en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 15, Number 6November/December 1964

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Land Of The Two Seas

Written by Keith Bradley

The lithe brown figure took a deep breath, clutched the deflated goatskin bag to his chest, and leaped from the prow of the jalibut into the sea. Down he sank to the bottom, some three fathoms below the calm surface, and for a full half-minute remained submerged among the undulating flora of the deep. Then suddenly he broke surface, heaving the now-swollen goatskin bag into the eager hands of his shipmates.

The goatskin passed from one sailor to the next, each in turn slaking his thirst—not with salty sea water, to be sure, but with cool fresh water issuing from one of the many submarine springs which ring the Arabian Gulf island of Bahrain. Indeed, the presence of sweet water beneath the briny sea is thought by philologists to account for the name Bahrain itself—an Arabic word meaning "two seas," and referring to the ancient assumption that there was another sea beneath the sea bed.

Whatever the origin of the name, it is certainly appropriate, for Bahrain has owed its traditional prosperity to twin bounties of the sea—maritime commerce and the pearl industry. The rich pearling grounds around Bahrain gave the island its first eminence as long ago as 2000 B.C., when an Assyrian scribe incised in stone a reference to the fabulous "fish eyes" taken from the waters of Bahrain. They continued to provide the people of Bahrain with one of the highest per capita incomes in history uninterruptedly down to modern times. When the inroads of the cultured pearl industry in Japan threatened the Bahraini pearl trade toward the end of the 1920's, the islanders bounced back with the discovery that they were sitting atop a sizeable deposit of crude oil, currently estimated at 245,000,000 barrels.

The beneficiary of this national good fortune is an Arab nation of about 150,000 people, living on a group of six main and a handful of lesser islands in the Arabian Gulf, just halfway between the Qatar peninsula and the even richer mainland of Saudi Arabia. Bahrain, some 30 miles long by up to 10 miles wide and shaped like the flint arrow heads which abound in its soil from the neolithic past, is by far the largest of the group, although the total island area of 231 square miles is only half the size of Los Angeles.

Bahrain and its Dependencies, to give the state its full title, is an autonomous Arab shaikhdom with a hereditary ruler. He is Shaikh 'Isa ibn Salman al-Khalifah, who succeeded his late father in November 1961. A member of the al-Khalifah family has ruled Bahrain for almost 200 years, and today nearly every major government department has an al-Khalifah at its head.

Such stability is a comparatively recent development. Bahrain's earlier history is mysterious and obscure, even the conjecture that the original inhabitants, the Bahama, were refugees from King Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon being open to question. Compounding the mystery of Bahrain's beginnings is the presence of some 100,000 burial mounds, or tumuli, scattered over half the island's area. Built of stone and lined with cement-like gypsum, the mounds reach 80 feet in height and 100 feet in diameter. Though most of them were plundered in ancient times, the 100-odd tombs so far investigated have contained pottery, copper spearheads, ostrich-shell drinking cups, ivory figurines and gold rings—and never more than a single human skeleton in each—evidence too meager to reconstruct with accuracy the civilization that built this, the world's largest necropolis.

A team of Danish archeologists which has excavated many tombs has identified the mound-makers as the inhabitants of Dilmun, a thriving merchant community reported in Sumerian writings. Mentioned frequently in Sumerian literature as the "land of immortality" and meeting place of the gods, Dilmun was fortified, independent, and probably the trade link between the Sumerians of what is now Iraq and the Indus Valley states in present-day West Pakistan. Apparently Dilmun, or Bahrain, flourished as a trading center for a thousand years until the descent of the Aryans on India, around 1800 B.C., choked off the trade, after which its importance declined.

At the time of Muhammad, Bahrain was governed for Persia by a Christian Arab, and a Nestorian bishop had his see on the island. From that time until the 18th century, control of the island see-sawed among the Arabs, Persians, Portuguese and Omanis. In 1522 the Portuguese seized Bahrain; the crumbling remains of a fort and a few rusty cannon and cannon balls are the only reminder of nearly a century of occupation. Persia captured Bahrain from the Portuguese in 1602, only to lose it to Omani pirates, from whom the shah had to ransom it in 1720 for "a large sum of money." Late in the 18th century the al-Khalifah family from the Nejd in Arabia invaded Bahrain. After a brief, bloody struggle with the Persians in which "sword play and spear play commenced, heads flew away from bodies and warriors attacked each other with cries which melt cowardly hearts," the al-Khalifah clan was in firm possession of the island, which it retains today.

