The Kingdom of Bahrain is a Middle East island country situated in the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with Iran lying 124 nautical miles to the north. Bahrain is made up of an archipelago of 33 islands which are mostly desert. The capital Manama lies on Bahrain Island, the most densely populated area, with over two thirds of Bahrain’s 1.3 million people residing there. Following over a hundred years as a British Protectorate country, Bahrain officially claimed independence in 1971. It is estimated that over half of the country’s residents are non-Bahraini, mainly coming from other Arab nations and Southern Asia.
Bahrain is a Muslim country which has been ruled by the Khalifa family since 1783, with a bi-cameral legislature made up of a Chamber of Deputies elected by the people and a Shura Council appointed by the King. The cultural, religious and political divide between the ruling Sunni minority and the majority Shia population has led to long-running tension in the region, which has erupted in violent protests in recent years. Bahrain was one of the first Middle East nations to discover oil in the area and build a refinery. However, oil production has never reached the same heights as that of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain’s economy has had to diversify into other areas such as banking, finance and tourism.
Bahrain’s culture shares many similarities with those of its Arab neighbours in the Gulf region. Islamic rules govern the country’s cultural, economic and political life and those from western nations may initially find Bahrain highly conservative. However, Bahrain is regarded as relatively liberal and cosmopolitan compared with its near neighbours of Iran and Saudi Arabia, indeed its culture has been described as ‘Middle East lite’ with less restrictions on women’s rights and tolerance of other religions. Bahrainis are known to be friendly and welcoming towards expats and have a relaxed attitude towards other cultures.
Bahrain is a small country with a wide range of things to do. Popular pastimes include shopping -either at the country’s large air-conditioned malls or in the colourful souks (markets) – or soaking up the sun on one of Bahrain’s beautiful beaches. Football is the most popular sport along with horse-racing and the more traditional sports of gazelle and hare hunting, usually reserved for wealthier Bahrainis. The Bahrain F1 Grand Prix held at the Bahrain International Circuit is also religiously followed by residents. Bahrain also has a number of important archaeological sites which are open to tourists, such as the The A’ali Burial Mounds thought to be the largest prehistoric cemetery in the world.
Food and Drink
Bahraini cuisine comprises a medley of flavours influenced by its non-national population from Iran, Lebanon, India and Saudi Arabia as well as the recent incorporation of many western cuisines. Traditional Bahraini dishes include machboos, (a dish of rice and meat) and ouzi (grilled lamb served with rice, eggs, onions, spices and mixed nuts). Flat breads, hummus and tabbouleh (a type of salad made with bulgur, tomatoes, lemon and garlic) are also Bahraini staples. In accordance with Muslim beliefs, meat is halal and pork is strictly avoided, although visitors will find pork products in cordoned off sections in some supermarkets. The end of Ramadan is celebrated by festival of Eis el-Fitr where Bahrainis eat dishes consisting of meat and fish with grains and vegetables, sweet pastries and sago.
Coffee is by far the most popular drink in Bahrain, followed by tea, soft drinks and fruit juices and smoothies. As a Muslim country, alcohol is not widely available in Bahrain and is mainly found in hotels catering to foreign visitors.
Arabic is the official language of Bahrain and is spoken by around half of the population. Among the non-Bahraini population many people speak Urdu, the official language of Pakistan and Farsi, the official language of Iran. However, Arabic – spoken by over 200 million people around the world – remains the most widely understood language in Bahrain. Bahrain’s role in international business and its considerable influx of western expats means that English is widely spoken and taught in many schools. Bahrainis speak a good level of English with two of the country’s newspapers – The Bahrain Tribune and the Gulf Daily News – written entirely in English.
Accents and Dialects
Bahraini Arabic is the most widely spoken dialect in some parts of Manama and within the Shia community. The dialect differs slightly to the Modern Standard Arabic used around the world. However, standard Arabic is taught in schools and used in all formal communication. Sunni Bahrainis speak a dialect which is most similar to the urban dialect spoken in Qatar. Many Bahraini words have also been borrowed from Turkish, Hindi and English and there are distinct differences in accent between urban and rural areas.
