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Tourism adds about $1 billion to Bahrain’s coffers each year.
Home arrow Features arrow Bahrain: The last 100 years
Bahrain: The last 100 years
By Kate Mitchell   »   “The golden-dusted roads which cross it are broad and shaded on either side by long forests of date palms, deepening into an impenetrable greenness, cool with the sound of wind among the great leaves and the tinkling water.” Written by Aubrey Herbert, of Bahrain in 1905, this description illustrates immediately why Bahrain was an important island within the Gulf.

Geographically well placed for trade with India, complete with a plentiful natural water supply, Bahrain was allowed the production of dates which were not easily or even possibly grown elsewhere. Bahrain therefore had its first natural export.

The second was the Pearl.  As we know from any history, a certain amount of industrialisation has to occur in order to change the momentum and economy of a civlisation and for Bahrain it was the discovery of oil in 1932 that brought about this change. This was followed by diversification into refining, ship repairing and aluminium smelting, and when combined with a nascent financial sector, Bahrain had the beginnings of the international, prosperous country that we now know.

In order to appreciate the wide ranging and far reaching changes that have occurred over the past century I want to detail exactly how life was at this time.

“Life was very simple,” says Mohammed Al Orrayed, now in his eighties, of his youth growing up in Bahrain. Still operating from within the suq as a pearl merchant, one of the most striking changes for him is the amount of land reclamation that has taken place and the new styles of building that have moved away from traditional Arab architecture.

Town houses were built of coral stone, quarried from the sea bed with roofs of palm fronds and mangrove poles. Very few of these would have had more than two storeys. Villagers would have lived mainly in barastis – huts made of date sticks and fronds. Ahmad Al Fardan regrets the changes “Houses are no longer built in the old fashioned, simple way. Also beds, they have such thick mattresses now, which are not good for you”

There were no cars, schools, electricity, running water, no roads, or health system. Saleh Al Tarradah believes that the most important positive changes are those in health and education “In the old days life expectancy was from 30-60 years, now this has changed, with all the hospitals”. Mohammed Zain Al Abedin would agree “Belgrave brought about the changes that got rid of malaria, smallpox and he even built a quarantine island for TB…..His wife headed up the movement for girls education on the primary and secondary levels”.

The Bahraini diet consisted of fish, dates, locally grown vegetables and fruit supplemented with rice imported from India. Dawood Nonoo relished the memory of “figs, pomegranates and grapes from the lush plantations close to the Police Fort”. Another merchant remembers working on the east coast of Saudi Arabia and waiting for the boat from Bahrain to arrive, laden with fresh vegetables for salad.

Water was obtained from springs and wells. At Adhari there were 30-40 springs, emptying into pools that could be used for swimming. As a young boy growing up in the late sixties, Aqeel Al Modaweb remembers “running from my village (Ain Adar), barefoot, to Adhari Park to go swimming, high tide would bring up the springs”.

Each village had at least one well, which before the introduction of chemicals would be cleaned by immersing small fish in the water, which would eat all the plankton and foreign matter. After a day or two they would then be removed.
The island of Muharaq was the main commercial centre, linked to the larger island and Manama by boat only.

An Islamic society, simple mosques were the centre of village and town life and at the weekend, markets would be set up outside where the people would buy their food as well as the spices, rice and fabrics that had been imported from India on the returning merchant ships. “People had little need to travel around the islands and therefore slightly different dialects were detectable from each village,” comments Mohammed Al Orrayed.

{mospagebreak title=Page 2: Strong community spirit}One of the regrets common to all of the older generation interviewed was the change in the culture of proximity and communication. Saleh Al Tarradah comments “the community spirit is now broken, neighbours no longer talk to each other. We never used to call in advance before seeing each other”. The fact that large families used to live together in one house was seen as the best way to live. There is no lack of understanding as to why children and grandchildren want to be independent, but sadness at the fragmentation of families now. “I always listen to the day’s obituaries after the news every day, otherwise how would I know who has died and I could miss the condolence” says Saleh Al Tarradah.

Employment was in agriculture, fishing and pearl diving and of course trading for the lucky few. There was no deep water harbour, so any kind of boat trip always necessitated wading to shore. With the advent of larger boats such as steamers, they would have to anchor up to 3 miles offshore, with freight and passengers being ferried to shore by smaller boats. There was no infrastructure as such.

There were only a few immigrant workers, some from the east coast of Saudi Arabia who did some of the more menial work and Omanis who came to work in agriculture. 

The abundant date plantations allowed for excess to be exported to the western coast of Africa, Tanzania and Kenya where these goods were exchanged for the wood needed for building, mangrove and bamboo for roofing and various chests for storage.

In 1905 the ruler of Bahrain was Sheikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa, he abdicated in 1923, making his son Hamad deputy ruler. In 1932 Isa died and then Sheikh Hamad then ruled for the next 10 years until he died in 1942.

