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Under the Microscope: Bahrain

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

By Sven Stumbauer

Photo by Charles-Adrien Fournier on Unsplash

The story of megalopoli such as Tokyo or Dubai turning from relatively small cities to now harboring some of the most cutting-edge innovations and attracting tourists en masse is truly inspiring and serves as a reminder that every great thing on any scale starts from humble beginnings.


However, one nation within the Middle East has managed to achieve all these feats while still managing to fly under the radar, and that nation is Bahrain. Situated on the Persian Gulf as an island nation, possessing 50 natural islands and 33 artificial ones, Bahrain is in an incredibly unique situation amongst Middle Eastern nations in terms of physical geography. In addition to that, the nation has managed to seek new ideas of self improvement in tandem with other Middle Eastern nations such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar while being a small fraction of their size. Despite its size and recent advancements, Bahrain remains a treasure trove of history and ancient practices that still persist to some degree thousands of years later. All these and more will be discussed within this edition of Under the Microscope.


History

Over the course of Bahrain’s history, the nation was the site of many ancient empires and civilizations. During the Bronze Age, Bahrain was part of Dilmun, a trade center that linked the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia. The nation was later turned into the territory of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires and then the Achaemenids at around 550 BC. Much like the rest of the known world, Bahrain became a target of widespread Hellenization where Greek traditions and practices such as the use of their language became prevalent amongst the nation’s aristocracy. The Greek and Hellenistic era within Bahrain officially came to its conclusion when the ruler of the Sassanid Dynasty, Ardashir I, marched upon the island nation and defeated the then-ruler of the nation, Sanatruq.


The religion of Islam ended up finding its way up the Arabian Peninsula to Bahrain when Mohammed ordered a surprise attack on the Banu Salim tribe due to them plotting to attack the city of Mecca. When Mohammed found out that they were building up their forces on the island of Bahrain, Mohammed conducted a surprise attack known as the Al Kudr Invasion, sowing the initial seeds for Islam on the tiny island nation. This was later capitalized on when Al-Ala’a Al Hadrami was sent as an Islamic envoy to Bahrain, and managed to get the ruler at the time, Munzir ibn Sawa Al Tamimi, to support his cause and later on, convert the entirety of the country.


The Middle Ages saw Bahrain once again switch ruling empires and factions in an incredibly quick fashion. In 899, the Qarmatians, an extremist Islamic group, took over the nation and were then overthrown by the Uyunid Dynasty in 1076. The island nation was then under control of the Bedouin Usurfid dynasty that seized control of eastern Arabia and were subsequently replaced by another Bedouin dynasty known as the Jabrids during the mid 15th century. During the 1500s, the Portuguese ruler at the time seized control of Bahrain for about 80 years when Persian-based ruling parties once again usurped power.


Rule remained fairly stable for the 17th and 18th centuries until the nation was invaded by the Omanis and the Al Sauds with the Al Khalifa tribe maintaining control over national affairs. This success was short-lived however, as due to carefully crafted British agreements with the tribe in 1860, 1880, and 1892, the nation inadvertently wound up as a British protectorate and was directly under their thumb for decades to follow. This period of colonial rule ultimately came to an end as on the back of anti British protests across the Middle East, a UN referendum in 1971 led to Bahraini independence and a friendship pact with their previous colonizer, the United Kingdom.


The late 20th and early 21st centuries were highlighted by clashes between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims across the country, the establishment of the nation as the Middle East’s economic hub after the damage caused to Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, and the crackdowns of anti-government dissenters who identify as Shi’a fighting against the Sunni dominated ruling body that continue to persist to this day.


Politics

The nation of Bahrain is a semi-constitutional monarchy and is headed by the king, Shaikh Hama bin Isa Al Khalifa who possesses a wide variety of executive powers such as commanding the armed forces, appointing parliament’s upper house, and being able to dissolve its lower house, while also being able to appoint the prime minister among other ministers to oversee domestic affairs. The parliament of Bahrain is called the National Assembly and is made up of the Shura Council, appointed by the king, and the Council of Representatives who are elected by majority vote in single member constituencies of the nation and serve four year terms.


