Living in Bahrain
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A practical guide to the way of life in Bahrain
Having been an expat destination for centuries, Bahrain is a true melting pot with expats outnumbering the locals! Living in Bahrain puts you at the center of the Persian Gulf, the region’s financial hub and cultural heart.
Life in Bahrain
- As a Muslim society, respecting local traditions is an important part of work and social life in Bahrain. Pay particular attention to the way you dress, consume alcohol, and dating.
- Though road and air links are good, public transportation is in its infancy in Bahrain. However, a bus network was put in place in 2015, and further improvements, such as a monorail, are planned.
- You’ll find most expats renting purpose-built compounds. While they have many perks such as reception areas and onsite gyms, they may lack the cultural diversity and character of city-center apartments.
- As local schools teach in Arabic, you’ll usually find expat kids in one of the many international schools in the country. Globally-recognized qualifications, such as the International Baccalaureate, are widely available.
With a population of just over 1.3 million people, Bahrain may be small, but it is also the fourth most densely populated sovereign state in the world. With Bahraini nationals only accounting for 48% of the population, you’ll find expats from all corners of the world. Workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Egypt make up the largest foreign communities.
Rulers, Reform, and Religion in Bahrain
Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy with King Hamad bin Salman Isa Al-Khalifa acting as chief of state since 1999. The head of government is Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al-Kahlifa, who has been in office since 1971 and is the longest-serving prime minister in the world! The legal system is a mixture of Islamic law and English common law.
Recent political and economic reforms instigated by the king have made working and living in Bahrain a more lucrative and attractive option for foreign companies and expats. Bahraini women have had the right to vote and stand in elections since 2002. However, critical voices say that political liberalization has not gone far enough, and may have strengthened the influence of Islamist groups.
Islam is the official religion but, due to the high proportion of foreigners, only 70% of the population is Muslim. The second-biggest religious group is the significant Christian minority that makes up 14.5% of the population. Bahrain’s official language is Arabic, although English is widely used. The quality of life in Bahrain was rated among the top 5 in the world by the HSBC expat poll in 2015.
Respecting Local Customs and Laws
Although Bahrain is a liberal state, large parts of the population are rather conservative. Don’t let the atmosphere of religious tolerance in everyday life tempt you into disregarding local customs or religious practice. Foreigners, especially Western women, should refrain from wearing revealing clothing in public or behaving immodestly in any way.
Similarly conservative rules apply to dating. Though married couples may hold hands, public displays of affection are not allowed, particularly during Ramadan. Outside of marriage, sexual relationships and cohabiting, including in hotels, is illegal, and becoming pregnant may result in imprisonment.
Please note that homosexuality, though technically legal between consenting adults aged twenty-one and above, can nonetheless incur social discrimination, or legal action and punishment under various laws designed to protect “public morality”.
Make sure you respect the Islamic perception of alcohol when dealing with Muslim business partners or entertaining friends. Despite several reform proposals, the sale and consumption of alcohol is still legal for non-Muslims in Bahrain. You can buy alcohol in top hotels, licensed venues, and in some stores. However, drinking in public or drunken behavior in general is regarded as a serious offence punishable by a fine, prison, or even deportation.
Authorities also enforce a zero tolerance policy on drunk driving for everyone living in Bahrain, regardless of religion. If you’re caught behind the wheel after having consumed any alcohol, you will be arrested and face a night in prison before being subjected to a hefty fine and a driving ban during your entire stay in Bahrain.
Getting around the Island State
Expats living on Bahrain’s main island, especially in Manama, benefit from an excellent road network and good bus connections. All the main islands are connected by bridges, and there is a causeway linking Bahrain with the Saudi Arabian mainland via the island of Umm an-Nasan. However, some of the smaller islands can only be reached by boat.
Bahrain International Airport is a major air traffic hub in the Middle East with frequent connections to regional and international destinations. It is located on a small peninsula off the northwestern tip of the main island, right opposite Manama and within easy reach of the capital via two causeways. With Gulf Air, Bahrain has one of the most prominent airlines in the region. If you plan to frequently travel by air during your time in Bahrain, keep the following in mind: you may be denied boarding if you show any signs of intoxication, and may be prevented from leaving the country if you are involved in any legal proceedings, have outstanding debts, or have been living in Bahrain illegally.
