The Middle Eastern island giving Dubai a run for its money

The skyline of Manama City, Bahrain
Cosmopolitan Bahrain is just across the border from Saudi Arabia - Getty

Either side of the DJ gyrate two statuesque women who, if you added their two outfits together, would have enough for one (almost) decent one. In front of them, waitresses whizz jeroboams of champagne and primary-coloured cocktails to raucous groups of twentysomethings. In the corner, two noticeably well-groomed young men dance nearly unhygienically closely with each other.

With apologies to both Judy Garland and Cristiano Ronaldo… Roro, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Riyadh anymore.

In fact, we’re in Bahrain, the – obviously rather more liberal – country just across the border from Saudi Arabia that has lured Ronaldo and many of the biggest international footballers playing alongside him in the Saudi Pro League.

Building developments in Bahrain
Bahrain mixes culture with an excellent entertainment scene - Getty

Some, like former Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard, live in Bahrain; others, such as Brazilian striker Neymar and French forward Karim Benzema, come to spend their weekends in this tiny island state that floats just offshore from Saudi like a hazy, miragey, semi-mythical combination of Avalon, Xanadu and that nightclub-on-a-boat moored in the middle of Newcastle for much of the 1990s.

Footballers aren’t necessarily known as the most discerning of travellers, but this choice is a no-B(ah)rainer. Saudi bans booze, bare shoulders, sex outside marriage – and although, since 2019, it’s no longer compulsory for foreign women to wear abaya robes there, even the least glamorous of Wags is still going to have to ditch four-fifths of her wardrobe.

Bahrain, by contrast, has world-class restaurants, perma-partying bars, a dash of Arabic culture and history – and you don’t have to be on Ronaldo’s £3.4-million-a-week salary to enjoy a holiday here.

Neymar at the Bahrain Grand Prix in March
Brazilian striker Neymar has been known to spend a weekend in Bahrain - Getty

In fact, my first impressions are of a rather more modest, mini Dubai. Literally so, in fact, as the skyline of the capital, Manama, looks exactly like Dubai’s – just with all the skyscrapers about 50 per cent shorter (skyworriers?). I make straight for one of the most impressive: I’m staying at the Four Seasons Bahrain Bay, a luxury hotel that looms large in the Footballers’ Lives lifestyle.

Gerrard was given a gym membership here by his Saudi employers as one of the blandishments to get him to sign up (that might not sound so much of a perk, but wait till you’ve had a massage there), and he’s not the only star to have been spotted eating at its glamorous restaurants.

The place looks like it’s been teleported back from the future: a jaw-loosening, 68-storey, futurist-brutalist pair of concrete monoliths linked by decks of implacably reflecting glass, rising from its own perfectly circular man-made island in the bay. At its feet is an obviously-not-natural but nonetheless exquisite slice of beach, and its rooms purr with the timeless luxury combo of marble and mahogany, so perfectly put-together it feels like AI.

Al Fateh Grand Mosque in Manama
Traditional Middle Eastern architecture in Bahrain - Getty

Gazing out, it’s Blade Runner in the evenings, all blinking lights on a soaring, sprawling cityscape; but when I look out at dawn it’s Dune: a low, red sun picks out the desert colours of those patches of sand yet to be developed, and silhouetted in the tangerine half-light the high-rise buildings look like ancient fortresses, with domes and minarets now visible among the gaps.

The only thing that breaks the spell, in fact, is the Cheesecake Factory right opposite. An outpost of the tacky American calorie-mongers sits just across the water in the Avenues mall, which isn’t finished yet but is already home to a hundred-odd stores, seemingly about half of them local perfumiers, so that even as you sidle past such unexotic emporia as WHSmith, Boots and The Body Shop, you do so in a pleasing fug of thick, rich, incensey oud, like dark purple Arabian velvet in the nostrils.

Shopping, of course, is the sport of Wags, and Mesdames Ronaldo, Neymar and Benzema are well catered-for in Bahrain. Just yards away from the Avenues is Moda, a more exclusive mall (swap out Claire’s Accessories for Tiffany, and chuck in an Alfa Romeo showroom), but my attempts to walk there are frustrated by an Alfa-friendly, pedestrian-unfriendly street system, and after 20 minutes of sweat and tarmac I end up getting a taxi to City Centre mall instead, which I’ve been told is more “authentic” anyway.

The Zara store in Bahrain
Shopping is a popular pastime - Getty

What that seems to mean is that, among the truly metropolis-sized complex’s 340 shops, 60 restaurants, two hotels and permanent kiddies’ funfair, there is also a “Souq area”, supposed to mimic a traditional local marketplace, all date shops and ladies’ clothing stores where the garms come in the full rainbow of colours from black to (if Madame is looking for something a little... racier) very dark grey.

Manama’s actual souq, meanwhile, is a half-mile-square of lose-yourself lanes and alleyways where you can haggle over anything from ha’penny chews to high-end jewellery. And for a glimpse (you may, to make it convincing, need to squint) of what it looked like before the mobile phone shops moved in, Bahrain’s National Museum has an only-slightly-creepy waxwork version.

The most fascinating/terrifying exhibits concern the pearl-diving industry – until fairly recently pearl-divers still basically clipped a clothes peg over their noses and attached a rock to their feet – and some eyebrow-raising traditional marriage and maternity policies.

Crowds of people in Manama Souq
Manama Souq, a half-mile-square of lose-yourself lanes and alleyways - Getty

There’s more history at Qal’at al-Bahrain, the cruise-ship-sized castle that sits a 20-minute drive west, at the epicentre of Bahrain’s ancient trading empire. Most visible is the striking, colonial-era Portuguese fort on top, but in layers beneath its 40ft-high base are the remains of successive civilisations from some 4,500 years ago.

They’re unearthed and elucidated in the museum next door, but in truth it’s hard to concentrate when there’s such a seductive café attached: shaded by palms, lapped by the clear aquamarine waters of the Arabian Gulf, here anyone could order themselves a peach iced tea and forget about Saturday’s vital game against Al Fateh FC.

Ronaldo’s famous six-pack must take a pounding out here, too. I eat fantastically everywhere – from the £7 trad Bahraini café where the menu uninvitingly lists “shrimp mush” (but it turns out to be a gorgeous mix of rice, prawns, saffron, herbs and delicate rose water) to the £185 steak at Cut by Wolfgang Puck. The latter, back at the Four Seasons, is a favourite of Gerrard’s, and it’s easy to see and taste why: these splendid slabs of uber prime Wagyu and Gold Angus have been jetted in from Australia or the US, and it’s anything but cattle class.

An Arab family walking on the beach
Bahrain isn't short of beautiful beaches - Getty

After dinner, it’s out to the Adliya district for a drink, a shisha and some Unesco-level people-watching (Halo Lounge, with the gyrating and jeroboams, wasn’t even the wildest bar in this brilliantly buzzing block or two of nightlife). As I climb into my taxi, though, I hear the call to evening prayers echoing out from a minaret somewhere, and it’s like a battle for my soul with the DJ on one side and the muezzin on the other.

When I’d visited the Grand Mosque earlier in the day, I’d been much taken with the peace and gracefulness of the mosque itself (though unconvinced by the guide’s gentle but persistent proselytising).

I wasn’t about to embrace Islam, then. But a country where I could indulge my body and nourish my soul, within mere minutes of each other? That’s the sort of place that could make a convert of me.


Ed Grenby was a guest of Four Seasons Bahrain Bay, which has doubles from £284 room-only (; Bahrain Tourism and Exhibition Authority (; and British Airways, which has Heathrow returns from £566 (