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New broom in Bahrain.

Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, who became Emir of Bahrain in March, following the death of his father Sheikh Isa, is the second Sandhurst military academy trained army officer to become an Arab leader in less than a month.

Like King Abdullah bin Al-Hussein who was crowned King of Jordan last month, the 49-year-old Sheikh Hamad is a British-trained officer, who has now become the youngest ruler in his region.

And like King Hussein, who died in February, the late Sheikh Isa was much loved by his people, respected by his neighbours and regarded as a good friend of the West.

Sheikh Isa's popularity stems from his common touch, his ability to communicate with ordinary people in Bahrain's still tribal society, where the head of the tribe is expected to be a father figure acting as provider, protector, judge and friend.

"Welcome to my country, I hope my people are making you feel at home," were the words that helped form my impression the first time I shook his hand many years ago, during a Majlis - an open court he held fortnightly where any of his subjects could attend to speak to him, or hand in a petition.

Twenty years later, following two major Gulf wars, unrest and threats from powerful hostile neighbours, and two major ailments - he went to the United States in 1995 and 1998 for treatment - Sheikh Isa still greeted his foreign guests the same way in the Majlis.

Observers and Western diplomats expect Sheikh Hamad, who has been heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the country as a crown prince since 1971, to continue the pro-Western policies of his late father.

After Sandhurst, Sheikh Hamad studied at the US Army Command and General Staff college at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. His long military career is expected to make his style different from that of Shiekh Isa.

Sheikh Hamad, it is believed, will be less conciliatory in in his approach to dissent than his father. He built the armed forces from a tiny squad in 1968 to the current army of 11,000 troops, and recruited many soldiers from abroad, hiring men from countries such as Pakistan and Jordan.

After independence from Britain in 1971, Sheikh Isa developed a comparatively advanced foreign policy towards the West. This policy, together with the state's relaxed laws assisted Bahrain's development into a liberal, multi-cultural, multi-faith society that became a haven in a region where strict Islamic rules could easily have interfered with the smooth running of day to day business.

Sheikh Isa diversified the economy, building light industry including the largest aluminum smelter in the region. His policy attracted foreign banking and business and the island state prospered. Bahrain achieved the highest level of literacy in the Arab world and local women enjoyed the best conditions of any in the region.

Bahrain's shipyard was kept busy repairing ships damaged during the Iran-Iraq war and the island acted as a regional hub for the allied forces opposed to Saddam Hussein following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, later becoming the headquarters of UNSCOM. The country continues to play host to the US Fifth Fleet in the region.

Its pro-Western policy and liberal laws have caused resentment among some of the island's pro-Iranian clergy, leading to a recent wave of anti-government unrest. Arson, fire bombs and street violence by teenagers, mainly from the less well-to-do Shia areas, have claimed some 40 lives.

Although figures are disputed, Shia are believed to be a majority of the island's half-million citizens. The ruling Al-Khalifa family are Sunni muslims.

Parallel to the unrest, activists demanded a return of the parliament - established as the first elected chamber in the region in 1973, but suspended in 1975 after a showdown with left-wing members over regional policies. Sheikh Isa replaced it with a shura council of 40 members, including many former MPs and had been preparing to include women.

Government officials accuse Iran of being behind the unrest. Since being ousted by the Al-Khalifa in 1783, the Iranians have claimed the island as theirs, leading Bahrain to sign a protection treaty with Britain in 1816. The territorial claim was renewed by the late Shah following independence in 1971, and again by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.

Threats from Iran and Iraq, both of which want to end the presence of the US Fifth Fleet in the Gulf, are considered to be the main challenge facing Sheikh Hamad.

A continuing border dispute with Qatar could also present challenges to the new ruler, but of more immediate concern are the moves of Iranian-inspired Shia clergymen to stir up Bahraini youth. Steady reforms could well be the answer.

So far the new Emir's popularity is untested. Sheikh Isa did not lose touch with common people; he religiously held his open Majlis fortnightly, and they were attended by local citizens and foreign visitors alike. He often invited overseas visitors he met during his strolls on the beach to be his guests for afternoon tea, a mixture of British tradition and classical Arab hospitality. It is unlikely that the new Emir, who belongs to a younger generation with a military training in the West, will keep to quite this relaxed style, but he will certainly keep with the tradition of the open Majlis and attempt to be accessible to his people.
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Title Annotation:Emir of Bahrain Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa
Comment:Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa became the youngest Emir of Bahrain when he succeeded to the throne in Mar 1999 after the death of his father Sheikh Isa.
Author:Darwish, Adel
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7BAHR
Date:Apr 1, 1999
Words:884
Previous Article:Restless under the revolution?
Next Article:The 'Middle East' talks to Abdullah Ocalan.
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