It was the pearl trade that had brought wealth to the merchants of these islands. A National Geographic article of 1946 writes that Bahrain once sent out 20,000 pearl fishers in 1,000 boats. Not only were pearls abundant in the clear, shallow, calm waters of the gulf but they were prized for their quality. Says Ahmad Al Fardan whose father was a “doctor” of pearls who could taste the origin of the pearl by placing it in his mouth, “Bahraini pearls have seven layers, as against those of the Red Sea that have five, and those from Sri Lanka that have only two”.  It is this layering that gives Bahraini pearls their much sought after lustre.

The Maharajahs of India had an unending appetite for these very high quality pearls, making Bombay a world market place for trading. Demand for pearls was also high in Paris where Cartier used them in many exquisite pieces and in China where they were adorned the finest ladies garments.

With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, demand for pearls escalated as they were seen as an easy, safe and transportable way to invest money. The political upheaval at that time creating the modern nation of Saudi Arabia, and the division of the Levant between the Turks, French and English did not affect Bahrain directly, although developments in neighbouring countries were watched with interest. There had long been a close relationship between Britian and Bahrain with the Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship, and 1902 the first resident political agent had arrived. British rule of the Eastern region was run from Bombay and it was for this reason that the currency of Bahrain at the time was the rupee. It was not until 1965 that the dinar was established as the national currency (Following the formation of the Bahrain currency board in 1964).

The worldwide depression of the 1920’s took its toll on Bahrain’s pearl exports as demand fell substantially. Further the Japanese cultured pearl, although certainly a far inferior product, had further captured a sector of the market.

It had long been believed by an Englishman, Frank Holmes that there was oil in the Gulf, causing him to remark in 1918, “I personally believe that there will be developed an immense oilfield running from Kuwait right down the mainland coast”.  When it was discovered in December 1932, close to Jebel Dukham, not only was Holmes ecstatic but it marked what would become a whole new phase of development for Bahrain and its residents. Charles Belgrave had arrived in Bahrain in 1926 to act as adviser to Sheikh Hamad who wanted to encourage change, his British approach to organization combined with oil revenues allowed Bahrain to modernize at an accelerated rate.
{mospagebreak title=Page 3: Oil changes everything}It could be said that oil arrived at just the right time. It offered alternative regular employment to those who had formerly gone to sea, as well as paying a higher salary. The typical salary for a pearl diver would have been 15 rupees a month. Saleh al Tarradah went to work for Bapco in 1939 “I was paid 1 rupee a day which was enough to support me and my growing family”.  He would camp in Barasti huts in Awali during the week and at weekends make the 21/2 hour journey back to Manama along rough track through palm groves. A journey back to Muharraq, made by many, would have been 6 hours. This is almost inconceivable now, as highway links make the journey a maximum of 30 minutes to either area.

The discovery of oil bought with it many skilled foreign workers, necessitating the construction of a whole new town to house the workers and their families. The establishment of Awali heralded another first for Bahrain; a purpose built compound, with air conditioned housing and leisure facilities plus hot and cold running water. Luxury American household items and food began to appear bringing a standard of living, hitherto, unknown to the island.

The first electric power station was opened in 1930, allowing the spread of refrigeration, air conditioning and electric light for those who had the money.  Agencies for foreign goods and cars were taken by wealthy tradesmen. In being interviewed by National Geographic in 1946, Hussein Yateem (who had the agency for Carrier ice plants and air conditioning amongst others) comments “In modernizing their habits, the people of Bahrain have decided preferences for specific products…many of these - refrigerators, for instance – are American, and we naturally hope that nothing will hamper trade”.

The opening of the oil refinery in 1937 was an important development in that more employment of local people became available. Its construction projects and local purchases increased the prosperity of the island in general. From the beginning it was realized that Bahrain’s oil field was small, and to diversify into refining would bring income long after their own well had been depleted.

A visit to England in 1937 increased the desire of Sheikh Hamad to improve the health of his people. With oil revenues providing the resources, plans went ahead for a government hospital alongside a major programme to eradicate malaria. Mohammed Al Orrayed remembers “Malaria was a big sickness then”. This initiative has continued to this day with Bahrain having one of the best health systems in the Gulf, just last October Dublin’s world renowned, Royal College of Surgeons opened in Manama giving added gravitas to this important sector.

Education has long been a priority for the Bahraini government. The first school was opened in Muharraq in 1919 and the number has steadily grown. The 1930’s saw the opening of the first girls school, by 1956 there were 13 girls schools and now there are the same opportunities for both sexes.

