The Kingdom of Bahrain is widely considered one of the most liberal countries in the Middle East. Located in the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, this island nation has become an attractive destination for working foreigners and students who want to experience Arab culture.
The word “Bahrain” means “two seas” in Arabic, and refers to the freshwater springs found near the island within the Persian Gulf. In ancient times it was part of the great Achaemenid Empire of Persia, and was later ruled by the successive Parthian and Sassanid dynasties of Iran. The modern state of Bahrain gained independence from Persia in 1783, and soon after became a British protectorate. Already during this time the island was noted for its cosmopolitan atmosphere and growing affluence, which increased with the discovery of oil deposits in 1932. A nascent independence movement gained support following World War II; the decreasing British presence in Bahrain left the country open to competing territorial claims, but through careful political maneuvering an independent state was established in 1972.
Since independence from Britain, Bahrain has had a few struggles with socially conservative elements in society, but by and large has gained a reputation as the most moderate and tolerant of the Gulf States. This attitude extends to economic matters as well: the 2007 Index of Economic Freedom ranked Bahrain second in the Middle East and North Africa region. Oil and petroleum are the primary sources of revenue, but Bahrain is also noted for having developed a strong financial services sector that has transformed the country into a major banking hub. Tourism is growing in importance, owing chiefly to the great shopping and nightlife in the capital city, Manama, and international sporting events, especially Formula One.
Bahrain has a thriving expatriate community. At least nine ethnic group make up the country’s citizens, and there are substantial numbers of guest workers, especially from India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and the West. Jobs are available in many industries, particularly finance and construction, and Bahrain has a very favorable employment environment; it was one of the first Gulf States to provide state unemployment benefits, and the country charges no personal income tax. Moreover, employers are required to provide a wide range of benefits to foreign workers, including housing and free flights home every year. Combine these facts with Bahrain’s numerous educational opportunities, ranging from primary schools to universities, many offering a variety of international curricula, and it becomes easy to see why foreigners comprise almost 30% of Bahrain’s population.
Arabic and English are co-official in Bahrain. Gulf Arabic is the dialect most commonly spoken by Bahrainis, although, as in other Arab countries, Standard Arabic is used in writing. Persian, or Farsi, is also spoken by some inhabitants, in a dialect heavily influenced by Arabic. English is widely used in business and by the country’s immigrant population, who have also brought their native languages to Bahrain. The most common of these include Hindi, Balochi, Urdu, and Malayalam.