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Despite its small size and extensive exposure to a multitude of nationalities and ethnicities, Bahrain's culture has essentially maintained its Arab roots. Islamic morals govern personal, business, legal and economic life. However, the country is regarded as quite liberal compared to its neighbours.
Bahrainis often speak English and are very friendly towards newcomers. Nevertheless, expats unused to the Arab way of life may experience some level of culture shock in Bahrain.
Dress code in Bahrain
On arrival, expats may be surprised to see just how smartly dressed locals can be. Traditional clothing for men includes a long white garment known as a thobe as well as a linen headwrap called a gutra. Local women wear headscarves and abayas – loose-flowing garments, usually black, sometimes with detailed decoration at the neck or sleeve edges.
Expat women need not dress in the traditional manner. However, shoulders and knees should generally be covered as skimpy tops or shorts can attract harassment. Hair should be covered too to avoid attracting unwanted attention.
Both men and women should dress conservatively for business meetings.
Ramadan in Bahrain
Ramadan can be a period of severe culture shock for expats who have never experienced the holy event in a Muslim country.
Though expats aren't required to fast during this period, they should not consume any food or drink (including water) in public between sunrise and sunset. Working hours and restaurant opening times are adjusted accordingly. However, some companies provide a room where non-Muslim staff can eat during the month of Ramadan.
Customs and etiquette in Bahrain
If invited to a Bahraini home, expats should take a non-alcoholic gift, such as chocolates or flowers.
In Bahraini culture, men greet other men with handshakes and kisses on the cheeks if they know each other. Women shouldn’t expect a man to shake hands with them, but a female friend may welcome her with a hug and a kiss. Men should not touch a Bahraini woman unless the woman offers her hand first.
Bahrainis love to socialise, but be aware that social events may be same-sex only. Make an effort to reciprocate the hospitality if possible. Small talk will always precede a business meeting or a meal.
When visiting someone’s home, check if they’ve removed their shoes and follow suit. Leaving footwear at the door avoids tramping the ubiquitous island dust through the house.
Alcohol in Bahrain
While alcohol is forbidden for Muslims in Bahrain, it's available to non-Muslims at specific outlets. For instance, certain hotels, restaurants and expat social clubs are permitted to sell alcohol for consumption on the premises.