MANAMA, BAHRAIN – This week I’ve come back to Bahrain to meet with senior government officials, representatives of the sovereign wealth fund, CEOs, investment experts and the Israeli ambassador.

I’m in search of answers to a series of questions:

  • How is this tiny Arab country positioning itself for maximum economic and cultural success in a rapidly changing region?
  • Can Bahrain attract millions of additional tourists when some of its neighbors are far better known and far more successful in drawing visitors from around the region and around the world?
  • Why did Bahrain choose to join the Abraham Accords and what do they hope to achieve with their new relations with Israel?
  • Why is this Arab Muslim kingdom so welcoming to Christians?
  • And should Evangelical Christians and others invest in the future Bahrain and can those investments prove successful?

Over my next few columns, I’ll share with you my observations.

 

Manama, Bahrain at night (Photo: ALL ARAB NEWS)

 

A “HIDDEN PEARL IN THE GULF”

Today, I want to begin by saying that I absolutely love Bahrain.

This is my third visit in the past three years and each time is better than the one before.

In a column last year, I described the country as a “hidden pearl in the Gulf” and that’s exactly what it is.

Other Arab countries are bigger, more powerful, and have far more impact on the direction of the Middle East and the world.

 

Joel C. Rosenberg meets with Bahraini officials in Manama (Photo: ALL ARAB NEWS)

 

But after crisscrossing the Arab/Muslim world for several decades – from Morocco in the West to Afghanistan in the East – none is more attractive than Bahrain.

With a civilization that dates back 4,000 years, Bahrain is an archipelago comprised of 33 natural islands.

And it really has a “island vibe.”

It’s gorgeous. Peaceful. Laid back. Friendly. Hospitable not only to Muslims but to Christians and Jews and people of all faiths, nationalities and backgrounds.

Imagine a Caribbean country with oil, money – and camels.

While it may not be crazy, super rich like many of its neighbors, this is not an impoverished country.

But its leaders do realize that while Bahrain was the first Middle East country in which oil was discovered – and 85% of the government’s budget is paid for with oil revenues – it has to steadily diversify its economy to prepare itself for the day when the oil will run out.

 

Joel C. Rosenberg in Manama, Bahrain (Photo: ALL ARAB NEWS)

 

SMALL BUT SCRAPPY

Bahrain’s population is only 1.6 million.

Roughly half are citizens while the other half are foreign workers and their families.

By contrast, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has a population of 10 million, Saudi Arabia has a population of 35 million, and both have high percentages of expat workers and their families.

Bahrain’s Gross Domestic Product in 2021 was approximately $40 billion.

By contrast, the UAE’s GDP is ten times larger at $415 billion.

Saudi Arabia’s GDP is some twenty times larger at $833 billion.

Bahrain has a sovereign wealth fund – “Mumtalakat” – with roughly $20 billion in deployable capital.

The country uses the fund to help build the country’s infrastructure as well as to co-invest in financially lucrative projects in its neighboring countries.

Yet while Bahrain is smaller than almost every other Arab country, it is certainly scrappy.

One example that has intrigued me is that it has chosen to position itself as a tourist destination.

 

 

Consider the data, published by the World Bank:

  • In 1995, Bahrain attracted 2.31 million tourists.
  • By 2005, that number had nearly tripled to 6.31 million.
  • By 2015, it had shot up to 9.67 million tourists.
  • By 2019 – just before the COVID pandemic struck – 11.06 million tourists had come to the kingdom (the country’s record was in 2018 when over 12 million came).

At the same time, tourism revenue has surged from $593 million in 1995 to $4.38 billion in 2018 and $3.86 billion in 2019 (all measured in current U.S. dollars).

COVID, of course, wiped out all those gains – but, as you’ll see in my next column, Bahrain is working hard to rebuild its tourism sector and succeeding.

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