Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December/January 1992/93, Page 33


Abdul Rahman Bin Fares Al-Khalifa: Bahrain's Ambassador to the U.S.

By Andrew L. Killgore

Bahrain, an archipelago of more than 30 islands in the Gulf, is an inviting place and, as history and legend tell us, has been so for a long, long time. Its friendliness to outsiders is symbolized by the experience some years ago of an American woman driving her private automobile in Manama, the capital city. Approaching a traffic circle, she proceeded through in response to a hand signal from the driver of a car approaching from another street that she should go first. Glancing at the waiting vehicle as she passed by it, she was startled to recognize that the polite driver was Sheikh Issa Bin Salman Al-Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain.

In very ancient times, Bahrain and nearby areas, including the eastern coast of present-day Saudi Arabia, were the locale of Dilmun, site of a major adventure in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. Between 4,500 and 5,000 years ago Gilgamesh, mentioned in the Sumerian list of Kings, sought eternal life.

He traveled from Sumer in present-day Iraq to Dilmun. There he eventually found not the fountain but the plant of youth, by diving through salt water deep into a freshwater spring. While he lay exhausted at the side of the spring, after bringing the plant to the surface, it was seized by a snake, which disappeared with it back into the water. To this day there are freshwater springs in the bottom of the seas around Bahrain and nearby Qatar. And the Gulf waters are inhabited by deadly sea snakes.

Bahrain's ambassador in Washington today is Abdul Rahman Bin Fares Al-Khalifa, who presented his credentials to President Bush a year ago. He was accompanied to Washington by his wife, Latifa Salman Al-Khalifa, also from Bahrain, and their six children, all of whom are going to school in the national capital area.

The oldest child, son Feras, is a 22-year old senior at George Washington University. The other five children are daughters, the eldest of whom is Saba, age 19, also studying at George Washington. Sala and Suha, 16 and 15, are in high school. Nora, 13, and Latifa, age 7, are in elementary school.

Born in 1942, Ambassador Khalifa became a career diplomat after earning his bachelor's degree at the University of Cairo. While serving at Bahrain's Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1971 to 1980 and from 1984 to 1989, he directed the administrative, financial, legal and consular divisions. As diplomats of any country who have worked in protocol affairs will understand, his most taxing Foreign Ministry job was as Bahrain's chief of protocol where, if some gaffe occurs, blame quickly finds its way to the chief.

His first foreign assignment was as Bahraini ambassador in London, with concurrent responsibility as non-resident ambassador to Ireland and to Denmark.

In a trial by fire during the 1990-1991 Gulf crisis, he chaired Bahrain's joint governmental committee, comprising defense, interior, coast guard, legal affairs, and customs officials responsible for dealing with the American, British and Allied military forces assigned to Bahrain during the buildup to and activities during the Desert Storm Operation. He acquitted himself well in the most hectic period of his life.

In person, Ambassador Khalifa is courteous, quiet and understated, a gentleman to the core. With his impeccable courtesy and modest demeanor, he is almost reluctant to discuss his personal interests with an interviewer. In fact, like many Gulf Arabs, he is intensely family oriented. He lists his leisure interests as golf, reading and relaxing with his wife and children.

A small country of half a million population, Bahrain is not as well endowed with natural resources as any of its immediate neighbors. Bahrain's oil production of 40,000 barrels a day will not last more than 10 to 15 years at current rates of production. Larger natural gas reserves (enough to last 50 years) provide the energy for a large aluminum refinery. An American oil company, Caltex, has led Bahrain's oil development since oil was first discovered on the main island about 60 years ago.

The U.S. Navy has had the use of port and base facilities in Bahrain since World War II. A U.S.-Bahrain agreement was signed in October 1991 formally granting the U.S. access to these Bahraini facilities and also the right to pre-position material in Bahrain for future use.

A Long History of Close Association

As a result of this long history of close personal association, Bahrain is remembered fondly by many thousands of American naval personnel, diplomats and oil men who have known it at first hand for nearly half a century.

Admiral William Crowe, Jr., former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, once commanded the three-ship U.S. naval flotilla centered in Bahrain. His election as honorary chairman of the American-Bahraini Friendship Society reflects his continued affection for Bahrain.

Long accessible via a large international airport, which is also a major transit point for air travel between Asia and Europe, Bahrain also is connected by road to the whole Middle East by a newly completed 25-mile causeway between the main island and Saudi Arabia. Bahrain's fine hotels, nightclubs and good shops also are attracting visitors from Europe as well as the Middle East.

The Al-Khalifas are popular in Washington. Since the whole family speaks excellent English, they've made many American friends in addition to friends from Washington's large diplomatic corps. At age 60, Ambassador Al-Khalifa is at the top of his country's diplomatic service. The many people in the U. S. national capital who have come to know him agree that it couldn't happen to a nicer person.

Ambassador Andrew I. Killgore, a board member of the American-Bahraini Friendship Society, is the publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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