As eldest son, Sulman succeeded Sheih Hamad in 1942. The impetus of change continued with the opening of the Manama-Muharraq bridge. Although rationing had occurred in Bahrain during the war, it was nowhere near as testing as war torn Europe. For the ten years of Sheikh Sulman’s reign Bahrain worked through the technological change creating an integrated infrastructure and the beginnings of what was to become the banking and commercial centre of Manama. The Gregorian calendar was adopted for official accounting procedures, although of course, to this day the Hejira calendar is used for all religious purposes.

Work on both Mina Salman (the deep water port) and the airport was started at this time . The 1950’s saw the growth of the development of Bahrain as an international transport hub. The Gulf aviation company was formed by Freddie Bosworth, acting as an air charter company (a story wonderfully retold by Nevil Shute in his novel Round the Bend). Gulf Air as a national airline was formed in 1950 and BOAC began to use Bahrain as a re-fuelling stop on its way to Australia. These developments further complemented Bahrain’s infrastructure transformation.

Nasser’s death in 1967 ended the period of Arab Nationalism that characterized the previous ten years and four years later Bahrain threw off the mantle of being a British protectorate August 14th 1971, followed by its joining the United Nations later that year. Only two years later it joined OPEC, and the next year formed the Bahrain Monetary Agency as the State’s Central Bank. This was a hugely important development as a supervisory and regulatory agency that operates a highly transparent and accountable legal framework, giving a very solid start

The extremely high oil prices of the early seventies meant hugely increased revenues to all those countries involved in production. Iyad Al-Arrayed remembers returning to Bahrain as a teenager in 1972, after a period of living in England “I noticed Sieko watches, colour tv, luxury cars and designer clothes, all of which no-one could afford in the UK; there had been a definite giant leap forward in terms of wealth”.

This oil wealth led to a real estate boom, as personal and corporate investment went into construction Aqeel Al Modaweb comments that in the 1970’s “rents stood as the same rate as they are now, 30 years later”.  This was due to an influx of ex-pats who had come to work in the growing banking and financial services area. Previously Beirut had been the preferred centre for Middle Eastern finance but because of difficulties during the civil war, investors began to look for a safer environment. Bahrain fitted the bill perfectly. Here was a politically stable country, with an educated population, good facilities and the legislation in place to give a secure home for investments and financial transactions. It was from this point that Bahrain gained its reputation as a safe and flexible place in which international banks could operate.

Of course, Bahrain has maintained this profile and is aiming to capitalize on this position with the building of the Financial Harbour. This is intended to be the premier financial centre in the Gulf for offshore, investment and Islamic banking as well as insurance. There has been an estimate of USD 1.3 trillion of regional private wealth. Add to this the fact that the Bahraini Dinar is a fully convertible and stable currency and the Island is perfectly situated as far as time zones go, and is perfectly placed with a winning formula.

During the eighties there was further development, sometimes from projects started in the late seventies such as Isa Town and the formation of ALBA (the aluminium smelting plant) and the opening of the University and Museum in 1985 followed swiftly in the following year (Sheikh Isa’s Silver Jubilee) by the completion of the 25km Bahrain – Saudi Arabia causeway.

Sheikh Isa died in 1999 and was succeeded by his son Hamad. With his instigation there has been a strong movement towards democracy in Bahrain. He introduced the National Charter which allowed all citizens to vote on a number of issues, one of the categories being whether the people wanted a parliament. The result was an overwhelming 98.4 % vote in favour. Parliament was established along with the right to vote and the freedom of the press. On April 3rd 2002, the Kingdom of Bahrain was created in order to reinforce the parliamentary process.

The Kingdom of Bahrain has propelled itself fully into the modern, national arena with its successful bid to host Formula 1. At the instigation of the Crown Prince, it has been proved that this small island can build, finance and host world class events. With the first race safely and successfully tucked under its belt, Bahrain can continue to establish its place in the international spotlight.

Over one hundred years Bahrain has changed in almost every way. Of course there are regrets but Aqeel Al Modaweb is very positive and the future,
“Change is inevitable, Bahrain has been positioning itself slowly but firmly on the world map. Old habits and cultures will be diluted naturally and will fade away. As long as there are good Muslims we will continue to have good family principles anyway” He believes in working for his own and his children’s future “Our kids will have their own world, this is why you have tomorrow”.

Saleh Al Tarradah used the analogy of sailing “Bahrain is like a boat, maybe it will go too deep or too shallow. It always depends on who is at the helm”. As the fifth ruler of the Al Khalifa family to rule in the last 100 years, King Hamad has shown by example and carried forward the inheritance of his forefathers to show that with a good captain, the boat can surely sail into better and better waters.

Readers have left 2 comments.
 1. bahrainnnnnn
fahiiiii, Unregistered
i feel ths artcle s v helpfull 2 get an idea abt d histry of Bahrainnnnnn
 Posted 2007-10-06 17:21:47
 2. Untitled
Jill, Unregistered
Very fascinating!
 Posted 2007-10-07 04:20:36
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