When she arrived in Washington as Bahrain’s new ambassador to the US last year, Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo had Embassy Row abuzz due to the novelty of a young, Jewish human rights activist presenting diplomatic papers from a Muslim monarchy. Now that profile – she is believed to be the first Jew ever to represent an Arab country abroad – is helping Nonoo, 44, lure US businesses and expat Bahraini Jews to invest in Bahrain.
The latter has been a particular priority for King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. He has even been accused of lavishing attention on the country’s tiny Jewish community at the expense of its Shia majority. An American ally that hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is a small island across the Persian Gulf from Iran that has long struggled with Tehran’s influence – a subject that has demanded much of Nonoo’s attention during her first year in Washington.
Monocle:Yours is a different profile from the region’s other ambassadors in Washington. How do you fit in?
HN: Before I came out here, I was very worried: out of the Arab League countries, I thought I was going to be the only female. When I arrived, I learnt that the Omani ambassador was female as well. She’s been here for nearly four years. She is helping to show me the ropes.
M:Such as what?
HN: If I have any issues at any time, I call her up and say, “What am I supposed to do?” because I don’t have a diplomatic background. It’s nothing major, but how to get appointments within the administration is very, very difficult. Who to talk to, who to see – these are the types of things I’m facing problems with. Getting appointments in Congress, with senators. You need to push them all the time, that’s what she says: just be very persistent.
M:So how does an Arab country end up with a Jewish ambassador?HN: Bahrain is different because my grandparents came over 100 years ago, in the late 1800s, and were integrated. My grandfather was elected to office in the 1930s. Just like Americans are Jews or Christians, Bahrainis can be any religion.
M:Does Bahrain have a different attitude to religion than other Arab countries?
HN: Bahrain has always been a tolerant society. Because we are an island, we’ve always welcomed immigrants. We’ve had churches there since 1893, when the American missionaries came in. We have 19 registered churches now. Other countries had their first church a year ago. We have Hindu temples, Sikh temples, and Bahá’is are allowed to practise their religion. Jews have a synagogue but it’s currently not used because we’re such a small community.
M:As a Jewish woman from the Persian Gulf, how have you been received?
HN: I don’t think they can quite believe I’m an ambassador. A female from the Arab world!
M:What were they expecting?
HN: A man – or, if a woman, someone who’s covered. They find it hard to fathom that a Bahraini woman does not need to be covered. But that’s the reality of Bahrain. It’s a choice: everyone has a choice of how they want to dress, what they want to wear. Americans still have this view that Arabs are all the same – we oppress our women, females have no rights. Since Obama, they’re trying to understand more of what Islam’s about.
M:When you talk to American investors, how do you distinguish Bahrain from the other competing Gulf countries?
HN: Bahrain allows for 100 per cent ownership of a company: if you come to Bahrain, you don’t need a partner. The other difference is you actually get to meet the Bahraini people. You employ Bahraini people. The population of Bahrainis in Bahrain as opposed to expatriates is 50-50. In other countries in the region, it’s a lot higher. You don’t just want to meet expatriates.
M:You have a Shia majority under the rule of a Sunni monarchy. Does that make it difficult to govern?
HN: It’s hard. We had no issues, Sunni-Shia, pre-1979. It’s only since 1979 that we have this issue of Sunni and Shia. Prior to that we were all Bahrainis, regardless of what our religion is. To a certain extent, we still try to be Bahrainis as much as we can. I don’t know by looking at a person who is Shia and who is Sunni.
M:How does that Sunni-Shia divide affect politics in Bahrain?
HN: On women’s rights, we’re looking at personal-status law. They want to do a Sunni one and a Shia one. The one for the Sunnis has been passed. We’re looking for one for the Shia. The Shias don’t want the law to be made in Bahrain, they want an outsider from a different country to look into the law and accept it, which the Bahraini government is not allowing them to do.
M:Has Obama changed the way the Bahrainis see the US?
HN: Obama’s speech in Cairo [addressing the Muslim world] was good. It was a lot of words. It needs to be put into action.
M:What actions would you like to see?
HN: The Arab-Israeli conflict, that’s the main thing and he’s out there trying to resolve it. Dialogue with Iran is very important. And getting the Americans to see Arabs in a different perspective: they always had a view that all Arabs are terrorists and that needs to change.
M:How did Obama handle the Iranian election crisis?
HN: Obama did the right thing by not interfering, by staying out of it. He did the right thing because he’s leaving the politics to them. He’s still trying to have that dialogue and giving them the chance to talk to them. Hopefully before the UN in September something is going to come out of that.
Houda Nonoo’s CV
1964: Born Manama, Bahrain
1985: BA in accounting from City of London University
1987: MBA from International University of Europe, Watford, UK 1993: Managing director, family-owned Gulf Computer Services 2004: Co-founder, Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society 2006: Appointed to parliamentary Shura Council 2008: Named ambassador of Kingdom of Bahrain to the US