Bahrain protests have complicated job for Houda Nonoo, first Jewish ambassador from an Arab nation

May 26, 2012

It was a mild winter day, and the office of Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo, Bahrain’s ambassador to the United States, seemed warm and welcoming. Nonoo, who four years ago created a splash as the world’s first Jewish ambassador appointed by an Arab country, settled comfortably onto a couch. She has long, flowing brown hair enveloping a round, friendly face and was wearing a knee-length black skirt and a red wool jacket.

After months of requests, Nonoo, 47, had finally consented to a one-on-one interview, the only one she granted to The Post during the writing of this article. Conditions: The interview could last only 30 minutes; a representative from Qorvis, a Washington lobbying and public relations firm, had to be in the room; and questions about her husband and two sons would not be allowed. The clock started ticking.

It was easy to understand why Nonoo might be reluctant to talk. Her country had been coming apart since last year’s Arab Spring sparked pro-democracy uprisings across the Middle East. Bahrain, a Sunni Muslim monarchy ruling over a restive Shiite majority, was rocked by riots for several weeks in February 2011, until the government called in 1,500 troops from neighboring countries to squelch the protests. An international fact-finding report released in November had documented government abuses — including torture — against Shiite demonstrators. The Bahraini government had promised reforms.

All this had thrown Nonoo into nonstop defense mode, and she readily talked about the rejection she had experienced. “I have to explain to friends what Bahrain is. It’s hard that your friends think the opposite, and the media has not helped us at all,” she remarked coolly, leaning slightly back on her couch, her legs crossed. Especially difficult, she related, was the look in her friends’ eyes that said Nonoo was merely mouthing the government line.

“I know for a fact I’m not,” the ambassador said. “If I don’t believe in it, I would not say it.”

Of course, when Nonoo’s appointment was announced in spring 2008 and widely publicized, no one predicted she would have to say any of this at all.

***

Nonoo is the granddaughter of Ebrahim Nonoo, an Iraqi Jew who stopped in Bahrain while on a boat bound for India. He liked the Persian Gulf archipelago — world-famous for its pearl fishing — and stayed. He wasn’t alone; in the early 1900s, Bahraini Jews — mostly traders originally from Iraq, Iran and India — numbered up to 1,500. Ebrahim’s son Ezra became a successful businessman who sent his daughter, Houda, to school in Britain at age 15. She stayed there for more than a decade, earning an MBA, starting her own business and marrying Salman Idafar, a British Jew.

When her father was killed in a car accident in 1993, 28-year-old Houda, the elder of two children, inherited the family responsibilities. She, Salman and their two young sons eventually moved to Manama, Bahrain’s capital, so she could tend to Gulf Computer Services, a business her father had started.

Over the years, she became politically involved and somewhat prominent, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that she was one of only about 30 Jews left in the country; wars and tensions over Israel had prompted most other Bahraini Jews to move to England and America. In 2004, Nonoo founded the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society, which advocated for the rights of women in divorce and child-custody disputes and for protection for foreign housemaids. In 2006, Nonoo became a member of the Shura Council (Bahrain’s parliament), nominated by the king himself.

“When I founded the [human rights] society, I never expected to be out there in the limelight,” Nonoo said. But “we were a unique society in Bahrain. ... So, that basically got a lot of exposure, and I came under his majesty’s radar.”

Nevertheless, it was a surprise to Nonoo — and to others — when the king named her, a woman with zero diplomatic experience, as his country’s ambassador to Washington. The consensus was that, by naming a woman and a Jew, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa was sending a message.

“It was a bold move by the king,” said Johnny Young, who was the American ambassador to Bahrain from 1997 to 2001. “He wanted to demonstrate that Bahrain was as liberal and forward-thinking as people think it is. Her being appointed gave Bahrain a lot of visibility.”

A few days after the announcement, Adam Ereli, then the American ambassador to Bahrain, invited Nonoo to lunch. “She was still coming to terms with the implications of the appointment for her family and was eager to learn more about what was expected of a chief of mission in Washington,” he wrote in a May 1, 2008, cable released by Wikileaks. “She also shared her worry that any public missteps she makes, especially on Arab-Israeli issues, might focus unsympathetic attention on the small Bahraini Jewish community which, for decades, has been non-controversial here.” Like most Arab countries, Bahrain does not have diplomatic relations with Israel.

“We expect that Mrs. Nonoo will prove herself an excellent Ambassador. She is bright, genuine, and refreshingly direct,” Ereli continued. His conclusion — “The prospect of becoming a lightning rod for controversy worries her, but she will have the strong support of King Hamad and his Foreign Minister” — appears ironic in retrospect, as Israel turned out to be the least of Nonoo’s problems.

