Bahrain Expat Health Insurance Guide
Bahrain is a group of islands in the Persian Gulf, with Qatar to the south and Saudi Arabia to the west. Like most of the other Gulf States it has benefitted handsomely from the discovery oil, which occurred in the 1930’s, long before similar reserves were found in neighbouring countries.
These days, while the oil wells are drying up, Bahrain has diversified its economic outlook and is now considered one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Little wonder then that expat workers flock here from across the globe. It is now considered the fourth most densely populated country in the world.
Today over the half the population of Bahrain are non-native, which has led to a socially and culturally diverse country, with far more tolerance of other religions and ideologies than some other Gulf nations.
This diversity means that while Bahrain has worked hard to maintain its cultural history and unique identity, visitors seldom have problems being accepted into this welcoming country. Bahrain now represents a cosmopolitan melting pot, with numerous disparate influences affecting everything from the languages encountered to the cuisines served.
Visitors to Bahrain can therefore look forward to an exciting multi-cultural country with all the different experiences this can entail.
Bahrain is an intriguing destination for travellers and expats alike. Rather than representing a single landmass – such as nearby Saudi Arabia – it is instead a network of islands. Originally numbering some 30, thanks to land reclamation Bahrain now claims over 80 land masses. Of these Bahrain Island is the largest and most developed. It is here that the capital city, Manama, resides, and where most expats are likely to find themselves stationed.
Over the years Manama has grown to be a major urban hub with all the modern conveniences this entails. There are hospitals and schools aplenty, together with a well-maintained road network. That said, outside of this sprawling metropolis essential services can be much more difficult to encounter.
Bahrain is a desert nation, and as such one can expect hot summers. In July and August, when the heat is at its most extreme, daytime temperatures of 40’C or more are commonplace.
On the other hand when it comes to cooling off on a hot summer’s day you’re never far from the ocean on this Arabian archipelago.
The waters here are shallow, and represent an important wildlife sanctuary. Dolphins and sea cows are commonplace in these clear, warm waters which makes Bahrain an ideal destination for snorkelling or more serious sub-aqua diving. In addition, Bahrain is considered an important stopping-off point for migrating birds so wildlife-watchers will find themselves well-placed.
Winters are altogether more pleasant, with the mercury hovering closer to 20’C. It is during the winter months that the majority of Bahrain’s scant precipitation occurs. Generally speaking spring and summer are the most settled times of year, making them the ideal seasons for sight-seeing.
While all comparisons are relative, Bahrain is broadly considered to be rather more liberal than many Gulf State nations. While female visitors may still sometimes encounter unwanted male attention gender equality is far more prevalent. Women in Bahrain not only have the right to vote but can also take political office. As such there is likely to be less culture shock for female visitors to Bahrain than many other countries in the region.
There are other indications of Bahrain’s tolerance and modernity. While the majority of the population here is Muslim, other faiths still exist here with minimal interference. Small Christian populations exist here, for example.
Additionally, in contrast to many other Muslim nations, alcohol can be purchased and consumed not just by visitors but also by locals alike. That said, just because alcohol consumption is legal doesn’t necessarily mean it is commonplace; visitors should refrain from offering alcohol to native Bahrainis for fear of causing unnecessary offence.
As elsewhere in the Muslim world, manners and politeness are considered absolutely essential. Before visiting it is wise to invest some time into understanding the local customs in order to ingratiate yourself in social or business situations.
For example one should avoid beckoning a Bahraini with the index finger (something reserved for animals) and one should also take care not to direct the soles of ones feet at another person when sitting. If in doubt, note how your host is behaving and try to mimic this wherever possible.
Hospitality is a major aspect of life in Bahrain, and the generosity offered to guests can be almost overwhelming by those new to the country. Upon finishing a meal, for example, you should take care to leave a little food on your plate. This is an indication that you have been offered as much food as you seek. Clearing your plate entirely can lead to it being rapidly replenished before you have a chance to decline.
The same can be said for the delicious local coffee, where upon your cup is likely to be repeatedly refilled until you shake the cup to signify your satiety.
Arguably the biggest social event in Bahrain is the annual Grand Prix – held in April each year. At such times Bahrain becomes a global magnet for tourists, with flights booking up quickly and hotels hiking prices considerably. While this in itself is quite a spectacle to observe, budget-conscious travellers are advised to avoid this already-expensive country at such times.
