Moving to Bahrain with the scary bits removed (or at least put in proportion) : the most succinct expat overview you'll ever find, from expert expat Kate Carey.
Moves to the Middle East can be nerve wracking. How strictly Muslim is the country? What can and can’t I do? The removal company’s list of prohibited items (no pork, no porn, no alcohol, no anti-Islamic literature, nothing related to Israel and so on) has you scouring your bookshelves and DVD collections in panic before you have even started to pack.
But even though ultra conservative Saudi Arabia is its nearest neighbour, Bahrain is one of the most liberal Gulf States. Women can drive and work; expat women do not have to cover their heads or wear abayas (floor length cloaks) though modest dress is advisable; pork and alcohol can easily be purchased; and many restaurants are licensed. Although there is a mosque on every corner, locals are not obliged to attend prayers (although many do) and other religions are openly practised. There are well established Anglican and Catholic churches and even a synagogue.
The tourist blurb may call it the ‘pearl of the Arabian Gulf’ but Bahrain is not a physically beautiful place. There is no spectacular desert scenery (most of the desert is crisscrossed by oil and gas pipelines) and no long, pristine, sandy beaches. While remnants of its past are there - the forts, the palaces, the suq - the Bahrain of old, when the north of the island was covered in palms and fishermen and pearl divers strolled from their houses to the sea, is long gone. In its place are the shiny skyscrapers of Manama, large highways, shopping malls, hotels and office blocks. The outskirts of Manama, particularly the local villages, can be very shabby and rundown.
With fewer Government handouts than in other Gulf states, the locals need to work and so office workers, taxi drivers and shop assistants are often Bahraini, which somehow makes the place more real. Some areas are very local but many wealthier Bahrainis have been educated in western schools and universities and live alongside expats, sending their kids to the international schools. It is easy to meet Bahrainis and they are generally friendly and enormously proud of their country and culture. Many expats have good Bahraini friends. Nearly everyone speaks English, so you will not need to learn Arabic unless you are really keen.
Bahrain is an archipelago of over 30 islands, most of which are uninhabited. Bridges and causeways link the three main islands (Bahrain Island, Muharraq and Sitra) and you can drive across the largest, Bahrain Island, in about half an hour, so it doesn’t take long to get orientated. The downside is you can get island fever. Most expats live on Bahrain Island, either in Manama or in Saar, Budaiya and Hamala to the west. More are moving onto Muharraq Island, where new beachside developments have sprung up on reclaimed land, and to a new development in Riffa next to the golf course.
There is a wide variety of accommodation, ranging from apartments, to stand-alone villas and gated compounds. Lots of expats work as real estate agents, so finding a native English speaker to help you out is easy. Bahrain Property World has listings of available properties (although they are by no means exhaustive) and the main English language newspaper, the Gulf Daily News, also has a good property section. Simply driving round looking for ‘to let’ signs can also reap benefits and if you are interested in a particular compound, befriend the gateman and ask him to let you know if something is coming up.
When you find a house, make sure you agree in advance with the landlord what work needs doing (check air conditioning in particular) as some landlords become unresponsive once you are settled and paying rent. Repainting and cleaning are the norm, but many tenants manage to negotiate new appliances, bathrooms, kitchens and curtains, so do not be afraid to ask.
Most cookers in older rental accommodation run on gas. Bahrain does not have mains gas so you need to order cylinders from one of the gas supply companies such as Bahrain Gas. You will need to buy the initial cylinders and thereafter need only pay for refills. Be sure to keep a spare. The water quality in Bahrain is improving but is still not great so everyone drinks bottled water. Again, you will need to sign up with a water delivery company to get water delivered to the door and you will need to buy a water cooler (available from all large supermarkets).
Setting up Household: Working, Driving, Organising, Banking
All employees need a work visa. All residents (including kids) require residence visas and ID cards (known as CPRs). If you intend to drive, you will also need a Bahraini driving licence. Trying to organise all this on your own can be both time consuming and frustrating. Most larger employers have a well connected ‘fixer’ who will whisk you from place to place, jump endless queues and make sure you manage to wade through the bureaucracy as smoothly as possible. Banking arrangements are relatively straightforward to set up, with most expats having accounts with either HSBC or Citibank. Online banking is available with each of these.
