Bahrain, The People of Bahrain
Bahrainís population was estimated at 656,397 in 2002, giving the country a density of 929 persons per sq km (2,406 per sq mi). About 92 percent of the population resides in urban areas, primarily in Manama, its suburbs, and the nearby city of Al Mu?arraq on the island of the same name. Manama serves as the countryís governmental and commercial center, while Al Mu?arraq is the site of Bahrain International Airport.
The country has a high population growth rate, 1.67 percent (2002 estimate). This high growth rate results primarily from a continued relatively high birth rate. Males account for 56 percent of the population. The higher number of males occurs almost entirely within the age group from 15 to 64 years. This difference and its concentration in that one age group reflect the fact that about 60 percent of Bahrainís workforce is foreign and male.
Native Bahraini Arabs account for 63 percent of the population. The various minorities include South and Southeast Asians (accounting for 13 percent of the total population), other Arabs (10 percent), and Iranians (8 percent). Other groups, including western Europeans and Americans, make up the remaining 6 percent. Some tensions exist between native Bahrainis and nonnative groups, especially in times of high unemployment. The official language is Arabic. English, Farsi, and Urdu are also widely spoken.
Almost all Bahrainis and the majority of nonnatives follow Islam. About 70 percent of all native Bahrainis belong to the Shia branch of Islam, and the remainder, including the ruling al-Khalifa clan, are Sunnis. Non-Muslims, including Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and Jews, account for 15 percent of the total population. High unemployment among the Shia population has caused considerable discontent on the part of this group toward the Sunni-dominated government.
Bahrain established the first public education system in the Persian Gulf region in 1919. Education is free and, between the ages of 6 and 15, compulsory. The literacy rate was estimated at 98.5 percent in 2001, representing a steady increase over the previous several decades. The rate is somewhat higher among males (98.2 percent) than among females (98.7 percent). The University of Bahrain was established in 1986 in Manama. Another institution of higher education, also in Manama, is the College of Health Sciences, founded in 1976, which trains physicians, nurses, and other health professionals.
In many ways Bahraini society is relatively open and liberal, reflecting its long history as a trading nation. Merchants, including the ruling clan, have long been the dominant class, establishing a business-oriented culture that values accumulation of wealth. Among university graduates women outnumber men, and women play an increasingly important role in business and professional life. At the same time, Bahraini society continues to be shaped by conservative Islamic values, especially in the Shia population in rural areas. The family is the principal social unit, and most women remain in the home. In urban areas many women do not wear the traditional Islamic veil and some Bahrainis wear Western clothing. Traditional dress predominates in rural areas. For men, traditional dress includes a loose cotton garment called a thobe, which can be covered with a woolen robe called a bisht in cool weather. Women traditionally wear a concealing cloak called an abayya. In Manama many restaurants serve Western-style food, but at home most Bahrainis eat traditional foods, including lamb, fish (especially hamour, a kind of grouper), rice, and dates. Coffee, a favorite beverage, plays an important social and ceremonial role. The modern forms of entertainment found in Manama, such as motion pictures, cater primarily to foreigners.
Traditional Bahraini culture reflects its Islamic, mercantile, and Arab Bedouin roots. Graceful dhows, Arab boats used for fishing and pearling, exhibit a high degree of craftsmanship, as do traditional jewelry and the elegant residences of rulers and merchants. Traditional performing arts include ceremonial dances accompanied by drums, readings of the Qurían (Koran, or Islamic scripture), and storytelling. Bahraini poets carry on established traditions while also exploring new themes. Celebrations of birth and marriage continue to be important ceremonial occasions. The Bahrain National Museum, which opened in 1988 in Manama, features exhibits of crafts, historical documents, and archaeological artifacts.