The Washington Diplomat / January 2009
By Larry Luxner
A large scale-model wooden dhow — the traditional boat used by Bahraini fishermen — decorates Houda Ezra Nonoo's spacious office, along with an official portrait of King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa and colorful photos of Bahrain's capital city, Manama.
But don't look for a mezuza on the doorposts of the mission's entrance, or kosher pastrami sandwiches to begin appearing on the menu at Bahraini Embassy functions.
Nonoo — the first Jewish ambassador ever to represent an Arab country in the United States — doesn't wear her Judaism on her sleeve. If anything, she seeks to play down the historic significance of her unique status in Washington.
"I think it's been overblown," the newly minted diplomat said of all the publicity surrounding her recent appointment. "Bahrain is an open and tolerant society, and it doesn't matter what religion you are. I'm Jewish but I'm also Bahraini. My grandfather served on the Municipality Council as early as 1934, so we've always been integrated into society."
Bahrain, the smallest of the Arab League's 22 member nations, is less than half the size of Montgomery County, Md. Its wealth is derived from vast offshore petroleum resources, and Manama is a modern, traffic-congested metropolis crowded with gleaming office towers, banks and shopping malls.
In 2006, the country became the first in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to sign a free-trade agreement with the United States. In order to win approval for the FTA, Bahrain agreed to drop its boycott of companies that do business with Israel. And at a mid-November conference in New York, the king beseeched 50 Bahraini Jewish expatriates to consider returning home — a move unheard of elsewhere in the Arab world.
"We're trying to go forward. We don't want to go backwards," Nonoo told The Washington Diplomat last month. "The boycott against Israel was dropped at the FTA's signing. Lately in the press and in Parliament, they've been saying that Bahrain would reopen the boycott office. But that is not going to happen. They won't open it again."
Nonoo, 44, has been on the job only two and a half months, during which time she's traveled to Seattle, Pittsburgh, Miami and elsewhere, giving lectures about Bahrain and why U.S. executives should consider investing there. Yet Nonoo has been reluctant to speak to the press; her 40-minute interview with The Diplomat was one of the few she's granted to any media outlet since presenting her credentials to President Bush on July 28.
One reason is that, at least at the beginning, Nonoo wasn't sure she was up to the challenge.
"When I was nominated for this job in April and the foreign minister called me with the news, I said, 'Is this a joke? Are you sure? I'm not a diplomat, send me to Timbuktu.'"
It wasn't a joke, and Nonoo was soon on a plane to Washington.
"There was no way I could say no," said Nonoo. "But now that I'm here, it's not so bad. This was something I never expected in my life, to be ambassador in the United States. I think that since coming here, I've made a big impact on a lot of people, just being female and representing Bahrain in the most important country in the world."
In a recent address to the Business Council for International Understanding, Nonoo highlighted the evolution of bilateral ties that date back to 1893, when American Christian missionaries arrived in Bahrain to set up a school and hospital.
"I am both honored and humbled by a great sense of responsibility towards strengthening and maintaining an already extraordinary relationship that has been marked by strong historic, political, economic and military ties," she told BCIU members.
"U.S. companies today benefit from Bahrain's stable economy, low inflation, transparency, fiscal prudcnce and our liberalized tax-free business environment. And because of this, Bahrain has emerged as a preferred location for numerous American banks and companies operating both in Bahrain and throughout the Middle East."
To be sure, Nonoo's background isn't in diplomacy but in running the family computer business with her husband. In 2005, she was elected secretary-general of the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society, dealing with such issues as the widespread abuse of foreign domestic workers — a problem common throughout the Gulf countries. In 2006, she joined the 40-member Shura, or parliamentary council.
Nonoo's selection earlier this year as Bahrain's envoy to the United States makes her the kingdom's third female ambassador overseas; previous Bahraini ambassadors to France and China have also been also women. In addition, Bahrain also has two female ministers in the ruling Cabinet.
"His Majesty has always been forward-thinking," Nonoo said proudly. "We were the first country in the region to find oil, in 1932, and we are the first to be running out of it as well. That's why we started up a financial center, and banks began coming to Bahrain in the 1970s. Today we have over 440 banks operating in Bahrain. Our education reforms are also very big; we want to make sure our people are highly educated so they can make a decent living."
Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, is a major non-NATO ally of the United States. Over time, the little kingdom has championed itself as a model of stability and democratization in a region where efforts to export ideology have often led to violence — as in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon.
It's also the only GCC nation that ever had a real Jewish community.
