Bahrain, the little Persian Gulf nation where pluralism has been the exception to the regional hegemonic rule, is learning that the best way for democracy to survive is to replicate.
Without explicitly saying so, Bahrain is softly encouraging the U.S.-led push for democratization in the Middle East as the means toward stabilization. Its rulers have made their treatment of the tiny Jewish community in Bahrain a showcase of how to achieve peaceful pluralism.
King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa met last week in New York with about 50 Bahraini Jews who had immigrated to the United States, and did something almost unheard of in the Arab world: He invited them home.
“It’s open, it’s your country,” he said.
The offer extended to younger generations and included specifics, including allocation of land for homes.
In a region where efforts to export ideology have often exploded into conflict, Bahraini officials are careful to say that they are pleased only to serve as an example, not as a beach head.
“What we do in Bahrain is for sure for Bahrain, it’s not to be exported,” King Hamad said in an interview with JTA.
Yet it is clear that the nation, host to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and a major non-NATO ally of the United States, regards the Bush administration’s efforts in keeping with its own reforms. Bahrain officials subtly hint that the U.S. push for democracy in the region is playing catch-up to a country that launched a transition to constitutional monarchy in 1999.
“Our reforms were before Sept. 11,” Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, the Bahraini foreign minister, said in an interview, referring to the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001. “The American democratic program for the Middle East came after Sept. 11. They thought that extremism is linked to lack of freedom and democracy. Well fine, we agree with that.”
Al-Khalifa made it clear that Bahrain would encourage President-elect Barack Obama to continue such reforms.
“We are not putting ourselves as an example,” he said. “The new administration, whether it will continue or not — I can tell you the truth, we want them to continue on a program of promoting it.”
Taking the lead in reaching out to Israel and to Jews internationally is part of that equation. King Hamad stressed that such outreach was made in the context of the Saudi-led “Arab initiative,” which posits comprehensive peace in exchange for a return to the borders prior to the 1967 Six-Day War.
“It has been declared that we have this Arab initiative which would really normalize the relationship with Israel as soon as this conflict is over,” he told JTA. “And you know very well Bahrain would love to have this conflict gone away from the scene a long time ago, we would love to see that day.”
Still, Bahrain is more out front than its neighbors. The nation ended its participation in the Arab League boycott of Israel last year, something al-Khalifa is still called to defend before the Bahraini parliament.
“I said, we are democratizing, why should we tell people what to do or not to do?” the foreign minister recalled. “If they don’t want to buy something, it’s up to them. This boycott office is really contrary to our philosophy.”
Al-Khalifa cast such thinking as critical to bringing peace to the region, especially ahead of Israeli elections in February that could return hawks to power.
“We need to comfort and put the Israeli mind, citizens, at peace when he goes to the ballot box, that there are partners, not only Mahmoud Abbas,” the Palestinian Authority president, “but others in the region.”
Al-Khalifa recently proposed a regional grouping that would include Iran and Israel even before agreements are in place as a means to reaching accommodation. Such a grouping would start by dealing with the removal of weapons of mass destruction, sharing diminishing water supplies and cooperating on environmental controls.
“We need to lay these foundations for the future,” the foreign minister said. “Israel is there to stay, Iran is there to stay.
The members of such a theoretical organization do not need to be at peace yet, but the grouping itself would help nudge them toward it, al-Khalifa said.
“How will we govern a treaty without a multilateral body?” he asked.
Practical considerations underpin Bahrain’s outreach: The kingdom’s oil wealth is expected to dry up within the next two decades, and the nation needs new strategies to thrive in the region. Quitting the Arab boycott was a condition of a free-trade pact with the United States. A peaceful neighborhood would help move development along, al-Khalifa said.
“In Bahrain we are caught between many places and hard places,” he said, riffing on the old line about a rock and a hard place. A causeway separates Bahrain from one major theocracy, Saudi Arabia; a gulf separates it from another, Iran.
Bahrain, ruled for centuries by Sunni Muslims, has a Shi’a Muslim majority, and that has led to tensions, at times stoked by Shi’a Iran. Indigenous Shi’a have criticized the king’s outreach to Bahraini expatriates, Jewish and otherwise, as a way of containing Shi’a growth. They also note that the island’s democracy, although exemplary in the region, is limited: The king still appoints his own cabinet, and the parliament’s powers are limited.
Still, the Western-oriented pluralism that King Hamad is nurturing arises out of indigenous traditions. Starting in the late 18th century, the al-Khalifa family sough British protections from Persian hegemony, and the country has since welcomed traders, infusing the island with its multicultural sensibility.
The tiny Jewish community — just under 100 in a population of about 800,000 — is descended from Iraqi Jews who sought opportunities in the 19th century British Empire. Before the creation of Israel in 1948, some 600 Jews lived in Bahrain. After the war, some emigrated, mostly to the United States and Britain.
The island’s smallness also contributes to its all-for-one ethos. Meeting with some Bahraini Jews at the Ritz Carlton in New York last week, the king recognized without prompting the children of Bahraini Jews with whom he grew up. Abraham Ezra was chosen to deliver the greeting on behalf of Bahraini-American Jews, and the foreign minister whispered to the king, “He is the son of Yehezkel Ezra,” a merchant murdered years ago by thieves. The king’s eyes widened in sorrowful recognition.
King Hamad puts his actions where his words are: He appointed a Jewish woman, Houda Nonoo, as ambassador to the United States, and named another, Rose Sager, as U.S. trade representative.
At the meeting in New York, the affection of his Jewish subjects seemed unforced. Many were eager to hear details of his repealing of a law that had stripped expatriate Bahrainis of their citizenship.
“Even the ones whose passports are expired are still Bahrainis,” the king said.
“I would like to visit Bahrain and see my friends, my brother and my sister,” said Vilma Darwish, who had not been back in 46 years. “They never persecuted them.”
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who runs the Chabad office in Washington, helped set up the meeting and blessed the king. The rabbi described the week’s Torah portion, and its tale of smaller kingdoms resisting aggressive, larger neighbors, and the king vigorously nodded.
“To see my king with a rabbi!” one woman said breathlessly.
Shemtov, who attended the meeting with other representatives of national Jewish groups, said the community should welcome King Hamad’s initiatives.
“If someone who can be effective wants to discuss the present need to confront our common dangers within the parameters of proper recognition of the Jewish people,” the rabbi said, “then even if the context doesn’t yet exist, we have to seek it.”