IT was meant to be the highlight of the trip. A desert camp complete with camel rides, a feast of lip-smacking Middle Eastern cuisine, tents containing exotic carpets, rugs and cushions and a magnificently robed Sheikh offering a warm welcome. My imagination worked overtime, fuelled by images from Lawrence of Arabia: sand dunes shining silvery under a moon-lit, star-studded sky; date palms swaying around an oasis of inky black water, the murmur of excited guests occasionally silenced by the ear-piercing cracking and splitting of rocks baked by day and frozen by night, and scorpions scuttling across sand in search of prey. But then it rained. It rained so hard that nobody could remember when Bahrain had been so wet. The desert state was awash. One of the driest places in the world was suddenly a sea of mud. The desert camp was cancelled and my visions of a night to remember evaporated. I was in Bahrain as a guest of Gulf Air and the local tourist authority for two reasons: to sample it as a holiday destination either as a stopover on the way to Europe or as a venue in itself and to assess its virtues as a centre for business conferences. And despite the misfortune over the storm, I must say it made the grade on both counts. Bahrain is an archipelago consisting of 30 islands situated on the western shores of the Arabian Gulf, 22 kilometres off the East coast of Saudi Arabia, to which it is connected by a causeway, and 28 kilometres from the coast of Qatar. The islands cover a total land area of 692 kilometres, making it a little smaller than Singapore. However, its population is just 500,000. Bahrain island is the largest and is home to the capital, Manama, a thoroughly modern and well-equipped city. Many of the other islands are uninhabited save for the extensive variety of migrating birds which visit every year. Most of the land is low-lying desert. The place has been on the world map for more than 5,000 years, since the Sumerian civilisation in the third millenium BC, when it was known as Dilmun, the paradise described in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Blessed by abundant sweet water, it was a popular haven on the trade route between Sumer and the Indus Valley civilisations. Pearls were the basis of its wealth until the emergence of the more affordable cultured version. Now it relies on oil and is looking to supplement that with cash from overseas visitors. So what do we have to entice those visitors? For those interested in archaeology, Bahrain still retains much evidence of days gone by: the Barbar temples, the thousands of burial mounds; an ancient fort where extensive excavations have revealed several layers of previous constructions, amd remains of the Dimun and Greek civilisations. For those who enjoy nature, there is a landscaped pool and park; similarly there is a reserve with 500 animals including the nearly extinct Arabian oryx, Persian gazelle, springbok, impala, fallow deer, Chapman's zebra, Thompson's gazelle and wildebeest. Visitors can tour the soukhs - Arab market places - where tobacco is sold uncut and in bulk, gold and jewellery retailers are everywhere, ornate 'Aladin-style' lamps and pots (but without any genies) abound, rugs and robes adorn the shops and the whole atmosphere is lent charm by the pervasive aromas of spice stalls. Among traditional craft-work, you can watch pots being fashioned, weavers at their looms, basket makers and dhow builders. You can even go for a sail in a dhow, the traditional style of boat in the Middle East used mainly for fishing in the crystal clear waters. Diving is another pastime for which Bahrain is famed. Its coral reefs are teeming with fish. For those who prefer to remain above the water, there are plenty of waterskiing facilities. The Middle East is renowned for its love of all matters equestrian, rather like Hong Kong. It possesses a splendid race track together with a grandstand that seats 10,000 spectators, but betting is strictly prohibited. There are also two golf courses. Bahrain is an Islamic nation, but unlike most of its neighbours, the consumption of alcohol is permitted. The wailing of a muezzin calling the faithful to prayers is an unforgettable experience - particularly at the imposing grand mosque - but there appear to be no extremists waving angry fists at western imperialists. The pace of life is far slower than that of Hong Kong and the service in the hotels is, though exemplary by international standards, no match for that found in this highly-competitive territory. There are a large number of relatively inexpensive five-, four-and three-star hotels with conference facilities at the better ones, and a new exhibition centre. Bahrain is not fully geared up for tourism but it is getting there fast. Although I have listed many of the things you can do, they aren't available with the same ease as those in countries which have been promoting themselves longer. However, it does offer a fascinating insight into the Arab world, and it does possess the cheapest duty free shop in the world.