Internet and Phone
Staying connected with home is easy with generally good internet connections (though they can be slow at the weekend) and a choice of mobile phone providers and packages, though to sign up you will first need your CPR card. The national phone company, Batelco, provides landlines and mobiles. Generally they are pretty efficient.
Health and dental care are good but expensive if you have no health insurance. There are several large private hospitals and numerous dental clinics, so you will not have to head home for general medical care, though some prefer to return to their home countries for very specialist treatments. For those without insurance, the main public hospital is Salmaniya.
The medical care there is good but there are often long queues and waiting lists. Bear in mind also that men are not allowed in some parts of this hospital, such as the maternity wards. You can also find expats practising as chiropractors, naturopaths, physios and reflexologists as well as numerous Indian health centres offering alternative treatments and massage.
Most expats in Bahrain have some sort of domestic help, ranging from a fulltime live in maid to a cleaner who comes in a couple of times a week. Gardeners often come with the accommodation and will also wash your car for you. The best way to find domestic help is by word of mouth, although you may well find a string of potentials knocking on your door the day you move in or see an ad in the local supermarket. Make sure you get references if possible.
You may well have to sponsor a fulltime maid (take over her visa) although some do work on ‘free visas’ where they have a Bahraini sponsor who allows them to work elsewhere, but this is actually illegal. Some people use agencies to find a maid. The agency will send you a list of potential candidates and you then sponsor your chosen maid to come from her home country (usually India, Sri Lanka or the Philippines). Obviously this carries the risk that you will not have met her first. Most fulltime maids of expat families work six days a week (with Fridays off) and many do lots of cooking and babysitting as well as housework. Bahraini families tend to require their maids to work very long hours, often with no day off.
While the idea of domestic help (full or part time) may be new to you, two things to bear in mind are the lack of crèches and babysitting agencies in Bahrain, and the weather. As well as being hot and humid in summer (imagine standing in a steam room with a hot hairdryer blowing in your face), Bahrain is very dusty all year round and keeping your house clean is a daily grind. In spring and summer the shamal winds from Iraq bring sandstorms and, even with the windows closed, the whole house will soon be covered in dust thick enough to write your name in. The upside is glorious winters with mild days and lots of sunshine.
As in any new country, expats do experience initial frustrations. ‘Inshallah’ is usually the first Arabic word a newcomer learns (and comes to dread hearing). Literally meaning, ‘Let us hope’, it is used to excuse the tardiness, non-arrival or non-performance of anything and everything. Will my electricity be connected today? Inshallah. Will my car be ready today? Inshallah. Maybe it is the heat, but Bahrainis do not like to hurry.
Traffic and Driving
Unless, that is, they are behind the wheel of a car. The driving is awful and at times downright dangerous. Illegal manoeuvres and accidents are commonplace and seatbelts rarely worn by locals. It is not uncommon to see kids lying on dashboards or with their heads stuck out of sunshine roofs while their parents hurtle at 120km per hour down the motorway.
On the plus side, petrol is incredibly cheap, being heavily subsidised, so the 4X4 bought for safety reasons will not cost much to fill up. Most large car companies have dealerships here and there are also plenty of second hand car dealers. Many decide to hire a car, rather than buy, especially if they are on a relatively short contract and all the major car hire companies are also represented. As with houses, make sure the air conditioning in the car works well.
If you do not want to drive, employing a driver or taking taxis are the best alternatives. There is a limited bus service, but the buses are ancient and erratic and not used by western expats and there is no other form of public transport. Private companies do operate bus services to the schools and you will need to arrange this with them directly.
Clubs and Friends
As well as being geographically small, Bahrain’s western expat community is also small and you will soon find yourself running into people you know all over the place. Expat clubs are a good place to meet people and most are members of at least one, the British Club, the Dilmun Club, the Yacht Club and the Rugby Club being the most popular. Some of the large hotels, such as the Ritz, have beach clubs. The American Women’s Association is very active, running all sorts of events.
