Aden with boys and girls schools, clubs and associations of mixed membership, movie houses, tennis courts, and even nightclubs run primarily for the British and European communities.
Arabic newspapers, followed by English weeklies, were first established in Aden by my father before they became dailies. Aden was more developed than Bahrain with a free international transit port, a fairly good airport and a diverse community of Arabs and Europeans, with Yemenis and Somalis forming the biggest worker communities in the country.
However, while Bahrain evolved into a modern city under the Khalifa family, which is still ruling it, Aden soon degenerated after independence from Britain when the Soviet-aligned Marxist party seized it after crushing other groups including those allied with President Nasser of Egypt.
The Suez Canal that had linked East and West via Aden closed down after the 1967 war in the Middle East and Aden was no longer of importance to anyone except as a base of doubtful value for the Soviet Union. At the same time, Bahrain leaped ahead and soon became a flourishing island of great promise. Its population grew rapidly and Saudi Arabia made the historic decision to build a bridge linking the two countries. Currently nearly 20 million people a year cross the bridge to Bahrain to shop and holiday for the weekends, and return home in their own cars with no need to fly as was the case in the past.
I traveled repeatedly to Bahrain in my years as editor of Arab News and then Malayalam News, which was distributed in Bahrain in the early morning hours to members of the huge south Indian community. It is now one of the most densely populated countries in the world with 1.35 million people on an area of 765 square kilometers. There is no place to expand in any direction. But its importance cannot be exaggerated because it is linked to Saudi Arabia, the largest economy in the region.
In fact, it was ruled by Iran until 1783. So when the British decided to hand back the island to its people in August 1971 the then Shah of Iran Reza Pahlavi threatened to seize it claiming that it was part of his country.
There were tense moments then and only the protective power of Britain prevented a war in the region. Iran then attacked and annexed three little islands in the Gulf that are still under its control. Britain allowed the annexation that at present constitutes a vexing problem between the Gulf nations and Iran, although neither side appears anxious to go to war over them.
Perhaps now that there is a moderate government in Tehran following the exit of the former regime led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who antagonized all Iran’s neighbors, it may be possible to expect some peaceful settlement.
In my first few trips, I stayed at the five-star Sheraton hotel at a reasonable rate. Like all hotels, it was close to the airport and took only 15 minutes either way. I later moved to the Gulf Hotel, which was rated higher but cost a little more because it belonged to the national airline, Gulf Air, a government-run entity.
It had better food I thought because of its greater variety including Lebanese and Indian dishes, and the excellent 24-hour buffet and coffee shop common to all big hotels on the island. Over the past year, more modern and cheaper hotels have sprung up.
Traveling by car to Bahrain is easier and cheaper across the bridge, compared to the high cost of traveling by air to other countries including the UAE and Qatar. The latter has opened up with amazing gusto and is trying to compete with Dubai in many ways since the change of leadership.
This year its ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, surprised everyone by handing over the helm to his young son Tamim, who is one of the tallest royals in the Gulf.
Bahrain had previously made headlines for all the wrong reasons, largely due to the flagrant interference from the former Iranian president. However, with increasing rapport between the new Iranian leadership and Western governments that support Bahrain, and would not tolerate either aggression or interference, there is hope that peace will prevail and the country can grow its tourism industry and economy.
• Farouk Luqman is an eminent journalist based in Jeddah