Bahrain has a thriving scene of small business with a creative edge, started up by young entrepreneurs and artistic types with a passion, many of which are driven by Bahrain’s determined women. From gourmet restaurants to home stores, design agencies to fashion lines, there seems to be a market for everything on this tiny desert island. So, as National Day approaches, we explored some of the unique and interesting homegrown concepts this country has to offer.
Focus: Artistic fashion
Sisters Nada and Noor Alawi started Annada, a brand that prints art works on women’s silk scarves, back in 2012 because of their shared love of art and fashion. ‘Art has the power to invoke emotions in people,’ they tell us. ‘And fashion does the same.’
Everything kicked off with a simple selection of silk which they combined to create the scarf, a ‘smart’ accessory in their books. ‘Scarves are a classic accessory, having stood the test of trend and time, and the art is timeless,’ they say. They’re always hand-hemmed with materials that look and feel luxurious, and are based on a concept of everyday elegance. The Annada woman, they believe, is one that appreciates beauty – they’re gallery goers, art collectors, fashionistas and poets. ‘They look to add a soul to their look.’ As for the artists they choose to work with? Since inception their repertoire has expanded to include all sorts of styles from calligraphy to impressionism, abstract to contemporary, and just last month they added a limited edition sculptor collaboration to the bank. ‘Just like a gallery, we keep looking, adding art to our collection, and discover the new as we showcase the established.’
Creative trio Tarik Omar, Khalil Rasool and Pete Yiacoumi have developed the brand Boho Baha which focuses on hosting music-related events in Bahrain and originally became known for starting up the mini outdoor festival Farm Fest. Since then, they’ve rolled out a few other concepts such as the African-inspired Baratigi and a unique fake radio station club night called Radio Mellowtron, with plenty more to come in the future. With them, things tend to get quirkier and more interesting as their events get more popular. ‘Truth is,’ says co-founder Khalil Rasool, ‘there is so much local creativity that most people tend to miss out on in Bahrain. We love finding ways to blend it all together into a fat Boho Baha smoothie.
‘Maintaining a level of freshness is key here – Bahrain’s a small place and people like to travel… [We] have always been really focused on creating experiences for people in Bahrain that they’ll hold on to and take with them to other places.’
Focus: Botanical beauty oils
Another fantastically unique company called Green Bar was founded in Bahrain in 2006 by Reem Al Khalifa. Specialising in beauty oils, Green Bar reflects on Middle Eastern beauty rituals to create a range of carefully selected exotic botanical oils using all-natural, eco-friendly ingredients for the face, hair and body for kids and adults alike.
While Reem’s career background is in art history and graphic design, her love for plants and the mind-body-soul connection led her into this business and encouraged her to become a certified natural perfumer. ‘I am passionate about it because it’s a vehicle for me to educate about the wonderful ingredients we have,’ Reem tells us. To do so, she uses lesser known ingredients from Morocco’s argan to Sudan’s sesame to India’s coconut. ‘I have always thought beauty was going to be my vehicle of communication about our culture,’ Reem explains. ‘I have always been proud of our culture and I find myself having to dissect our rituals so that I can see them as an outsider to explain why we do the simplest things.’
Focus: Supporting regional designers
In 2007, entrepreneur Farah bint Khalid Al Khalifa opened her shop Pink Diamond, which later extended to Green Diamond, presenting a catalogue of works by emerging artists and designers from the region. ‘With the staggering rise of design entrepreneurs, it was evident that there was a lack of space for them to showcase and sell their work,’ says Farah. ‘It is expensive to find a store, pay rent, and hire employees for an emerging designer.’
And that’s where she stepped in with Green Diamond boutique. The artists she showcases include Saudi Arabian designer Alaa Balkhy with her brand Fyunka, or items from Kuwait’s vintage and up-cycle store The Yard. When looking for pieces and designers to represent in her store, Farah says she looks for ‘something fun, quirky, unique; something that young Bahraini girls would love to wear.’
Earlier this year, Farah also launched her own fashion line 'By Fara7', which merges contemporary design ideas with Bahraini/Khaleeji culture. Her pieces are available not only in Green Diamond but also in S*uce in Dubai and Impression Boutique in Qatar.
The idea for Namaste initially came to founder Weam Zabar when she was in a high-stress corporate job. Giving up the ‘race’ and turning to spirituality, Weam now runs one of Bahrain’s most successful yoga and meditation studios, and the island’s only registered yoga school. ‘It was obvious early on that this constant run we call life remains unsatisfying until we find a deeper understanding of it,’ Weam tells us. ‘What I wanted to do with Namaste is help others learn this ancient technique of stilling the mind, opening the heart and connecting with the soul.’ Namaste is internationally recognised by the Yoga Alliance and offers classes for beginners and intermediate students, as well as hosts workshops, retreats and teacher training. Yet, when Weam launched the concept back in 2011, there were many misconceptions about what yoga was in the market, she tells us. It was an uphill battle but the culture in Bahrain has turned and people have begun to accept it as a way of life. ‘It is heart-warming to see that people have woken up and decided that unhappiness is not an option anymore and are taking the right steps to own their own happiness and life.’
