An expat's complete guide to Bahrain

By Sarah Clarke » One gorgeous morning, as I walked along the beach and watched a new day dawn in Bahrain, it struck me how in a very short space of time the island had got under my skin and it already felt like home.

Who would have thought three months ago I’d be enjoying the beautiful spectacle of the sun casting its golden rays on the buildings of the new Bahrain Financial Centre, listening to the gentle lapping of the waters of the Gulf against the fishing boats drifting along the shore line and watching Bahrainis taking their horses for exercise in the sea? Not something you see everyday in the leafy suburb of London I’ve left behind.

The latest chapter of my “trailing spouse” existence began nine months ago with a telephone call from my husband describing Bahrain: “It’s smaller than Singapore, it’s hot, there’s lots of sand, the houses are big and you can buy everything here.” Short, to the point but omitting all the little essentials I’ve discovered in the process of building a new life for us here.

With five international moves under my belt, I’ve learnt preparation is the key to a smooth relocation. So it was off to the local store for books on Bahrain and the Gulf region and onto the internet to trawl for information: Just what was I going to need to survive? [See ‘Useful Info’ spread over the rest of this section].

Arriving on a hot, sultry night in late May, with the prospect of a long, hot summer looming, I quickly realized that my biggest challenge was going to be adjusting to the heat – nothing quite prepares you for 45oC or more than 95% humidity.

On that first night, I was whisked through all the entry formalities at the airport by a “Meet and Greet Service”. This was lucky as I’d forgotten the five Bahrain dinars I needed to pay for my initial three month entry visa. (For full details of visa requirements check the Ministry of Immigration’s website A quick overview of the various visas can be found at

By the end of my second week in Bahrain my temporary visa was changed into a two-year residence visa by the extremely helpful staff at the company where my husband works. They filled in and submitted all the paperwork: All I had to do was provide my passport and lots of photographs.

After my visa the most important document I have is my CPR (Central Population Registry) card. I carry it with me at all times as I’m asked for it almost every where I go. You need it, and copies of it, in just about every situation – from opening a bank account and renting a house, to joining a club or getting medical treatment. Again my husband’s employer took care of the formalities. This left me with nothing to do but… explore!

I’ve found that the best way to learn about a place is to hit the pavements. Unfortunately, this is not an option in Bahrain as it’s too hot three months of the year, places are spread out and major highways crisscross the island. So I took to the road in a rental car, driving on an international license pending getting a local one, which turned out to be very straightforward. (Go to the Traffic Department in Isa Town, first thing in the morning if you don’t want a long wait).

My first trip? To a coffee shop around the corner, all of 300 metres away. I was euphoric: I’d negotiated several U-turns, driven on the “wrong side” of the road and had my car washed while I relaxed in the café. (If you’re a chocoholic, Le Chocolat in the Seef District is highly recommended. Call 1758 2259 for directions. Café La Ventana in Adliya, tel. 1771 6771 is another delightful place to “chill”).

Using the Gulf Daily News as my source of places of interest and things to do, I ventured further afield, setting myself the challenge of finding one new thing a day.

Before I knew it, I’d been to just about every corner of the island and had well and truly got my bearings. (While maps are available most are struggling to keep pace with new developments or are tourist maps and don’t provide the detail you’ll need. Your best bet is to ring and ask for directions or visit where you’ll find the location of the majority of restaurants, places of interest etc). The alternative is to take a guided tour for a general overview of the island.

Knowing where key things are helped enormously when the next task loomed: Finding somewhere to live. Narrowing down the area was the first challenge. Adliya, Budaiya, Juffair, Manama, Muharraq, Saar or Seef? Exotic sounding names each with a different character and ambience. And, as there are properties of every shape and size to suit all tastes and budgets, I created a list of priorities before setting out: Compound or stand alone? Apartment or villa? With or without a pool? Near work or entertainment?

In the height of the summer four to six viewings at a time was all I could cope with. Coryn, our real estate agent at Cluttons, was a star [See the panel on Real Estate Agents]. Endlessly patient, a font of local knowledge, and never doubting that she’d find me “just what I was looking for”, quite a challenge as I didn’t have a clue really. Once we’d chosen our home, Coryn negotiated with the owner and finalised the lease: All we had to do was sign on the dotted line.

As a child-free family, I had the luxury of plenty of time to look for a place and we were quite happy to live in a serviced apartment for as long as necessary. That said, friends of mine with children had no problem just looking for housing during their weeklong “look see”, although they did need to stay in a furnished apartment for a short time while waiting for their villa to be finished and shipment to clear customs.

And the same friends told me that finding suitable schools for your children is relatively easy but you’ll need to act fast – lists for the new school year fill up remarkably quickly and there is usually quite an extensive application process to go through [see Useful Info: Schools].

Working on that telephone description “the houses are big”, I packed up in London keeping my fingers crossed that our things would be suitable for our new home. Electricity in Bahrain is 230 Volts, 50 Hertz with UK style plugs, so for once I didn’t have to have an electrical goods sale before leaving. (Bahrain Customs Authorities enforce strict regulations concerning the import of certain items so check before you pack).

