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Bahrain: where modern meets ancient

Interview - February 16, 2017

“Distinct from regular tourism, Bahrain’s cultural tourism specifically celebrates a country’s history, art, architecture and the traditions that have shaped a way of life. We have historically always been open to the world, welcoming visitors and traders alike,” says Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, President of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities


What is the importance of culture and art for Bahrain’s socio economic development?

It doesn’t matter where in the world, culture and art are key factors for not only social but economic development as well. We believe that the role of culture in development should be treated as multi-layered: on one hand as an intrinsic value, and secondly as a real factor for Bahrain’s development leading to increased attractiveness of the country for tourists, residents and investors, thirdly, as an active factor of social development based on knowledge, tolerance and creativity.

A key element to culture’s role is preparation to life in society. Culture-related undertakings contribute to an increase in the intellectual potential of the country and the building of a conscious, open and tolerant citizen society. It should be emphasized that culture is a base for initiating cooperation and human communications, performing numerous education functions and thereby activating various layers of society. In fact, the quantity and quality of these institutions impacts in part on the building of a society based on knowledge: creative, innovative, open to change, capable of educating permanent social and economic bonds.  One of the foundations of building such a society is “investing in culture”, which Bahrain’s Vision 2030 emphasises and prioritises not only to build new cultural sites, but to preserve and renovate Bahrain’s cultural heritage.


What is unique about Bahrain’s cultural heritage and art?

Bahrain is a culturally, ethnically, and religiously diverse country where people live freely in a tolerant and hospitable environment. We were known to the rest of the world before the oil discovery as the Island of Pearls, where pearling was one of the major economic activities of the region. Most of the settlements in the region were Nomadic in nature and their main activities included fishing and pearling. We have a long-standing history, and many cultural sites for all our visitors, for example, Qal’at al-Bahrain (the harbour and capital of the ancient land of Dilmun) and the Bahrain Pearling Trail in Muharraq, were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2005 and 2012, respectively.

The island of Bahrain was blessed with exceptional natural wealth. The abundance of sweet water, lush gardens, pristine beaches and natural reserves make Bahrain an earthly paradise and a coveted destination. From Hawar Island and the Tree of Life to Block 338 and the Bahrain National Theatre, Bahrain offers varied experiences to its visitors all year long.

You can find sky scrapers anywhere around the world now, but a distinct culture and heritage is something unique. Bahrain has all the above. It is where modern meets ancient. Distinct from regular tourism, Bahrain’s cultural tourism specifically celebrates the country’s history, art, architecture and the traditions that have shaped a way of life. We have historically always been open to the world, welcoming visitors and traders alike.

In fact, from the tourists’ point of view, sightseeing might be the most interesting aspect of a holiday; Bahrain’s cultural background would be the unforgettable experiences for them. One of the most important positive aspects for visitors to Bahrain is that, our culture covers all aspects of travel; tourists can learn the history and the way of life in the destination, which includes food, drink, hospitality, craftsmanship, amongst others.


The Authority has an initiative to attract private sector investment into Bahrain’s culture and art, please discuss what that entails?

We have a collective responsibility to promote an educational and cultural dialogue through arts. We launched the ‘Investing in Culture’ initiative several years ago, which encourages the private sector to invest in Bahrain’s cultural scene and infrastructure. This initiative has been a resounding success, and in the last few years, I am happy to say that we have gathered the equivalent of approximately 100 million US from the private sector, including several private companies, banks, and individuals. With this investment, these initiatives have placed the Kingdom of Bahrain on the international cultural map.

We encourage and welcome any institution that wants to be part of Bahrain’s journey. It is important to remember that cultural institutions are contributors to the economy. They serve every community and are valuable community anchors as well as educational institutions. There are places where mutual exchanges happen, where connections are made and creativity flourishes. They serve and inspire the public.


In 2016 the Authority had a main slogan “Your Destination Bahrain”, discuss what it entailed and what we should expect in 2017.

The selection of “Your Destination Bahrain” as the slogan for last year was driven by our intent to promote the island, unravel its glorious past and explore its exceptional natural landscapes and its distinctive modern character. “Your Destination Bahrain” communicates the uniqueness of the island and the myriads of destinations and experiences it offers to its visitors.