***

When Nonoo arrived in Washington, “she was a little hesitant at first,” former ambassador Young recalled, “a little shy, but she’s a lot more confident now.”

Singapore Ambassador Chan Heng Chee remembers Nonoo hitting the diplomatic circuit in a blaze, attracting attention for her Arab-Jewish ancestry.

“I teased her and said, ‘You must be very good [to have been appointed]. You’re a woman and not a Muslim,’ ” Chan related. “She just laughed.”

Nonoo seemed to relish her unusual role, not covering her hair and making it a point to say that Bahraini women are allowed to drive and vote. She was the 21st-century world-class businesswoman with her family on three continents: Salman remains in Bahrain; older son Menasheh Idafar, 21, a racecar driver, splits his time between Bahrain and the United Kingdom; and younger son Ezra, 19, who also races, is a student at Northeastern University in Boston.

The new ambassador quickly modernized things at the embassy, changing the iftar (a religious observance during Ramadan) from what had been all-male gatherings to mixed-gender events with lectures on Eid al-Fitr and interfaith relations. These get-togethers became salons, with local imams, rabbis and Christian clergy as guests.

Though keeping her distance from issues involving Israel, she was successful at making connections between the Jewish community and Bahrainis at the highest level. In November 2008, she set up a meeting in New York between 50 Bahraini Jewish expatriates and King Hamad. In February 2010, she helped arrange a dinner at the home of Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of American Friends of Lubavitch, with Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmad al-Khalifa and representatives from Jewish organizations. (The whole affair was supposed to be hush-hush until Khalid tweeted: “Was invited by my friend rabbi shimtov 2 a dinner w/ leaders of the American Jewish community. gr8 discussion abt peace in ME.”)

And in December 2011, Nonoo set up a meeting in Bahrain between the king and Rabbi Marc Schneier, vice president of the World Jewish Congress, to discuss holding an interfaith Muslim-Jewish dialogue at the end of this year.

Meanwhile, Nonoo found a spiritual home at Shemtov’s synagogue, at the American Friends of Lubavitch building in Northwest Washington. “Houda comes from a traditional Sephardic family and joins us [at the synagogue] when she can,” said Shemtov, who is perhaps best known for his presence at the annual menorah lighting at the White House.

Nonoo’s ambassadorial clout has been less clear. On one hand, U.S. Army Reserve Col. David Des Roches, a military fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies with Mideast experience, said she has impressed observers in Washington with her hard work and finesse.

“She is not a debutante,” Des Roches said. “She reminds the policy community in Washington just what is the strategic importance of Bahrain to the United States. She is graceful, subtle, but you do not come into contact with her without knowing Bahrain is an ally.”

But Les Campbell, director for Middle East programs for the National Democratic Institute, doesn’t think she carries any serious heft with the Bahraini government.

“We had good experiences with her in Bahrain,” he said. “She seemed like a breath of fresh air. She’s very mild-mannered and quite nice to talk to. But much of the relationship between Bahrain and the U.S. is done at the level of the Pentagon, as the center of activity is the 5th Fleet. Any ambassador is going to be a secondary figure.”

***

Bahrain, the home of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which protects strategic oil routes, has long been a key U.S. ally. It shares the U.S. enmity toward Shiite-controlled Iran — which still claims Bahrain as Iran’s “14th province” — and has blamed many of its internal problems on the Persian nation.

On Feb. 14, 2011, protesters began to occupy Manama’s iconic Pearl Square roundabout. The demonstrations grew to 150,000 people at a time. Most were Shiites protesting barriers to better jobs, education and representation in the country’s national assembly and its highest levels of government.

Seeing other Middle Eastern governments tottering and its own monarchy at risk, Bahrain called in reinforcements. On March 14, a coalition of forces, most from Saudi Arabia, swept across the 16-mile King Fahd Causeway connecting that country to Bahrain. King Hamad declared martial law a day later, and the Pearl Square roundabout was violently cleared of protesters, then demolished. Ambulances were prevented from operating; nurses and doctors who treated the injured ended up in jail themselves.

As this sectarian battle raged, Bahrain’s U.S. ambassador, whose appointment had been heralded as a symbol of the kingdom’s progressiveness and tolerance, was largely silent. “I did not have the time to do anything publicly,” she said in the interview. “I was extremely busy all day long just going from office to office, from congressmen’s offices to senators’ offices to whoever else’s office, just to try to explain what we were doing.”

Nonoo continued to keep a low profile throughout the spring and into summer, as the carnage, arrests and condemnations by human rights groups continued. A national dialogue begun in July fell apart. Police clashed with protesters nightly in Shiite villages.

Barbara Slavin, an Iran expert and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, attended a July 2011 event at the embassy and was struck by the disconnect between the ambassador’s demeanor and events on the ground. Nonoo showed idyllic scenes from a 2006 film touting Bahrain as the only true democracy in the Persian Gulf region, Slavin said, only to admit to her guests that the film was jarringly out of date.

