Bahrain, small Arab state situated in a bay on the southwestern coast of the Persian Gulf. It is an archipelago consisting of Bahrain Island and some 30 smaller islands. Its name is from the Arabic term al-bahrayn, meaning “two seas.”
Located in one of the world’s chief oil-producing regions, Bahrain itself has only small stores of petroleum. Instead, its economy has long relied on processing crude oil from neighbouring countries, and more recently the financial, commercial services, and communications sectors have grown markedly, as has tourism. The country’s chief city, port, and capital, Manama (Al-Manamah), is located on the northeastern tip of Bahrain Island. A strikingly modern city, Manama is relaxed and cosmopolitan and is a favourite destination for visitors from neighbouring Saudi Arabia; on weekends, crowds of Saudis converge on the city to enjoy its restaurants and bars. Yet the people of Bahrain remain conservative in their lifeways. This sentiment is enshrined in the country’s constitution, which affirms that “the family is the cornerstone of society, the strength of which lies in religion, ethics, and patriotism.”
Bahrain is renowned for its verdant groves of date palms; since ancient times it has been an entrepot for trade and a source of natural resources for the surrounding area. Bahrain Island is widely believed to be the site of the ancient kingdom of Dilmun, a commercial centre that traded with ancient Sumer. It has been settled and colonized by various groups, including the Khalifah family (Al Khalifah), a native Arab dynasty that has ruled Bahrain since the late 18th century. Recognizing the islands’ strategic importance, the Khalifah have opened Bahrain’s port facilities to the naval fleets of foreign countries, including the United States.
Bahrain’s total land area is slightly greater than that of Singapore. Saudi Arabia lies to the west across the Gulf of Bahrain, while the Qatar peninsula lies to the east. The King Fahd Causeway, 15 miles (24 km) long, links Bahrain to Saudi Arabia.
The state consists of two separate groups of islands, which together extend about 30 miles (50 km) from north to south and 10 miles (16 km) from east to west. The island of Bahrain accounts for seven-eighths of the country’s total land area and is surrounded by smaller islands. Two of these—Al-Muharraq and Sitrah, both to the northeast—are joined to Bahrain Island by causeways that have facilitated residential and industrial development; other islands in the group are Nabi Salih, Al-Muhammadiyyah (Umm al-Sabban), Umm al-Naʿsan (linked by the King Fahd Causeway), and Jiddah. The second group consists of the hawar Islands, which are situated near the coast of Qatar, about 12 miles (19 km) southeast of Bahrain Island; a dispute with Qatar over ownership of the islands was resolved in 2001, when the International Court of Justice awarded them to Bahrain. Small and rocky, they are inhabited by only a few fishermen and quarry workers, but they are believed to hold petroleum and natural gas reserves.
While the small islands in both groups are rocky and low-lying, rising only a few feet above sea level, the main island is more varied in appearance. Geologically, the island consists of gently folded layers of sedimentary rocks: limestones, sandstones, and marls (loose clay, sand, or silt) formed during the Cretaceous, Paleogene, and Neogene periods (i.e., from about 145 to 2.6 million years ago). The central region is rocky and barren, rising to 440 feet (134 metres) above sea level at Al-Dukhan Hill (Jabal Al-Dukhan), the country’s highest point. The southern and western lowlands consist of a bleak sandy plain with some salt marshes, while the northern and northwestern coasts afford a striking contrast, forming a narrow belt of date palms and vegetable gardens irrigated from prolific springs and wells that tap artesian water. The source of this water is precipitation on the western mountains of Saudi Arabia. The abundance of fresh water has provided Bahrain with fertile land, from which it gained importance historically as a harbour and trading centre in the Persian Gulf. Economic developments and population growth have outstripped the available artesian water in the country, and some three-fifths of the water used now comes from seawater desalinization plants powered by natural gas.
Summer in Bahrain is unpleasant, as high temperatures frequently coincide with high humidity. Midday temperatures from May to October exceed 90 °F (32 °C), often reaching 95 °F (35 °C) or higher; summer nights are sultry and humid. Winters are cooler and more pleasant, with mean temperatures from December to March dipping to 70 °F (21 °C). Rainfall is confined to the winter months and averages only 3 inches (75 mm) per year, but this may vary from almost nothing to double that amount. On average, rain falls only about 10 days a year. Sunshine is abundant year-round. The predominant wind is the damp, northwesterly shamal; the qaws, a hot, dry south wind, is less frequent and brings sand, dust, and low humidity.
Some 200 different species of desert plants grow in the bare, arid portions of the archipelago, while the irrigated and cultivated areas of the islands support fruit trees, fodder crops, and vegetables. The variety of animals is limited by the desert conditions. Gazelle and hares are not yet extinct, and lizards and jerboas (desert rodents) are common; the mongoose—probably imported from India—is found in the irrigated areas. Birdlife is sparse except in spring and autumn, when many varieties of migratory birds rest temporarily in Bahrain while traveling to and from higher temperate latitudes.
Roughly two-thirds of the population is Arab, and most are native-born Bahrainis, but some are Palestinians, Omanis, or Saudis. Foreign-born inhabitants, comprising more than one-third of the population, are mostly from Iran, India, Pakistan, Britain, and the United States. About three-fifths of the labour force is foreign.