MANAMA – When people around the globe think about the Arab world, they rarely think about the Kingdom of Bahrain.

But they should.

At just 60 miles long and 30 miles wide, Bahrain is not the biggest Arab country. Or the wealthiest. Or the most populous. Or the most powerful.

It is, however, one of the oldest civilizations in the Arab world.

Most Bahrainis believe their nation is the paradise mentioned in “Epic of Gilgamesh,” the ancient religious poem dating back more than 20 centuries before Christ.

Some also believe Bahrain is the location of the Garden of Eden, described in the biblical account in the Book of Genesis.

Bahrain is certainly one of the most moderate, friendly and peaceful societies in the Arab world.

And few people embody the spirit of this island kingdom better than Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa.

A MUSLIM MAN OF PEACE

For the past 15 years, Sheikh Khalid served as Bahrain’s foreign minister.

Since January, he has served as diplomatic advisor to Bahrain’s King Hamad.

In both roles, this Sunni Muslim has been one of His Majesty’s point men for peace.

Sheikh Khalid has worked tirelessly throughout his career to enhance Bahrain’s close alliance with the U.S., strengthen ties to other Arab countries in the Gulf and beyond, encourage an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, and lay the groundwork for a bilateral peace with Israel that finally came to fruition in the Abraham Accords this fall.

PASSIONATELY PRO-AMERICAN

From the first time I met Sheikh Khalid in Washington in the summer 2019, I found him a proud Bahraini who loves the United States.

He did his undergraduate studies at St. Edward’s University, a Catholic school in Austin Texas.

During that time, he became a diehard Dallas Cowboys fan, and remains so to this day.

After spending a week reporting from the United Arab Emirates – a Gulf state I have been to many times – I traveled here to Bahrain to spend a week reporting from an Arab nation I had never had the honor of visiting before.

As it happened, I arrived just in time for “National Day” (Dec. 16-17) in which Bahrainis were celebrating 49 years of independence from the British Empire.

I had certainly expected the 1.5 million residents of this Gulf Arab state to have massive firework shows, wave flags and honk their horns throughout the cities, and show great pride in how much they have accomplished in such a short time. And I was certainly not disappointed.

What I had not expected as a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen and journalist was to be invited by Sheikh Khalid – one of the most influential officials in the Kingdom – to his home to celebrate both National Day and the 7th day of Hanukkah.
 

Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, Diplomatic Advisor to Bahrain’s King (Photo: All Arab News)

 

A WITNESS TO HISTORY, AS WELL AS PARTICIPANT

A driver picked me up from my hotel in Manama, and took me to the sheikh’s gorgeous family home, about 45 minutes south of the capital.

Built around the time of the American civil war, the compound looks almost like a fort one might find in the American southwest.

It has been in the sheikh’s family for generations.

He introduced me to his lovely wife, served me lunch, invited me and my entire family to come back and stay with them.

Then the sheikh sat with me for hours, discussing his excitement and optimism over the Abraham Accords, and the fierce determination of King Hamad, the Crown Prince and other Bahraini senior leaders to create a warm and personal peace with Israel, built not just on security ties but on robust trade and tourism.

Born in April of 1960, Khalid was just 11 years old when Bahrain declared its independence from the British Empire.

Today, at 60, he has been a witness to – and a key participant in – the extraordinary progress his country has made in so short a time.

Once Bahrain was a poor series of islands off the coast of Saudi Arabia whose economy was built on pearl diving, fishing, sailing and trade.

Then the country discovered oil and natural gas.

That created a huge economic boom and allowed for the sudden rise of a modern and high-tech country and skyscrapers of steel and glass soaring out of the desert sands.

But Bahrain’s leaders were also careful to diversify their economy, he told me, building a robust banking and financial services center.

Bahrain now has an annual Gross Domestic Product of about $74 billion.

They host the U.S. Navy’s Central Command and America’s 5th Fleet and share deep security and intelligence ties to Washington, particularly against the threat posed by the Iranian regime.

WHAT SHOULD PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT BAHRAIN?