I’ve since discovered that many people come to Bahrain “empty handed” and buy all their furniture locally at the wide range of furniture shops dotted around the island. Bringing most of our furniture with us meant that once we got the go-ahead to move in, I was able to set up home in a couple of days. There are still vast expanses of white wall to be filled but searching for local art work in the delightful art galleries of Bahrain will hardly be a chore (visit Al Bareh Art Gallery, tel. 1771 7707; Al Riwaq Art Gallery,; La Fontaine Centre of Contemporary Art, Fortunately, I’ve just discovered a great hardware cum DIY store where I can get all the hooks I need (Check out Manazel in Salmabad, tel. 1778 6727).

Then of course there are rugs to look for at the many Adliya carpet merchants. Among those I’ve had recommended to me are Peacock Carpets (tel. 1771 4548), Oasis Carpets (tel. 1771 3197) and Royal Carpets (tel. 1771 3600).

Bringing animals to Bahrain is not difficult. You’ll need an import permit from the Bahrain Veterinary Services and a certificate from a vet to prove your animal is in good health and

has been properly inoculated (refer to for full details). Long time Bahrain resident and vet Nonie Coutts runs a very efficient pet grooming, boarding and veterinary (tel. 1724 5515). The alternative is to “adopt” a pet once you’re here as unfortunately there are many abandoned animals needing good homes. (Contact Bahrain Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals, tel 1759 1231,, or check out the notice boards outside supermarkets for families who are leaving and looking for homes for their pets).

As I’m gluten and dairy intolerant, and not trusting my husband’s “you can buy everything here” comment, I also slipped in a box of specialist food stuffs with our shipment. I needn’t have bothered as I’ve been able to find virtually everything I need. (Jawad and Al Osra supermarkets have the most extensive selections of health food and there are some smaller specialist shops dotted around the island).

We’re fortunate that the compound we chose provides satellite TV and broadband internet as part of the rental package. We’ve only had to have our phone connected. This can take a while so call Batelco Customer Services as soon as you can, otherwise you’ll be relying on your mobile [See Useful Info: Telecom and Television]. Mobiles seem to be used more often than land lines and most people are not connected to the internet (and if they are they don’t use it to the same extent that people in other countries do). Texting is used extensively rather than voicemail, which few people have (or use).

Our landlord has also dealt with the connection of our water, electricity and gas (which is bottled unless you live in Awali). If yours doesn’t, you need to take your CPR card, several photos and a copy of your rental agreement to the Ministry of Electricity and Water to get the water and electricity connected. Contact Bahrain Gas (tel. 1753 2233) or Nader Gas (; tel: 1770 2622) for bottled gas to be delivered.

Something I’ve not had to install before is a water fountain. This is a necessity in Bahrain as the advice is not to drink tap water. Buying individual bottles is inconvenient (and, as you can’t recycle easily, creates an environmental problem). One quick telephone call gets five gallon containers of water delivered like clockwork to our villa. Call Aquacool (tel. 1778 4101) or Al Manhal (tel. 1740 4435) who offer competitive packages. Be sure to give them your full address (villa, gate, avenue, town and post code) and not a P.O. Box number otherwise they’ll have no hope of finding you!

Many families in Bahrain have domestic help of some kind, ranging from a part time cleaner to a full time, live-in house maid. This can be arranged through one of the domestic help agencies or you can take over the sponsorship of a maid whose family is leaving. It’s not advisable to employ one of the many women who will arrive at your doorstep once you’ve moved in asking for work, unless you first check out their visa status carefully.

As luck (perhaps that’s the wrong word!) would have it, six weeks into my stay in Bahrain I found myself in the emergency room of the Bahrain Specialist Hospital (; tel 1781 2000) requiring an operation. I was terrified but I needn’t have worried. All I had to do was show my CPR and private medical insurance cards and everything was taken care of with the minimum of fuss.

The standard of care I received during my five-day stay at the hospital was excellent, my surgeon superb, the facilities second to none and the nursing staff delightful. Just make sure the hospital you visit is in your insurance company’s network otherwise you’ll have to pay up front and claim the money back. Oh, and get pre-approval for major expenses [See Hospitals and Clinics].

If you don’t have medical insurance, your CPR card will get you access to the free national medical service provided at Salmaniya Medical Complex (tel: 1728 8888;

I’ve been asked many times before (and since) arriving here: “What are you going to do in Bahrain?” Unless I can get an employer to sponsor me, as a trailing spouse on a family visa I’m not allowed to work. (A work permit is required from the Ministry of Labour and a No Objection Certificate from the Directorate of Immigration before an employment visa will be issued. For more information on this, visit But I’m in no hurry to find conventional employment just yet.

I’ve started to learn Arabic with Suhaib at Berlitz (; tel. 1782 7847), have done some volunteer work with the Bahrain Disabled Sports Federation (tel. 1778 9191) and at the Alia Early Intervention Centre (; tel. 1773 0960), and have trained for, and run in, the Bahrain Relay Marathon. Oh and I walk Jack, the rescue dog I “adopted”, up to two hours a day.

You’ll find just about every recreational and sports club imaginable in Bahrain (check the directory pages of Bahrain this Month) so there’s no excuse to twiddle your thumbs.

Each evening as I drive home and marvel at yet another spectacular sunset and moonrise, I realise that while I do miss walking in a park and regularly dream of rain and in shades of green, the charm and beauty of this little island more than make up for it. Simply being two minutes from the sea is a joy. I’m certainly not planning to move on anytime soon – unless of course I get another of those phone calls…


Also see: Useful information for new residents