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Heads up – Embassy 13 – Nov/Dec 2008

Keeping a steady course

One of the enduring emblems of Bahrain is the dhow boat, symbolising the Kingdom’s historic status as a trading post. It’s a reputation the island intends to keep, says the Gulf island’s new Ambassador to London Shaikh Khalifa Al-Khalifa.

A top security official, who headed Bahrain’s National Security Agency prior to this posting, Shaikh Khalifa is delighted to have taken over the helm in London and he sees it as his job to keep Bahrain open for business and to combat external influences that threaten to destabilise the Kingdom.

“Bahrain is in the middle of a very tense security area and unless the security umbrella is strong, trade and business and human development cannot flourish,” says the Ambassador. “We see ourselves as a small boat in the ocean and when the ocean moves we feel the ripple.”

The Ambassador, who studied aeronautical engineering in the UK, spent a decade in Washington under the Clinton and Bush Jnr administrations, first as defence attaché and then as ambassador. He was in the country when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred, and witnessed how they changed America – and how the shockwaves sent ripples around the world.

The US is a key strategic partner for Bahrain and a source of stability, says Shaikh Khalifa. Bahrain is now home to the naval headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet and the relations he cultivated during his tenure resulted in the US recognising the Kingdom as Major Non-Nato Ally (MNNA) in 2002.

The toughest security challenge facing Bahrain, the Middle East and indeed Britain is extremism, he says. “I see ourselves as partners in trying to find the root causes of this extremism and to treat it.”

Historically a peaceful entrepôt, Bahrain is a mix of cultures and religions, from Shia and Sunni Muslims, to Christians and Jews. But just over a decade ago the island was rocked by internal conflict.

“The ripple of insecurity in the region infected our society,” says Shaikh Khalifa. “But this is not something that happened just from inside but stemmed from something external.”

Then in 1999 Shaikh Hamad succeeded the throne and launched a democratic reform process that would transform Bahraini society and restore stability.

“We are very proud of His Majesty’s reform process, which is both political and economic,” says the Ambassador.

In 2002, a referendum on political reform was held in which Bahrainis overwhelmingly backed proposals to become constitutional monarchy with elected lower chamber of parliament and independent judiciary.

Parliamentary elections were held in 2002, the first for nearly 30 years. Women participated and are now represented in the Upper Chamber, which also includes members of the Christian and Jewish minorities. Bahrain was also the first Arab country to appoint a Jewish woman as Ambassador to Washington and Shaikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, a prominent lawyer, was elected the President of the UN General Assembly, only the third woman to do so.

“Everybody feels included in the new system and their rights are preserved,” says the Ambassador. “Best of all, it is a Bahraini experience, coming from within our society. But this process doesn’t happen overnight; it takes a lot of hard work and dialogue,” he adds.

The King has also presided over the economic transformation of the Kingdom. Not blessed with large oil and gas reserves like their neighbours, Bahrain has had to diversify the economy into other sectors.

Over the past decade it has become a centre for energy-intensive manufacturing, refining and aluminium smelting, as well as a financial hub, with over 150 banks represented in Bahrain and 300 financial institutions.

The Ambassador sees it as his task to promote trade and investment and he is keen to encourage British tourists to spend more time in Bahrain rather than treating it as a quick hop to shop.

All this will be important as the effects of the credit crunch take hold. The financial crisis will affect Bahrain, admits Shaikh Khalifa. “We are a centre for many international banks so if the world sneezes, we will catch a cold.”

But there is one place where money is kept very safe – and that is in the Ambassador’s unique collection of rare and historic banknotes that he and his friends have accumulated on their travels from over a 100 different countries – including currencies from the Gulf states, discontinued currencies now part of the Euro, and, most exotic of all, a Rhodesian Dollar! Perhaps London’s diplomats can make a donation to help the Ambassador expand his collection...

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HE Mr Shaikh Khalifa Al-Khalifa

“Bahrain is in the middle of a
very tense security area...We see
ourselves as a small boat on the
ocean and when the ocean moves,
we feel the ripple”

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