Economics

As for the economic side of the country, the nation boasts immense amounts of success and remaining room to grow. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia reported that Bahrain is the Middle East’s fastest-growing economy while also being the 12th freest economy in the world according to the Index of Economic Freedom.


Similar to other countries in the region, Bahrain has petroleum and fuel sources as its main export while also reaping the benefits of banking and financial services due to the regional and worldwide demand for oil skyrocketing. However, Bahrain has its eyes on the future, as demonstrated by their ‘Vision 2030’ plan, which intends to diversify the economy and reduce financial dependency from other countries in the region and across the world. Despite this plan, however, Bahrain still needs to import the majority of its food to feed its growing population, most notably illustrated by its heavy reliance on meat and fruit imports from Australia, satisfying around three fourths of all national demand.


On top of financial sectors such as oil and banking, Bahrain also rakes in profits from nationwide tourism. While most of its 11 million annual tourists come from surrounding countries, the small nation has made an international name for itself due to the ever-rising relevance of the Bahrain Grand Prix. In addition to that, Bahrain also boasts a variety of mosques, ancient burial grounds, and forts that are available for public viewing and visitation. Aside from sites however, Bahrain also actively promotes activities such as bird watching, scuba diving, and horseback riding which are incredibly popular among tourists. While ensuring its financial success and stability with the tourism industry, Bahrain recently announced a revolutionary undertaking, where it launched an underwater theme park called Dive Bahrain, that spans 100,000 square meters while incorporating a sunken Boeing 747 as an artificial reef as its centerpiece. This example and many more highlight the ingenuity of the nation of Bahrain and shows that despite reaching incredible heights, there is still a long way to go in order to reach the top.



Preserving the Past and Championing the Future

Over the course of the nation’s endeavors to modernize its economy and infrastructure, Bahrain has made sure to focus on its customs while at the same time, facilitating even further technological and social growth. Despite tourism playing a massive part in keeping these customs alive, the arts of falconry, camel riding and hunting are enjoyed heavily by Bahraini citizens in tandem with rising sports such as soccer, cricket, and even MMA, which made landfall in Bahrain in 2017.


Aside from sports and recreation, Bahrain also preserves its historical sites across the country. Forts such as the Qalat Al Bahrain and Arad are conserved incredibly well with the former attraction being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to that, the Beit Al Quran, Al Khamis Mosque, and Barbar Temple all pay homage to the nation’s muslim roots along with the Barbar temple being a place of worship for the ancient Dilmunite people. Simultaneously, Bahrain has also been accepting and welcoming change in various ways. From their adoption of sports such as cycling and Formula One racing in the late 2010s to implementing “The King Hamad Schools of Future” plan, which seeks to ensure that all K-12 education within the country is facilitated by the use of the internet, the nation is finding any way to streamline their tourist industry while ensuring a prosperous future for their youth.


As a result, Bahrain is the closest thing in the Middle East to a nation so modern yet rooted in ancient ideals, beliefs, and customs. Where children ride horses and train falcons and go to a heavily advanced classroom with all types of technology to facilitate the learning process just a few hours later or earlier speaks volumes and sets Bahrain as a prime example of a perfect harmony between modern and ancient.



To Sum It Up

In conclusion, the nation of Bahrain is a melting pot of both modernity and antiquity. From Islamic traditions, forts, and customs that persist amongst underwater theme parks and sunken Boeing 747s, the nation remains at the forefront of innovation and preservation. From its bustling economy that is poised to keep on growing over the coming years to the monarchy that champions the future of its nation, Bahrain also harbors open-minded political figures while at the same time, ensuring economic prosperity. Moreover, the nation’s rich history as a crossroad for several ancient and even modern empires also signifies a diverse set of traditions and beliefs that have permeated through the nation for millennia. As a result, despite being incredibly small compared to other bustling economies in the Middle East and the world, the nation of Bahrain remains the prime example of striving forward, while still maintaining and incorporating one’s rich and plentiful past.

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