The national language in Bahrain is Arabic, though as a major expat destination it should come as no surprise that a range of other languages are encountered with regularity. English, for example, is considered a second language in Bahrain. It is a compulsory subject taught in all schools, many road signs display bi-lingual advice in both Arabic and English, and there are even English-language newspapers freely available.
As a network of islands transportation around Bahrain is intriguing. Bahrain International Airport (BIA) – where most visitors are likely to arrive in the country – is actually located on a separate island to the capital. A modern bridge allows road access from Muharraq Island to Bahrain Island.
An even more impressive bridge links Bahrain to the Saudi Arabian mainland. Known as King Fahd Causeway, this multi-lane bridge spans a total of 15 miles. This is a notable achieve for a country whose largest island is only 29 miles in length at its longest point.
Once within the country, driving is arguably the most practical way to get around. Visitors with a valid UK driving license may drive for three months in Bahrain, after which point an International Driving Permit will be required.
The roads are generally well-maintained, though first-time drivers in the country should be warned that driving standards may not match up to your previous experiences. Expats and travellers alike are also advised to stick to the tarmac roads rather than being tempted by off-road driving which can be treacherous, even in a 4-wheel drive vehicle.
Note that driving laws are taken very seriously in Bahrain. The breaking of speed limits or drink driving can result in significant fines – or even an all-out driving ban.
For those visitors who would rather rely on public transport there are a number of options.
At least within Manama itself taxis are ten-a-penny. Easily found waiting outside many hotels, the fares tend to be relatively cheap in comparison to many other global locations. That said, while all taxis in Bahrain must use a meter in order to charge clients, the reality is that many cabbies try to avoid using the technology. Reports exist of meters frequently being “broken” or simply concealed beneath hats, paperwork and so on.
This is especially problematic as pick-ups from some destinations (such as hotels and the airport) can attract a significant surcharge. If you are catching a taxi from other destinations you will want to be certain that you’re not “accidentally” charged this premium.
It is wise, therefore, when entering a taxi to ensure that the meter is working – and is running – and that no surcharge has already been added. Legally all taxis in Bahrain must use a meter, and if no meter is working then no fee is payable on arrival. Quite how far you want to press home this point to a non-compliant taxi driver is up to the individual.
Alternatively radio taxis can be requested. While their fares may be slightly higher they are also far more likely to possess a working meter, thus ensuring you are correctly charged for your journey.
Bahrain also benefits from an extensive and reasonably-priced public bus network. That said, the main purpose of these buses is to ferry the extensive expat workforce to and from their places of work.
Buses, while cheap, can consequently be over-crowded, slow and often fail to service more tourist-centric parts of the country. It is wise to ask for advice at the bus station in Manama should you decide to try out the bus network, as deciphering routes can be problematic.
Finally, should you decide to venture to one of the many islands not currently connected to the road network you may have to rely on local dhows. Warnings surround their sea-worthiness so take time to inspect any vessel before boarding for your own safety and peace of mind.
The currency in Bahrain is the Bahraini Dinar – often shortened to “BHD” or just “BD”. The Dinar is then further broken down into 1000 Fils. Note that the Bahraini Dinar is considered one of the strongest currencies in the world thanks to the growing economy, which can make Bahrain an expensive country to visit. Expats are wise to take this factor into consideration when discussing remuneration packages.
Bahrain is considered the first post-oil economy in the Middle East and has reinvented itself both as a major banking centre and as a tourist hub. Its finance-centric capital city means that ATMs are widespread, as are banks. Withdrawing local currency is therefore rarely problematic and currency exchange offices can be found all over Manama.
Visitors should note, however, that financial institutions may close over the “weekend” (Fridays and Saturdays) and during religious festivals such as Ramadan and Eid. As a result it is wise to plan ahead for such eventualities to ensure you are not stuck without suitable funds.
It is worth noting that Bahrain offers an intriguing “Currency Museum” which tells the story of money in Bahrain over the generations and makes a worthy visit.
The last few decades have seen considerable improvements in the educational standards of Bahrain. These days the standards are considered excellent, with compulsory education existing between the ages of six and fourteen. That said, with the majority of lessons being provided in Arabic, most expats opt to send their children to one of the many private international schools found on Bahrain Island.
Of these, St. Christopher’s and the British School of Bahrain offer a British-style education, with lessons taught in English and a curriculum that mimics the British system.
Food & Drink
Bahrain offers a diverse range of culinary experiences, meaning that no matter what your personal tastes may be there are sure to be appropriate dishes on offer.
On the one hand one will find global multi-national food chains like McDonalds and Burger King all over major urban areas.