In 2017 we want to prioritise on our archaeological sites, we want our visitors to experience Bahrain outside museums, to see in real what our heritage entails. We are currently working with several key partners in order to make as many sites as possible open to the public.

The Shaikh Ebrahim bin Mohamed Al Khalifa Center for Culture and Research, which is a leading cultural centre in Bahrain and the Middle East, has to date saved over twenty traditional Bahraini houses from demolition and decay and turned them into centers dedicated to preserving and celebrating Bahrain’s cultural heritage.  We have invited fifteen artists to create individual site-specific projects in fifteen of the restored historical Bahraini houses, where everyone can experience Bahrain’s cultural and architectural heritage through the prism of contemporary artistic practice.

Bahrain’s cultural higlights:

Bahrain National Theater

Bahrain National Theatre opened in November 2012 under the patronage of His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. It has hosted a number of global performances from some of the world’s foremost artists, such as the Orchestra of the 21st Century of Russia, legendary composer Yanni, Spanish opera superstar Placido Domingo, the Bolshoi and Mariinsky Ballets from Russia, and Il Divo.

Bahrain National Theatre is considered the crowning achievement in the Kingdom’s longstanding efforts to enrich and develop local culture for many decades as evidenced by a history full of achievements, including establishing the first school in the GCC in 1919 and the first radio station in 1941, in addition to a large number of cultural halls and institutes.

Bahrain National Museum

The Bahrain National Museum is the crowning achievement of the Kingdom of Bahrain’s ongoing efforts to preserve the nation’s heritage and history. Efforts which began in 1957 when the first exhibition of the artefacts discovered by the Danish archaeological expedition was held at Al-Hidaya Al-Khalifiya in Muharraq. Built on a central location between Manama and Muharraq, Bahrain National Museum houses 9 main halls, and classifies the accumulated heritage of the Kingdom of Bahrain into 6 different sections.  

Visitors to the museum will be taken on a 4,000-year journey through time as they pass through its halls, from the traditional handicrafts hall, to the customs and traditions hall, burial mounds hall, ancient documents and manuscripts hall, Tylos hall, and Islamic period hall. 

The museum seeks not only to enhance understand and knowledge of Bahrain’s history amongst locals only, but also play a role as an institution which promotes global culture within the community, as evidenced by the numerous international culture and art exhibitions it has hosted over the years.

At the end of this special voyage through time, visitors can enjoy a wide variety of traditional Bahraini and international dishes and delicacies at the museum cafeteria.

Qala’at al Bahrain Site Museum

Opened in February 2008, the Qala’at Al-Bahrain (Bahrain Fort) Site Museum seeks to maintain the ancient historic features of the site, as well as document the archaeological periods by preserving the artefacts discovered at the site.

The museum is located on the northern coast of the Kingdom of Bahrain, and is surrounded by a picturesque seascape and lush greenery that escaped urban encroachment. The museum’s collection showcases five different historical periods which are arranged chronologically, each within its own separate gallery.

The three-dimensional design concept of Qala’at Al-Bahrain Site Museum covers two floors and reflects a strong continuation between its interior and exterior spaces. The design also allows its rear sea-facing façade to open a direct path from the heart of the village to the shoreline.  

The museum also contains a main courtyard leading to a café which overlooks the coastline opposite the fort, as well as a lecture hall and gift shop.

The Qala’at Al-Bahrain Site Museum is situated across from the historic Qala’at Al-Bahrain, one of the most important historic political and military forts in the GCC region. The fort is part of the Qala’at Al-Bahrain Site, inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.

Art Centre

The Art Center was opened in May 1992 by the Ministry of Culture. It houses a number of halls which host a number of cultural activities and functions in the Kingdom of Bahrain.

The Art Center provides a range of local, regional, and international fine arts experiences through its annual program, enabling Bahrainis and residents to discover fine arts works from the Arab world and beyond.

In parallel, the centre also hosts a wide variety of cultural functions, ranging from musical performances, poetry recitals, lectures, and photography exhibitions.

The Art Center reflects the country’s keen interest in fostering and developing culture and the arts movement in Bahrain. These efforts have provided an enabling environment which has contributed to proliferation of the fine arts in the country.

The centre is open to the general public in the morning from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm and in the evening from 4:30 pm to 8:00 pm from Saturday to Wednesday, except when there are official holidays.