Obituary: Sheikh Isa, Emir of Bahrain

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THE EMIR of Bahrain, Sheikh Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa, was a father figure to his nation and in the region.

When he was buried on Saturday, hours after his sudden death from a heart attack, 10,000 of his subjects (he preferred to call them his family and children) turned up to pay their last respects in the cemetery alone. Almost five times as many, or 10 per cent of the population, were in the streets surrounding the Riffa cemetery, although the funeral announcement was made on the state-run television only 15 minutes before the start.

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

"Welcome to my country, I hope my people are making you feel at home," were his words the first time I shook his hand many years ago, during a Majlis - the open court he held fortnightly where anyone could attend and speak to him, or hand in a petition.

Almost 20 years later, after two Gulf wars, unrest and threats from powerful hostile neighbours, and two serious illnesses (he went to the United States in 1995 and 1998 for treatment in Ohio), the Emir still greeted his foreign guests with a charming, warm smile and the same friendly phrase welcoming the visitor to his country. The natives still lined up in their hundreds, shook hands, kissed him on the forehead, the nose and the chin, before sitting down to drink the Arabic coffee. Their stay had become shorter to make room for others, as the queue spilled from the palace into the surrounding streets; a nightmare for security. But the Emir himself had always been popular, rejecting any security measures that kept him away from his people. According to his close aides, he was conscious that oil wealth should not change his simple way of life, and he did not lose his common touch.

Sheikh Isa was born in 1933, just one year after the first oil 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. Once under Portuguese rule and then within the ambit of Persia, Bahrain had been a sheikhdom of the Khalifas since 1783, and a British protectorate from 1816.

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 he did not take the title of Emir until Bahrain's independence from Britain in 1971.

Sheikh Isa was a modernist and became a key Western ally and a good friend of Britain. He was forward-looking and ahead of his oil-rich neighbours in developing an 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 made it a priority to diversify and build Bahrain as the service economy of investment and off-shore banking that flourished under his government.

After independence, Sheikh Isa developed a comparatively advanced foreign policy opening to the West. The open policy and the relaxed laws, designed to attract investment, developed Bahrain into a liberal multi-cultural, multi-faith society that became a haven in a region where 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, several Christian churches, Sikh, Hindu and other temples. There tens of thousands of foreign workers from the Indian sub-continent and the Far East can practise 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 better 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 there are no laws banning alcohol, and the Bahrainis have a choice of more than 25 satellite channels beaming down to their television sets.

Sheikh Isa also pushed for developing the 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 rules, and bring with them good business.

During his trip last year to Washington and other 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 business-like manner that was at variance with their experience of other Arab leaders. He held a banquet and invited leading businessmen and bankers, then took a back seat and let his finance and trade minister do the talking to help attract business to Bahrain, while he deployed his humour and charm.

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 headquarters of Unscom, the committee in charge of disarming Iraq.

This caused resentment among some of the pro-Iranian Shia clergy in the island, who also objected to Bahrain's liberal laws. Iran has a longstanding claim on the island that goes back some 200 years. Both the late Shah and Ayatollah Khomenei renewed the claim.

Shia Muslims, who face higher unemployment, have little political clout compared with the 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 an international marathon in December 1994. Although figures are disputed, the Shia, originally migrants from Iran, are believed to be a majority of the island's half-million citizens.

The unrest was compounded by demands from liberals and intellectuals to restore parliament. Following a showdown with left-wing members of over regional policies, Sheikh Isa dissolved parliament in August 1975, a mere two and a half years after it was established, making Bahrain and Kuwait the only Gulf nations to have elected parliaments.

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. This they saw as bad for business.

The local unrest was concentrated in Shia villages, and consisted mainly of teenagers going on arson attacks or stoning cars and developing running battles with police, along the lines of the Palestinian Intifada, which is glorified in Arab media.

Sheikh Isa would irritate the Prime Minister, and interior ministers, by issuing decrees releasing teenagers and young men arrested by police for arson attacks or other offences during these disturbances, saying as a father he must forgive his children.

Sheikh Isa was liked by the majority of Bahrainis, a man genuinely eager to preserve social stability and the welfare of his citizens. He was a man of civility; his ways were paternalistic but passionate. He felt betrayed when young people began arson attacks and disturbances, and was equally upset when opposition based abroad demanded participation in power and claimed to represent the people whom he had so long taken care of.

Adel Darwish

Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa: born Manama, Bahrain 3 June 1933; succeeded 1961 as Ruler of Bahrain; adopted title of Emir 1971; married (five sons, four daughters); died Manama 6 March 1999.