Wednesday, 13 May 2009

A Small Country with a Large Currency

...and a small population with a large expat workforce.

sunny 38 °C
Things look so cheap here in Bahrain: a Big Mac costs only 1.4 BD (Bahraini dinar) until I have to convert it to AUD/SGD in my head. Look can be deceiving, I tell yee. The cost of living in Bahrain is quite high as measured by the Macdonald's Burger Index that cooked up by US economists. In this case, it's a reasonable accurate reflection.

1 BHD = 4.2 SGD/AUD at the time I arrived this kingdom (Locals call their currency BD, and the ISO 4217 currency code is BHD). 1BHD = 1000 Fils. Because of the large currency value, 3 decimal points are needed for accuracy. While we had a worldwide Y2K software bug back in the turn of the century, all software that are adapted to use in this country will have to be 3DP compliant (my own anagram - 3 Decimal Places) - job bonanza for the code cutters.

Bahaini Dinar is the second highest currency by value, only second to Kuwaiti Dinar (KWD), followed by Oman Rial (OMR), these three countries just happen to be all members of GCC countries. What a surprise! Needless to say, this high valued currency rate is very expensive for poor sod like myself who have most of my currency holdings in bank accounts denominated in AUD/SGD. In short, things are about 1.2 times (20%) more expensive in general than Singapore, 30% more than Sydney, and nearly 2 times more expensive than HK. Ahhhhhh...HK's food, its variety, its standard, its price, has never looked so attractive.

The GCC countires try to get a common currency, something like Euro in EU. All they need is coming up with a currency unit they can agree on - dinar, riyal or dirham. Ok, they have more serious obstacles to cleal with before they can come up with a common currency by 2010 if all go to plan.
Speaking of GCC currency. When you hand a 10 dinar note to a cashier in a shop and get a 50 note back, instead of yelling "Bonanza!", hold your Lorne Greene horses, (or giving it back to the cashier like a good Samaritan), look again. It's most likely to be a 50 Saudi Riyal note. Not surprisingly, the notes of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia look quite similar (all GCC banknotes look the same to me). Try to look for words like "Central Bank of Bahrain" for clues. The exchange rate between the two currencies is neatly 10 to 1. So just drop a zero from Riyal to get the equivalent worth in Dinar. No, I have never seen a 50 dinar note; I'm not that loaded.

Many Saudis drive to Bahrain on the weekend to grab some much needed R&R (alcohol and various other mildly sinful things are allowed in Bahrain) via the 28km King Fahd Causeway that turns the island into a peninsula. Because of this weekend ritual, Saudi Riyals are widely accepted here. Oh, weekend here are Fridays and Saturdays, so I frequently (and understandably) mistaken Sunday for Monday, Friday for Saturday, etc. When you get off a plane, best to reset your watch, and put your calendar one day forward to alleviate temporal disorientation.

When I was told that I am required to go to the Kingdom of Bahrain, i quickly looked up my map and found out it was a very small island locates on a latitude of 26 degrees north. The two facts - an very small island (practically the same size of Singapore), and the latitude - led me to conclude that the climate there would likely be quite similar to Brisbane, which is a port city locates on a latitude of 27 degrees south. this implies a temperature during this season (spring) around a pleasant 27 degrees Celsius or so. I was please because I'm getting out of the humid heat of Singapore. I looked the weather forecast and almost fell off my chair - the temperature for the week ranging from 37 to 39 degrees Celsius. So much for simplistic weather comparisons. The extreme low rainfall in this region turns this island into a sandy rock.

When you turn on the cold water tap and get very warm water, don't call the plumber. There's nothing wrong with your taps (faucets for you Yankees). The 'Hot' and 'Cold' labels haven't been incorrectly installed. No need to visit a doctor, either. Your temperature sensors on your hands work fine. This is normal cold water. In May anyway. I haven't lived here in Winter months, so I can't say. I suspect it's because the pipes are buried under those hot sandy ground, and the water can get heated up to lukearm.

I only have been here for less than two weeks, but I have already seen three dust storms that blew over here from across the strait (Saudis aren't the only arrivals). Although everyone here refer to this meteorological phenomenon as sandstorm, but technically, it should be called dust storm, especially those exist in the city. Even when it does rain, it's a light shower that's over in minutes. The rain water evaporates the seconds it hits the ground. Despite the total absence of heavy rain, windscreen wipers are critically essential as you can't drive during a dust storm without it.

As you drive around the city, you are graced by many palm trees, all of which are planted there by the government and watered every day to keep them alive. So the palm trees that are so associated with the Middle East, at least this country, it's a man-made myth.

After the initial shock of the weather and lukewarm tap water have subsided and walking around the city isn't as bad as I imagine. Perhaps, I'm more used to this dry heat that I used to in Sydney than the humid heat in Singapore. The temperature drops more rapidly as night fall. Also because of the proximity to the ocean (Who doesn't?), the ocean breezes help, too. I usually go out after 4:30pm, which is not all that bad. Because of the perennial dust layer that hangs in the sky, there's never a naked sun rays reaching the ground, especially when the sun is closer to the horizon. You can do a staring contest with the sun at 4:40pm without sunglasses.

Most of the massage shops are run by Thai. Surprise? They are clustered around Exhibition Avenue and its alleys opposite the impressive Gosi Shopping Complex. The massages are similar to those provided in Thailand, for example, Thai traditional , oil and foot massage, except over here, male clients are massaged by massuers and females are massaged by their masseuses, in different business premises (as supposed to only female massage workers in massage parlours throughout Thailand). ladies' body massage costs 10 BD/hr, while men costs 15 BD/hr. Some ladies' massage parlours also provide hair cut. Many beauty and hair salons intersperse among the massage shops.
There are also a visible Moroccan presence in this area that operate restaurants and other small business.

Indian (including Sri-Lankan) run most of the small retail shops in the souq in Bab-Al-Bahrain. The shops are aimed both at the locals as well as tourists. Think of the shops in China Town in Sydney, but not so upmarket. I bought a 2.5 BD obligatory souvenir shirt there. There are also Indians living here that belong the other end of the super rich, who carve out a slice of Bahrain prosperity in banking and financial industry.

There are also various groups of people from other parts of Middle East making a living here - Palestinian, Jordanian, Egyptian, Pakistani, Lebanese, Turks as well as African. In short, Manama is a cosmopolitan city, which appeals to the Koran's belief in the brotherhood of men. I won't cover sisterhood here. They get enough coverage.

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