At the other end of the scale Bahrain offers an impressive range of fine-dining establishments, primarily confined to Adliya which is considered the main dining quarter of Manama.
Then of course there are a range of traditional Bahraini restaurants and food stalls to be found all around the country. Note that with a very limited amount of agricultural land on the island much food is imported which can raise its price.
For those looking to sample the local delicacies a range of options are on offer. One such dish is known as “Qoozi” and comprises grilled lamb stuffed with a heady combination of spices, egg, rice and onions.
A popular alternative is Shawarma; freshly-baked pita bread filled with spiced lamb or chicken.
In terms of beverages coffee is considered something of a national institution. It is typically served in the traditional way in a special coffee cup called a “finjan”.
Questions remain over the safety of water in Bahrain. Rainfall in the country is minimal so the government is relying ever more heavily on wide-scale desalination plants. For safety most expats rely on bottled water which is widely available. Indeed, for practicalities sake, it is possible to arrange for regular deliveries of bottled water to your home.
A definitive answer as to Bahrain’s safety is problematic. On the one hand the Bahraini people are typically helpful, friendly and law-abiding. Like anywhere else a minority of petty crime may be experienced but broadly speaking Bahrain can be considered a very low crime destination.
That said, political demonstrations are becoming ever more commonplace. Such demonstrations can quickly become violent. While these have yet to be directed against expats they can represent an opportunity not just for physical harm but also a brush with the local law enforcement officers should they believe you are involved.
As a result it is wise to pay careful attention to local media to stay abreast of any demonstrations in order to give them a wide birth.
The emergency services can be reached in Bahrain by dialling 999 from any telephone.
Visitors should note that it is a legal requirement to keep photographic identification on your person at all times. Government officials have the right to request these at any time, and individuals who cannot produce them may find themselves in rather more trouble than they bargained for.
Lastly be aware that as a Muslim nation debt is taken very seriously in Bahrain. Individuals attempting to leave the country without settling all their debts may be refused exit. This can be doubly problematic as some visitors and expats have been denied their work visa at the same time, meaning that earning money within the country to pay off your debts also becomes an impossibility.
The message is clear; watch your finances carefully and avoid debt at all costs while in Bahrain.
Places to Visit
While Bahrain is investing time and money into becoming a major tourism hub the country at present does perhaps not offer the range of experiences available in, for example, the United Arab Emirates. That said, there are still a range of sites worthy of a visit that cover a wide range of interest and age groups.
Al-‘Areen Wildlife Sanctuary
Shockingly, Al Areen represents the only protected area of land in all of Bahrain. Now a major tourist attraction Al Areen represents both a nature reserve and a zoological gardens. So whether it’s the native birds and plants that appeal, or some rather more exotic caged animals, this site represents a fascinating day out – and a way to learn more about the wildlife that abounds here.
Lost Paradise of Dilmun Water Park
From the historic, to the ultra-modern; Lost Paradise represents a fun-park worthy of Miami or Florida. Build to mimic the lost world of Dilmun, where the Garden of Eden is supposed to have been found, the water park boasts everything from faux sculptures to water slides and swimming pools. It even offers an artificial beach with wave simulators. An ideal and family-friendly way to entertain the kids (and adults?) on a hot summer’s day.
Al Fateh Grand Mosque
As its name might suggest, the Grand Mosque is the largest religious site in Bahrain. While the appearance of the mosque is one of timeless existence, it was in fact only built in 1987. As a result of its modernity the mosque was constructed with the very latest building materials. The Grand Mosque has reached international fame for possessing the world’s largest fibreglass dome, weighing in at over 60 tonnes.
Dilmun Burial Mounds
Look out across this expansive sandy wilderness and you’ll be immediately captivated by the seemingly never-ending mounds fading into the distance. With an estimated 350,000 such mounds crammed into a small area of Bahrain this represents one of the most archeologically-rich areas in the entire country.
Experts believe the burial mounds took centuries to build up, with each one containing one or more bodies. The journey to understanding these mounds has really only just begun, with a potential treasure-trove of discoveries still to be made by historians.
Also known rather more simply as “Bahrain Fort” the colloquial name arguably doesn’t do justice to this incredible UNESCO-listed heritage site. Located on the northern border of Bahrain Island, careful excavations have revealed historical artefacts dating back over 4,000 years. So whether you go to explore the beautifully-preserved architecture or to wonder at the findings, there can be few better or more absorbing places to gain a firm grasp of Bahrain’s history through the ages.