Israeli Tourism in Bahrain one year after normalization

The Kingdom of Bahrain, which is located in the Persian Gulf and has a population of 1.76 million, is comprised of 33 islands, five of which are large.

 Showing off pearl oysters found on the diving trip in Bahrain (photo credit: MOSHE COHEN)
Showing off pearl oysters found on the diving trip in Bahrain
(photo credit: MOSHE COHEN)

It’s been a year since the Israel-Bahrain normalization agreement was signed as part of the Abraham Accords, and authorities in Bahrain are hopeful tourism from Israel will serve as a springboard for the country’s tourism industry, which suffered a severe blow from COVID-19 just like the rest of the world.

“We saw the effect Israeli tourism has had in Dubai – we want the same for us,” Abbas, a veteran Bahraini tour guide told me when I was visiting “Dubai’s little sister,” which is how Bahrainis refer to their country. Some people are even predicting that someday soon Bahrain will actually become the “big sister” with respect to tourism.

In 2019, before the world-changing pandemic broke out, 12 million tourists visited Bahrain annually, with eight million hailing from Saudi Arabia. Saudi nationals love popping over to Bahrain for short shopping trips to enjoy the luxurious malls and go on weekend getaways with family. Bahrain is now working hard to restore the crown to its former glory.

To that end, Bahrain has begun taking practical steps to encourage Israeli tourists to visit by easing the visa process for Israelis, including waiving the requirement to show the last three months of bank activity, as previously required. Moreover, on the same day, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid became the first Israeli official to visit the capital of Manama, Bahrain’s national carrier Gulf Air launched its historical debut direct flight to Ben-Gurion Airport. Tickets for the Tel Aviv-Manama flight have been offered at a reduced rate through the end of October: $199 for coach, including a checked suitcase, $635 for business class.  

Starting November 1, the price for coach seats, including a suitcase, will rise to $282. The length of the twice-weekly flight, which currently flies on Mondays and Thursdays, is two-and-a-half hours, and the airline has future plans to offer flights from Tel Aviv to other locations as well. For example, Gulf Air is offering a special introductory price of $399 for flights from Tel Aviv to the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

On the historic debut flight from Tel Aviv to Bahrain, which I was lucky enough to be on, I met a few Israelis who’d already managed to take advantage of this amazing deal.

 Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visits Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa at his Manama palace (credit: SHLOMI AMSALEM/GPO) Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visits Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa at his Manama palace (credit: SHLOMI AMSALEM/GPO)

“We went to the Maldives and had a fantastic vacation,” my neighbor on the plane told me. “On the trip home, we stayed overnight in Bahrain.” Bahrain’s national carrier estimates this is a worthwhile investment and expects that once Israelis get used to flying to these destinations on Gulf Air, the frequency of these flights will increase.

THE KINGDOM of Bahrain, which is located in the Persian Gulf and has a population of 1.76 million, is comprised of 33 islands, five of which are large. Its total area is 760 square kilometers, making it possible to travel around the entire archipelago in just two-and-a-half hours. Bahrain shares a maritime border with Saudi Arabia and Qatar; a sea bridge was constructed 35 years ago connecting Bahrain with Saudi Arabia, and a similar project with Qatar was discussed but later tabled.

Bahrain declared independence from the UK in 1971, and Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa is currently the ruling king of the constitutional monarchy. His son, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, is the crown prince as well as prime minister. The royal family numbers 4,000 individuals.

The diverse makeup of Bahrain’s residents is fascinating: On the one hand, there are impressive skyscrapers with exceptional designs, luxury malls with brand-name stores, lots of entertainment options and a racing track that hosts an annual Formula One Grand Prix. On the other hand, you can still find old-fashioned outdoor markets, men and women dressed in traditional Muslim garb, and a large number of foreign workers, most of whom hail from India, Bangladesh and the Philippines. Many Iranian, Iraqi and Palestinian emigrees who live in Bahrain work in education.

The language most residents use to converse with each other is English, which most native Bahrainis speak in addition to their local Arabic dialect. There are two seasons in Bahrain: the hot season and the very hot season. In the summer, temperatures can soar above 50 degrees Celsius. From November through April, the temperature ranges from 25 to 30 on average.  

The country’s COVID-19 status is currently “green,” as the number of residents testing positive daily remains only in the double digits. There are giant billboards encouraging residents to get vaccinated and checked, and although the country is making great efforts to boost tourism, tourists are still required to fully comply with COVID-19 guidelines. Upon reaching the airport, tourists must take a PCR test and remain in isolation in their hotel room until they receive the results, which usually come within eight to 12 hours. Almost all the people in malls and other public spaces are wearing masks properly, and restaurants and cafés are open for business as usual.

During my stay in Bahrain, my experience was that locals went out of their way to make Israeli tourists feel welcome. At the Ritz Carlton where I stayed, each room contained a welcome sign with the guest’s name on it, alongside colorful balloons.

 Browsing the Manama Souq, Bahrain (credit: MOSHE COHEN) Browsing the Manama Souq, Bahrain (credit: MOSHE COHEN)

The Bahraini government is investing tremendous resources in its tourism sector, which offers an array of luxury hotels, gourmet restaurants, a lively nightlife scene and colorful outdoor markets. Bahrain’s twin tower complex is often used in promotional materials; its World Trade Center complex is made up of two boat-shaped towers with three airplane-shaped wind turbines connecting them.

