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Fri 3 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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Coming of age: Bahrain

The Gulf's smallest country has been quietly coming out of its sleep and it could be about to surprise the world.

Coming of age: Bahrain
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Coming of age: Bahrain
Al Fateh Mosque by night.
Coming of age: Bahrain
Central Manama.
Coming of age: Bahrain
House of Sheikh Isa Bin Ali with wind tower in Muharraq, Bahrain.
Coming of age: Bahrain
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Coming of age: Bahrain
The Bahrain Ritz-Carlton Hotel offers world-class amenities including the famous Plums restaurant.
Coming of age: Bahrain
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Coming of age: Bahrain
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Coming of age: Bahrain
Typical Bahrain mosque.
Coming of age: Bahrain
The famous Formula One Grand Prix in Manama.
Coming of age: Bahrain
A Bahraini man stands with falcon.
Coming of age: Bahrain
Bahraini fans attend an international football match.
Coming of age: Bahrain
Bahraini sports star Ruqaya Al Ghasara.
Coming of age: Bahrain
Rashid Ramzi wins gold for Bahrain in the mens 2008 Olympics 1500 metre race.
Coming of age: Bahrain
Traditional Bahraini house.

The Gulf's smallest country has been quietly coming out of its sleep. And just like its Dubai neighbour, the kingdom is billing itself as a financial hub, a construction giant and a high-end events capital. We examine how Bahrain may surprise the world.

When Nancy Ajram, one the best-loved Arab singers was scheduled to perform in Bahrain in 2003 all hell broke loose: opposition MPs called upon Parliament to ban her from presenting her ‘lewd' acts; hard-line Islamists took to the streets, burning tyres and pelting stones at concert-goers.

It seems that Bahrain in 2003 wasn't quite ready for Ajram's brand of innocent sexuality and belly-button-revealing outfits. But less than three years later, and Nancy Ajram is welcomed back with open arms, performing to great acclaim at the Hotel Al Khalij.

Airport transfer times, a key factor for time-poor business people who might only be in the country for 24 hours, are refreshingly short.

All the Gulf countries are undergoing rapid change, but perhaps none more so than Bahrain. The Nancy Ajram story is an excellent illustration of the broader shift in Bahraini culture, values and attitudes towards foreigners and indeed their own self-identity.

The Kingdom of Bahrain has always been considered the most liberal of the GCC countries, but only now does it seem to be truly comfortable with this status.

In the past, this has led to internal tensions between Islamist hard-liners and the more Western-orientated modernisers. But the very existence of this tension and the fact that it can be voiced through fairly democratic channels, can, in itself, be seen as a positive sign.

Bahrain has one of the most inclusive political systems in the Gulf, with the highest number of women in positions in government and a broad range of political parties, ranging from Al-Minbar Al-Islami (Islamic Platform) Society, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, to the Democratic Society, Bahrain's former communist party.While there are plenty of factors that make Bahrain unique, the comparisons with neighbouring countries abound, not least with the UAE and Dubai.

‘Bahrain is like Dubai 15 years ago' is a phrase you will often hear - everyone on this small island is keen to point out the great promise the country holds for the future.

Just like Dubai, Bahrain is a major finance hub, billing itself as the main financial centre between London and Tokyo. And just like in Dubai, development of the finance sector is accompanied by a boom in construction.

There are many who say that 'Bahrain looks like Dubai 15 years ago', but there are many who respond 'but it won't take 15 years for Bahrain to overtake Dubai.

Standing as testimony to the inextricable link between these two sectors is the Bahrain Financial Harbour, a $3bn integrated financial community development being built on 380,000 sq m of reclaimed land adjacent to Manama's existing commercial sector.

Phase I, the Financial Centre, which includes a shopping mall and Bahrain's tallest towers, is operational and open for business. Non-Bahrainis can buy properties on the development and will be entitled to residence permits for as long as they retain ownership.

The Financial Harbour is already a landmark in the Bahraini skyline, with its high-rise buildings visible from vantage points across the country.

If the penthouse of a 50-storey building doesn't seem family-friendly enough for you, then you might want to consider one of the 2000 villas being built over 13 man-made islands in Durrat Al Bahrain.

To reach Durrat from the capital Manama it is necessary to travel the entirety of the kingdom, from its northernmost point all the way to the extreme south - a journey that covers a grand total of 60 km and will take 35-40 minutes through a two-line highway linking it to Manama.

For those who are undecided between the giddy heights of high-rise living and the more relaxed pace of a seafront gated community, a stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain Hotel & Spa might be just the thing.

A mere 15 minutes drive from the airport, and boasting the serenity of its own private beaches, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel combines all the facilities of a traditional five-star city hotel, with the option of staying at one of its 23 luxuriously appointed beach-front villas.At a rate of $5390 per night, a villa is considerably more expensive than a room in the main hotel building (from $593 for a deluxe room to $1119 for a Club Level suite on the top floor).

But then again, at the villa you can slide open the glass doors of the master bedroom and walk straight on to the private sandy white beach - and you can't put a price tag on that.

Well, strictly speaking you probably could, since the private villa beach is man-made on reclaimed land (just as is the beach next to it, for The Ritz-Carlton Hotel guests, as well the projects on Bahrain Financial Harbour, Durrat Al Bahrain and nearly every other major construction in the country).