In the late '30s and early '40s, as many as 1,500 Jews lived in Bahrain, nearly all of them originally from Iraq. Back then, Manama's Al-Mutanabi Road was known as Jews' Street because there were so many Jewish-owned shops — all of which closed for Shabbat.
Things changed in 1948 with the establishment of the State of Israel. Riots erupted, the sole synagogue was closed and most of Bahrain's Jews, including much of Nonoo's own family, emigrated to Great Britain. Even in the '60s, there were still 200 to 300 Jews in the country, but after 1967 — when anti-Israel riots broke out following the Six-Day War — Jewish communal life in Bahrain came to an end. Today, only 35 Jews live in Bahrain.
Even so, Nonoo says her reception by fellow Arab diplomats in Washington has been incredibly warm. "The Syrian ambassador recently hosted a dinner to honor me. The Iraqi ambassador had one last night, and Oman has one for me this afternoon. They've really made me feel very welcome," she said.
Sadly, the one Mideast country that cannot welcome Nonoo is the State of Israel, which doesn't even have a trade office in Bahrain like it does in Qatar, Bahrain's larger and wealthier neighbor to the east.
The irony of the ambassador's situation is such that on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Nonoo freely attended Orthodox services at a Chabad-Lubavitch synagogue in the District. But come next spring, she won't be able to enjoy Independence Day festivities with fellow Jews at the Israeli Embassy less than a block away on International Drive.
"I cannot have any dealings with the Israeli Embassy, since Bahrain and Israel do not have diplomatic relations," she explained. "Understand that Israel and Judaism are two different things. I'm a minority in Bahrain, just as the Arabs in Israel are a minority."
Nonoo said that despite their small numbers, the few Jews of Bahrain have always managed to hold family gatherings on Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Passover and other major Jewish holidays.
"I've never felt any discrimination or anti-semitism," she said. "My father was a very well-known figure. Everyone knew who he was. And when he died in 1993 in a car accident, the amount of people who came to offer condolences — including the emir, the prime minister and the emir's other brother — was amazing. They all showed us respect."
Nonoo said most of the Jews who left Bahrain in recent years did so not because they were targeted by Muslims, but because the pool of prospective Jewish marriage partners for their children had become too small.
"My aunt had seven daughters, and there was no way they were going to get married in Bahrain, so they all emigrated to England," she said. "It's not like when the Jews were expelled from Iraq. We had a choice."
Although the synagogue on Manama's Sasa'ah Avenue isn't active and local Jews may not travel to Israel on their Bahraini passports, the American Jewish Committee has been paying visits to Bahrain since 1996. So the country's Jewish community isn't as isolated as outsiders might think.
Nor is Bahrain itself. Since 1986, the 15-mile-long King Fahd Causeway has linked the island nation with giant Saudi Arabia to the west. And in January, construction workers will start building a similar bridge linking Qatar to the east. The 28-mile-long Qatar-Bahrain Friendship Bridge will cost roughly $2 billion and will be the longest fixed link in the world upon completion in 2012.
The country faces numerous challenges. Besides the fact that its oil is running out, Bahrain is on the cusp of a population explosion. In 2007, Bahrain's population grew nearly 41 percent to just over 1.05 million as the country's expatriate population jumped 82.6 percent to 517,368.
To keep up with that frenetic growth, Bahrain must continue expanding its economy. To that effect, Nonoo is focusing all her energies on promoting trade under the framework of the U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement.
Since the FTA entered into force, total bilateral trade has increased by 12 percent, from $1.04 billion to $1.17 billon. Over that same time period, U.S. exports to Bahrain have risen by 27 percent, and the country's national carrier, Gulf Air, recently announced a $6 billion deal to purchase 24 Boeing 787 Dreamliner jets.
"With the help of the FTA, we're hoping to get investors into Bahrain," she told The Diplomat, noting that food giant Kraft has just opened an office in Manama. "Bahrain is ideal because we are geographically located in the center of the GCC region, and there are flights out of Manama to nearly everywhere in the world."
Except to Tel Aviv, of course — and that's unlikely to change anytime soon.
Nevertheless, Nonoo remains optimistic.
"Just because I'm Jewish doesn't mean Bahrain will start diplomatic relations with Israel. But I think they're going in the right direction," she said. "Two or three years ago, our foreign minister met [his Israeli counterpart] Tzipi Livni, and that was major news in itself. What the Saudi king did in New York with interfaith dialogue was an amazing step forward. He's opening doors. But it's just going to take time."