Tennis, golf and horse riding are popular; there are book clubs and language schools and classes in everything from pilates to pottery. FAB has listings of clubs and societies. Mums may also want to check out Mums in Bahrain for lots of info on things to do with kids. There are also volunteering opportunities aplenty with organisations set up to help both poorer Bahrainis and the enormous expat community from the sub-continent, brought in to work on construction sites or in local companies.
Food shopping in Bahrain is easy. A whole range of supermarkets, from Waitrose to Carrefour, will pretty much cater for all your needs, including pork, which you buy from the special pork sections in the larger shops.
Specialist Asian supermarkets cater to the large Asian expat community, local bakeries make delicious Arabic flatbread and the ubiquitous cold stores (corner shops) have an amazing supply of goodies. If you cannot see what you want, ask, and they can inevitably produce it from under the counter somewhere. Most will also deliver small items to your house if you call them – handy if you have forgotten that pint of milk.
Supply problems sometimes arise, with certain items suddenly not being available for weeks on end and reasonably priced organic products are few and far between, particularly organic meat. You can buy alcohol from special outlets, whose number is diminishing as local MPs continue to resist its sale. Online purchasing is available for alcohol but not for groceries and nearly all shops take debit and credit cards.
The large malls offer a familiar range of western clothes stores, sports shops and media shops. For a more authentic shopping experience, you can head to the suq. Remember to dress appropriately and prepare to be hassled into buying several mosque alarm clocks and a herd of singing camels. Most expats only head down occasionally, but it is an excellent place to have jewellery made or mended or to buy fabric. It is also worth checking out the pottery at A’Ali for special Bahraini pots and lamps and keeping an eye on the active local art scene.
Bahrain has a host of excellent restaurants catering not only to residents but also to the large influx of weekenders from the more conservative Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar. Unusually for the Gulf, many of the better restaurants are licensed and are not in hotels. The Block 338 area of Adliya is home to many of the best restaurants, ranging from upmarket Italian, to Asian fusion to steak houses.
Touring and Recreation
While it does have tourist attractions (waterparks, an excellent museum and heritage areas) Bahrain is small and, finances permitting, you will probably want to explore further afield in the region. Popular weekend destinations include Dubai, Oman and Abu Dhabi, while India, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Jordan, Greece and Cyprus are all only a few hours flight away.
The Arab Spring of 2010/2011 affected Bahrain more than other Gulf countries with a civil uprising in February and March 2011 culminating in the government calling on Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to send troops to help quell the unrest. Many in the Shia majority population feel discriminated against and no longer wish to be ruled by a Sunni Royal family. Bahrain does have a parliament but it has limited authority, with the real power resting with the Shura council (whose members are appointed by the King) and the Royal family.
Protests were not directed at western expats (although some expats from the sub-continent were attacked) but day-to-day life became very uncomfortable for a while and many companies decided to evacuate employees and their families. Schools were closed for a period.
Since then, protests have been on going in the local Shia villages with nightly incursions between riot police and protesters, and some larger protests have taken place. Tensions are still high and the National Dialogue between the government and various interest groups last year have not succeeded in alleviating the problems.
For the most part, expats can continue their daily life as normal, avoiding those areas where protests are likely. Traffic is sometimes impeded if protesters block roads – blockades of burning tyres and industrial waste bins are favourite methods – and those living close to the Shia villages can be affected by the large amounts of tear gas being used by the police.
Bahrain’s economy has undoubtedly been badly affected by the troubles. Some Bahraini schools and places of work have become split along Sunni and Shia lines and this descent into sectarianism is what has upset many Bahrainis the most. Expats have also become more careful about what they say about the political situation and to whom.
Despite being one of the easiest Middle Eastern countries to live in, don't be surprised if you suffer some culture shock after the excitement of the first few weeks has worn off ; the heat, the dust and the 'Inshallah' culture can wear down the hardiest of newcomers. From experience, the easiest way to overcome this is to kick back and learn to do things at Bahrain pace - it will make life much less stressful! Above all, enjoy the outdoor lifestyle (another weekend, another pool party) and the very friendly and active social scene. As one friend put it: 'it's the people who make this place special.'