Expatriates aren’t generally allowed to become part of the permanent population. Foreign workers are dealt with in a fair but controlled way, paid and treated well, and at the end of their time in the region, thanked and rewarded for their efforts. On the other hand, the government is conscious of the need to provide decent jobs with career paths for their own young people, who are increasingly educated and aware of the attractions of the outside world – many attend universities in the USA or UK. Having made major investments in education and social welfare, they hope that eventually Bahrain will become almost self-sufficient in terms of labour.
A majority of outside observers, however, believe that expatriates will have a substantial role to play for many years to come, and it seems likely that expatriates will continue to be important for the next two or three decades, although there will undoubtedly be changes in the number of people employed and the type of skills required. For example, the vast construction projects currently found throughout the region (e.g. road systems, airports, ports and trading zones) will become less numerous, with a resulting decline in the number of manual workers required. Commercial development, however, will lead to further building programmes as Bahrain’s economy continues to grow. Managerial, professional and particularly technological experience will still be in strong demand for many years to come. But there will be none of the mass immigration and resulting demands for citizenship that have been experienced in western societies, or the current trend of economic refugees looking for a better way of life. Bahrain will simply not allow it. Foreigners cannot become citizens or own land and property, although there appears to be some lessening of the restrictions, certainly as regards owning one’s own business.
There are other general issues to consider: you’re contemplating a move to a culture that’s almost certainly different to your own; will the way of life, and particularly the restrictions imposed on you, suit you? Will the relocation benefit your long-term career prospects? Will your family (especially any children) cope with and benefit from the move? What impact will it have on their education and employment prospects? If you aspire to be your own boss, as many people do, be aware that starting a business in the region can prove difficult and that you will almost always be required to have a local partner who has a majority holding. Is that acceptable to you?
The Middle East has been the scene of considerable conflict and unrest in recent decades, although the Gulf states are generally safe places to live and work. However, before travelling anywhere in the Middle East, it’s wise to obtain advice from your country’s foreign office. Note also that homosexuality is regarded as a criminal offence throughout the region.
You should ideally have a firm offer of employment before travelling to Bahrain. Speculative visits are occasionally successful, but you need to be notably lucky and have high-grade qualifications and experience to stand any chance. In addition, you will almost certainly need knowledgeable local contacts and have done some research into the types of company which would most value your experience.
The Kingdom of Bahrain is an absolute monarchy (although its head is an emir) and the only Gulf state with strict primogeniture (the principal by which title or property descends to the eldest son) in the royal family. With a population of around 620,000, Bahrain is the smallest of the Gulf states but has an influence that belies its size. Bahrain was the site of the first discovery of oil on the Arabian peninsula side of the Gulf. This occurred at an opportune time, coinciding with the breakdown of the global pearl market, which was previously a crucial part of Bahrain’s economy. Since then, Bahrain has shown foresight by diversifying its economy away from an almost total reliance on oil production. This has been necessary because, in comparison with the other Gulf states, Bahrain has limited oil resources, with an output of around 50,000 barrels per day, although it also receives around three times that amount daily, from coastal offshore fields shared with Saudi Arabia. Oil production now accounts for only 10 to 15 per cent of the gross domestic product, the latter around US$6 billion annually.
The state controlled companies Bahrain National Oil Company (BANOCO) and Bahrain Petroleum Company (BAPCO) located at Awali control the oil resources and have extensive development plans, including the production of refined unleaded fuel. BAPCO at Awali is in effect a small town, with extensive on-site amenities for its employees and their families. Other energy industries include BANAGAS, which provides gas services.
Aluminium Bahrain (ALBA) is the largest aluminium smelter in the Middle East, although it has a strong competitor from DUBAL, which is based in Dubai. ALBA’s Bahraini ownership has Saudi Arabian and German companies as minority partners and it provides a significant portion of Bahrain’s non-oil based exports. It has bred many downstream industries, such as a large rolling mill and an aluminium extrusion company, BALEXCO, manufacturing products for industrial and home use, including for export.
The Gulf’s largest ship repair yard, Arabian Ship Repair Yard (ASRY), operates at Sitra and employs a large workforce, both national and foreign, to cater for ships using the region’s busy oil routes. Bahrain originally aimed to become the centre for service industries in the Gulf, but that crown has been claimed by Dubai. The exception to this is the financial services industry, in which Bahrain reigns supreme, having taken the position that Beirut originally held, before the conflict in the Lebanon. Banks from all over the world have established branches in Bahrain, with retail, investment and off-shore operations. Today, Bahrain has almost 200 international banks and financial institutions, all under the control of the Bahrain Monetary Agency (BMA), which also has also overseen the Bahrain Stock Exchange since it opened in 1989. Banking and finance is now the second-largest sector in the economy, accounting for over a quarter of the GDP, and the service sector is the country’s largest employer, followed by general commerce and then government occupations.
The Bahrain Telecommunications Company (BATELCO) is a national company that was formed in 1981 after the take-over of the country’s telecommunications system, previously operated by the UK’s Cable & Wireless. BATELCO provides first-class satellite telecommunication links and cellular and internet services, advanced telecommunications being a pre-requisite for the operation of Bahrain’s financial services. Evidence of BATELCO’s efficiency is provided by the fact that many of the world’s leading financial institutions choose Bahrain as their regional base. Bahrain also boasts two ‘free zones’: Mina Sulman and North Sitra.
Tourism is growing rapidly in the Arabian peninsula, and Bahrain is a popular destination. It has long benefited from being at the crossroads of east and west and has been a stopping-off point for international airlines for many years. This has led to an openness and acceptance of foreigners visiting and working in the country, and might account for the genuine hospitality of the people in this friendly little country. Small it might be, but Bahrain’s political influence and goodwill in the region outweigh its size.
Bahrainis have a reputation for being astute and occupy many positions alongside their foreign counterparts in the state’s financial institutions. In recent times, more have been reaching positions of power, encouraged by the programme of ‘Bahrainisation’, which has been designed to encourage the local population to take full-time employment, develop their skills and at the same time reduce the risk of local unemployment.