Focus: Home wares
Introducing the first shabby-chic home store, Pachachic, to Bahrain is Fajer and Nouf Al Pachachi. It all started from personal experience, when they were trying to furnish their own homes and couldn’t find many shabby-chic furniture or accessories to fit their style (think country cottages, floral patterns and pastels). ‘So I decided to take matters into my own hands,’ says Fajer.
‘I explored online and during my travels and ended up with great finds at reasonable prices.’ She also brought back a wealth of ideas and, with the help of a trusted carpenter, the duo started to make their own unique items as well.
‘For us, Pachachic was born out of our love and passion for making our home warm, welcoming and unique,’ she tells us.
Now, Pachachic, which is located in A’ali’s Riyadat Mall, offers a whole host of inspired and affordable vintage-style home accessories from across the world and numerous items that are made right here in Bahrain. You can buy these for keeps to beautify your home but Pachachic now also offers a rental service for themed, vintage events and weddings.
Follow them on instagram @pachachic.
Focus: Children’s development
A lack of interactive, creative and educational indoor play areas is what encouraged mother and licensed educator Sama Yateem to open Play Bahrain in Seef Mall. ‘After becoming a parent, I realised there weren’t that many places for mothers to go with their children [in Bahrain],’ Sama explains. ‘I had visited several children’s museums in the US and was really inspired by them.’ So, together with her good friend Jann Flusche, Sama developed the idea for Play Bahrain, which is now well known on the island as being a unique hands-on play centre which encourages children to use their imagination. With facilities such as the ‘Art Pod’ and the ‘Water Room’, as well as a full-on miniature town complete with a supermarket, post office and fire station, Play uses methods and activities to improve children’s memory, stimulate the growth of brain cells, boost language skills and promote creative problem solving. ‘My advice would be to follow your dream and choose something you are passionate about pursuing,’ says Sama. ‘There’s no point in having a good idea if you don’t have the drive and dedication to execute it.’ After many obstacles and challenges, Play opened to the public in May 2011, a day which was life-changing for Sama. ‘The day we opened was truly an awe-inspiring moment to see something that’s in your head become reality.’
Sofia Al Asfoor
Focus: Leather handbags
Bag designer Sofia Al Asfoor launched her own namesake brand in 2012 with the Shield Collections, which incorporate both Arabian and European influences using handpicked leathers. The collection, Sofia tells us, is for ‘today’s empowered woman who appreciates handmade luxury; a shield of protection encouraging women to face the world with their dreams and aspirations.’ It was through university that Sofia really fell in love with the art of leather handbags and accessories, and so, through sheer determination, she worked to make her vision a reality. ‘The thoughts behind the design represent my journey of passion, determination and strength,’ says Sofia. Currently, the collections range from signature blue classics to bespoke exotic pieces, and just recently she has created the ‘Exotic Shield’ with solid gold and diamonds. In 2015, she tells us, we must watch out for the ‘Lafina Shield’ and a new colour making an appearance.
Vida for Life
Focus: Health foods and nutrition
Nutrition and health products is certainly an underserved market in Bahrain but integrative nutrion health coach Muneera Obaidli set out to change that back in 2006 when she set up her health food business Vida. But, only now, are people really becoming more aware of the impact their food and lifestyle choices have on their wellbeing, she says. ‘It was a bit of an uphill ride creating awareness here in Bahrain, but it’s a big part of what I love to do,’ she says. ‘I enjoy watching people’s quality of life and health transform by implementing simple diet and lifestyle changes.’ Through Vida, she offers a health food delivery service, hosts workshops and seminars, and offers craniosacral sessions as well as private health coaching. Yet, it’s still a challenge. ‘The cost of organic ingredients is high as most items are imported,’ she says. ‘And the market for healthy food in Bahrain is still limited but I have seen it growing steadily over the past few years.
‘The more the demand for health products, the more available they’ll become and the cost will also hopefully become more affordable too.’
Focus: Supporting Bahrain’s entrepreneurs
It’s not only strong individuals driving forward Bahrain’s thriving creative industries but also the government. Plus 973 Artisanat is the product of a collaboration between the Ministry of Industry and Commerce and Labour Fund ‘Tamkeen’, part of the ‘Wehda Wahda’ campaign (which was developed in 2011 to foster widespread community participation). It ‘aims to nurture the entrepreneurial spirit and community participation of young Bahrainis in creative activities within an institutional set-up,’ states its brochure. Project manager Lama Samaha Khoury, explains, ‘The fundamental objective is to develop and promote original handmade products by young creative entrepreneurs eager to enhance local economy.’ Besides this, they also aim to advance and modernise arts and crafts in the Kingdom. The programme provides opportunities to the youth to develop their own creative products and market these through a permanent exhibition, with products ranging from paintings to sculptures, fashion to home furnishings, and everything in between. It also maintains an active presence on social media for the entrepreneurs, as well as an interactive website, monthly training sessions, workshops, and a monthly networking event.
‘Amina Al Abbassi was one of the first designers to start with Plus 973,’ Lama tells us. ‘We helped in every step of the way to achieve her dreams and to help her fly.’