I knew very little about Bahrain before I went to live and work there. As a Formula 1 motor racing fan I knew that it hosted a race each year and I knew that the country was somewhere in the Middle East. That’s about it. Even when I was living in Oman I never heard or read anything about it. When I was informed that there was a new polytechnic there that was looking for expat teachers I had to use Google to see where Bahrain was. I remember being surprised that (a) it was an island and (b) it was tiny. Deciding to leave Oman and settle in Bahrain, however, was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I count myself very fortunate to have been a part of Bahrain Polytechnic. I was not really enjoying teaching in Oman when I first found out about the ‘Poly’. I was the coordinator of the English program for first year students at one of five colleges set up by the Oman Ministry of Education and the head of the program, Joan Boyer (a wonderful and extremely popular New Zealand lady) had decided to resign from her position. At her final meeting with all the college coordinators in Muscat she told me she was heading to Bahrain to become the head of the English program at a new polytechnic there and she mentioned that they needed staff. I applied in June 2008 for the position of English tutor and was asked to travel there for an interview soon after.
I was met at Bahrain airport by the Director of Human Resources, Lorraine Webber (ironically the same person who was forced to terminate my employment), and taken to Seef Mall to kill a bit of time as my interview was not scheduled until the afternoon. In Oman I lived in a coastal town called Sur, about 300km from the capital, Muscat, so the contrast of Manama was immediately noticeable. I was impressed by the “moderness” of the city and the obvious attitude that it was moving with the times. I know Oman is liked by many people for its quaintness and traditions (for example, there is a height limit on buildings) and as recently as 1970 there weren’t even any schools or sealed roads. I remember thinking to myself as I was riding in Lorraine’s car, “I can see myself being very happy living here.”
During the car ride and the interview I was told about the Polytechnic in detail. It was due to open its doors to students in September 2008 and had been specifically set up by the Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, as part of Bahrain’s 2030 vision. Bahrain was experiencing a “skills gap” and needed its young people to have specific qualifications for the jobs available as many graduates from the University had no jobs to apply for that were related to the courses they had studied. My interview took place at the University of Bahrain’s “old” campus in Isa Town and Lorraine told me that the plan was to eventually demolish every building and contruct a wonderful, new, state-of-the-art campus. It all sounded very exciting.
My interview went very well and I received my offer of employment while I was on holiday in Thailand in July and began my Polytechnic life on 31st August as employee number 65. The new staff had a meeting with CEO John Scott and he said two words that brought a smile to my face and confirmed to me that I was in the right place. He said the aim of the Polytechnic was to become a “world class” institution. I liked the sound of that and I was proud to be a part of it.
I was present for the official opening of the Polytechnic on 30th November, 2008 by the Crown Prince. Also in attendance was the Deputy Prime Minister, Shaikh Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khalifa (not to be confused with the Deputy Prime Minister for Ministerial committees, Muhammad bin Hamad Al Khalifa or the Transport Minister, Ali bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, who is also a Deputy Prime Minister). I was quite interested because I’d never seen a member of any royal family close up before so I waited patiently for the rather large entourage to arrive. We only had about 250 students in that very first semester but I was a little puzzled to see that only about 50 or so had stayed to see the Crown Prince arrive. I was teaching two small classes at the time and none of my students stayed behind after their classes to see him. I wrongly concluded that they were just not interested in seeing the Polytechnic officially opened.
[The official opening of Bahrain Polytechnic, November 2008]
In those early days of the Polytechnic I lived in a suburb called Juffair, an area of reclaimed land close to the Gulf hotel and the Grand Mosque. It was also close to the U.S. military base and a small street containing many fast-food restaurants, affectionately known as “Cholesterol Alley”. My wife was still in Thailand at the time and I knew that she would prefer to live somewhere closer to shopping malls rather than food outlets and a military base, so I tagged along with a group of my colleagues who were also looking for accommodation in other areas. We were shown an apartment in a building (not Abraj Al Lulu) close to the shopping mall precinct that I thought would be perfect so I decided to sign the lease. The name of the suburb I had chosen to live in was Sanabis.
The apartment building was not in Sanabis but right on the edge, very close to Manama and the Pearl Roundabout. One of the first things I noticed about the Sanabis area was the regular clouds of black smoke that appeared and the strange circular marks on the roads as I drove to and from work. Whenever any student asked me where I was living and I said “Sanabis” they would laugh and ask me if I liked barbeques. It was not until I saw a pile of tyres that had been deliberately set on fire on one of the roads that everything clicked for me. I tried to find out what was going on.
One of my students in that first semester was an extremely likeable and intelligent young fellow called Ahmed. He called himself a “revolutionary” and wore a green, military style jacket. Even with his outgoing appearance he seemed a little tight-lipped about his revolution but did tell me that the burning of tyres were a protest about youths being arrested in the area. I assumed that it was for some petty incident and left it at that. I also could not understand why Ahmed needed to be a revolutionary in the first place. To me, Bahrain seemed like an extremely well-run and planned country and had obviously devoted a lot of time to planning for its future when the reserves of natural resources would inevitable run out.
I remember being extremely happy at that time and felt I had made an excellent decision to move to Bahrain. I went to the Bahrain International Circuit and watched a V8 Supercar race (as well as the Formula 1 Grand Prix later the next year), watched some of the best snooker players in the world play in the Bahrain Snooker Championship at the International Exhibition Centre, saw Australia defeat Bahrain in a FIFA World Cup qualifying match at the National Stadium, hit golf balls at the driving range of the Royal Golf Club, played cricket on the beach and joined the British Club. The best of everything was within easy reach, especially great restaurants and alcohol. In Oman it was necessary to buy a license to purchase alcohol and the only outlets were in Muscat, involving a 700 km round trip. Life was good and I was extremely impressed with the whole way the country was run. To all appearances Bahrain was a peacful, happy country but, as I gradually came to discover, appearances can be very deceptive in Bahrain.
Next blog: The truth about Bahrain is revealed