Bahrain’s climate features extremely hot and uncomfortable summers and mild winters. During the summer months (between April and October) temperatures can reach 50°C and expats not used to such extreme weather may find it difficult to venture far from air-conditioning. In winter (between November and March) temperatures are mild, generally hovering around 10 to 20°C. Bahrain sees very little rainfall (average 70mm per year) which usually comes in short, intense downpours lasting less than an hour. Powerful sunscreen and adequate clothing coverage is a must for visitors to Bahrain.
Safety and security
Bahrain has traditionally been a very safe destination for travellers and has low rates of crime. However, recent political unrest has caused problems in the Kingdom, meaning potential visitors should be aware of any upheaval prior to travelling. It is also important to be aware of strict laws surrounding sexual relationships, which are illegal outside of marriage. Alcohol consumption, although not illegal, is limited to hotels. Drunken behaviour in public is a punishable offence which can carry a hefty fine and prison sentence.
The education system in Bahrain is considered one of the best in the Persian Gulf. Bahrain was the first country in the region to instigate a public school system and also to admit female pupils to all levels of education. Education is free to all children in Bahrain and is compulsory from age 6 to age 14, when children take the Intermediate Education Certificate examination needed to continue on to secondary school. Upon completion of secondary education, students are awarded the Tawjihi which is necessary for entry into university. Bahrain’s Ministry of Education is responsible for all sectors of public education. The majority of non-Arab expat children attend one of the many private schools in Bahrain, which teach in English and a variety of other languages.
The academic year in Bahrain runs from September to June. Schools and universities are closed for the summer break in July and August. However, many private and international schools set their own academic calendar so it is a good idea to contact each school directly to find more information about their term dates.
Bahrain has 19 public and private universities and colleges, which are mainly situated in Manama. The leading universities are University of Bahrain, Arabian Gulf University and Ahlia University. Bahrain’s higher education sector consists of publicly-funded state universities and a number of private institutions such as AMA International University and the Medical University of Bahrain, which both cater for overseas students. Many degree programmes are taught in Arabic, however recognising the need for globalization in education, there is now a growing number of programmes taught in English, particularly in private international institutions. Many of Bahrain’s universities are segregated by gender, so men and women study in different classrooms and campuses. The Royal University for Women is Bahrain’s first private, international university dedicated solely to the education of women.
Bahrain’s private universities charge tuition fees and the amount depends on the rate set by each institution. However, fees are low in comparison to the UK, and international students can generally expect to pay around 2,500BHD (£3,900) per year for an undergraduate degree.
Bahrain offers a wide range of Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in both its public and private universities. International and business degrees (MBA) are particularly popular, with many courses being taught in English. An undergraduate degree generally takes around three to four years to complete and a Master’s takes around two to three years. Bahrain’s universities also have many links and exchange programmes with universities worldwide.
Research activities in Bahrain are strictly regulated by the government, however the country has a number of leading research universities, such as the University of Bahrain, which are committed to creating world-class research facilities. The Bahraini think tank DERASAT also promotes research activities in order to inform policy and support independent and innovative research practice.
Primary and Secondary Education
Basic education is free to all children in Bahrain and is compulsory from age six to 14. School attendance is high and the public school system is regarded as comprehensive and modern compared to other Arab nations. Children attend primary school from age six to 11, when they continue to Intermediate school. At age 14, students can opt to go to secondary school where they will complete qualifications needed to enter higher education. All public schools are segregated by gender in Bahrain.
Due to the difficulty in overcoming the language barrier and cultural differences in public schools, private schools represent the only schooling option for non-Arab expat children in Bahrain. The high number of English-speaking expats in Bahrain means that competition for private school places can be fierce, so it is a good idea to register your child as soon as you know you are moving there. There are around 30 private schools in Bahrain, dealing with most curriculums. These include British, American, Pakistani, Indian, French and Filipino. The most sought after schools are St Christopher’s and The British School for the UK curriculum, and Bahrain School and Ibn Khuldoon for American and International Baccalaureate curriculums. Fees range from 2,883 BHD (£5348) to 7,056 BHD (£13,089) per year.
The majority of pre-school education in Bahrain is provided by private, fee-paying nurseries. There is a wide variety of international nurseries and kindergartens for expat parents to choose from – more information can be found here.
