What is Bahrain like today?

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”.

Kate Mitchell

Kate Mitchell