Bahrain King Meets Former Jewish Subjects In UK

by Justin Cohen - Thursday 14th August 2008

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa with Houda Nonoo

As guests awaited the arrival of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa amid the plush surroundings of The Dorchester Hotel last Friday, you couldn’t help but wonder how often a reigning monarch would choose to take time out of a foreign visit to spend time with former subjects.

Add to this the fact that the leader in question is the King of Bahrain, a key component of the Arab world and the aforementioned subjects are Jewish and now living in London, and the gathering takes on an air of considerable significance.

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“It’s fantastic, it shows that they still think of us. He would like us to visit,” said Olivia Sweiry, who came to live in Britain in 1968 as the community in Bahrain dwindled and her brothers came to study here. “They are a wonderful family, they have always been good to the Jews. They treated us like all the other citizens. I wish other Arab countries could learn from Bahrain.”

And it doesn’t take long to realise that the relationship between Bahrain’s royalty and the Jewish community goes far deeper than mere pleasantries, and that the smiles plastered on everyone’s faces – the King included – are not just put on for the gathered media. Presenting the monarch with a piece of embroidery created especially for him by her mother, Sweiry congratulated him on his son’s graduation that day from Sandhurst. “I also reminded him of who I was. He was in a class with my husband and my husband reminded him of the times they had together.”

Nancy Khedouri, whose second book on the history of the country’s Jewish community is set to be published later this year, said: “It was a wonderful gesture by His Majesty and we’re just all very honoured to be here. He’s got a fantastic vision for the future.”

She pointed out that those remaining in Bahrain, who number around 30, had been asked by the King several years ago whether they wanted the country’s synagogue to be open. “They said no thank you. We were really touched and appreciative, and if we ever wanted it open its no problem. But the community is very small and hardly gets a minyan.”

And while we often hear about how Jewish communities were pushed out of Arab countries, the King actually used his speech to offer those gathered dual-nationality and to say they would be welcome to visit at any point. He later told the Jewish News that people of various religions visit Bahrain – “it doesn’t matter whether they are Jewish or Christian or Muslim or whatever”. He even insisted that Israelis visit, another thing which marks out his country.

Asked whether he risked alienating Arab neighbours with the recent appointment of Houda Nonoo as Ambassador to America, the Arab world’s first Jewish Ambassador, he said: “Bahrain has reached out for hundreds of years. We have got at least 30 churches in a very small country, and mosques next to churches, and synagogues next to churches. They are all living there, and I think this is the real Arab neighbourhood.”

The country’s Foreign Minister and former ambassador to the UK, Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohamed Al Khalifa, described the gathering as “really a normal event between His Majesty and his people”.

He added: “We are one society; this cohabitation, this coexistence is deep-rooted and we want it to continue. We don’t want any external factor to have an affect on it or to change it.”

Saying that he would like to see a normalisation of relations with Israel – which can become a reality by “achieving peace” - he pointed out that there were already contacts between the two countries.

Read the latest copy of The Jewish News Online by clicking here.

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