Bahrain Election Day

Screen shot 2010-10-22 at 9.58.05 AM  Americans aren't the only folks eagerly awaiting upcoming elections. On Saturday, Oct. 23, Bahrainis will go to the polls to vote in this country's parliamentary elections. It's only the third time elections have been held in Bahrain, which is a constitutional monarchy -- a rare gem among Persian Gulf (aka Arabian Gulf) nations.

More than 100 people including a handful of women are vying for 40 Member of Parliament (MP) seats in the Lower House (The Upper House, or Shura Council, is appointed by the ruling Royal Family). The streets of Bahrain are a sea of colors and sounds, from campaign posters, banners and campaign speeches broadcast from minarets. Many neighborhoods have election tents or outdoor theaters, where citizens can meet the candidates, ask questions and debate the issues. The world's eyes are on Bahrain's elections. It's an exciting time to be in Bahrain!

The elections have been overshadowed by recent news events in Bahrain, which I'm not going to get into here. But if you're curious, you can easily read up on the issues at Google News. For more information on Bahrain's elections, check out this informative article on BBC News.

In praise of: Dubai!

DSC00172  When you're stuck on a tiny isolated spit of sand in the middle of the Persian/Arabian gulf, a feeling of "island fever" quickly sets in. Thank goodness for Dubai. 

Just 45 minutes flight from Bahrain, Dubai is a welcomed excape. Though still relatively unknown to Americans, Dubai is a major tourist destination for Europeans. Dubai is the Vegas of the Middle East, with a bit of Disney World thrown in for good measure. It's home to the world's tallest building (The Burj Khalifa, left), the world's largest shopping mall which contains the world's largest aquarium, one of the world's largest indoor ski slopes, world-class hotels, restaurants, clubs, beaches and more. It's OTT to the extreme. Everything is bigger and better in Dubai.  During my years covering the war in Iraq, I traveled through Dubai a half dozen times, and every year it seemed to double in size.

Last week, Mr. Crab returned to Dubai to attend a work conference. Mrs. Crab joined me after and we spent the weekend skiing, eating and visiting with friends. Dubai has changed alot since we were last there in 2007. Dubai now has a great metro system, alleviating the city's infamous traffic congestion. Dubai was greatly affected by the global recession but things are slowly getting back to normal.

The flight from Bahrain to Dubai is only 45 minutes, making for an easy weekend getaway. And thanks to heavy competition, roundtrip tickets are less than $150 on Gulf Air or low-cost carriers such as Bahrain Air and FlyDubai. Not surprisingly, Dubai is not cheap. Hotels, food and drink are quite expensive, though taxis and transportation costs are much cheaper than Bahrain.

Two Crabs top Dubai recommendations:

--Friday Brunch at The Westin Mina Seyahi (about $100 per person, with unlimited food and beverages and Chinese acrobats, located in a food hall as large as an airplane hanger).

--Le Meridien Dubai Airport ($120 per night. Home to nine fantastic restaurants and bars)

--Ski Dubai ($45 for two hours. Includes skis, boots, poles, ski jacket, ski pants and lift ticket. Bring your own hat and gloves; you'll need them!)

--Dubai Metro (Trains run every 5-7 minutes. About $.55 cents per ride when using the NOL top-up card).

--Jumeriah Beach Park, Dubai.  Best public beach without the pricey hotel beach admission fees. Admission about $.50 cents.

--Great lounges: Barasti Beach Bar in Jumeirah; Bar 44 and Buddha Bar at Grosvenor House; Vue at Emirates Towers; Apres at Dubai Mall (overlooking Ski Dubai); Neos at The Address Downtown Dubai (great views and atmosphere but pathetically-slow service).

Scenes from Dubai:

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In praise of: Al Dar Island

A continuing series exploring expat life in Bahrain.

When I was first assigned to Bahrain, my CDO left me a hand-written note in my welcome packet, raving about all the "beautiful beaches" in Bahrain. After three months in Bahrain, we're still asking: What beaches? 

