Change of The Guard in Bahrain
7 March 1999

By Adel Darwish

Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who became Emir of Bahrain Saturday following the death of his father Sheikh Isa, is the second Sandhurst military academy trained army officer to become an Arab leader in less than a month.

Like King Abdallah bin al-Hussein who was crowned  king of Jordan last month, the 49 year old Sheikh Hamad is a British trained officer, who has now become the youngest  ruler in his region.  

And like King Hussein, the late Sheikh Isa was very much loved by his people, respected by his neighbours and regarded very much as a friend of the west. At 65 - King Hussein only 63- he was among the youngest rulers in the Persian Gulf region.

So popular Sheikh Isa was that in the Riffaa cemetery alone, 10,000 of his subjects - whom he preferred to call his family and children- turned up to pay their last respect. Almost five times as much lined the 12 mile funeral route, although the announcement was made on the state run Television only 10 minutes before its start.

His popularity stems from his common touch with ordinary people in this, still very much tribal society where the head of the tribe is expected to be the father figure acting as provider, protector, judge and a friend.

'' Welcome to my country, I hope my people are making you feel at home,'' was the first words that formed my impression the first time I shook his hand many years ago, during a Majlis - an open court he holds fortnightly where every one could attend and speak to him, or hand a petition.

Twenty years later, two major Gulf wars, unrest and threats from powerful hostile neighbours, and two major ailments - he went to the States in 1995 and 1998 for treatment in America-, Sheikh Isa still greeted  his foreign gusts the same way in the Majlis.

Observers and Western diplomats in the capital Manama expect Sheikh Hamad, who has been heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the country as a crown prince since 1971, to continue the  pro-Western policies of his late father. 

After Sandhurst, Sheikh Hamad  studied at the US Army Command and General Staff collage at fort Leavenworth, Kansas. His long  military career is expected to make his style different from that of the late Sheikh Isa who was a father figure, liked by a majority of Bahrainis. His ways were paternalistic but heartful, and although he felt betrayed when young people began arson attacks and disturbances, he often intervened to order their release.

Sheik Hamad, is believed to be far more heavy-handed in his approach to dissent than his father. He built the armed forces, from a tiny squad with one office in 1968 and is now an army of 11,000 troops and recruited many soldiers from abroad, hiring men from countries such as Pakistan and Jordan.

Meanwhile his father was more preoccupied with  foreign affairs and Arab diplomacy.

After independence from Britain in 1971, Sheikh Isa developed a comparatively advanced foreign policy opening to the West. This policy and the relaxed laws developed Bahrain into a liberal multi-cultural multi-faiths society that became a haven in a region where strict harsh Islamic rules interfere with the day to day business. 

Sheikh Isa diversified the economy, building light industry including the largest aluminum smelter in the region. His policy attracted business and women had the best deal in the region.  Bahrain achieved the highest level of literacy in the Arab world.

repairing ships frequently damaged during Iran Iraq war and the continues hosting of the US fifth Fleet in the region have also boosted the economy.

Bahrain also allowed British and US military aircraft to use its bases against Saddam Hussein In Iraq, and later became the headquarter of UNSCOM- the committee in charge of disarming Iraq.

The pro western policy and the liberal laws caused resentment among some of Pro-Iranian clergy in the island which led to a wave of anti-government unrest.

Arson, fire bombs and street violence by teenagers, mainly from less well to do Shia areas has claimed 40 lives since .  

Although figures are disputed, Shia,  are believed to be a majority of the island's half-million citizens. 
The ruling al-Khlaifa family are Sunni.

Parallel to the unrest, activists demanded a return of the parliament- which was the first elected chamber in the region in 1973, but was suspended in 1975 after a show down with left wing members over regional policies. Sheikh Isa replaced it with a Shura council of 40 members, including many former MPs and was preparing to include women.

Government officials accuse Iran of being behind the unrest.
Since they were ousted by Al-Khalifa in 1783, the Iranians always claimed the island as theirs leading Bahrain to  sign a protection treaty with Britain in 1816. The claim was renewed by the late Shah following independence in 1971, and again by Ayatollah Khomenei in 1979.

Threats from Iran and Iraq, both want to end the presence of the US fifth Fleet in the Gulf, are considered to be the main challenge facing the new Emir Sheikh Hamad.

American Secretary of Defence William Cohen was the last foreign official to see the late Emir shortly before his death on Saturday.  Announcing the sale of  Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles( AMRAAM), Mr Cohen said he  wanted everybody to know that the U.S. is a steady friend of Bahrain.

Another challenge is a border dispute with Qatar and more immediate is the Iranian inspired Shia clergymen stirring up the youth, but steady reforms could be the answer.

Three leading Shia opposition members in exile in London, Sheik Hamza al-Dairi, Sheik Ali Salman and Sheik Haider al-Satri called on extremists in Bahrain to halt violence out of respect for the dead Emir.

However two days later three masked youths set fire to a petrol station before dawn, in what seemed to be testing  the new Emir.

The new Emir's popularity is untested. Sheikh Isa did not lose touch with common people as he religiously held his open Majlis fortnightly to be attended by thousands of citizens and foreign visitors alike.  Sheikh Isa often invited visitors to Bahrain - whom he met during his strolls on the beach, to be his gusts for an afternoon tea, a mixture of British tradition and classical Arab hospitality. It is unlikely that the new Emir, who belongs to a younger generation with a military training in the west, will keep this relaxed style, but he will certainly keep with the tradition of the open Majlis.

Also see : Obituary of Sheikh Isa
Arson attacks in Bahrian 
Women who paly with fire

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