Living Gated in Bahrain

While I have been too busy to blog these past few months, I still managed to make some time for attending the Los Angeles Geographical Society‘s (LAGS) free public lectures every month during the academic year.

I was able to write about the first one from last year but not the other two and the three lectures from this year, so here is the first of those missing lectures.

In October of last year, the lecture was titled “Bahrain – Between Two Seas” and given by Cal State Fullerton professor Zia Salim.  This was a fascinating lecture, in part due to the good quality presentation style by Salim.

This lecture focused on the lives of foreign workers in Bahrain who live in gated communities there.  These workers typically have white collar jobs.  Salim started off by discussing the history of the area.  The physical shape of Bahrain has changed rapidly, becoming larger due to urban development.

The island has been continuously inhabited for about 4,000 years and the majority is split along the Sunni and Shia Islam religions.  There are also some Christians and Jews as well.  In terms of geopolitics, the headquarters of the USA’s 5th Fleet (Navy) is there as well as an area dubbed “American Alley,” which has English speaking businesses that serve the Navy personnel.  There is also a large mix of agriculture and fishing, especially jellyfish which is sent to China.  This area also produces oil, which contributes to money for Dubai and thus there are lots of workers there with a large Indian population.

American Alley in Bahrain.  Image from

American Alley in Bahrain. Image from

Salim’s specific project in Bahrain was to study the configuration of space in the cities and suburbs with gated communities.  He examined the relationship between the compound’s residents and their environment at multiple scales.  Labor migration has been huge there with 54% of the population being foreign born while 75% of the workforce is foreign born.  Bahrain has the 4th highest net migration in the world and is 88% urban.

The buildup of gated communities can be traced back to oil workers, especially due to Edward Skinner, who was a Californian and worked for Bahrain Petroleum Company in the 1930s.

Salim’s pilot study of the area was conducted from 2009 to 2011 and included interviews, surveys, observations, archival research, field surveys and mapping.  The questions he posed to the residents asked about their feelings about the compound and their neighbors.  There were many different responses.  Most felt good about their home there but as good about the compound itself and most felt settled.  One person said they felt a sense of community there while another felt unattached because the place lacked character but liked the people.  Salim found that most feelings of attachment were actually connected to the people (neighbors) rather than the physical landscape of the gated community.

As for the world outside the compound, most residents felt disconnected from the people who lived outside their walls and described life in the gated community as living in a bubble.  Despite this, when they did interact with non-gated residents, they liked the people and the country in general but not the chaotic political situations.

Skyline in Bahrain.  Image from

Skyline in Bahrain. Image from

In terms of social networks within the gated community, Salim found that the built environment had effects on the social environment, such as the layout of a compound.  One example were how the circular compounds with pools and tennis courts helped bring people together because these areas were considered little oases.  Thus ties among neighbors there were stronger than those found outside the compounds or among expats.  This also helped answer the question of whether or not  the compounds functioned as communities, finding that it depended on the spatial arrangement.

Another important aspect of life in Bahrain is mobility.  Everyone there is always asking the same question of each other: How long have you been here?  More than half of the population does not put down roots.  Rather they work and then leave.  Some people have two or three year contracts so they must be prepared to leave.  All this temporariness stops them from being connected while the compound walls force relationships inward and create self-contained units.

This area’s disconnection with others is also exacerbated by the fact that there is no public transportation or bike lanes and everyone must drive cars just like in America.  One factor that can drive relationships is if people have children then they will be drawn to others who also have kids.  For most though, their strongest ties are with family back home (in other countries).

Roads in Bahrain.  Image from

Roads in Bahrain. Image from

Thus building strong ties to people within Bahrain is quite difficult as people are constantly moving in and out.  But the very fact that all these people are in the same situation and share similar experiences can create a different type of community where all compound residents can relate to each other on at least that issue.

Salim ended his presentation by saying how we can see similar places in California, such as Irvine or San Diego (which have vertical types of compounds).

If you would like more information you can contact Zia Salim at


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