Shiek Essa Khalifa is ticketed as can be. He sits in his suite at the London Hilton hotel high above the verdant Hyde Park and grins. Empty bottles of champagne adorn the tables and chests in the suite, a testimony to the previous nights' celebration. He has reason to be jolly. His colt, Jellaby, won the first prize at Ascot the day before earning him 6,101 pounds or about $10,300.
Sheik (pronounced shake) Khalifa loves horses, so much so tht he commutes by Concorde from Bahrain every two weeks to watch various of his 20 European horses run. But he is tired of buying English horses, especially since, as he claims, they are descedants from three Arabian stallions which were brought to England in the 1800s. And now, the English have banned Arabian horses from racing in England.
The Sheik, a first cousin of the ruler of Bahrain, finds this so annoying that he has decided to build his own 7-million-pound racetrack back in Bahrain, with Arabian race horses, of course. "It will be green and watered," he says proudly.
There is one drawback to the racetrack and that is the betting problem he explains. "So the young princes in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait decided it wouldn't be much fun not to bet so he will sell the betting tickets and the proceeds will go to charity. That is a sign that things are changing."
Change is important to Sheik Khalifa. And he is moving forward on that score himself. He went to Ascot the day before in a top hat and morning coat rather than in his native robes and headdress. "It was the first time I ever wore a top hat," he says with a chuckle. "I couldn't keep it on. And I must admit you feel a little odds at first. Then you mix with the crowd and it's okay."
Khalifa is discovering more and more that when you mix it's okay.And he is concerned that many Arabs are not mixing, and because of that, creating a bad image of themselves in London
He talks earnestly about it over croissants and coffee in his suite the morning after that race. He is wearing a body-hugging jersey shirt, open at the neck, and slightly belled trousers, and the biggest yellow diamond ring you ever saw in your life. Sheik Khalifa is in his early 40s, has a round, pleasant face and a rather pudgy build. He is a little shy, very gentle-manly, hospitable.
"If you talk to the English who've lived in Arabia and mixed with people there," he says, "we've a very close friendship with them. The worry is about those who don't know us. But we don't blame."
And there is always the problem of the English lumping all the Arabs into one category. "I myself don't understand Egyptians or Lebanese," he says. "And I feel strange going to Tunis, Jordan ir Syria,"
"Our part," he says, "the Gulf, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the Emirates, maybe we all have the same habits. Maybe in Beirut and Syria they are more advanced."
Still, he understands that the English haven't really had much time to figure all that out. And he explains why there are so many Arabs descedants on London so suddenly.
"Until the big oil money in the Middle East, all people ever did was talk about politics. Until a few years ago everyone was involved with slogans."
"Some Arab leaders in the past put their mind on politics, politics, politics. Now, they realize that all the things they believed before are not true, that mostly politics is a joke to them. Before all their heros were politicians."
One of the changes, he says, jas been the Arab political attitude toward the Russian since the advert of the oil. "Even before the oil," he says, "the Russian way was different from ours. I couldn't ever joke with a Russian. They have no sense of humor. The American and British sit on the floor and eat with us. The Russian don't ."
With the advert of oil we discovered a lot of things in life. There was a new trend. People wanted to build houses, wanted to travel, to know other people. They are really eager to see the advancements but they want to keep their tradition too. And they are still afraid that people don't want them."
Now, he says, they come to London to find taht their worst fears are confirmed. And it is even worse for their more sophiscated neighbors from the desert. Especially the royal ones, who in fact, the only ones who are sheiks.
"I'm talking about the rulers of the gulf," says Khalifa, "Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, Al Saba of Kuwait, and Al Khalifa of Bahrain, they are the people who've ruled their countries for the years before the oil came. We are originate from one family, one tribe. The royal family is a big family in each country, they may have six or seven brothers. There are perhaps 1,000 Al Khalifa and now the family expanding. That name means prince or sheik, the one selected to rule. If your name is not Al Khalifa in Bharain you are not a sheik. People think that if you wear the Arab robes and headdress you are a sheik. That is wrong. However, in some Arab countries, like Egypt, the word sheik simply means old man. It's very confusing."
The Arabs also like to laugh, he says, at how naive the British are by calling everyone an "oil sheik".
"When the oil came to Bahrain, everybody thought that the sheiks had all the oil."
That was, as he explains, it, not the case. "Our ruler is very kind, he has an open house, everybody can walk in. The ruler decided that it is better that the income from the oil be divided between the family and the people. It is through his generosity and his kindness. He hasn't been elected, he doesn't like to be a dictator. He says, "I'll share half with my prople." So he gives it to the governemnt. Whatever the oil company gives him he gives half to the governemnt to build hospitals and schools. Even from his half he gives to people for their personal needs."
Unlike rich Americans or rich Britishers, the Arabs are not embarrassed to talk about their money: in fact, they are rather proud of it. Khalifa is no exception.
"It is true," he says, "that there is a lot of money, big money, bigger than in America. The Arabs laugh when they see a big show on TV and they refer to a big fuss over $1 million dollars." Video cassettes of American TV shows are popular in Arab states: their favorites, according to Khalifa, are "Kojak," "Starsky and Hutch" and "Columbo".
With that he breaks up, and mirth leaves him literally holds his sides. "By nature the Arabs are very generous, very shrewd businessmen," he says. (Khalifa himself runs a property development company). "Of course everyone buys things but not just for the purpose of business. The English say it is the Arab madness that they will spend 1 million pounds to buy a hotel. It is not madness. It is just that they want to show a friend that they own a prestigious hotel in the heart of London. This is not a business deal. It is only liking the area and it ameans a lot to him to be close to his friends. Not as much to show off.It looks stupid to others and it looks like it's not a good business deal. He doesn't care. He has the money, he wants to enjoy himself."
Regardless, says Khalifa, of all differences between the two cultures, he and most of his Arab friends (he says he hangs out with Crown Pirnce Fahd's three sons who live at the Arab-owned Dorchester Hotel) finds London a place of great enjoyment.
And it's not only the men who like London.
Khalifa says that the Arab women like London a lot and the men are finding, interesting enough, that they not only enjoy London for themselves, but they like their wives better in London.
"The Arab ladies like it a lot," he says, "because they can go out in the park, they can go out with men, and a lot of Arab girls are educated here. This independence of seeing people here is good for them. They can keep their figures instead of sitting home and eating."
"In Arabia there are not the opportunities for women to do this. When they come here the women are nicer to men. And it's nice for the men to have their women look pretty. It's hard to judge how it will take to change all that back home. But it could be so quick it's unbelievable."
At any rate, says Khalifa, "the Arabs feel that they are at home in London. For one thing, there is not as much difference between home and here. Only three hours by Concorde."
And of course, with direct dial, the two countries are brought even closer.
"I listen," says Sheik Khalifa, "to the races by phone every day from Bahrain."