Bahrain is an island with few beaches. Around the coast, the land simply ends in a pile of rocks and drops off into the Persian Gulf (aka Arabian Gulf). Most of the sandy beaches that did once exist have sadly been destroyed by land reclaimation projects, or fenced off as private property for beachfront homes, or for hotel beaches that are only accessible to guests. There are only two free public beaches in Bahrain, and they are not recommended. 

Thankfully for us beach bums, there's Al Dar Island -- a crescent-shaped, tiny spit of sand located about 10km off the east coast of Bahrain. On Saturday, the Two Crabs & friends packed our beach towels and sun block and headed to Sitra fishing port. There, you pay 10BD ($26.50) admission fee and hop on the water taxi for the short ride across the straits, past several oil refineries and factories to the island.  The island has been recently renovated with all new facilities including a locker room with showers and changing rooms, a small lighthouse that contains restrooms, a resident donkey named Bup, and a small restaurant/bar serving up grilled kebabs, fresh fish, Caribbean cocktails and super-friendly staff.  You can also rent paddle boats and jetskis or go on a pearl diving or dolphin watching trips. But the real attraction is the small but tidy beach with lounge chairs and umbrellas. The beige sand is soft and inviting, dropping into a cove filled with small fish and kelp forests. But be careful: the current is surprisingly strong; if you're not a good swimmer, you might find yourself half-way to Iran! Admission to Al Dar is strictly limited to only 150 people per day, so it never feels overly-crowded.

There are lots of new activites and attractions planned for the future. During our visit, half the island was closed for the construction of several beach bungalows that will soon be available for rent.  Solar panels and windmills will soon provide green power for the island.  Al Dar will also be hosting monthly beach parties with DJs and dancing. It may not be St. John USVI, but if you're in Bahrain, Al Dar it's definately worth a day trip.

A few more scenes from Al Dar:

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In Praise Of: Ramadan in Bahrain

The second in a continuing series exploring expat life in Bahrain.

Ramadan Bahrain, like most of the Muslim world, is currently celebrating the holy month of Ramadan. Mr. Crab has had previous brief experiences with Ramadan in Bosnia and Iraq, and Mrs. Crab previously worked in an East London school where the majority of pupils were Muslims. But Ramadan is a completely different experience when you are actually living and working in a Muslim country.

But first, a brief introduction of Ramadan from Wikipedia:

Ramadan is the Islamic month of fasting, in which participating Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and sexual relations from dawn until sunset.[1] Fasting is intended to teach Muslims about patience, humility, and spirituality. It is a time for Muslims to fast for the sake of God (Arabic: الله‎, trans: Allah) and to offer more prayer than usual. During Ramadan, Muslims ask forgiveness for past sins, pray for guidance and help in refraining from everyday evils, and try to purify themselves through self-restraint and good deeds. As compared to the solar calendar, the dates of Ramadan vary, moving backwards about eleven days each year depending on the moon. Muslims believe Ramadan to be an auspicious month for the revelations of God to humankind, being the month in which the first verses of the Qur'an were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

Ramadan is a busy time for US Embassy Manama, especially for POL, ECON and PD sections. Representational duties include escorting VIPs to Ramadan events. The first event after sundown is iftar, when Muslim Bahrainis break their fast with a small meal amongst friends and family. This is followed by majalis, which are gender-segregated gatherings over tea, coffee, dates and sweets. Finally comes the gabhga, a huge buffet meal that starts around 9pm and can last well past 1am.

Mr. Crab has been burning the candle at both ends. On a recent event, I escorted a certain prominent Muslim-American imam who has been in the news everyday for the past month. We attended several majalis and gabghas, returning home at 3am. At most of the events I served as note-taker, but the main purpose of representational and Ramadan events is to see old friends and make new ones. I played dominoes with some Sheikhs, discussed current events and politics with business leaders, and met contacts for my portfolio, and smiled a lot for photographs. My photo has appeared in several Bahraini English and Arabic newspapers; as a former long-time journalist, it's a strange feeling being on this side of the story!  It's these after-hour functions are where real public diplomacy takes place.