The cost of living in Bahrain is comparable with other Gulf nations, with the exception of UAE – the most expensive of the Middle East countries. The general lack of taxation and high inflation have increasingly raised the price of goods and services in Bahrain so many expats will find the cost of living high compared to some western countries. However, the cost of living is entirely dependent on your lifestyle in Bahrain. The capital Manama is the priciest place to live, although expats transferring to Bahrain with their own companies generally command very high salaries and are able to live comfortably.
Non-nationals are not permitted to purchase property in Bahrain, so renting is the only option for expats. However, Bahrain has an impressive range of rental property, ranging from high-spec villas with pools to modern and spacious apartments. As with other wealthy Arab nations, there is almost continuous building work underway in Bahrain, where luxury apartment blocks seem to spring up at a break-neck speed.
Bahraini landlords are keen to rent to expats because they provide a steady income stream. Rental properties are concentrated in cities and urban areas (you will have great difficulty finding suitable accommodation in desert areas), and rents are higher in the more exclusive areas of Manama. Most foreign nationals tend to rent properties in compounds housing other non-natives, which usually have shared communal facilities such as swimming pools, lawns and gyms. The large presence of a number of multinationals in Bahrain means that most expats move to the region through their employer, who will arrange accommodation using a relocation agent. However, if you wish to go it alone, you can enlist the help of a letting agent such as Bahrain Property Rentals.
An expat living alone can expect to pay around 361BHD (£672) per month in Manama city centre and around 273BHD (£508) per month for a property in the suburbs. These figures can be as much as 25% higher if you require furnished accommodation.
A deposit of two to three month’s rent is usually required on signing a rental agreement in Bahrain. The deposit covers damage to the property and is refunded when the tenant leaves.
A municipal tax or local tax (baladiya) which covers refuse collection and road maintenance is paid by all those in rented property. This tax is usually calculated at around 10% of the annual rent and is either paid to the landlord or directly to the local authority.
Electricity and water is provided by the state-run Electricity and Water Authority (EWA). Monthly bills are usually paid to your landlord who will contact the EWA on your behalf. Houses are not supplied with gas so if you wish to cook with gas you will need to purchase cylinders through your landlord. Tap water is not safe to drink in Bahrain but you can pay to have bottled water delivered to your home.
In terms of internet access, Bahrain is one of the most-connected countries in the Middle East. Bear in mind that internet content is strictly monitored by the government. There is a range of telephone and broadband providers to choose from, such as the state-run Batelco and smaller companies such as Viva. Most expats opt for a satellite television package showing programmes from the UK and America.
The average cost of basic utilities (electricity, water, refuse) for an 85m² apartment in Bahrain is around 19.25 BHD (£35.86) per month. A telephone/broadband connection costs around 15BHD (£27.94) per month.
There is no TV licence fee in Bahrain. The country’s public service broadcaster, Bahrain Radio and Television Corporation (BRTC) is government owned and funded. Satellite and Pay-TV networks are hugely popular and expats will pay a higher price to receive programmes in their native language.
Healthcare and medical costs
Bahrain has a mixed public/private healthcare system offering a high standard of care with almost non-existent waiting times. The Bahraini government are keen for the country’s medical facilities to be on a par with Europe and America and have invested heavily in attracting the best healthcare professionals from overseas. However, many expats and Bahraini citizens look to other Gulf nations or the USA for more specialised treatment. The International Hospital of Bahrain, the Bahrain Specialist Hospital and the American Mission Hospital are considered to be the best hospitals in Bahrain.
Bahrain’s public health service is free or very low cost to both nationals and non-nationals. However, the majority of expats take out a private health insurance policy before moving to Bahrain, which is often provided by their employer.
Bahrain offers a wide choice of shopping, from large air-conditioned malls to the colourful souks (market) where bargain hunters can find artisan crafts and souvenirs, jewellery, clothing, spices, fruit and vegetables. Taking in the sights and smells of Manama’s Bab el-Bahrain Souk District is a must for any visitor to Bahrain, where haggling is expected and welcomed. Duty free items such as perfume, gifts and cigarettes are very cheap, although other imported goods will come with a high price tag in the more exclusive malls.