In August came another public relations blow. The online magazine Salon published a story saying Bahrain was paying $40,000 a month to Qorvis, notorious for representing despotic governments of countries such as Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Equatorial Guinea in central Africa.

In September, Nonoo decided to address her country’s worsening human rights image head-on in a speech to the Washington European Society, which consists of young professionals with a background or interest in Europe.

The first point she made during the event, held on a syrupy warm evening at the embassy, was about Bahrain’s tolerance: “As a woman of a minority faith, I never felt like there were restraints placed on my potential,” she said. “I always had been given the opportunity to prove myself on merits. My appointment as ambassador to the United States was made in the same spirit.”

Then she launched into a justification of the government’s actions. “Bahrain’s protests were inherently different from our neighbors’; they were not altogether peaceful,” she said. “Bahrain is a free and open society, and like any other functioning constitutional monarchy, we allow for measured dissent and peaceful organizing. But the protests in Bahrain turned into aggressive mobs. ... The unrest in our nation nearly brought our country to the brink of economic collapse and civil war.”

Finally, she said: “In December [2010], the average American probably couldn’t point out Bahrain on a map. On February 14, when protesters took to our streets, Bahrain became a name and a place. ... Since then, we have been working to set the record straight.”

***

In November 2011, the record was set straight by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), a fact-finding group of five non-Bahraini experts in international law and human rights, whose investigation had been requested and paid for by the king. Their report was devastating. The commission asserted that 35 people — including five police officers — were killed during the spring violence. (Opposition groups put the total now at about 70.) It found 559 allegations of mistreatment and torture, and thousands of cases of workers fired for protesting.

Yet during her interview with The Post, Nonoo continued to insist that the truth about the uprisings was distorted.

“All these problems are not reality,” she said. “You are only hearing one side of the story through the media. They have not told you the full story of what is happening on the ground.”

She also took issue with the report’s suggestion that the government should address “the grievances of groups which are, or perceive themselves, to be deprived of equal political, social and economic rights and benefits.”

Nonoo said: “The Shiites are treated the same way as everyone else. ... They have the same level of education that’s available to any other Bahraini in Bahrain. Health care is available to them, as it is available to anybody else in Bahrain.”

Nevertheless, she said, there will be reforms. “We are moving forward. We don’t want to move backward.”

Opposition and humanitarian groups say the Bahraini government is not acting quickly enough to implement the economic, political and constitutional recommendations made by its own commission. The government has fought back with a Web site listing recommendations it said it is implementing.

This Feb. 14, riots in Manama marked the one-year anniversary of the Bahrain uprising, and the ruling dynasty blanketed the streets with troops. That same day, Nonoo’s office presented her response to the anniversary: a blog that aims to be “a resource for discovering events in Bahrain.” So far, the content on Nonoo’s blog mostly has been about prominent Bahraini women, racecar teams, her out-of-town trips and speaking engagements.

In April, Nonoo defended her homeland in a letter published on The Post’s editorial page. “Bahrain has developed a police code of conduct, installed video cameras in all interrogation rooms and accelerated the retraining of thousands of police,” she wrote. “These changes are only a down payment on the full reform program Bahrain has committed to.”

Her letter appeared a few days before the April 22 Formula One Grand Prix, Bahrain’s showcase event on the international car racing circuit. Thousands of protesters took to the streets, and a prominent activist was killed at the scene of the clashes. But the race — which was canceled last year because of similar protests — proceeded.

On May 1, Nonoo blogged that she had visited Bahrain in April, criticizing “misleading news reports” for not portraying protesters’ violent tactics. She also spoke to more than 100 people at an embassy-hosted event for the Association of International Educators. “Through confronting a very difficult situation, Bahrain has become a better and more democratic nation,” she asserted.

Thus, offering defenses and issuing denials has become the new imperative for the ambassador whose appointment was once called “a bold move.”

Some observers have sympathy for Nonoo and her attempts to walk this tightrope.

“It’s very rare for a serving ambassador to give you a different read from what the party line is,” said Des Roches, of the Center for Strategic Studies. “And it’s harder for her in that she is a woman and an ethnic minority.”

Simon Henderson, a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a friend of the ambassador, said Nonoo is “as frustrated and desirous of some sort of breakthrough as is everybody else.”

“Whatever goodwill the Bahraini government got by sending a Jewish woman to Washington has been completely overtaken by events,” said Slavin of the Atlantic Council.

“Now, it’s an impossible situation for anybody sent by Bahrain.”

Julia Duin is a contributing writer for the Magazine. To comment on this story, send e-mail to wpletters@washpost.com.

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