Ramadan Kareem (Blessed Ramadan) is a beautiful holiday at night. Many houses and mosques are decorated in brightly colored lights and streamers. And just like Christmas, every mall and shop features Ramadan special offers, or sales. Last night was the halfway point of Ramadan known as Garangao, a traditional children's festival that's very much like Halloween. Children dress up in bright traditional dress, carry felt bags and go from house to house collecting sweets and coins.

During Ramadan, many Bahrainis switch night and day. They will "party" well into dawn hours, and sleep during the day. Most Bahrain government offices are only open at most 4 hours a day. Many small mom & pop shops are closed all day but reopen at night. Grocery stores and shopping malls are usually business as usual, and during Ramadan will stay open until 1am or later. There are even 2am movie screenings at the local cinemas!

For non-Muslim residents and visitors to Bahrain, there are some changes that come with Ramadan. The majority of restaurants are closed during daylight hours. All alcohol sales are banned, so for 30 days of Ramadan, Bahrain becomes a dry country. Everyone is also expected to dress more modestly.

Ramadan culminates this year on or about Sept. 9, followed by a three-day festival called Eid Al-Fitr. Next year, Ramadan will be approximately Aug. 1-30.

Ramadan Kareem!

In Praise Of: Friday Brunch

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of blog posts exploring the good, bad, unusual aspects of expat life in Bahrain!

IMG_3476  One of the weekend pleasures of life in Bahrain is Friday Brunch. This awesome local tradition is a great way to kick off the weekend. Nearly every 4 & 5 star hotel in Bahrain offers it's own version of the Bahrain Brunch, but they all have two things in common: all-you-can eat food, and all-you-can-drink champagne... 

Last weekend, a new friend invited us to Friday Brunch at the Golden Tulip Hotel. The brunch costs 19 BD (Bahraini Dinars), or about $51 per person. Friday Brunch ain't cheap, so it's something people usually only do once a month. But we definitely got our money's worth. The Golden Tulip's brunch is famous for its seafood, including the local fish, Hammour. Mr. Crab personally ate one fish, two lobsters, several grilled shrimp, and countless oysters and other critters of the sea.  You meander through the rows and rows of fresh fish, pick your poison, hand it to one of the cooks and he takes it outside to throw on the grill. Mrs. Crab enjoyed a filet mignon, other yummy treats and TWO candy floss -- that's Cotton Candy for my fellow Americans!!  The brunch at the Tulip runs from 12:30pm to 4:30pm. It starts rather quietly but by 2pm as the champagne is flowing like a river, the Filipino Band is in full swing, women are dancing in the aisles and kids (and a few adults) are running around with face painting and balloon animals. And I'm told the Golden Tulip is actually pretty tame compared to the Diplomat Hotel's brunch (it's on our To Do list). 

Every hotel brunch scene has it's own specialities and atmosphere. We're told the Diplomat is the party place, but the Movenpick supposedly has the best food on the island. We'll be testing those opinions for ourselves in the future. For a complete list and review of Bahrain Friday Brunches, check out this great article from Time Out Bahrain. 

Here's some more photos of Friday Brunch. 

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Bahrain: A month of "firsts"

IMG_3417   From Mr. Crab:  We've been rather remiss about updating this blog lately. My job at the embassy has been very, very busy. And Mrs. Crab has been very, very busy setting up our new home and making friends.

As an Entry Level Officer, I am quite surprised at how much responsibility and trust I have been given.A few months ago, I couldn't imagine life after A-100. Now I'm putting to practice what we learned at the Foreign Service Institute.  In less than three weeks at post, I've represented the Embassy and United States Government and meetings and receptions. I've met with dignitaries, sheiks and Bahraini and American business leaders. This week, I wrote and disseminated my first diplomatic cable. 

Over the past 25 days, we've been setting into Bahrain, exploring our little island-nation.On weekends and occasionally after work, we've been sampling Bahrain's plethora of restaurants, bars, lounges and shopping malls, from JJ's bar to Bushido's. We've paid $25 per person to see "Inception" in a movie in a "VIP" cinema, smoked fruity tobacco in a shisha bar, got our satellite TV and Internet Wi-Max hooked up. We signed up for loyalty cards and restaurants and shops around town. Yesterday, we attended another great Bahrain tradition: Friday Brunch with all-you-can-drink champagne. Today, we bought a car...the first time we've owned an automobile in more than five years.  Over the next few months, we'll profile various cool places and faces in Bahrain.  

