Of the 18 people participating in our “Abraham Accords Delegation of Evangelical Business & Media Leaders,” I’m the only one who has ever been to the Kingdom of Bahrain before.
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Most tell me they’d never imagined coming here and knew almost nothing about the country before I invited them to participate in this ALL ISRAEL NEWS/ALL ARAB NEWS initiative.
But everyone in the group is now raving about how kind, friendly and hospitable the Bahraini people are; how gorgeous, peaceful and advanced this island nation is; and how eager they are to come back and to encourage others to visit, as well.
A HIDDEN PEARL
I call modern Bahrain — once a sleepy British protectorate known for fishing and pearl diving — a hidden pearl in the Gulf.
Its state-of-the-art capital, Manama, is a high-tech center for oil and gas interests. It also serves as a thriving financial services center in the Arab and Islamic world, filled with towering skyscrapers of steel and glass.
In that sense, it reminds me somewhat of Dallas and Houston.
But the country also evokes images of the Caribbean — the US and British Virgin Islands, for example — with exquisite beaches, ubiquitous palm trees, beautiful resort hotels and so many family-friendly activities on shore and on the water.
THE POINT MAN FOR PROSPERITY
To better understand how the country is positioning itself for the future, I brought the delegation to meet the government official I’ve dubbed Bahrain’s “point man for prosperity.”
His Excellency Zayed bin Rashid Al Zayani is the country’s minister of industry, commerce and tourism.
His job is to design and implement Bahrain’s aggressive economic growth strategy. He sees the Abraham Accords as a critical cornerstone of that mission.
“There are two things I never thought I’d see in my lifetime,” he told us when we first sat down with him. “Me visiting Israel and women driving in Saudi Arabia.”
The Abraham Accords peace agreement with Israel — which Bahrain signed at the White House on Sept. 15, 2020 — is changing everything, he told us, and he couldn’t be more excited.
With the promise of expanded peace and prosperity, and the full blessing of His Majesty King Hamad, Al Zayani and his team are determined to dramatically expand tourism.
Until 2015, he said, Bahrain never even had a national tourism strategy. It relied mostly on visits from its next-door neighbor. Indeed, Saudis historically made up about 80% of tourism to Bahrain.
Once Al Zayani and his colleagues developed a strategy, it proved immensely successful.
By 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, Bahrain welcomed 11 million tourists. Not bad for a nation of only 1.5 million residents.
But it’s not nearly enough, Al Zayani said.
He has set a post-COVID goal of reaching 14 million tourists annually in the next few years.
AGGRESSIVELY EXPANDING TOURISM INFRASTRUCTURE
To accomplish that, the kingdom will still happily welcome Saudis, but they want to increase visits from other countries.
They are also aggressively and dramatically expanding its tourism infrastructure.
- Bahrain has just opened a gorgeous and gleaming new international airport.
- Gulf Air — the national carrier of Bahrain, of which Al Zayani is chairman — recently purchased from Boeing 10 new 787 Dreamliner wide-body jets.
- Gulf Air is now working hard to obtain approval for direct flights from the US to Bahrain, likely starting in either New York City or Newark.
- Once that route is operational, Bahrain will launch major marketing outreaches to Americans in general, and American Christians in particular.
- Bahrain will also soon ramp up marketing efforts to draw Israelis. So far, only 3,000 Israelis have come since lifting most COVID restrictions on March 1. But Al Zayani expects those numbers to climb. He has already made two visits to Israel in the past 18 months to negotiate and sign trade and tourism agreements with the Jewish state. He is planning a return visit in October.
- Bahrain is also about 70% finished building the largest convention center and exhibit hall in the region. When it’s complete, the country will start hosting regional and global conferences to draw tourists, business leaders and investors from all over the world.
In light of all this, Al Zayani encouraged us to consider hosting a major conference for Christian leaders; we are seriously considering doing just that.
Something very special is happening in this region and this country.
It may be a hidden pearl in the Gulf.
But I suspect many more will be discovering it soon.