The Irish of the Gulf


Bahrainis refer to themselves as the Irish of the Gulf; "craic" is part of every Bahraini's vocabulary and anyone with even the remotest Irish connection is welcomed with open arms.

"I've been travelling to Bahrain since 1987 and have found fascinating parallels between the Bahrain and Irish psyche," says Ciaran O'Boyle, professor of psychology at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), who runs management training courses for Bahrainis in the medical, engineering and information-technology fields. "We are both small island nations and share the same sense of humour and mentality." These sentiments are strongly echoed by the many Irish women who have married Bahrainis and produced a new nation of Bahraini-Irish children who will have a significant impact on Bahrain's social and cultural future.

Bernadette Meade from Cork arrived in Bahrain in 1991 to join Gulf Air. Within five years she was swept off her feet by Khalid Maskati, a paper baron, and is now happily married with two children. Her private villa is within the family compound, or estate, next to her in-laws.

"Both of us are from large, loving families, so it's comforting to have my in-laws nearby. They give me plenty of space and my children can run over to see their grandparents whenever they want. And, surrounded by cousins, they are growing up bilingual. My parents come out each year and, when in England, Khalid's fly over to see mine in Cork," she says.

"Khalid and I may come from different sides of the world, but our backgrounds are similar. My father has his own company in Ireland, we are both well travelled and well educated, we share the same views on bringing up our children - who will attend bilingual, co-ed schools in Bahrain until they finish secondary level, then we hope they'll go to Irish universities.

"Religion has never been an issue, perhaps because our individual religions are part of both our lives. Khalid celebrates Christmas and I celebrate the Muslim festival of Eid [which marks the end of Ramadan]. Bahrain is very cosmopolitan, and the Bahrainis are so easy to get on with. Many of Khalid's generation are married to foreigners, so we have a wide circle of multi_national friends.

"You don't hear the happy stories. My girlfriends are happily married to Bahrainis who allow them freedom to do their own thing - and each is the only wife.

"The essential element in our marriage is mutual respect for each other and our respective cultures. I would never have married someone if I'd been under pressure."

Margaret from Co Mayo was one of the first generation of Irish women to marry a Bahraini. While nursing in Jervis Street Hospital in Dublin, she met Issa Amin, a doctor who arrived in Ireland in 1970 to take an RCSI fellowship postgraduate degree. They married in 1974 and, in 1978, came to live in Bahrain with their babies, Aoife and Dunia.

"He'd painted a bleak picture of what to expect, so I was pleasantly surprised," laughs Margaret. "There were a few shocks, such as the outdoor meat market, which was pretty grim, but once I found Bahrain's only cold store, life began to look up. It's hard to compare what was available then with the fantastic variety available in today's mega supermarkets.

"I had no problem assimilating into my new lifestyle, and Issa's family welcomed me warmly. Our backgrounds are similar and religion has never been a problem - I've never had to cover myself in black from head to toe!

"I'm one of the lucky ones, but I know of some Irish girls who found that once they returned to Bahrain, their husbands changed and limited their freedom, expecting their wives to sit at home all day.

"For us, Ireland was a natural choice for our children's third-level education, but I think the reason so many Bahrainis send their children to Dublin is because it's a small city, has a friendly reputation and the educational standard is high."

Their 19-year-old son, Tariq, who was born in Bahrain, is studying accounting and finance at Portobello College in Dublin. He says he enjoys living in Ireland because the people are so friendly and "make me feel at home".

The love affair between Bahrain and Ireland began in the early 1960s, when Michael Doporto, an Irish surgeon, arrived in Bahrain to join a government hospital. He initiated the first medical link between the two countries by encouraging two young Bahraini doctors to complete their postgraduate degrees at the RCSI in 1970. This pioneering step opened up a new era for Ireland, not only in the medical field - 50 per cent of Bahraini specialist surgeons are RCSI-trained - but in other areas where Irish expertise was in high demand.

ESB, Aer Lingus, McInerney & Sons and IDI (International Development Ireland) are but a few of the Irish companies that offered their services to Bahrain in the 1970s to help in the country's infrastructural development. By sharing their professional skills, these Irish explorers encouraged the new wave of educated Bahrainis to avail of Ireland's excellent educational opportunities in such fields as medicine, law, engineering, education, aviation and commerce.

Recognising the high standard of entry to Ireland's universities, an increasing number of Bahrainis are opting to send their children to Ireland rather than to universities in Britain or the US. Aqeel Raees, general manager of Bahrain's Gulf Hotel, has two sons, both of whom attended the RCSI. One has graduated and practises as a physician in Bahrain, the other is in his final year.

"The quality of Ireland's education is very high," he says, "so when our children return to Bahrain, their standards of expertise will help our country to progress and develop in all areas."

Even Bahrain's minister for health, Dr Faiysal Al-Mousawi, took his postgraduate degree at the RCSI and worked as a registrar at Wexford County Hospital.

"Although my sons completed their secondary education in Bahrain, they had to sit the Leaving Certificate at Dublin's Institute of Education before they were accepted into medical school. I think it's easier for Bahraini students to be accepted by UK or US universities with IB [International Baccalaureate] or Bahrain secondary-level certificates."

In 1975, when the ESB formed a consultancy agreement with the Bahraini government, some 250 Irish families relocated to Bahrain. Mike Stapleton from Waterford came out on a two-year contract and enjoyed the lifestyle so much he decided to join the local electricity directorate. "Our three children were born in Bahrain and we've been here ever since," says his wife, Ruth (nΘe Walsh).

"Quality of life is one of Bahrain's main attractions," she says. "It's an open and friendly society and both nations share similar cultural, religious and family values. The weather is great, with sports and outdoor pursuits to suit everyone. The only really hot period is between June and September.

"Bahrain also offers a unique opportunity for women to work in demanding jobs. The flexible hours allow me to spend more time with my children than I could at home," says Ruth, formerly with AIB in Ireland and now a credit manager with BNP Paribas.

Movana Sweeney from Derry met her half-Irish, half-Egyptian husband, Anis Sadek, at Trinity College Dublin and they moved to the Gulf 20 years ago. "Bahrain has such a diverse mix of people living in an integrated society, and offers a unique mix of international flavour, as well as an opportunity to meet people from all walks of life.

"The lifestyle is very family-orientated. Bringing up children here is an education in itself, giving them an ideal opportunity to learn another language. We are also well positioned to travel to countries which may not be so easily accessible from Ireland."

"I'm here for the horses," says Susan Jones (nΘe Hughes), from Howth, who has lived in Bahrain since 1987. "Where in the world would I have such a fantastic opportunity to ride magnificent Arabian horses whenever I want and teach riding to children from all over the world?

"The Bahrainis have a great sense of humour and are the nicest, friendliest, most hospitable people on Earth. Even though I've seen enormous changes to the infrastructure, and the economy is booming, the people haven't changed. I drove into the souk one day and parked my car at a meter. I was searching in my bag for change when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see an old beggar who handed me the money I needed. That says it all."