Sheikh Isa, Emir of Bahrain

By Adel Darwish

Emir of Bahrain Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifa, who died Saturday (6 March 1999)of a heart attack, was regarded as a father figure to his nation and in the region.

In the Riffa 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 many lined the 12 mile funeral route, although the announcement was made on the state run television only 15 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 and act as provider, protector, judge and a friend.

'' Welcome to my country, I hope my people are making you feel at home,'' were 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.

Almost 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 Ohio-,  the Emir still greets his foreign guests with his charming warm smile and the same friendly phrase welcoming the  visitor to his country. 

The natives still line-up in their hundreds, shake hands, kiss him on the forehead, the nose and the chin, before sitting down to drink the arabic coffee. Now their stay is shorter to make room for others, as the queue spills from the palace to the surrounding streets; a nightmare for security. But the Emir himself has always been popular, rejecting any security measures that keep him away from his people.

According to his close aids, he was always conscious that oil wealth must not change his simple way of life, and his common touch.

Sheikh Isa was born in 1933, just one year after the first oil well in Arabia was struck on the Island, when the economy was struggling as the production of Japanese cultured pearls threatened the economy that survived on pearling for hundreds of years. Pearling and providing naval facilities were the main source of income in Bahrain since the days  the Portuguese ruled the island in the 16th century.
Trade with the rest of the region flourished when  Al-Khalifa family expelled the Persian one year after arriving Bahrain in 1782 from the Utube tribes of Arabia. 

The young Isa was educated by private tutors from Egypt, Britain and other countries. In 1958 at the age of 25 he was appointed heir by his father the ruler Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, whom he succeeded as a ruler after his death in 1961. But Isa did not take the title Emir until Bahrain's independence from Britain 1971.

Sheikh Isa was a modernist and became a key western ally and good friend of Britain. He was forward looking and ahead of his oil rich neighbours in developing economy based on trade, investment, banking and service. Although the tiny island of Bahrain was the first to find oil on the western side of the Gulf in 1932, it was also the first to run out. He turned to human resources in order to  diversify the economy and build Bahrain as a  centre for investment and off-shore banking that flourished under his government.

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

Bahrain is about the only nation in the region where there is a Jewish Synagogue, various Christian churches, Sikh, Hindu and other faiths' temples. There are tens of thousands of foreign workers from the Indian sub-continent and the far east who are practicing their religion freely.

Education, health care and social welfare  became a priority during Sheikh Isa's rule. Bahrain achieved the highest level of literacy in the Arab world, and provided levels of social welfare and health-care much higher than its massively rich neighbours.

Women in Bahrain became among the most sophisticated, highly educated and well paid in the region. Although a deeply religious man himself, Sheikh Isa believed in the individual's right to a free choice, thus women were treated equally and there are no laws banning alcohol.  The Bahrainis have a choice of more than 25 satellite channels beaming down to their television sets.

Sheikh Isa also pushed for developing the 16 mile long long causeway that links the oil rich province of western Saudi Arabia with the Island. Saudis and foreign workers drive along the causeway to spend the weekend enjoying Bahrain's relaxed laws, and bring with them good business.

During his trip last year to Washington and other major US cities, Sheikh Isa's business attitude prevailed. As well as impressing American observers with his modesty and simple ways, he equally astonished them by behaving in a most business-like  manner that was contrary to their experience with other Arab leaders.

He held a banquet inviting top businessmen and bankers, then took a back seat letting his finance and trade minister do the talking to help attract business to Bahrain, while he only employed his good sense of humour and smile to charm gusts.

Sheikh Isa also allowed British and US military aircraft to use his bases against Saddam Hussein In Iraq, during the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait, and Bahrain is also the headquarter of UNSCOM- the committee in charge of disarming Iraq.

This caused resentment among some of Pro-Iranian Shia clergy in the island who are also objecting to Bahrain's liberal and relaxed laws. 

Iran has a long standing claim on the Island that goes back over 200 years. Both the late Shah and Ayatollah Khomenei have renewed the claim. 

Shia Muslims, who face higher unemployment, have little political clout compared to minority Sunnis, the mainstream Islamic sect to which the ruling family belongs. 

The Iranian educated Shia clergymen led  a wave of anti-government unrest by inciting youths to stone bare-legged women athletes during am international marathon in December 1994. 
Although figures are disputed, Shia originally migrated from Iran, are believed to be a majority of the island's half-million citizens. 

The unrest was confused with demands by political activists to restore Parliament. Following a showdown with left wing members over regional policies, Sheikh Isa dissolved parliament in August 1975, a mere two and half years after it was established making Bahrain and Kuwait the only gulf nations to have an elected parliament.

It was replaced by a Shura council of 40 members, most of whom are members of the old parliament. The Sheikh was planning to include women and make a section of parliament elected.

But he came under pressure from other secular and business forces fearing that an open election might produce an Islamic fundamentalist government which they saw as bad for business.

Teenagers in poor Shia villages went on arson attacks or stoning cars and developed running battles with police along the lines of the Palestinian Intifada which is glorified in Arab media.

Sheikh Isa often irritated the  Prime Minister, and interior ministers, by issuing a decree releasing teenagers and young men arrested by police for arson attacks or during disturbance. '' A father must forgive his children,'' he often said.

Sheikh Isa was a father figure, liked by majority of Bahrainis, a man genuinely eager to preserve social stability and the welfare of his citizens. He was truly a man of great civility and kindness to all those who visited him. His ways were paternalistic but heartfelt. He felt betrayed when young people began arson attacks and disturbances. And felt equally upset when opponents based abroad demanded participation in power, claiming to represent the people who had been so well taken care of by him in the past.
Shikh Isa bin Salman -Al Akhalifa
Born, Manama 3 June 1993
Died manama 6 March 1999
He is survived by five sons and four daughters

Also see : New Emir Sheokh Hamad
Arson attacks in Bahrian 
Women who paly with fire

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