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.