By Christian J. Lynch
The Kingdom of Bahrain is a small archipelago of 33 islands, with the largest being Bahrain Island, but contains cultural and professional opportunities abound. One can begin the day test-driving a Formula One race car at the Bahrain International Circuit, followed by lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant, and end the day with a leisurely stroll through the old Manama Souq. These activities are just a few of the many reasons that InterNations and HSBC routinely rank the Kingdom of Bahrain as one of the best expatriate destinations to live and work.
Situated in the Arabian Gulf region, Bahrain—which means “two seas” in Arabic—is three and a half times larger than Washington, D.C. Although an island, Bahrain is connected to the Eastern Province of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by a 16-mile-long bridge known as the King Fahd Causeway. The population of Bahrain is approximately 1.6 million inhabitants with 45 percent of the population being from Bahrain. The remaining population are expatriates living and working in Bahrain.
Bahrain has been a key location for trade in the region for centuries. The Dilmun polity made Bahrain a center of its commercial activities from the late fourth millennium to 800 B.C., and remnants of that civilization remain today.
Diplomatic relations between the United States and Bahrain officially began with the island nation’s independence in 1971. But the American and Bahraini people have enjoyed a close working relationship since the late 1800s when American missionary Samuel Zwemer and his wife Amy, a trained nurse, arrived in Bahrain and established a medical dispensary in the Manama Souq. Their clinic assisted in the eradication of smallpox and the bubonic plague, which both wreaked havoc on the island in 1903. Americans were instrumental in working with the Bahraini people on the development of the island’s oil sector. The Bahrain Petroleum Company was established in 1929 by the Standard Oil Company of California, and American engineers were sent to help set up the oil infrastructure and initiate oil exploration. In 1932, this effort paid dividends as Bahrain was the first Arab country in the Gulf region in which oil was discovered. In 1934, Bahrain exported its first crude oil shipment and later built a refinery with the support of American engineers and companies. This support continues to this day, and the United States remains a valued partner as Bahrain explores and develops new oil wells.
Bahrain is a major U.S. non-NATO ally and shares a long and enduring security partnership with the United States. Today, the U.S. Navy’s Naval Support Activity in Bahrain hosts more than 8,500 military personnel and their families living on the island. This relationship started in 1948 with a small presence in the Juffair area of Bahrain after World War II. Following Bahrain’s independence in 1971, the U.S. Navy moved to a 10-acre site in Juffair, where it has remained ever since. Security cooperation between the Department of Defense and the Bahrain Defense Force is strong, and both cooperate to support peace and stability in the region.
The U.S. Embassy has deepened bilateral cultural, economic, and security ties with the government of Bahrain, which is a strong partner in promoting the U.S. goal of achieving religious freedom and tolerance around the world. Bahrain was the first Arab country to appoint a Jewish ambassador, and in 2008, former Bahraini parliamentarian Houda Nonoo was appointed Bahrain’s ambassador to the United States. Islam is the official religion of the Kingdom of Bahrain, and the government of Bahrain recognizes more than 19 non-Muslim religious groups. In the Manama Souq, one can find one of the oldest Hindu Temples in the Gulf region as well as a synagogue, a Christian church, and a mosque within walking distance of each other.
Encouraging people-to-people exchanges and trade between the U.S. and Bahrain is a key priority for the Mission. Public diplomacy plays an integral role in promoting the security partnership and commercial relations, and it goes beyond this to build the people-to-people ties on which the U.S.-Bahrain relationship is firmly based. The Bahrain Embassy’s Public Affairs Section (PAS) runs a robust educational exchange program, including the flagship Fulbright Visiting Student Program, which was established in Bahrain in 1996 and witnessed a 90 percent increase in applications this year alone.
Recognizing the value of a U.S. education, the Crown Prince of Bahrain established an international scholarship program in 1999. This merit-based initiative supports 65 talented Bahraini students annually, many of whom choose to pursue their education—ranging from high school to Ph.D.—in the United States. PAS Bahrain hosts a Regional English Language Officer, which spearheads the English Access Microscholarship Program in the country, where more than 50 economically disadvantaged students, ages 13–20, receive a foundation in English language skills every year. There are multiple current university partnerships in Bahrain and the embassy is working to build even more linkages between American and Bahraini universities to encourage study in the U.S. or to provide access to, through partnerships with Bahrani institutions, degree programs from top U.S. universities. The Consular Section is also working with local schools to encourage more Bahrainis to attend U.S. universities.
PAS also hosts a comprehensive schedule of cultural programs that develop ties with the Bahraini people. Many of these programs directly support the development of civil society, through support to local NGOs working to advance women’s rights, advocating for greater political engagement, encouraging the growth of entrepreneurship across all sectors of society, and focusing efforts on youth through initiatives countering violent extremism. On trade, the U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement (FTA) went into effect in 2006 and has helped to generate export opportunities for U.S. companies in Bahrain and in the U.S. As a result of the FTA, bilateral trade increased from $783 million in 2005 to $3 billion in 2018. U.S. support is helping Bahrain to transition to a digital economy, including through the July 2019 launch of Amazon Web Services’ regional hub in Bahrain and several Bahraini government efforts aimed at modernizing the regulatory framework to support a business-friendly climate for investors.