For those too short on time to visit the souks, there is a number of large chain supermarkets such as Midway, LuLu and Jawad, which stock a wide range of reasonably-priced groceries. Alcohol – which can only be purchased in hotels and certain restaurants – can be prohibitively expensive in Bahrain.
There is no value added tax (VAT) charge in Bahrain except on the sale of fuel (set at 12%). However, fuel is still vastly cheaper (19p per litre) in Bahrain than in Europe, America and Australia. Some goods may also be higher in price due to the import duty paid on them.
- Rent 1-bedroom apartment in city centre – 361.50 BHD (£643)
- Rent 1-bedroom apartment outside city centre – 273.10 BHD (£508)
- Price of apartment per square metre in city centre – 759.17 BHD (£1,414.29)
- Price of apartment per square metre outside city centre – 467.40 BHD (£870.73)
- Loaf of bread – 0.32 BHD (£0.60)
- Milk (1 litre) – 0.53 BHD (£0.99)
- Bottled water (1.5 litre) – 0.27 BHD (£0.50)
- Draught beer (0.5 litre) – 1.27 BHD (£2.37)
- Packet of cigarettes – 1.00 BHD (£1.86)
- Petrol (1 litre) – 0.10 BHD (£0.19)
- Cinema ticket – 3.00 BHD (£5.59)
Source: www.numbeo.com (accessed January 2016)
Budgeting and Savings
Although salaries for qualified expats are high in Bahrain, your disposable income will depend on your lifestyle. Eating out and socialising in some of Bahrain’s hotels and restaurants can be expensive, especially when buying alcohol. So cooking and entertaining at home and shopping at the souks for cut price groceries are great ways to save money while living in Bahrain.
Bahrain is a small country (the largest of its islands is just 55km/34 miles long and 18km/11miles wide) and much of its landscape is desert. Therefore, driving is by far the most convenient way to get around. Most of Bahrain’s excellent road network is concentrated in and around Manama and the country is connected to Saudi Arabia by the 20km/12 mile-long King Fahd Causeway. There are no restrictions on women driving in Bahrain, however care should be taken when entering Saudi Arabia via the Causeway, as women are not permitted to drive there. Roads in major towns in Bahrain are generally well maintained and are four to six lanes wide at some points.
The speed limits in Bahrain are 60km/h (40mph) in towns and residential areas, 80-100km/h (50 to 60 mph) on open roads and 120km/h (70mph) on motorways. There are no toll charges on Bahrain’s roads apart from the Causeway where you will pay 2 BHD (£3.72) to cross in a small vehicle. Bear in mind that tourists are not permitted across the Causeway in hired vehicles. International driving licences are accepted only after confirmation from the Traffic & Licensing Directorate, which can be arranged when hiring a vehicle. Otherwise, you must hold a valid Bahraini driving licence in order to drive in Bahrain legally.
Short-term visitors to Bahrain may find driving on Manama’s heavily congested roads a little daunting, so taking a taxi is a good way to get around. Taxis in Bahrain are easily identified by their roof signs and orange colour and can be either hailed in the street or pre-booked in advance. Drivers are legally required to calculate the fare by meter, however some drivers may simply come up with a price at random. It’s advisable to ask your driver to switch on the meter before starting your journey.
Buses in Bahrain are operated by the privately owned Cars Transport Corporation, which is regulated by the government. Travelling by bus is the second most popular mode of transport (after the car) and the network connects most towns, cities and residential areas. However, be aware that routes and timetables are difficult to get hold of and Bahrain’s buses are mainly used by migrant labourers and day workers. Expats may be better off either hiring a car or taking a taxi.
There are several coach tour operators in Bahrain which organise air-conditioned trips to popular tourist destinations. For further information on how to book and prices consult the Bahrain’s tourist information website here.
Due to its small size and a general lack of demand, Bahrain currently has no rail network. However, plans are in place to develop a railway infrastructure which will eventually connect all the Persian Gulf countries.
Trams and Light Rail
Bahrain has no light rail, underground or tram network. Plans to install a 103km long monorail system which will connect Muharraq, Manama, Seef and Isa Town are currently under review.
