Bahrain has long been overshadowed by its limelight-stealing younger sibling, Dubai, but it is now quietly re-emerging as an attractive, and distinctly more sophisticated, alternative
As a die-hard fan of the original Star Wars
trilogy, the idea of a sand storm in the desert thrills me. When one hits us on the road from Bahrain's international airport, the sun-baked rugged desert landscape I've been squinting at for the past 20 minutes vanishes in an instant and doesn't reappear until we've reached our destination, Banyan Tree Desert Spa & Resort Al Areen
A kingdom of 33 desert-covered islands between Saudi Arabia’s east coast and the Qatar Peninsula, Bahrain is the smallest of the independent Persian Gulf states. It was the first country in the Gulf to exploit its ‘liquid gold’ so has been doing business with the outside world for longer than many of its neighbours. But then Dubai overtook and development in Bahrain came clonking to a halt.
Today, things are picking up, banking is big business and commercial progress is once more gaining momentum. According to the City of London’s Global Financial Centres Index, Bahrain now has the fastest growing economy in the Middle East. While in other parts of the region, there are only very rich and very poor, Bahrain has a substantial educated middle class. Its people are famously hospitable and it offers a more liberal, sophisticated version of the Middle East.
What also makes it unique is its obvious respect for local history and its surprising old world charm. Between the high-rise corporate hotels are tangles of winding alleys lined with ancient shuttered houses, sprawling souks and coffee houses that billow shisha smoke.
In 2004, Bahrain hosted the first ever Middle Eastern leg of the Grand Prix in an architecturally magnificent new $150 million stadium situated on the site of an old camel farm in the desert outside the capital city of Manama. No one was more surprised than Dubai not to have got the gig and it signalled the ‘return’ of Bahrain. Ritz-Carlton Bahrain Hotel & Spa
became the centre of the universe for the international Formula One crowd, hosting numerous parties and accommodating key players in their beach villas, arranged around their own private beach.
Two years later, Banyan Tree
opened its first Middle Eastern property just a five-minute drive from the stadium, within Al Areen, a new-build desert community. The all-singing, all dancing Banyan Tree Desert Spa & Resort Al Areen
has been modelled on a Royal Arabian compound, with Moorish
arches, cloistered corridors and clusters of huge, sand-coloured private pool villas set amid landscaped gardens and courtyards. Its spa is the biggest in the Middle East, with an enormous hydrotherapy complex, a hydrothermal garden and hammam. With so much opulence, the resort is just the right side of brash, offering an understated elegance unique in the Middle East.
While it feels a bit hard to justify the incredible number of pool and water features scattered around the resort when Bahrain has so little fresh water, Banyan Tree
has just launched a water treatment plant which will service not only the resort, but the whole of Al Areen, using a process of reverse osmosis, cleaning out salt and particles from the water, extracted from the island’s own underground wells. The resort overlooks Al Areen Wildlife Park, a little oasis, which is home to the rare Arabian Oryx and almost 300 species of bird. Beyond that, you can just catch a glimpse of the twinkling Arabian Gulf beyond.
I join throngs of locals heading to the Sakhir Race Course to watch highly prized Arabian horses competing in nail-biting races, take a free tour of the Great Mosque and get lost in the dizzying maze of shops and stalls at the Manama Souk. Close by is La Fontaine Centre of Contemporary Art. A strikingly beautiful 19th century monument, fusing European chateau with ancient Gulf Islamic architecture, it was once the family home of the charming owner Fatima Alireza. The gallery also incorporates an award-winning Slow Food restaurant, spa, Pilates and dance studios and offers an extensive programme of outdoor concerts in the fractionally cooler months between October and May.
Stop by its earthy, minimalist fine-dining restaurant any day of the week and you may well see local and Saudi women socialising, enjoying themselves and even drinking wine – a wholly unusual sight in the Middle East. Unsurprisingly, it has a sophisticated, loyal following and is a social hub to those in the know. Alireza’s father launched Bahrain’s National Bank and was the first person to import kerosene from South Iran, providing many people with light in their homes for the first time. 'He would talk equally to a beggar and a king,' Alireza tells me, summing up the fundamental difference between Bahrain and her neighbours. 'This is the thing about the Bahraini people – they have great spirits and big hearts.'