On the political stage, Bahrain is a key partner in promoting peace and security in the Middle East. Manama hosts the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Middle East, which convenes the region’s premier security forum, Manama Dialogue. The 2019 edition of the Manama Dialogue welcomed more than 52 countries, including a large interagency U.S. delegation, that debated pressing and topical foreign policy challenges ranging from conflict in Libya, Yemen, and Syria to regional relations among the Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran. The embassy’s combined Political and Economic Section robustly supports a steady stream of Washington D.C. visitors throughout the year and is engaged in the broad array of commercial advocacy and activities to promote democracy, human rights, and transparent governance.
As host of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is supportive of U.S. efforts to safeguard trade and the unimpeded flow of oil in the Gulf region. In June 2019, the government of Bahrain co-hosted the economic portion of the White House’s Middle East Peace Plan through the Peace to Prosperity Workshop, which underscored Bahrain’s commitment to U.S. peace initiatives. Because of this strong bilateral partnership, Embassy Manama sees a steady stream of cabinet-level visitors, congressional delegations, and senior U.S. administration officials.
As Ambassador Justin Siberell said at a recent offsite, “The U.S.-Bahrain partnership can be coined by the phrase ‘shared security, shared values, and shared prosperity.’”
Embassy Manama is a medium-sized post with more than 70 U.S. direct hires, 105 Locally Employed (LE) staff, and more than 150 eligible family members (EFMs). Bahrainis make up 40 percent of the LE community at post, with the remainder coming from various countries in the Middle East and Asia. The diversity of the Mission is reflective of the diversity in Bahrain. This helps to encourage a robust series of cultural activities organized by the Community Liaison Officer (CLO) throughout the year. The CLO organizes a Mission-wide Iftar during the month of Ramadan, a Bahraini National Day Celebration, and an International Potluck. The embassy has an active group of first and second tour officers, and Siberell and Deputy Chief of Mission Maggie Nardi are both committed to mentoring the next leaders of the Foreign Service.
Outside of the office, there are several cultural and social activities that keep Mission personnel busy both indoors and outdoors. In addition to an annual ironman event and other competitions that take place throughout the year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosts volleyball and table tennis tournaments each year during Bahraini Sports Day for diplomatic missions. The U.S. Embassy has won the competition two years in a row.
Culturally, Bahrain is where East meets West. Muharraq was the former capital of Bahrain and was a key location in the region for the Pearl Trade. Today, residents enjoy walking the Pearl Trail, which snakes through the old alleyways of Muharraq and recreates Bahrain’s pearling history. The Al Qaisariya Souq, which is part of the walk, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bahrain also has several forts that are popular with residents and visitors. The most famous is the Bahrain Fort located on the north side of Manama. The fort was built in 2300 B.C. and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Although it is not as famous, the Riffa Fort, located in central Bahrain, is the most picturesque, with a café that overlooks a large valley. Another UNESCO World Heritage site is the Dilmun Burial Mounds. In the second millennium, the Dilmun Civilization built thousands of large stone mounds to bury their dead, many of which remain untouched until recently.
The desert plays a central role in the lives of Bahrainis and expatriates. As the weather gets cooler in November, desert camping becomes the almost everyone’s preferred weekend activity. From November to April, campsites and campers overtake the Bahraini desert. Restaurants and small cafes spring up there to cater to the thousands of people who visit it during the weekend. One of the most popular Mission events is the annual desert camping trip. All personnel enjoy spending the afternoon riding dune buggies and visiting Bahrain’s most famous tourist attraction called “The Tree of Life.” The tree is more than 400 years old and stands on a hill in the barren desert.
The quality of life and education in Manama is the best in the region according to InterNations and HSBC surveys. Mission employees live in stand-alone houses in compounds with shared amenities like a gym and pool or in brand new modern apartments close to restaurants and shopping areas. There is no Department of State assisted school in Bahrain, but families have a wide variety of schools and curriculums from which to choose, including the Department of Defense Bahrain School, Riffa Views, the British School of Bahrain, and St. Christopher’s. The first two follow an American curriculum and the latter two use the British National curriculum. Bahrain also has a school that educates children with moderate to severe learning difficulties. There is even a bilateral work agreement for EFMs seeking employment outside of the Embassy.
Bahrain is truly the pearl of the Gulf and offers something for everyone. The history and bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Bahraini governments and people is one of the strongest of any country in the region. The quality of life is excellent and the Mission community is welcoming—itself a reflection of the Bahraini people and culture.
Christian J. Lynch is the management counselor at Embassy Manama.