Geography and Population

Persian Gulf States Table of Contents

Bahrain (from the Arabic word for "two seas") comprises an archipelago of thirty-three islands situated midway in the Persian Gulf close to the shore of the Arabian Peninsula. The islands are about twenty-four kilometers from the east coast of Saudi Arabia and twenty-eight kilometers from Qatar. The total area of the islands is about 691 square kilometers, or about four times the size of the District of Columbia. The largest island, accounting for 83 percent of the area, is Bahrain (also seen as Al Bahrayn), which has an extent of 572 square kilometers. From north to south, Bahrain is forty-eight kilometers long; at its widest point in the north, it is sixteen kilometers from east to west.

Around most of Bahrain is a relatively shallow inlet of the Persian Gulf known as the Gulf of Bahrain. The seabed adjacent to Bahrain is rocky and, mainly off the northern part of the island, covered by extensive coral reefs. Most of the island is low-lying and barren desert. Outcroppings of limestone form low rolling hills, stubby cliffs, and shallow ravines. The limestone is covered by various densities of saline sand, capable of supporting only the hardiest desert vegetation--chiefly thorn trees and scrub. There is a fertile strip five kilometers wide along the northern coast on which date, almond, fig, and pomegranate trees grow. The interior contains an escarpment that rises to 134 meters, the highest point on the island, to form Jabal ad Dukhan (Mountain of Smoke), named for the mists that often wreathe the summit. Most of the country's oil wells are situated in the vicinity of Jabal ad Dukhan.

Manama (Al Manamah), the capital, is located on the northeastern tip of the island of Bahrain. The main port, Mina Salman, also is located on the island, as are the major petroleum refining facilities and commercial centers. Causeways and bridges connect Bahrain to adjacent islands and the mainland of Saudi Arabia. The oldest causeway, originally constructed in 1929, links Bahrain to Al Muharraq, the second largest island. Although the island is only six kilometers long, the country's second largest city, Al Muharraq, and the international airport are located there. A causeway also connects Al Muharraq to the tiny island of Jazirat al Azl, the site of a major ship-repair and dry-dock center. South of Jazirat al Azl, the island of Sitrah, site of the oil export terminal, is linked to Bahrain by a bridge that spans the narrow channel separating the two islands. The causeway to the island of Umm an Nasan, off the west coast of Bahrain, continues on to the Saudi mainland town of Al Khubar. Umm an Nasan is the private property of the amir and the site of his personal game preserve.

The other islands of significance include Nabi Salah, which is northwest of Sitrah; Jiddah, to the north of Umm an Nasan; and a group of islands, the largest of which is Hawar, near the coast of Qatar. Nabi Salah contains several freshwater springs that are used to irrigate the island's extensive date palm groves. The rocky islet of Jiddah houses the state prison. Hawar and the fifteen small islands near it are the subject of a territorial dispute between Bahrain and Qatar. Hawar is nineteen kilometers long and about oneand onehalf kilometers wide. The other islands are uninhabited and are nesting sites for a variety of migratory birds.


Bahrain has two seasons: an extremely hot summer and a relatively mild winter. During the summer months, from April to October, afternoon temperatures average 40 C and can reach 48 C during June and July. The combination of intense heat and high humidity makes this season uncomfortable. In addition, a hot, dry southwest wind, known locally as the qaws, periodically blows sand clouds across the barren southern end of Bahrain toward Manama in the summer. Temperatures moderate in the winter months, from November to March, when the range is between 10 C and 20 C. However, humidity often rises above 90 percent in the winter. From December to March, prevailing winds from the southeast, known as the shammal, bring damp air over the islands. Regardless of the season, daily temperatures are fairly uniform throughout the archipelago.

Bahrain receives little precipitation. The average annual rainfall is seventy-two millimeters, usually confined to the winter months. No permanent rivers or streams exist on any of the islands. The winter rains tend to fall in brief, torrential bursts, flooding the shallow wadis that are dry the rest of the year and impeding transportation. Little of the rainwater is saved for irrigation or drinking. However, there are numerous natural springs in the northern part of Bahrain and on adjacent islands. Underground freshwater deposits also extend beneath the Gulf of Bahrain to the Saudi Arabian coast. Since ancient times, these springs have attracted settlers to the archipelago. Despite increasing salinization, the springs remain an important source of drinking water for Bahrain. Since the early 1980s, however, desalination plants, which render seawater suitable for domestic and industrial use, have provided about 60 percent of daily water consumption needs.


