BY VICKY MCFARLANE
We like to drive in Bahrain. Our busy streets and our heaving, ever-increasing networks of highways are a testament to this fact.This penchant for cars may have something to do with the small geographical size of our island, our limited though fast growing public transportation infrastructure, or weather that isn’t exactly ideal for a stroll, (read 40 degree heat and sandstorms). It could also have something to do with a collective passion for cars. Whatever the reason, the fact of the matter is that as a society, we seem to prefer to get behind the wheel rather than catch the bus – and this driving passion was ignited more than a century ago.
In 1914, Shaikh Abdulla bin Isa Al Khalifa, son of Shaikh Isa bin Ali Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s ruler from 1869 – 1923, purchased the first car that would grace the streets of the Kingdom of Bahrain. The car, a ‘King’ automobile built by Charles B. King in Detroit, was brought from India by sea. At the time the luxurious ‘self starting’ automobile sold for approximately US$1,200. As it would still be almost two decades before oil would be discovered on the Island, the petrol needed to run the car had to be imported by special shipment from abroad.
Although in those early days only British officers, members of the ruling family, and a few wealthy tradesmen used cars, the popularity of the automobile in Bahrain grew rapidly, and so did the number of cars on the Kingdom’s roads. By 1926 there were 26 cars on the road and this prompted the Manama Municipality, which was in charge of managing the traffic at the time, to hire 10 traffic policemen in order to cope with the demands. In 1944 this number grew to 395, and in 1954 almost 4000 cars were zooming throughout the island. The increasing traffic load also required an enhancement of the Kingdom’s existing road infrastructure. Beginning in the Manama Souq area, the municipality started the process of widening roads, expanding outwards to include a national network that linked the city with other settlements. This focused urban development, which witnessed the widening of carriageways, also saw the establishment of more parking areas.
In the 1930’s major highways were built, beginning with Isa Al Khabeer Avenue. The 1950’s saw the formation of Palace Avenue, and 1960 marked the birth of the Al Fatih Highway, all successively pushing back the coastline and extending the city area in belt like forms. The foreshore of Bahrain, which was defined by Government Avenue in the 1920s, had by the early 1930’s shifted to a new sea road now known as King Faisal Road. In 1929 a wooden bridge connected Manama to Muharraq with a new causeway built in 1941.
Today, more than a century after that first car made its royal entrance onto the streets of Bahrain, our love of cars does not seem to be waning. On the 4th of April 2004 our tiny Island Kingdom made history as the first venue in the Middle East to host a Formula One Grand Prix race, with the added bonus of being awarded the “Best Organised Grand Prix” by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA).
As well as being home to the highest class of racing sanctioned by the FIA, Bahrain is also the headquarters for Supercars Club Arabia. Supercars Club Arabia is an elite motoring club boasting the most powerful supercars in the Gulf region, including Lamborghinis, Ferraris and McLaren’s and, with a growing membership of enthusiasts parading glitzy roadsters, it looks like Bahrain’s passion for cars isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
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