MANAMA, Bahrain, Dec. 29 (UPI) -- Mubarak and Khalifah, two Saudi men in their early 30s, frequently visit the tiny kingdom of Bahrain to entertain themselves. Their favorite place is the Tarboush restaurant in Manama where alcohol is served freely, and singers and a belly dancer perform every night.
Public entertainment as such does not exist in conservative Saudi Arabia.
Big shopping malls, fancy restaurants and resorts are almost the same in both neighboring countries.
"The only difference is this sense of freedom in Bahrain," said Alia, a Lebanese wife who has been living in the Saudi city of Dammam for nearly 15 years. "We can go around and have a nice dinner. Women can drive. Alcohol is allowed and there are nightclubs. All sorts of things that we can't do in Saudi Arabia."
Alia, her husband and friends occasionally cross the King Fahd Causeway, a 26-kilometer (16-mile) bridge connecting the eastern province of Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, simply to have dinner in Manama's restaurants.
The first thing Alia does as soon as they reach the Bahraini side of the bridge is to take off her black head-to-toe abaya -- the first sign of freedom for her.
"In Saudi Arabia, we can't see women in Western clothing walking in the streets. They are all dressed in black," said Walid, her husband. "Here, women are more relaxed. Everything is different."
Bahraini women are very active and work alongside men, even taxi driving. Unlike Saudi Arabia where sales people are only males, Bahraini malls and restaurants are mostly run by women -- nationals and foreign.
The easy access into the island of Bahrain began after the two countries agreed to a $1.2 billion-bridge, which was financed by the Saudi kingdom, and opened in 1986.
On normal days, it takes only 45 minutes to cross the bridge. On weekends, starting Thursdays, an average of 40,000 cars line up for up to three hours to reach Manama. To many, it is worth the trouble.
"Bahrain becomes like oxygen. It's our breathing lung," said Catherine, a British woman residing in the Saudi city of al-Khobar.
Like many foreign residents of Saudi Arabia, Catherine is attracted by the Christmas spirit in Manama. Here, they can buy Christmas decorations, greeting cards and even ham while such Christmas festivities are strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia.
"Being in Bahrain gives them (Westerners) the impression of leading a normal life," said Alia. "All Christians of the eastern province come to Manama to celebrate and attend Christmas mass in the churches there."
Last year's terrorist attacks that hit residential complexes in Riyadh and al-Khobar prompted international companies to move their foreign employees, mostly Americans and Europeans, to more secure Bahrain.
"Many of them now live in Bahrain and commute every day to work in Saudi Arabia," said Karim, a sales director in al-Khobar. "It is more secure that way but turned to be costly."
Some other foreigners decided to stay in the eastern province but opted to send their children to study in Manama schools.
Another major attraction in Bahrain -- non-existent in Saudi Arabia -- is the presence of movie theaters that show the latest western films and production.
"The only film we missed this year was 'The Passion of the Christ,'" said Karim.
Bahrain banned the screening of Mel Gibson's film on the grounds that it is against Islamic Sharia, which forbids depicting the prophets. The movie -- about the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ's life portrayed in often graphic and brutal detail -- drew a storm of criticism as it reached cinemas worldwide after its release in the United States.
The almost daily contact with Manama has affected the strict life in the Saudi eastern province.
"The only reason for building the bridge was to ease the social pressures in Saudi Arabia," said Karim.
Esmat Almousawi, a columnist of the Bahraini al-Ayam newspaper, believes that one of the factors that contributed to changing the Saudi social structure in the past few years was the bridge.
"It was a big move for the Saudis," Almousawi told United Press International. "They see Bahrain as another Paris, an outlet of freedom and overture."
Such an interaction was beneficial for both countries.
Almousawi said Bahrain benefited financially as Saudis "revived our hotels, markets and real estate sectors."
"We, in return, help enrich them culturally and socially due to the prevailing freedom here," she said, noting that Saudis regularly cross into Bahrain to attend and actively take part in lectures and round-table discussions. "We are complement each other."
According to Almousawi, the political changes and reforms that started in Bahrain a few years ago is a clear message that Saudi Arabia "could not avoid similar changes for a long time and this would rather accelerate them."
"It is a bridge of culture and political openness. In Bahrain, there is no isolation or separation between men and women. And this is all at a stone's throw from Saudi Arabia," she said.
The change was not restricted to the Saudis. Bahrainis had to cope with the new comers.
At first, it was the many road accidents caused by the Saudi drivers who were not used to the strict driving regulations in Bahrain.
Sometimes Bahrainis are annoyed by the behavior of some of their Saudi visitors who get drunk and behave out of line. Nationals prefer to go to places restricted to families.
"But these are limited incidents. Saudis know that there are laws and regulations in Bahrain. The ones who violate them are arrested and punished," Almousawi said.
Marriages between Saudis and Bahraini women were another result of the new interaction between the two countries. In certain cases, it is a second marriage of what has become known as "the weekend wife."
Bahrain's 665-square-kilometer area, small population of 677,886, which includes 235,108 non-nationals, and limited oil and financial resources prompted it to try find a place among its larger and richer neighbors in the Gulf.
With declining oil reserves, it turned to petroleum processing and refining and has transformed itself into an international banking center.
Its new Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifah, who came to power in 1999 and proclaimed himself king in February 2002, has pushed economic and political reforms and has worked to improve relations with the country's Shiite community estimated at 70 percent.
In February 2001, Bahraini voters approved a referendum on the National Action Charter -- the centerpiece of Sheikh Hamad's political liberalization program. Nearly a year later, they elected members of the lower house of Bahrain's reconstituted bicameral legislature, the National Assembly.
Bahrainis are determined to move ahead with their reforms, women to struggle for more rights and freedom, and the government to further open up to the West -- even if this means a dispute with its long-time protégé Saudi Arabia.
Such a conflict emerged during last week's summit meeting of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council in Manama over Bahrain's determination to go ahead with its separate free-trade accord with the U.S.
"Winds of change are coming and we cannot stop them," said Almousawi. "Saudi Arabia should know that, and it is time for it to begin with the reforms because it cannot continue that way."
Bahrain is eager to become the "the prototype of democracy, freedom and economic development" in the Gulf.
"Keep an eye on Bahrain," concluded Almousawi. "It will be the model for the region."