In 1992 an estimated 550,000 people lived in Bahrain. This number included 363,000 Bahraini citizens and 187,000 foreign nationals. Citizens accounted for 66 percent of the total population, a decline from the 70 percent they represented in the 1981 census and the 82.5 percent they represented in 1971. The unofficial estimate indicated that the population had increased by 57 percent, or at an average annual growth rate of 5.2 percent, since 1981. In 1992 the growth rate was 3.1 percent. The non-Bahraini community, which grew from 112,000 in 1981 to 187,000 in 1992, increased by 67 percent, while the number of citizens increased by 52.5 percent in the same eleven-year period.

In 1992 an estimated 58 percent of the population was male and only 42 percent female. The gender disparity resulted from the exceptionally high number of men among Bahrain's foreign residents: 76 percent of foreign residents were male. The maleto -female ratio was more balanced among Bahraini citizens: about 50.3 percent were male and 49.7 percent female. The age distribution also was skewed: about 80 percent of the foreign population was more than fourteen years of age, but less than 60 percent of citizens were more than fourteen. For the total population, 33.4 percent were in the age-group of zero to fourteen; 62.8 percent were in the age-group of fifteen to fiftynine ; and a mere 3.8 percent were in the age-group of sixty years and older. Life expectancy for Bahraini children born in 1990 was seventy years for males and seventy-five years for females.

The population of Bahrain is overwhelmingly urban. About 85 percent of the people live in cities or suburbs. Most working-age men who reside in villages commute to jobs in urban areas. The largest city, Manama, is the principal commercial and cultural center. It had an estimated population of 152,000 in 1992. Manama's expansion since 1960, when its population was only 62,000, resulted in entire villages, fields, and palm and fruit groves--located to the east, north, and south of the city--being incorporated as part of the urban sprawl. Manama also spread to the west through the reclamation of hundreds of hectares from the sea. Traditional brick houses, built with central courtyards and wind towers in the architectural style of southern Iran, and covered bazaars are found in the old sections of the city. In the newer and less congested neighborhoods, multistory apartment complexes, high-rise hotels and office buildings, and supermarkets predominate. Because most of Bahrain's foreign workers tend to live in the city, their presence provides Manama with a cosmopolitan atmosphere.

The city of Al Muharraq, which had an estimated population of 75,000 in 1992, is the country's only other major city. Until the 1930s, the ruler lived in Al Muharraq; thus, for more than a century, the city served as Bahrain's political center, and its commercial importance rivaled that of Manama. Al Muharraq declined after the Al Khalifa family moved to the island of Bahrain, and for nearly forty years the city stagnated. During the 1970s, however, the construction of the US$60 million Arab Shipbuilding and Repair Yard adjacent to the fishing village of Al Hadd, located southeast of Bahrain International Airport, helped to stimulate an investment and development boom in the city.

Bahrain's main towns are Jidd Hafs, Ar Rifaa, Sitrah, and Madinat Isa. Throughout the nineteenth century and during the first half of the twentieth, Jidd Hafs was a relatively prosperous village renowned for its extensive date palm groves and the manufacture of medicinal drugs from the buds, flowers, and pollen of palm trees. By 1975, however, Jidd Hafs had been transformed into Manama's largest suburb. Ar Rifaa, which originally consisted of two adjacent villages--Ar Rifaa ash Sharqi and Ar Rifaa al Gharbi, established in the nineteenth century near natural springs in the central region of Bahrain-- grew rapidly after 1952 when Shaykh Salman ibn Hamad established his official residence there. Ar Rifaa's importance as the country's political center has continued under Shaykh Isa ibn Salman, who constructed his palace in the town, as did several other members of the Al Khalifa. The town of Sitrah formerly consisted of several palm-cultivating villages, but extensive residential construction during the 1970s fused the villages into one large suburban town. Madinat Isa was a planned community built to relieve the congestion in Manama and such close suburbs as Jidd Hafs and Sanabis.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress