Today will witness the latest edition of the Bahrain Grand Prix — the third round of the 2017 Formula One season, and the 13th time the high-powered cars of the F1 carnival will race around this Middle Eastern country. But what else do we know about a country short on geographical size but big on history? Try these 10 facts.
1. It is the third smallest country in Asia
Which makes it pretty small indeed. The only two Asian countries with less landmass are Singapore (which is a city state) and the Maldives — although bearing in mind that the latter's 115 square miles of sand islet and coral reef are stretched across an awful lot of Indian Ocean, you may wish to raise an eyebrow or two at this definition. Still, Bahrain is definitely not big. There is a mere 295 square miles of it, which makes it just about larger than the miniscule Caribbean outcrop of Dominica (290 square miles) — but leaves it smaller than the under-sized Kiribati archipelago in the Pacific Ocean (313 square miles).
2. It is an island, but not as you know it...
As in you can drive a car onto it without having to place tyres on a ferry. In terms of raw natural geography, yes, Bahrain is an island. It floats in the Persian Gulf, roughly midway between the peninsula nation of Qatar and the east coast of South Arabia. But it is here, in the latter neighbour, that the caveat lies. It is connected to the Saudi city of Al Khobar by the King Fahd Causeway. This 16-mile link from west to east was constructed between 1981 and 1986, and carries about 25,000 vehicles per day. The border is located roughly halfway along the highway, on the artificially constructed (and aptly named) Middle Island. Just the suggestion of having the causeway built was enough for Bahrain to reflow its traffic system. In 1967, when discussions about the causeway were at a very formative stage, it changed from driving on the left to the right in order to fit in with its wealthier neighbour.
3. Actually, it's an archipelago
While the main Bahrain Island is the crux of the country - accounting for 83 per cent of its landmass, and home to both the capital Manama and the country's highest point, Jabal ad Dukhan (which sounds like a mighty monolith in that its name translates as Mountain of Smoke, but only tips its hat at 440ft/134m) — Bahrain is actually a cluster of outcrops. Depending on which calculation you use, it is an archipelago of either 33 members or 84 — land reclamation projects have increased the latter figure considerably since the turn of the millennium. Umm an Nasan, the fifth biggest island, is tied to Bahrain Island by the King Fahd Causeway. However, it is privately owned by the head of state, King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa — and is therefore off-limits to ordinary Bahraini citizens.
4. It is only 46 years old
Though it has been an important jigsaw piece on the political map of the Middle East for many centuries, Bahrain has been an independent nation for less than half a century. It declared and achieved nationhood in 1971, fending off claims to sovereignty from the Shah of Iran, and joining both the United Nations and the Arab League in the same year.
5. It was once a Portuguese colony...
No surprises here. Portugal began gobbling up as much of east-coast Africa and Indian Ocean flank of the Middle East as it could place its bejewelled hands on, almost as soon as Vasco da Gama had rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1497. Somewhere as tiny as Bahrain was always likely to be slipped into one of the pockets of Lisbon's robes. So it proved. Portugal seized Bahrain in 1521 and hung around until 1602, when it was pushed out by Persia (Iran). During this 81-year period, it constructed a fort at Qal'at al-Bahrain in the far north of the main island — a site which had first been inhabited around 2300BC.
6. ...and it was British for a bit
Again, no shocks. Britain also liked to rub its paws across selected areas of the Middle East at various points during the last half-millennium - and Bahrain was no different. Under pressure and increasingly covetous glances from both the warrior-trader settlement of Zubarah (in the north of what is now Qatar) and Oman as the 19th century entered its middle phase, it sought a protective arrangement with the UK. This, though, led to further treaties — in 1861 and, notably, in 1892 — which converted London's "magnanimous" shepherding of Bahrain into fully-fledged control. This would endure through a new prosperity and both World Wars, before a referendum in 1970 saw the Bahraini people pick independence over becoming a formal part of Iran.
7. It was an ancient glory
Long before Britain and the Portuguese, there was Dilmun — a mercantile civilisation which thrived in what is now Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait from the fourth millennium BC through to the ninth century BC, controlling trade routes along the Persian Gulf. The capital, for a while, was the same Qal'at al-Bahrain that was later repurposed by colonial Portugal. In 2005, Unesco added this harbour and stronghold to its list of World Heritage Sites. Qal'at al-Bahrain offers evidence of "continuous human presence from about 2300BC to the 16th century AD," the inscription reads. These residual details "testify to the importance of the site, a trading port, over the centuries... The site was the capital of Dilmun, one of the most important civilisations of the region. It contains the richest remains inventoried of this civilisation." In other words, it is a Middle Eastern essential.
8. It was an early adopter of Islam
Bahrain may have converted to Islam as early as 628AD (four years before the death of the prophet Muhammad) — and backed up its new-found faith with brick and mortar. The Al-Khamis Mosque, in Manama, is believed to date to the seventh century (perhaps in 692AD). This makes it one of the oldest mosques on the planet — even if the sturdier parts of its structure did not appear until the 11th century. Although semi-ruined, it has a certain mystique thanks to its twin minarets, which rear proudly over the remains of the complex.
9. It staged the first Grand Prix in the Middle East
Unlike today, when the sport seems to have taken up residence in the region - the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has been the closing race of the season since 2014 — Formula One rarely ventured into the desert in the early Noughties. So the Bahrain Grand Prix of 2004 was seismic — it was the first time such a swirl of supercars had been held in the Middle East. Michael Schumacher won it, as he tended to do. The event has been staged every year since, with the exception of 2011, when, as the Arab Spring briefly bloomed, the country was engulfed in protest, and the race had to be cancelled. Questions about human rights abuses in Bahrain persist, but Formula One has returned nonetheless. This weekend's race will be the Grand Prix's 13th incarnation. It is usually worth winning. The last five drivers to take the chequered flag have gone on to clinch the world title the following November.
10. It is a glutton for electricity
According to statistics released by the International Energy Agency last October, Bahrain is the biggest per-capita consumer of electricity in Asia, and the third most power-thirsty state on the planet, behind Iceland and Norway. Think of all those air-conditioning units.