A few scenes from Bahrain:

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Greetings from Bahrain!

IMG_3343 So, it's been about 2 1/2 years since I began this road to the Foreign Service and now we've finally arrived at our first post: Manama, Bahrain.  Our last week in America was a complete blur, as we were so busy preparing the last few days.

On Wednesday we boarded the 11-hour flight from Washington to Kuwait, followed by a 90 minute layover, then a short flight hop to Bahrain. (And can I just say that United Business class ROCKS! Thank goodness for Mileage Plus frequent flyer miles.) 

Our first impression of Bahrain came from the gleaming, modern international airport. We were met at the airport by an awesome employee from the US Embassy known as LES (Locally-Engaged Staff; previously known as FSNs or Foreign Service Nationals), who whisked us through the customs and immigration paperwork and helped with our luggage. Outside, our incredible sponsor met us and then we were escorted to our new home.  For security reasons I can't really say much about it other than to say, we love our new house and neighborhood!

We've spent the past few days exploring our little island. So far we're pleasantly surprised at the amount of great restaurants, bars, pubs and shopping malls galore. Bahrain must have the most shopping malls per capita than any place on Earth, with name-brand American and European shops from H&M and Carrefour to Kenneth Cole and Virgin. And there's no shortage of familiar fast food chains including Hardees, McDonalds, Krispy Kreme, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Little Caesars, Papa Johns and Chili's. Alcohol is mainly only sold in restaurants and bars that are attached to hotels, but the beer loving and resourceful Two Crabs have already discovered a few unsigned "off-license" liquor stores around the island. As for restaurants, the foodie Crabs highly recommend Casa Mexicana, which has a real Mexican chef and decent Mexican and Tex-Mex favorites. Also Sherlock Holmes pub at the Gulf Hotel is a nice pub with British pub grub and Guinness on tap.

IMG_3329  On Saturday we took the afternoon to do a bit of sightseeing. We drove about 45 minutes to the desert to see the infamous Tree of Life (above) and Oil Pump #1, where oil was first discovered in the Middle East in 1932, right here in Bahrain.  There is also an oil museum which unfortunately was closed on our visit. Driving in Bahrain takes some practice as people drive like crazy (but not as crazy as India) and there are hundreds of traffic circles (roundabouts); driving in Washington DC is great practice for Bahrain! 

We've also explored the grocery stores. Unlike our old grocery stores in London, the Bahrain grocery stores actually carry a good selection of American food and other groceries.  A few grocery stores also sell pork products in hidden "Sin Corners" in the back of the store. 

The most shocking surprise about Bahrain has been high cost of living.  It's an expensive place, way more expensive than Washington DC and only slightly less expensive than London.  Fresh fruit and veggies are especially pricey. A pound of fresh California red grapes is $11!!  And a pint of beer is about $6.  The only thing that's cheap here is gasoline (about 95 cents a gallon) and tobacco (about $18 for a carton of Marlboro Lights). 

Happy Birthday, America!  As my first official duty as a Foreign Service Officer, I'll be working at the Independence Day embassy party. Tomorrow is my first official full day on the job as an FSO. Wish me luck.

Bahrain or bust

Middleastmap_big   In a few short hours, we will be on a 15-hour flight bound for my first overseas post: Bahrain. I'm excited and nervous all at once. I'm leaving the college-like atmosphere and safety net of FSI (Foreign Service Institute) for my first REAL job as a Foreign Service Officer. I've already received my first assignment: I'll be working at the embassy's annual Independence Day party!

 The past two weeks have been a whirlwind of last-minute errands like getting our wills, changing addresses, root canals and Mr. Crab even had a tooth pulled. Good times. But the hardest part of this process has been the goodbyes. We've attended more than a few goodbye parties, happy hours, dinners. We spent last weekend in Houston to see my equally-wanderlust sister and family. I keep reminding myself that this is the end of one chapter, and the beginning of a new adventure. By this time next year, I will already be bidding for my second tour!  