Out of these mixed ancestors have come today's Bahrainis, short, slight, muscular and possessed of the same sense of humor attributed to all Arabs. Most of the population are Muslims, divided about equally between Sunni and Shi'a, and most cling to traditional dress, the ghutra, a white headcloth held in pace with an agal, a woolen cord, a thaub, the ankle-length shirt or gown, with a bisht, a cloak of dark wool sometimes trimmed with gold. Among those who have been drawn into the growing industrial world of the islands, the traditional dress is giving way slowly to western dress, primarily because of the hazards of wearing loose clothing near modern machinery.

For the past 4,000 years the magnetic lure of Bahrain has been its pearls. At its pre-1930 peak, the industry was said to employ half the population of the islands on some 3,000 boats ranging from one to 50 tons. The methods used to recover the pearls are practically unchanged since the Arab historian Masudi described them in detail 11 centuries ago.

The pearl diver wears ear stoppers of beeswax, a bone clip to close his nostrils, and very little else. Grasping a weighted line to get him to the bottom quickly, he leaps into the water with a net bag for the oysters attached to another line, and sinks to the floor of the sea. The average dive of around 50 feet permits the diver to remain below a minute and a half (although some divers can stay for three minutes) and collect up to a dozen oysters before a sharp jerk on the line signals his handler above to pull him to the surface. A good diver can make 60 such descents a day, braving sharks and barracuda and the poisonous jelly fish, not to mention the possibility of cumulative damage to his body from the repeated immersions at high pressure: deafness, heart trouble, bronchitis and rheumatism.

Despite such hazards, the introduction of diving suits in recent times was violently opposed by the divers themselves, for though they eliminated the worst dangers of diving, they discriminated against the divers too poor to afford them; the Ruler of Bahrain sided with the divers and outlawed diving suits. In any case, the world-wide depression of the 1930's and the Japanese cultured pearl industry combined to make pearl diving less attractive than formerly. The peak island income from pearls of $10,000,000 annually has long since become a memory, and pearls such as the beauty an American lady paid $75,000 to possess, are an increasing rarity.

The decline of the pearl trade had put Bahrain in the economic doldrums by the time Standard Oil Company of California struck oil on the island in June, 1932. It was the first major oil strike in the Arabian Gulf, and it could not have come at a more propitious time. Soon the field was developed sufficiently for shipment of crude oil to the United States for refining.

Rapid expansion of the petroleum industry in Bahrain followed and the discovery of oil there set off a scramble for concessions in neighboring Qatar and on the east coast of Saudi Arabia. The new fields dwarfed Bahrain's production, but the Bahrain Petroleum Co., Ltd. (jointly owned by Socal and Texaco in 1935) established a major refinery, an installation which today ranks among the largest in the world. It is so large in fact that its own crude production of 46,000 barrels per day must be supplemented by crude oil piped from Saudi Arabia. Parallel pipelines run from Aramco's fields in Dammam 34 miles to Bahrain's refinery, half the way submerged in the Gulf of Bahrain (making it the longest private pipeline of its kind in the world.) The supplemental crude permits a throughput at the Bahrain refinery of 200,000 barrels per day.

Revenue from the oil produced by the Bahrain Petroleum Company (Bapco) and from refinery operations provides the Government with an income which has financed considerable development in the shaikhdom. Though small by Arabian Gulf standards—Bahrain's oil royalties for 20 years equaled those of Kuwait for four months—the money has been wisely used. One-half of oil revenues has traditionally been invested in a reserve fund, while the other half has been used for capital improvements in schools, hospitals, and other public works. Other state income has been derived from the pearl trade, customs duties, etc.

Employing 5,000 Bahrainis and 2,000 British, Americans and other nationals, the petroleum industry has had an enormous impact on the islands' social and economic structure. One significant result of the oil royalties is that Bahrain has become, in effect, a welfare state. The Bahrain citizen receives free education. For every Bahraini there is an excellent health service which includes top-flight doctors, hospitals and child welfare clinics, at no cost whatever to the patients. There is full employment and a sound labor law protects workers from possible abuses by employers.

During the past decade the pace of Bahrain's development has accelerated. In 1961, after six years of work, a deep-water port was completed from which ocean-going ships can load and discharge cargoes directly at shore facilities. Situated in sheltered water near the capital city of Manama, the port has a dredged channel leading to the open sea. Until this port complex was completed, vessels discharged cargoes into open lighters some three miles at sea in an exposed anchorage, resulting in delays due to bad weather and in cargo being lost over the side. The port has proved a boon for Bahrain's entrepot trade, now second only to oil as a source of income, and because of the archipelago's strategic position in the Arabian Gulf a main feature of its livelihood for the past five millennia.

The oil industry has encouraged many ancillary industries, each contributing its share to the islands' prosperity. A large ship-repair depot was established on Bahrain last year, consisting of two slipways capable of accommodating two 1,000-ton vessels. Financed by private capital and wholly owned by Bahrainis, the depot's auxiliary facilities include workshops which can handle repairs on most types and sizes of vessels.

The new interest in shipyards continues an old Bahraini tradition, which languished temporarily when the pearl industry declined. Most of the pearling ships were locally made jalibuts or sambuqs, fully decked, square-sterned ships with clipper bows and two masts, or single-sailed mahaila. Eminently seaworthy, these ships were stitched together with a giant needle and cord in the days before iron nails appeared in the Gulf, and yet they could withstand the strongest Indian Ocean gales. The memory of Portuguese occupation is preserved in the baghala, a large craft resembling the Portuguese man-of-war down to the square port holes in the counter, though nowadays these are usually merely painted representations. Even more unusual is the huwairiyah, a tiny craft constructed of date stems lashed together and made watertight by being soaked in fish oil.

With such a diversity of sailing craft, it was only natural for Bahrain to develop a first-class fishing fleet, particularly as there are more than 400 species of fish in the archipelago. Today the most important are octopus, considered a delicacy by the Arabs, the porpoise, from which oil is rendered commercially, rock cod, sardines, horse mackerel and shark, the fins and tails of which are exported to China for soup. Fish are also used to feed cattle on Bahrain when fodder is unavailable; surprisingly, perhaps, the milk tastes the same either way.

During the February-June and August-November seasons, Bahrain's fishermen ply their trade with huge circular nets or with the hadhra, a fish trap made of palm branches, which ensnares fish in its branches near shore on the outgoing tide. The Bahrainis have also evolved a mild narcotic made from the ground seed of the Persian lilac tree mixed with a paste of crab meat and small fish, which they spread on the calm Gulf waters. Fish which rise to eat the bait are drugged, and can then be caught by agile fishermen who slip over the side of their boats to land them by hand. Those eating the fish are unaffected by the poison.

Fishing remains a major means of livelihood for Bahrainis, but not nearly to the extent it was in former times, when a 16th-century Dutch traveler found some 40,000 of them (or so he said) engaged in this occupation.

The advent of the air age made Bahrain an important link in East-West communications. In 1961 an international airport with a runway capable of handling large passenger jets was inaugurated on the island of Muharraq, which is connected to Manama by a 1.5-mile causeway. Bahrain's Gulf Aviation Company serves as the leader in regional transportation, including in its passenger and freight schedules regular service to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the Trucial States and Muscat. The central position of the Bahrain archipelago, coupled with its excellent air and sea facilities, has led an increasing number of foreign firms to establish regional offices in Manama, from which Middle Eastern markets and those of the Indian subcontinent are equally accessible. The capital, with a cosmopolitan population of some 62,000, is rapidly being modernized, and multi-story office and apartment buildings are beginning to dominate the skyline.

Last December one of the most significant social developments in recent Bahraini history took place when the Ruler, Shaikh 'Isa ibn Salman al-Khalifah, laid the foundation stone for an all-new city, the first phase of which will cost some $22,000,000 to build. Designed to provide up-to-date accommodations for middle-income groups, the city will have mosques, schools, modern street lighting and other municipal services frequently lacking in the older cities of the Middle East.

The government is encouraging agriculture, too, in a land not noted in recent times for its fecundity, although in the 2nd century B.C. the fleet of Alexander the Great found Bahrain "well-wooded and productive." It is the government's intention to restore that happy condition through a newly-established Agricultural Department and an experimental farm, on which methods and equipment will be tested for suitability to Bahrain's saline and sandy soil. Farmers are being assisted with advice and the loan of equipment, while better fertilizers and pesticides are being introduced by a staff of experts.

In the past 20 years many thousands of acres have been reclaimed from the harsh terrain of sand, rock and gravel, and today dense plantations of date palms bind the northern coastlines of Bahrain Island with a ribbon of green. Under the shade of the palms thrive alfalfa and, from October to April, a large variety of vegetables. Such cultivation is not only economically valuable but relieves the monotony of a desert landscape.

One of the most unusual features of Bahrain is its central depression, where the land has eroded away leaving a rim of inward-facing cliffs, known locally as the Rim-Rock. At the center of the depression stands the Jabal ad-Dukhan ("Mountain of Smoke"), a rocky eminence 450 feet above sea level, which gets its name from the shroud of dust which surrounds it in summer and lends a misty look to the summit.

On the northwest part of Bahrain can be found subterranean water channels called qanats, thought to have been built between the 4th and 7th centuries. They are almost certainly Persian in origin and are similar to those found today in Persia, Syria and Eastern Arabia. So well constructed that many are in good working order today, the qanats were built to minimize evaporation of irrigation water. Then, as now, a channel at ground level was dug, the sides were lined with stone, then roofed over with slabs of stone, with chimney-like shafts giving access to the qanat at 20-yard intervals for removing accumulated silt. At least once, in the 8th century, a besieged Bahraini garrison crawled through a qanat and under an invading army, taking it by surprise from the rear and routing the enemy.

In common with that of most Arab countries and the Arabian Gulf states in particular, the Bahrain summer is as savage as anywhere in the world. A relentless heat, magnified by the bare rock and sand, can produce air shade temperatures of up to 120° F. Mercifully, in June a cool shamal blowing from the north cuts temperatures by as much as ten degrees. Although the months from November to May are delightful, the humidity in summer steadily increases until the island steams like a Turkish bath. World weather statistics, in fact, award Bahrain an unenviable "high"—the world's highest mean dew point (the temperature at which the atmosphere, being cooled, becomes saturated with water vapor): 82° F. Despite the humidity, however, the rainfall averages a negligible three inches a year, one-third that of New Mexico.

The fierce summer has affected the way of life of everyone on the islands and many methods have been adopted to combat it. Air conditioning has become as much a necessity as heating is to the Scandinavian countries. The designers of the oil company community of Awali made it one of the first centrally air conditioned cities ever built, to the everlasting gratitude of the people who work there.

The weather has, it seems, even conspired to keep the animal population on Bahrain at a minimum. Camels are kept and bred by the Ruler, more out of sentiment for a departed way of life than necessity, for camels have seldom been used for transport on the archipelago. A few hare, a species of lizard, the mongoose and the kangaroo rat very nearly comprise the whole of Bahrain's larger wild animal life, now that the black buck and gazelle have been all but exterminated by over-zealous hunters. One denizen of Bahrain, the white ass, in the minds of some makes up for the lack of the rest, for it was once prized throughout the Arab world as a beast of burden both useful and decorative, and in Bahrain it is still bred with the care given race horses elsewhere.

Although small, the islands of the Bahrain archipelago exhibit a diversity which gives them a charm found nowhere else in the Arabian Gulf. Their magic has the same appeal today it must have had to the Sumerian settlers who plied its pearl-strewn waters at the dawn of history.

Keith Bradley, an English newspaperman for ten years and now a public relations man for the Bahrain Petroleum Company Limited, edits the company's English language newspaper, The Islander, and is the Arabian Gulf correspondent for two major London dailies, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express.

This article appeared on pages 18-25 of the November/December 1964 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1964 images.