Bahrain International Airport is situated on Muharraq Island, 12km from Manama. The country’s national carrier is Gulf Air, which flies to destinations worldwide. There are also two budget airlines, Air Arabia and Bahrain Air.
Other ways to get around
Hiring a car is the most popular way of getting around in Bahrain. For those wishing to travel further afield, there are several ferry companies which operate between Bahrain and Iran, information on timetables and tickets can be found here. More adventurous travellers may like to take a traditional Bahraini camel ride into the desert or along some of Bahrain’s stunning white sand beaches.
Employees work between 40-48 hours a week in the Kingdom of Bahrain with most offices and businesses operating from 8.30am – 5.30pm. During the month of Ramadan, which varies depending on the moon’s cycle, hours are cut to six per day. This is a legal requirement and should apply to all employees. However, the reduction in hours sometimes only applies to Muslim workers so it is best to check with your employer. Muslims take Friday as their rest day so the weekend in Bahrain is usually Friday and Saturday, with Sunday being a working day.
Holiday entitlement is considered generous in Bahrain, despite changes being made to the laws in recent years. Under the Labour Law in 2012, private sector employees who have worked for more than a year in Bahrain are entitled to 30 days paid annual leave which includes weekends. Prior to this, workers were entitled to 21 days excluding weekends.
There are up to 13 public holidays a year which are observed in Bahrain. Muslim festivals are timed depending on the cycles of the moon, so holiday dates may change each year. Most offices and government departments close during these times. Because the weekend in Bahrain is Friday to Saturday, if a public holiday falls on these days a public holiday also falls on the next weekday. For more details, visit the Labour Market Regulatory Authority website.
Public holiday dates
New Year’s Day: 1st January
Eid Al Fitr (End of Ramadan): 15 – 17th June
Eid Al Adha: 21st August – 23rd August
Al Hijra (Islamic New Year): 11th September
Feast of Sacrifice: 1st – 3rd September
Ashoora: 20th September
Milad Un Nabi (The Prophet’s Birthday): 20th November
Bahrain National Day: 16th – 17th December
Visas and eligibility to work
To enter Bahrain, all people who are not native to one of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states (Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudia Arabia and UAE) need a visa. To qualify for a visa, applicants must state their purpose for visiting the country, their nationality and their current address. Most visas for Bahrain must be sponsored, or obtained on your behalf by your company, hotel or travel agent. Unsponsored visas are only granted for specific reasons and to certain nationalities. Most visas must be applied for before travelling to Bahrain. The type and length of visa granted will depend on the purpose of visiting the country. For more details, visit the website.
There is no income tax in Bahrain, an obvious advantage for foreign workers. In recent years a small ‘social insurance tax’ has been introduced by the Government but is only around 1% of a yearly salary. Capital gains and inherited income is also untaxed. However, expats must pay a municipal tax of 10% based on the value of the property. Bahrain has no VAT except on fuel where a 12% charge is imposed. While tax in Bahrain is considered low, money earned there and sent back to an expat’s home country may be subject to certain taxes.
Expats who have lived and worked in Bahrain, or any of the other GCC states, can settle permanently in the country and this is seen as the only way to qualify for a state pension. The law on state pensions was introduced in 1976 and applies to men aged 60 or over and women aged 55 or over. There are various pension schemes available in Bahrain which depend on a worker’s salary and whether they have made contributions to a private fund.
The Bahrain social security system mainly exists to help its citizens and there is very little available for expat workers. There are no social security contributions deducted from wages with employees only responsible for building up their pensions. While Bahrainis are able to apply for benefits for unemployment, housing, disability and sickness, foreigners are only eligible for free basic medical care. If it is not covered by your company, taking out private medical insurance is advisable.
The rights of disabled people are covered by the UN Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities which was ratified by Bahrain in August 2011. The measure was considered an important step towards improving the lives and providing greater opportunities for disabled people. The Disabled Services Centre in Bahrain specialises in employing disabled workers for both the private and non-government sectors. For more details, visit the website.
