Bahrain is located in the Persian Gulf, in a strategical position in relation to the Eastern Coast of the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, Iraq and Oman. As a result, Bahrain has long been a location of settlement for the many ethnic, cultural and religious groups that inhabit the region. In Sumerian times, Bahrain was called Delmon was culturally congruent with Mesopotamia. By Islamic times, Bahrain had become distinctly Arabian; however, the Persian influence across the Gulf was never too distant. Most of the people of Bahrain became Shia after the death of Muhammad
. During the Middle Ages and early modern times, various major population movements across the Arabian Peninsula made themselves felt in Bahrain.
The Baharna, or Shia Arabs
The Baharna are the oldest inhabitants of the region of Bahrain formerly comprising the Eastern Coast of the Arabian Peninsula, al-Ahsa, al-Qatif, and island of Awal, today known as Bahrain. The Baharna are descended from Arabian tribes who had lived in the region since pre-Islamic times; prominent among them in those times were the tribes of Qays and Rabi'a. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, most of the Baharna became Shia and they remained so until this day.
The Shia Arabs of Bahrain are closely related to the Shia of Qatif, and even speak a similar dialect. They live in Manama, almost all the villages of the main islan of Bahrain, several villages in the island of Muharraq in the North and in the island of Sitra to the East. They speak similar dialects, with slight variations between villages, although the villages of Sitra have dialects which differ considerably from those of the main island.
Fishing, palm tree farming and pearl diving were the traditional economic activities of the Baharna.
There are also Shia Arabs concentrated in several neighborhoods in Muharraq City. These are distinct from the Shia villages outside the city proper. Many believe that these Shia originally came from Al-Ahsa. As a result of their proximity to surrounding Sunni Arabs and Africans, they speak the Sunni dialect.
Sunni Arabs are relatively recent arrivals in Bahrain. Most came two hundred years ago with arrival of the ruling al-Khalifa family. Many of these Sunni Arabs, like the ruling family, came originally from Najd in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula.
Sunni Arabs live in Muharraq, Manama, Rifa', Umm al-Hasam, and in the villages of Jaww
Associated with the Sunnis are Bahrainis of African descent, who used to be slaves in the employ of the ruling family and other influential families. These Africans have a considerable admixture of Arab blood. Their many village is Budayya', but they also live in Muharraq, Eastern Rifa' and other parts of Bahrain.
The Shia Persians of Bahrain arrived in Bahrain in the last 400 years or more. They came as laborers, artisans and merchants. There are large communities in Muharraq and Manama. Persians maintain a distinct culture and language. Bahraini Persians do not tend to assimilate into the surrounding Arabic culture.