In terms of public transportation, Bahrain is far from a world leader. A partnership with UK-based National Express led to an official re-launch of the public transportation system in 2015. The new bus service now covers 32 routes with 141 buses running daily. Fares vary according to distance, with a minimum charge of 200 fils per trip. You can find more information on routes from the Ministry of Transport. Further improvements are in the works with plans to build a monorail.
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Bahrain: Housing and Schooling for Expats
Compound or Culture?
Due to the strict regulations limiting what type of property expats can buy, most expats live in rented accommodation, of which there is plenty available in Bahrain’s urban and suburban areas. The country has seen a lot of new development and construction recently, and you will find an interesting mix of modern architecture and traditional Bahraini character.
Local Bahrainis often live in big homes in order to accommodate several different generations of family members. Expats tend to be found in new, purpose-built flats, often in compounds or gated communities. These compounds offer apartments with added benefits such as a reception area, onsite gym, swimming pool, tennis courts, or even restaurants. The downside is, of course, that these compounds don’t offer many opportunities for mixing and mingling with the locals or relishing Bahraini culture.
Urban areas offer a third alternative. Unlike compounds, standard apartment blocks have a less “exclusive” feel to them, and while they lack many of the amenities of high-end compound housing, they can offer a greater mix of people, nationalities, and cultures.
Choosing the right area is not as important as it may be in some other places. Bahrain’s cities are not big enough to worry too much about getting around, and most of the country’s inhabitants use privately owned vehicles.
If you are sent to Bahrain on an expat assignment, chances are that your company or a relocation agent will help you find somewhere to live. A lot of companies even keep a stock of apartments for their expat workforce. However, if your employer has no official process in place, you might still be able to get advice and recommendations from your colleagues. Your sponsor, if different from your employer, may also be able to help you.
Alternatively, you could visit compounds or apartment buildings you’re interested in and talk to the porter or ask at the reception office about upcoming vacancies. English-language newspapers in Bahrain are another helpful resource. The easiest way, of course, is to go through a real estate agent who can use their knowledge of the local market to help you find the perfect place.
Rental apartments can be either furnished or unfurnished — the latter is more common and also cheaper. You can expect them to be high quality and well maintained. A “Lease Law” was introduced in 2014 with the intention of creating a more unified approach to rental properties throughout the country. It sets standards for property maintenance, rent increases, and rights to terminating a lease agreement.
Expat Education Options
Bahrain has invested heavily in its education system in recent years. While the foundations of the modern public school system were laid by the British administration some time ago, schools and higher education institutions have received a lot of government support since Bahrain became independent.
The Bahraini school system is divided into two parts:
- basic education comprised of a primary stage (6–11 years), and an intermediate stage (12–14 years)
- secondary stage for students (15–17 years)
Basic education is compulsory for Bahraini children, and tuition in state schools is free. School attendance rates are high, which is reflected in a literacy rate of over 96% among men and nearly 92% among women. Further reforms are planned to incorporate more vocational options into the school system.
Expat children, however, are rarely found in Bahraini public schools. This is due to several factors such as the language barrier, transient nature of their stay in the country, and sometimes religious issues. While English is taught at all Bahraini schools, the language of tuition is always the local variant of Arabic, which puts non-native speakers at a significant disadvantage.
There are several international schools in Bahrain catering to the expat community and local families with high ambitions for their children. These schools normally teach in English, or if it’s a third-country school, the language spoken in that country. Quite a few of these schools offer the International Baccalaureate as a widely recognized qualification. The first to do so was St Christopher’s, with campuses in Isa Town and Saar. The Bahrain School, a US Department of Defense school that provides a K–12 curriculum, also offers an IB Program.
An internet search for international and private schools in Bahrain will render plenty more results, such as British intermediate schools and also private schools that offer either the IB Diploma Program or United Kingdom’s A-Levels. However, there may be long waiting lists for some of them so it pays off to do your research early.