“On this National Day, what do Americans and others around the world need to know about the spirit and the heart of the Bahraini people?” I asked the sheikh.

“They should know that there is a very small country in the distance from America that embodies the value of your great nation in its own way, evolved in its own nature in Bahrain,” he told me.

“Bahrain is an embodiment of the soul of the Middle East,” he continued. “It is a microcosm of this whole Middle East. You see all the ethnic groups – you see Jews, Arabs, you see Persians, you see Africans, you see sub-continent Indians, you see everybody – living historically not [just] in the new areas but in the Old Town, one right next to the other.”

“And you see people of different religions like Christians – I said Jews a moment ago because I see them as an ethnicity – so Christians, you see Hindus, you see Buddhists, you see Zoroastrians from Iran, you see many, they are all living here.”

“So, if Bahrain succeeds – and we really believe that we are succeeding, and now with this new peace atmosphere between us and Israel that is thriving – if this microcosm succeeds, then there is no reason for the wider area not to succeed,” Sheikh Khalid told me. “There is no reason. Openness and reform in Europe started in small pockets in Netherlands and parts of Belgium, while Protestantism and Catholicism were like this – clashing. But then it all started from small places. This is the small microcosm of the Middle East. If it succeeds – and we are succeeding – there is no reason for the rest of the area not to succeed. What that means is that other parts of the area should do their job properly.”
 

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 21, 2017. (Photo credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

 

THE IMPACT OF SEPT. 11th

I also asked Sheikh Khalid about what he remembered about the attacks by al Qaeda in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, and how those attacks have shaped his views, and Bahrain’s approach to the region and towards radical Islamists.

One of the reasons I asked is that I am writing new book about the future of the Middle East that will release next September, for the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

But I also asked because Bahrain chose to announce that it was formalizing its peaceful relationship with Israel and joining the Abraham Accords on – that’s right – Sept. 11, 2020.

“I was here in Bahrain the day,” on Sept. 11, 2001, he told me. “It was before I went to London [to begin serving] as ambassador. I arrived in London Sept. 12, 2001, the next day after the attacks. All the American aircraft were parked on the grass, not being able to go back to America. It was sad.”

“My first event to attend in London [as Bahrain’s ambassador] was in the presence of the Queen was at St. Paul’s [Cathedral], a memorial for the dead of Canada.”

“How did you handle that as an Arab, as a Muslim?” I asked him.

“It was difficult. As an Arab and as a Muslim I thought I was really being stabbed in the chest. I said, Allah, ‘I hope they are not Muslims [who were responsible for the attacks] – not Muslims.”

Then he learned that all the terrorists were Muslims.

“It was too much,” he

said. “I wept.”

Then an American friend who had once been his next-door neighbor called him in London to check on him.

“I should have called him to check on him,” Sheikh Khalid told me. “But I felt bad, afraid he might either not answer me or just hang up on me or something like that just because I am a Muslim. But he called and said, ‘Khalid, how are you? Khalid, our hearts are with you. We know that you guys, the people we know and met in Bahrain, are definitely in a difficult time now, like us.’ And I was touched by that sentence and when we hung up tears came out. This was a very difficult day for all of us. But look how many people – innocent people – are paying the price still because of all those extremists].”

MOVING AT A “FAST PACE” TO CREATE A WARM PEACE

Sheikh Khalid is proud of his King’s decision to join the Abraham Accords, and to do so on 9/11, of all days.

Bahrain has no interest in a “cold peace” – they want a warm peace and are working at a “fast pace” to make it real and robust.

“Notice that we did not declare peace with Israel,” he told me. “We declared support of peace – because we never had a war with Israel. We never had, you know, what you call it belligerence or animosity. So, peace was there between us, but it was a quiet one. So, now we support it [openly].”

“We are not sending our armies back to camp,” he added. “We’re not turning our rockets around. This is support of the nature of peace in the region. So, that’s why we did it and that’s why you see it being done wholeheartedly not only from Bahrain but even from the UAE. This is a fast pace. The pace of this peace is what was supposed to be in every peace agreement that took place before. Cold peace does not work.”

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