But it is clear that no expense has been spared in the construction and provision of facilities here, making it easy to believe "the story behind The Ritz-Carlton Villas", as the locals refer to it.

Each villa was built for one Arab League head of state, in the run-up to a summit meeting scheduled to take place in Bahrain in 2003. As it happens, the meeting did not take place as scheduled, but each one of the villas remains fit for a king, president or prime minister.

But while that particular international meeting might not have taken place, many others have - and the numbers are rapidly increasing. Bahrain, as a country, is now making a dramatic effort to establish itself as a destination for conferences, meetings and corporate events, and the case for its rising prominence is clear.

Airport transfer times, a key factor for time-poor business people who might only be in the country for 24 hours, are refreshingly short.

A relative lack of traffic, short distances and a small but user-friendly international airport all mean that it can take less than an hour between your time of landing and finding yourself sipping a cocktail by the pool.The facilities for the meeting themselves are on a par with good European standards, with all the technological requirements set in place against lavish Arabian backdrops.

And there is a wide choice for the all-important local visits and social events after meetings.

Sites of interest include the Al Fateh Grand Mosque (which houses a brand-new Islamic Centre for religious studies), the Khamis Mosque (believed to be one of the oldest mosques in the world, possibly dating back to as early as 692 AD) and Bahrain Fort, Qal'at Al-Bahrain, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which reveals seven layers of human occupation, the earliest dating from 2800 BC.

There are structures from different phases of the island's history, including the Dilmun, Assyrian and Portuguese eras.

More recently, the construction of the Bahrain International Circuit has established the country as the centre of motor sport in the Middle East, and there are plenty of options for team-bonding activities such as go-karting, quad-biking, or, for the ultimate in off-road thrills, riding desert dunes at a speed of 200 kmph in a Hummer.

And, to top it all, there is the nightlife in the capital Manama, with shisha bars and nightclubs attracting large numbers of weekend punters from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

As Bahrain establishes itself as a visitor-friendly destination for all kinds of travel purposes, the hospitality industry is rapidly expanding.

Banyan Tree, one of the most exclusive resorts worldwide, has recently opened its only venture in the Arab world in Al Areen, near the Bahrain International Circuit.

The next big names to open in Bahrain will be the Kempinski in 2009 followed by the Four Seasons in 2010.So does this spell bad news for the more established hotels and resorts? "Absolutely not," according to an upbeat Dilip Mukundan, director of sales and marketing at The Ritz-Carlton.

"Bahrain is competing against places like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and even Istanbul, especially as a business events destination. The presence of new hotels will enhance Bahrain's capability and put us in a stronger position to attract large-scale meetings and conferences," he says.

Here, we have conference halls for up to 1000 delegates, but we only have 245 rooms and 23 villas - we deliberately keep the numbers low to ensure guests have privacy and plenty of space in which to enjoy all our facilities.

"With other world-class hotels opening in Bahrain in the future, we will complement each others' facilities - the meetings themselves can all be held in one large venue, whilst there will be various hotels hosting the attendees overnight."

Bahrain, the smallest amongst all the Arab countries, is in a good position to hold large-scale, upmarket events: every April since 2004 it has been hosting the world's largest upmarket gathering, the Formula One Grand Prix.

This is, of course, the most glamorous, sophisticated and cosmopolitan of sports - but behind the scenes, the running of it is an enormous logistical enterprise.

That 7000 people visit the country over a period of three days in an area of 665 sq km is in itself an achievement - and that is without even thinking about the race itself.

And in the words of HH Sheikh Salman Bin Essa: "Bahrainis have always had a love of speed - horse-riding, falconry - and now motorsport."

So perhaps it is not all that surprising that this small country is changing at such an impressive pace. While there are many who say that ‘Bahrain looks like Dubai 15 years ago' there are many who respond - ‘it will certainly not take 15 years for Bahrain to overtake Dubai.'

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T A 11 years ago

V. interesting overview of Bahrain's development over the last couple of years. Particularly liked the point that it now seems more relaxed with its own liberal identity since 2003 - one of the problems before (as exemplified by the Ajram riot) was that Bahrain's liberalism seemed top down rather than something intrinsic. If a mixture of political reform and new found wealth are prompting a less fraught atmosphere that's great news.

Syed Faisal Abbas 11 years ago

I sincerely hope that Bahrain won't follow the Dubai model of hyper-growth that has turned Dubai into one of most expensive, congested and least livable cities in the world.

Chris Moore 11 years ago

Having lived in Bahrain from 1994 to 2002 and visiting often on business since then, I congratulate the Bahraini people in maintaining their identity while ebracing an open world and building a sustainable economy. It is a joy to arrive in Bahrain and be driven to my location by a Bahraini taxi driver and be checked into my hotel by Bahrainin staff etc. etc. etc. As a long term visitor I was proud to be part of the development happening in Bahrain, you should be proud to be the owners of it.

ABUSIDRA 11 years ago

Since all doors are opening for liberals, they find solace in a new, safe, evolving, happenning and cheap haven in Bahrain. Unfortunately they enjoy in this region, almost a tax free status, liberalism, pampering, leisure, respect which they don't find in their home countries & then suddenly they start groaning, moaning mostly out of usualism, wear and tear rather than real tears & issues.