Bahrain Enjoys The Liberal Spirit in Mideast

Among the Arabian Gulf countries Qatar or the UAE might lay claim to being the most prosperous and multi-cultural enclaves with excellent shopping and mammoth architectural creations. But ultimately it is not how much money you have, how much shopping you offer or the tall buildings which set a place apart.

It is the soul and the social fibre of a place. How much of all-round freedoms you allow your citizens, how you treat expatriate workers, the cultural life, the way the Press is treated, the freedom of expression, the way women and the elderly are treated, the level of human rights, religious freedoms and gender equality, infrastructure, the ease of foreigners doing business or owning property. There are many elements and many layers you have to consider before you say the place ticks and is worth staying on.

Bahrain turns out to be a big winner on these scores though it may not be the wealthiest country in the region. And it is not merely a matter of perception. Hard facts and successive surveys have backed the assessment. Only last year, the World Through Expat Eyes survey placed Bahrain third among all the countries in the Middle East. This year, in the and YouGov Top Cities in the Middle East and North Africa Survey, Bahrain was named the top place based on economic factors and third for labour rights.

Let us talk of freedoms first. One could confidently claim that Bahrain is the most open enclave in the region, informed with the highest levels of the liberal spirit. The Press in the region generally tends to remain silent where criticism is due and the praise for government schemes and policies is generally the order of the day. But in Bahrain the Prime Minister has ever so often exhorted the Press to also come out with criticism where it is due, without fear.

Religious freedom allowed in Bahrain is another enviable area for the region with mosques punctuated by a good number of churches, Hindu temples, and Sikh places of worship, a cremation ground for Hindus [a rarity in the region], and a thriving and prosperous, even if small, Jewish community.

Bahrain is also the only country among the six Gulf Cooperation Council nations where an expatriate worker can switch jobs for better prospects or salary without having to leave the country for six months, a move which takes away the employers’ freedom to use them virtually as bonded labourers.

No dress code is imposed in Bahrain either for men or women and unlike the UAE or Qatar the schools and universities do not have segregation of sexes nor is the Arabic language imposed on children in expatriate schools. And like in the West, alcohol is sold in shops and bars without the requirement of any licence.

There are a large number of community clubs with the Indian populace – the largest component of expatriates in Bahrain – alone having two dozen, besides clubs set up by the British, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Filipinos and other nationals. And they celebrate and mark their feasts, fairs and festivals with all the fanfare.

For those wishing to set up business there is a single-window facility to process all the paperwork and complete formalities with the minimum of fuss and extremely low fees. Bahrain is one of the six Middle East countries with no income tax and the infrastructure and communication facilities are at par with the best in the world.

And the cherry on the cake is that with all this it is a tiny place so one can come to grips with it quite easily and smoothly, considering that out of the island kingdom’s total area of around 600sq. km, only about a third is where all the business and residential areas and pleasure haunts are located.

But ultimately what counts for an anyone in the region is not solely the amount of money he can save or the level of health services – excellent in Bahrain with a large choice by any standards – but the liberties he enjoys. It’s Bahrain’s liberal spirit that mark it out.

tiny bahrain
Bahrain island.

Brij Sharma is an Indian journalist and editor based in Bahrain. Brij tells us the interesting stories we don’t usually hear from the middle east country.