Status, hierarchy and wealth are the cornerstones of most Bahraini businesses. Status is acquired through seniority based on a hierarchical structure which is perhaps not surprising as many businesses are run by large families. Decisions are generally made from the top down, although employers strive to reach a consensus with managers before policies are implemented. Bahrainis are used to doing business on an international level and are therefore comfortable and welcoming to expats. Women are significantly better placed in the Bahraini business world than in many other Arab countries and there are increasing numbers of highly educated female workers in traditionally male-dominated business environments. Much of Bahrain’s culture is governed by Islamic moral codes so it is worthwhile familiarising yourself with appropriate customs and rules before doing business there.
Managers tend to take an authoritarian role in Bahrain. Employees are not expected to question the decisions that have been reached by senior managers. Although the views of a team will be taken into account, once a decision has been made – it is generally final.
While Bahrainis are open and friendly towards outsiders, business culture is strictly formal. It is important to address counterparts using titles to show respect. Mr or Mrs/Miss can be used for colleagues and Arabic titles such as ‘Sheikh’ or ‘Hajji’ are often used for senior contacts. If in doubt, ask your Bahraini colleagues how they wish to be addressed. Bahrainis expect expats to make the odd mistake and appreciate the gesture of those attempting to follow the formal codes.
Business dealings are based on personal and familial relationships. Outsiders will need to gain the trust of their counterparts before discussing business. A letter of introduction from a mutual acquaintance is considered a polite way to break the ice with new business contacts, particularly if they are in a senior position. The best business relationships build gradually through discreet networking. Bahrainis are open and friendly and initial meetings will be focused upon getting to know each other and establishing trust before business is discussed in any meaningful way. Bahrainis have a non-confrontational communication style guided by social convention, so negotiations often take significantly longer than in western countries.
Business attire is strictly formal. While many Bahraini businessmen wear a traditional thobe or dishadasha (a flowing, ankle-length garment), ghutra (head garment) and agal (a thick black cord worn on top of the ghutra), a smart suit, shirt and tie is equally acceptable and expected for western expats. Foreign women should dress conservatively with shoulders, knees and elbows covered at all times in either a smart trouser suit or long skirt and blouse.
Upon meeting your Bahraini colleagues, the usual greeting is “Asalamu alaiykum” (“peace be upon you”) to which you should reply “Wa alaikum as-salam” (“and upon you be peace”) along with a firm handshake. Ensure that you shake with the right hand as the left hand is considered unclean. Bahrainis are tactile and holding hands and kissing between men is common. Before greeting a woman wait for her to extend her hand and if she chooses not to, do not try to shake hands. It is also important that you greet and shake hands with the most senior person first.
Bahrainis have a relaxed attitude towards punctuality and foreigners may find themselves waiting for their business contacts to arrive at a meeting. Lateness is not considered rude in an Arab business setting so try to be patient, even if you have turned up on time. It’s also important not to try and schedule any meetings on Friday, which is a holy day and most businesses will be closed. Be prepared to be flexible as schedules can change without notice.
Meetings often involve many people who are well acquainted or related, so discussions can often stray into friendly banter and chit-chat among those who know each other the most. Don’t expect to get down to business straight away. In general Bahrainis have an open-door policy in meetings which means frequent interruptions. Many expats used to a more structured setting may find Bahraini meetings chaotic and long, however it’s a good idea to just go with the flow in order to build a trusting relationship.
Try to arrive at meetings promptly and greet everyone in the room. Meetings in Bahrain generally include coffee, or kahwa, as a ceremony symbolising friendship and participants should wait silently while everyone is served before getting down to business. Try not to arrange meetings too far in advance or in July and August, when many businesspeople leave the country to escape the searing summer heat.
Bahrain is considered liberal compared to some Arab countries but newcomers should be knowledgeable and respectful of Islamic culture and traditions. Bahrainis are generally laid-back and welcoming but it is best to keep conversation neutral and steer clear of discussing religion or political unrest in the region. Also bear in mind that Arabs are culturally reluctant to refuse anybody anything, with the word ‘no’ considered aggressive. It is best to simply show a discreet lack of commitment to an issue if you wish to show refusal. Drinking alcohol, even in a meeting in a hotel where it can be permitted, would be also be frowned upon.
Arabic is the main language of business in Bahrain. However, English is widely spoken and Bahrainis are happy to conduct meetings in English if foreigners are present. However, it’s good practice to have documents and correspondence translated into Arabic.