Bahrain appoints first Jewish ambassador

By Leon Symons, August 15, 2008

The historic appointment of his country's first Jewish ambassador appears to have prompted the King of Bahrain to learn more about his Jewish subjects. So last week, he came to London to meet a few of them.

There are officially only 37 Jews in King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's island kingdom, one of whom, Houda Nonoo, has become the new ambassador to Washington. An even higher number - 45 - of Jewish Bahrainis are ex-pats who live in Britain.

So a plan was formed that the next time King Hamad was visiting London, he would meet a group of them. Thus, last Friday, he met the business people, the authoress, the accountant and many more at London's Dorchester Hotel in an audience that lasted more than an hour and spoke volumes for one tiny Arab country's race relations.

The King himself obviously enjoyed the occasion, professing pride that Bahrain was the first Arab country to appoint a Jewish ambassador to anywhere, let alone Washington. The appointment of businesswoman Mrs Nonoo, a member of Bahrain's Shura Council, the upper chamber of parliament, was seen as ground-breaking in the Arab world.

"The thing was no-one knew about Houda," said the King. "We never take notice of religion. It is citizens that count. It is nothing to do with Israel. It is our normal business with America."

Speaking of the meeting with his ex-pats, King Hamad said it was simply business as usual: "I see it as normal. They are all Bahrainis and they like to come here to live. I came here to see them. This is the kingdom of tolerance." He gave an ever-widening smile.

The King eschewed the traditional dish-dasha (robe) and shumagg (headdress) in favour of a tan-coloured suit, striped shirt and striped tie.

When he arrived, the guests were ushered into a room to meet him individually. Later, flanked by his prime minister - who is also his uncle - he spoke to his guests in Arabic for about 15 minutes, welcoming them and telling them he had reactivated a law that allowed them to hold dual Bahraini-British citizenship.

He said he was very proud of his Jewish subjects, who "have been model citizens". He expressed disappointment that Bahrain's one synagogue was not open and operating.

Businessman Moshe Sweiry, 58, who responded on behalf of the ex-pats, revealed that the King had moved the meeting on being told that the original date, Sunday, was Tisha b'Av.

"It was even more of a gesture because his son graduated from Sandhurst earlier in the day," said Mr Sweiry. "Most of us had left Bahrain after the Six-Day War, even though we had no problems. I told the King we still remember the good days."

The links between Bahrain's Jews and the monarchy go back decades. Mr Sweiry's father was a key financial adviser to King Hamad's father, Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa.

Mr Sweiry's brother, Victor, recalled being in the same class as the King in 1963: "We shared the same bench, and he remembered when I mentioned it."

Last updated: 5:10pm, August 14 2008