BAHRAIN HAS been named “Pearl of the Gulf” not just because of its singular beauty, but also due to the fact that in the past, divers would extract pearls from the waters surrounding the country for commercial purposes. To this day, Bahrain is a popular scuba diving and snorkeling destination known for its high concentration of pearl oysters found on the bottom of the sea.

We were treated to a scuba diving trip led by Muhammad, whose family immigrated to Bahrain many years ago. During our one-hour dive, we went out in search of oysters with pearls inside of them. Our guide helped us find some, and we were very excited to open them up using a special oyster knife once we got back on board the boat. We did indeed find a few small pearls. The half-day scuba diving trip cost NIS 300 per person.

People get around in Bahrain in two ways: car or boat. Most middle-class families own three or four cars, which cost considerably less there than in Israel. For example, a new Toyota Corolla costs only NIS 70,000 there, and the variety of cars seen on the roads is impressive.

Our next stop was the Bahrain Fort, which was built 3,000 years ago and in 2005 was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On our drive there, we passed the Al Fateh Grand Mosque on the outskirts of Manama, which can hold over 7,000 people. Our day ended with a visit to a popular nightclub on the beach, where Western music was played at ear-splitting loud levels, lots of alcohol was served and hookahs were smoked. Entrance to the club costs $40, which didn’t seem to be a hindrance to the throngs there.  

The third day of our visit began with a delicious breakfast at Haji’s Café in the heart of Manama. All the men sported white jalabiyas and red kafiyas while the women wore head coverings, some even covering their face with a veil. Our next stop was the Old Bazaar, aka the Manama Souq, a complex of alleyways and narrow streets that cover a huge area. We walked past hundreds of shops selling souvenirs, clothing, shoes, spices, street food and of course rahat lokum (Turkish delight).

The merchants were all extremely nice and happy to haggle over prices – they very quickly were willing to cut the price in half. They all seemed to accept dollars, but I was assured I got a better deal because I’d paid in Bahraini dinars. As opposed to shops around the world where the owners know some Hebrew due to the exceedingly large number of Israeli tourists who pass through, it appeared Bahrainis were experiencing their very first encounter with Israelis and had not yet had a chance to learn any Hebrew words.

If like me you enjoy a good strong espresso first thing in the morning, then I recommend having one at your hotel, since the only hot drinks available at the bazaar were Turkish coffee and sweet tea.

AFTER WE finished touring the bazaar, we visited the nearby synagogue, where we were greeted with a sign in Hebrew at the entrance. The Bahraini Jewish community, 35 people strong, stretches back to ancient times, but apparently only four showed up at the synagogue this past Shabbat to pray. Interestingly, the Bahraini parliament reserves one seat for a Jewish representative. The parochet (curtain covering the holy ark), which had one Torah scroll inside, was decorated with a blessing for the success of the Bahrain-Israel peace agreement. There was a TV screen with a live broadcast of prayers taking place at the Kotel.

Ebrahim Nonoo is the head of the Jewish community in Bahrain, and he also leads prayers in the synagogue and takes care of the building. Nonoo hopes the signing of the accords and the opening of an Israeli embassy in Manama will encourage Israeli tourists – and especially traditional Jews – to come visit the synagogue. They are currently making efforts to hire a rabbi, and have also opened up a gift shop selling Judaica and other trinkets, with all the proceeds going to support medical research.

Our next stop was lunch at Merchant House, a boutique hotel next to the bazaar. Then we were off for a visit to the Bahrain National Museum, which opened in 1988 next to the 1,000-seat national theater, considered to be the third-largest in the Arab world after theaters in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Later that evening, we went to Block 338, Manama’s pedestrian quarter full of restaurants, art galleries and small boutique shops. We decided to go to Escobar, a Latin American lounge where we heard both Western and Arabic music.“No taking pictures,” we were told by the host upon entering, to protect people’s privacy.

Our fourth day began with a visit to the Formula One racetrack. Since no race was scheduled, the track was being used for go-karting. Our next visit was to the palace of Rashid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, a painter and art lover. The long hallways were covered with hundreds of original works of art, some of which were purchased and others that were painted by Rashid. This collection was only recently opened to the public.

The next stop was the private beach at the Ritz Carlton, where the silky sand was transported from Saudi Arabia. We were surprised to come upon dozens of flamingos cavorting in the artificial lake in front of the hotel. Six-room vacation homes on the site start at NIS 7,000 a night. Most of the guests are from Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Persian Gulf countries, but we were told they are hoping Israeli tourists will begin visiting the country soon.Of course, we couldn’t leave the country without visiting one of the famous malls. Prices for brand-name items seemed to be lower here than in Tel Aviv.

Our trip came to a close with – what else? – culinary delights, with a final dinner banquet at a city-center Greek restaurant that appeared popular among tourists and locals alike.

The writer was a guest of Gulf Air and the Bahrain Tourism Ministry.

Translated by Hannah Hochner.