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Sunday Sentiments


    Posted On November 20, 2022

    By Karan Thapar

    Bahrain is not a destination I would have chosen to visit. I used to think of it as a poor cousin of the Emirates and Qatar. But the truth is I knew nothing of the place. My opinion was a reflection of my ignorance. Last weekend I discovered how wrong I was. It’s a warm, happy and charming little country, unbelievably clean and as modern and striking as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar.


    But it’s wee. Barely 800 square kilometres, Bahrain is actually an archipelago centred around the eponymously named island. Not so long ago this island was just 40 kilometers by 16. Reclamation from the sea, which is still happening, could perhaps double its size. But it’s still the third smallest Asian country after The Maldives and Singapore.


    The population is about 1.6 million and I was told that includes 400,000 expatriates from India, three fourths of whom are from Kerala! Wikipedia claims over 43 percent of the population are non-Arab Asians. I presume they’re expatriate workers. Bahrainis themselves are just 47 percent!


    A few interesting facts about this little island. The first oil well in the Arab world was struck here in 1931. Today Bahrain is not a major oil producer but this well, now out of use, is a proud display for tourists. And the Bahraini Dinar is the world’s second strongest currency. One Dinar can get you 2.65 US dollars. So Bahrain is not necessarily cheap!


    I visited Bahrain at the invitation of the Bahrain Keraleeya Samajam, a vibrant and dedicated community organisation, and DC Books. They’re energetic participants in the island’s book festival. To my surprise but delight it coincided with the national elections. Though Lilliputian compared to ours, I was entranced by the way they were being conducted.


    Bahrain is, of course, a monarchy. It claims to be constitutional in character but power vests with King Hamad and the Al-Khalifa royal family. But a parliament has been elected every five years since 2002. It’s a 40 seat single chamber house. The Kingdom does not have political parties and candidates contest as independents.


    Like France, elections are a two stage process. The first was saturday before last. 344,713 Bahrainis were registered to vote for 344 candidates in 40 polling booths. They can cast their vote in any of them.


    One of the most popular was on the promenade of the sprawling Seef Mall. When I visited the voters were sipping Starbucks coffees and tucking into Haagen-Daz ice creams as they waited their turn. And all in air conditioned comfort!


    Bahrain permits expatriates and citizens of Gulf Cooperation Council countries to vote provided they own property in the kingdom and live there.  The turnout was 73 percent, the highest ever. The run-off second stage was yesterday. The final results are still awaited.


    Last sunday, after the first round, the headline in the Gulf Daily News, a 16 page tabloid that calls itself ‘The voice of Bahrain’, was “King thanks voters for poll success”. His Majesty was clearly chuffed but expressed himself with royal dignity. “We congratulate ourselves and our loyal people on this great achievement for our dear kingdom.”


    The News reported that His Majesty received “a cable of congratulations” from the Crown Prince and the Prime Minister. So there’s accord and harmony in this sea-level Shangrila!


    Bahrain has two US military bases and is a major non-NATO ally. But I didn’t see a single yankee soldier despite keeping my eyes peeled. The Saudis are more visible. Barely a half hour drive across a 1980s-built causeway, they’re unfailing weekend visitors. The Al-Khalifas permit alcohol their own monarchy denies them!


    Finally, I had the best burger for years at the swanky Four Seasons and I didn’t have to ask ‘where’s the beef’. I’m pretty certain the folks at Wendy’s would approve.


    Now, if you’ve visited the Emirates but remain fond of shopping, sea sports, the desert and the feel of a modern city why not try Bahrain for your next weekend vacation?

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