Bahrain: 15 Common Misconceptions

Having lived in Bahrain for most of my life I’ve been asked many outrageous questions based on misconceptions. Here are the 15 most common I’ve heard:

Image by justDONQUE.images from Flickr

1. You can’t drink there
Just not true. Within the Middle East the only two countries that are (arguably) ‘dry’ are Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In Bahrain there are bars, nightclubs, alcohol shops (admittedly only four but it’s a small place), swanky cocktail lounges and so on. In fact, Bahrain’s capital Manama ranked 8th on ‘Top 10 Sin Cities’  by Nothing to boast about but it’s true.

2. You have to cover up
This is only partially true. Women don’t have to wear the abaya (black dress) or hijab (head scarf); it’s completely optional for Muslim women (although that’s a matter of opinion within Islam). Visiting Westerners don’t need to do any of it as long as they remain respectful in public places which means covering at the very least your thighs and shoulders.

3. Women are second class citizens
Again. Not true. The only instance in which this notion could be perceived is how rather religious people only mix with the same sex in social situations. Women can vote, run for elections, are managers and CEOs, and have all the same educational opportunities as men.

4. Its just like Saudi Arabia
Its nothing like Saudi Arabia. Yes its connected by a causeway but that only serves the purpose of allowing Saudis to come over on the weekend to ‘let their hair down’. Bahrain is actually one of the more liberal countries in the Gulf.

5. Its just another Dubai
Not even. Although it probably wishes it was.

6. There is a place called ‘Pearl Square’
No. Never. Not. It was a roundabout (torn down a few months ago) and always had been. It has never been referred to as a square because its is ROUND. The international media got this wrong countless times and have only just (in some cases) started to realise their mistake. The only reason I can give for the name change is that everything in Egypt went on in Tahrir Square and the media like to draw parallels.

Pearl Roundabout, Bahrain
Image by Jacobs – Creative Bees on Flickr

7. They are ‘Bahrainians’
Another media mistake and common belief among most people. They are Bahrainis.

8. They only speak Arabic there
I’ve often been asked how I speak English so well if I’ve always lived in Bahrain. To that I can only answer: “because I’m English?!” There are thousands of British people living out there and funnily enough we do all visit our families in England from time to time. The entire population of Bahrain is actually made up of more than 50% expats so English is very widely spoken as the default language.

9. People ride around on camels
Ummm perhaps on a camel farm. Actually I was asked more than once if I rode to school on a camel. I wish! Arabs actually have some of the sexiest cars and if you head to Trader Vic’s on a Thursday night you’ll find bugatti veyrons next to lamborghinis next to bentleys. And not a camel in sight.

Image by Mohit Khurana on Flickr

10. Its a desert
I’m not going to lie – there is a lot of sand and if you head to the south of the island there’s a lot of desert. But the north of the island (where most people live) is made of skyscrapers and buildings, highways lined with palm trees and recently they’ve been planting lots of grass in an effort to be green (it turns brown pretty quickly but its the thought that counts).

11. They’re stuck in the Middle Ages
They’re actually pretty cosmopolitan for the most part. Head down to Seef – the financial district and where the best shopping malls are – and you’ll know what I mean. People are rather suave and sophisticated. Sure you have some pretty traditional families but doesn’t everywhere?!

12. The Middle East is ‘scary’
Of course it is in some parts, as with anywhere in the world. But most of it is not scary at all. Bahrain was one of the safest places to grow up in. In fact I was much more scared of England growing up.

13. The only reason expats go there is to work in the oil industry
Bahrain may have been the first to find oil but they don’t actually have that much in comparison to their neighbours. They’ve built their economy mainly on the financial services – Bahrain is a great financial hub in the Middle East – and now they’re trying their hand at tourism. We’ll see.

14. The only thing worth seeing is the Formula One circuit
Actually there’s a few things worth seeing such as the Grand Mosque, camel farms, the national museum, the old villages, art galleries, plush hotels, amazing shopping malls and the list goes on. There’s plenty worth doing as well such as eating in Adliya’s Block 338, or having a shawarma or drinking juice (yes a lot of eating and drinking will be done).

Bahrain International Circuit
Image by justDONQUE.images on Flickr

15. Petrol is cheap
Hah! Just kidding. It really is super cheap.