Houda Nonoo

Top Appointment for Female Arab Jew and Diplomat

Jews have become a rarity in the Arab world. This is what makes it so remarkable that the ruler of this island state has selected a woman from this tiny community, Houda Ezra Ibrahim Nonoo, to be the nation's ambassador in Washington. Rudolph Chimelli reports

Houda Nonoo (photo: AP)
Houda Nonoo, one of exactly 37 Bahraini Jews in a population of 530,000

​​"This move is not propaganda," a Bahraini official said, "it reflects a climate of tolerance towards minorities in Bahrain." The official went on to say that Houda Nonoo's appointment stresses the seriousness of Bahrain's reform policies and shows that Bahrain does not differentiate between men and women in public offices and does not discriminate against citizens on the basis of their beliefs.

To date, Nonoo has been one of 40 people serving in the Shura (consultative) Council, whose members are all appointed by the king. There are ten other women on the council, one of whom is a Christian. Houda Nonoo will not be the first Bahraini woman to be appointed an ambassador. Haya al-Khalifa, a member of the Sunni royal family, was the country's ambassador to France, while Bibi Alawi is the Bahraini envoy to China in Beijing.

Pioneer diplomat

When Bahrain chaired the UN General Assembly in 2006, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa appointed his relation Haya, only the third woman to hold this post in the history of the United Nations.

The people of Bahrain are not, however, as liberal as their monarch. Shia and Sunni fundamentalists hold 75 per cent of the 40 seats in the country's elected parliament. Of the 23 women who were prepared for the election campaign by the government, only one of them was actually elected to parliament - in a constituency where she was the only candidate.

Conflicting interests

Skyline of Manama, Bahrain's capital city (photo: dpa)
Skyline of Manama, Bahrain's capital city. Most of the ancestors of the seven remaining Jewish families in Bahrain emigrated to the island from Mesopotamia, Persia, and India

​​Houda Nonoo is a business woman with a diploma in business and a second home in London. She is a founding member of her local Human Rights Watch group. The vice president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, considers the group to be a farce that puts the interests of the government before the protection of human rights. The future ambassador, the mother of two sons, says she is looking forward to the new challenge.

In private, commentators are saying that her appointment is a gesture to the United States of America, whose Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain. It could also be an indication of a possible rapprochement with Israel, with which Bahrain does not at present entertain any diplomatic relations.

The role of Israel

Most of the ancestors of the seven remaining Jewish families in Bahrain emigrated to the island in the first half of the twentieth century from Mesopotamia, Persia, and India. Houda's grandfather represented the Jewish community on the municipal council set up by the British in 1919. As was the case in other Arab countries, many Jews left Bahrain after the foundation of Israel.

A relation of the future ambassador, Meir Nonoo, who was vice president of a US bank, returned to Bahrain with the start of the oil boom. Today there is a synagogue and a private Jewish cemetery on the island. "I am Bahraini and Jewish Arab and very proud to be so," says a member of Bahrain's Jewish community.

Rudolph Chimelli

© Süddeutsche Zeitung / Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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