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Bahrain / Strange Customs

Recently Elaine and I had a weekend break to Bahrain. As the crow flies the island nation is about 450km east of Riyadh, and is off the coast in the Arabian Gulf. It is a popular break-out visit location for people who fancy a change from the strictures of Saudi life. This isn’t confined to ex-pats, there are hordes of native Saudis who travel there for some R&R.

There are only two ways of getting there – flying, and driving over the causeway. Even though the nearest Bahraini island is about 10 miles from the Saudi mainland there are no ferries competing with the fixed link. The causeway is the longest in the world at 25km and in the middle there is a man-made island that houses the border control forces. We drove, and for the weekend I upgraded my wee Nissan Sunni to an Altima, a far better car for cruising. I picked up Elaine after her school finished and we were heading out of Riyadh by 15.15. After a couple of refreshment shops and leg-stretches (my call as I was doing all the driving) we arrived at the Saudi end of the causeway at about 20.00. We emerged on the Bahrain side less than an hour and a half later, and I was told that that was better than average progress on a weekend.

There is quite a process to be navigated on the causeway, starting off with the toll booth, then Saudi car export check, passport exit, Saudi customs exit, Bahrain passport entry and visa purchase, Bahraini customs (I am struggling to think of anything that might be haram (prohibited) in Bahrain that is available in KSA) and finally Bahraini car insurance check, and here you can buy a few days insurance for the country in a transaction taking 60 seconds.

The sat-nav then took us to the hotel which was near to the centre of the capital city, Manama. When we checked in we were advised this was the wrong hotel – our booking was at another in the same chain but with a subtly different name. The staff were nice and offered us a glass of orange juice and a seat whilst they looked to see if they could transfer the booking, but alas they couldn’t. So, a further 20-minute drive saw us arrive at the correct hotel. This was located to the south side of Manama, in the Juffair district and almost overlooking the Al Fateh Grand Mosque. It was a tower block hotel and on the 19th floor we had excellent views over the city. The restaurants were on the 28th floor and gave an even better view. We had a drink in the hotel bar to unwind and then off to bed. The younger generations who had come over from KSA for the weekend were just heading out for some serious action.

On Friday we had a leisurely start and a substantial breakfast, however the bacon was beef or turkey. Some hotels do offer real bacon or sausages, but evidently not this one. (Note to hotel booking websites: please add “serves pork” as an option alongside location and price). Many people who visit Bahrain indulge in a Brunch, which is a set price affair, with rates including or excluding alcohol. These eat/drink-all-you-can events are clearly timed to attract those who have been out on the town all night and for some ex-pats in Riyadh are de rigeur. Not for us oldies though.

Fortified yet slightly unfulfilled after our breakfast we set out for a wee tour of the city. The Corniche is a road that hugs the shoreline and it was a treat to see open water. (There is none in Riyadh apart from a few ornamental ponds; and apparently the KSA is the largest country in the world without rivers. Technically the wadis - being seasonal and emptying into the desert where the water either evaporates or sinks to the ever-lowering water-table - are not rivers). Back to Bahrain, in the afternoon we met up with a friend who had moved to Manama from Riyadh a few months ago, it was nice to see her and her daughter, the husband was away working. Interesting to hear too that she is missing compound life, there isn’t the same social aspect when living in an apartment, even if she is permitted to drive. Later on, we visited a huge shopping mall and did some of the shopping we needed for Christmas back home in the UK. Certainly a much wider product choice in Bahrain than in KSA – its strange how you get used to just not having certain things and don’t worry about it. We had a simple evening meal with burgers in an American-style place close to the hotel.


Bahraini street scene


Spice pyramids in the souk

On Saturday, after another leisurely breakfast we located the ice-skating rink in “Funland”. Disappointingly it was smaller than the photos suggested, possibly only 2/3rds the dimensions of a normal hockey rink, but still larger than anything we have in Riyadh. Using it for curling is certainly possible, but its not quite long enough to get a full-sized sheet. Next, we headed for the old souk area and spent a few pleasant hours wandering about. One impulse buy for Elaine was a new abaya, with a beautiful pattern on it. The tailor re-sized it and added pockets, spending about 30 minutes doing all this right in front of us. This was such a pleasant experience and made such a change from the UK where bespoke tailoring is a very exclusive trade and off-the-peg is the norm. And the tailor’s charge for the garment was very reasonable too!


Bahrain ice rink

A final visit was to a supermarket not far from the causeway where we stocked up on goodies not available in KSA and then headed for Riyadh. The formalities were broadly similar to the ones on the way out, with the addition of a full vehicle search on the Saudi side. We were back in the compound by 22.30, just too late to collect the dog who had gone to stay with a friend for the weekend. Overall a nice break as a reminder that a more normal lifestyle is not too far away! We'll be back.

A few days before Christmas a Saudi friend who is a committee member of the Kingdom Curling Association and I went to collect our curling equipment order which had finally arrived. This was at Riyadh airport cargo handling terminal, and overall we spent about 4 hours trekking around the vast import and customs clearance halls. As we did not have an import licence, we had to employ the services of an import agent, who didn’t help us much at all apart from ticking a couple of boxes in the process. As a newbie to importing goods – particularly into what is allegedly the world’s most restrictive country – the process seemed to be byzantine. I’ll spare you the actual process, but we had to pay for ground handling charges (437 SAR), locate the pallet, have it fork-lifted from the import storage to the customs, pay the agent (300 SAR), break for prayers, have the pallet x-rayed by the customs team, open some of the boxes for visual inspection, get it valued (argument ensued and we eventually agreed 5% for sporting goods as opposed to 12% for granite and marble etc), go to the cash desk and pay the 2800 SAR, get approval for release and then have it loaded into my friend’s SUV. The Customs screener commented that he hadn’t seen such things before, and he was quite right – he’d be the first person inside Saudi Arabia to see a curling stone at all! I was quite surprised how hands-on the process is, we wandered about all sorts of places that I am sure we wouldn’t have been allowed to have gone had we been at home. Even right up to the huge x-ray scanner and in and around all sorts of other goods being imported, Some were crated and boxed, and others lying open and unattended. This included an open flight pod full of sheep carcasses from Sudan.


Right, Sir. Where do you want this lot taken then? 


The first curling stones to see light of day in Saudi Arabia as the Customs staff have a look.

So, success at last. We now have 32 curling stones and sundry other equipment in the country and we will be able to get them onto the ice in January.

But first a journey home for Christmas and the New Year. Seasons Greetings to you, dear reader.

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