See you on the flip side...

Bahrain 101

   Ba-map Mr. & Mrs. Crab are only 5 weeks from moving to Bahrain. Some fun facts and figures about our new home:

  • The Kingdom of Bahrain (Arabic: مملكة البحرين‎, Mamlakat al-Barayn, literally: "Kingdom of the Two Seas"), is the smallest Arab country in the world. It's archipelago of 33 islands in the Persian Gulf (aka Arabian Gulf), situated between east coast of Saudi Arabia and Qatar peninsula. It's about 3.5 times larger than Washington, DC
  • Bahrain is approximately 7,000 miles from Washington, DC. It is 8 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.
  • The capital and chief port of Bahrain is Manama
  • Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy, ruled by the Al Khalifa Royal Family.
  • Arabic is the official language of Bahrain, though English is widely used. Bahrain is a former British colony, hence English is common.
  • While Islam is the main religion, Bahrainis have been known for their tolerance, and churches, Hindu temples, Sikh Gurdwara and a Jewish synagogue can be found alongside mosques.
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  • Bahrain is considered one of the most liberal countries in the Middle East. Women have the right to vote, drive and currently serve in the government. Alcohol is widely available. American chains including McDonalds, KFC and other Pizza Hut are common.
  • Bahrain so liberal that it is often described as "Middle East Light."  A common saying is that Bahrain is located "In the Shadow of Allah."
  • Bahrain is home to a huge US Navy Base: The United States Fifth Fleet.
  • Favorite pastimes include horse racing, boating and Formula One racing. Bahrain was the first Middle Eastern country with a Formula One race track and hosts two major races every year. 
  • The population of Bahrain is about 1 million (estimates range from 650,000 to 1.1 million). Nearly half the population are expats from India, Pakistan, Philippines,  UK, US and elsewhere. 
  • Bahrain is 70% Shia Muslim, but is ruled by minority Sunni Muslims - a source of resentment that has escalated into growing but peaceful demonstrations.
  • Oil was discovered in Bahrain in 1932 but has very little compared to its neighbors. Facing declining oil reserves, Bahrain has turned to petroleum processing and refining and has transformed itself into an international banking center. Tourism is a small but growing part of Bahrain's economy, mainly driven by Saudis.
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  • Bahrain is connected to Saudi Arabia by the 17-mile long King Faud Causeway. A new 25-mile long bridge between Bahrain and Qatar is currently under construction; when completed it will be the longest fixed link in the world.
  • Bahrain is one of four Arab countries (including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar) in negotiation to launch a single, Euro-like currency.
  • Bahrain is only a 45 minute flight to Dubai (The Las Vegas of the Middle East) and 2.5 hours to Cairo, Egypt. 
  • United Airlines now has a non-stop, 15-hour flight from Dulles to Bahrain
  • Winters are pleasant (15°C-24°C / 15F-75F). Summers are very hot and humid (average temperature 36°C-50°C / 97F-122F).

Manama. Not to be confused with Manamana:

Bahrain votes to ban alcohol ... for Muslims

MANAMA (AFP) – Bahrain on Monday inched closer to imposing a ban on Muslims drinking or trading in alcohol in the Gulf kingdom, a favourite watering-hole of Saudis who use a causeway linking the two Arab neighbours.

Its all-appointed upper chamber adopted an amendment to the penal code, banning imports and consumption of alcohol for and by Muslims, in a move subject to King Hamad's approval.

The council authorised Bahraini authorities to decide where alcohol can continue to be served to non-Muslims.

Bahrain's elected parliament, dominated by Shiite and Sunni Islamists, last month voted for a total ban on alcohol.

But the move stirred an angry reaction from the chamber of commerce and from Bahraini liberals, who warned that the proposed ban would harm the economy and the country's tolerant image.

Bahrain's relatively liberal environment has turned the Gulf archipelago into a draw for visitors from neighbouring strict Muslim countries, mainly Saudi Arabia.

A large number of Saudis cross the causeway to Bahrain every weekend.