Britain and US lose `true Gulf ally'

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FIRST KING Hussein of Jordan, then the Emir of Bahrain. Only 10 weeks into 1999 and the Grim Reaper is moving at speed through the Middle East (Abdullah Ocalan could yet join his guests, but we must wait).

Sheikh Issa bin Salman al-Khalifa of Bahrain died of a heart attack at 65 on Saturday, five minutes after a meeting with US Defense Secretary William Cohen - and the parallels with the late Plucky Little King of Jordan were breathtaking.

A friend of the West, a "true ally of Britain" - this from the BBC - a "very great friend ... a warm, generous spirit with a light in his eyes" - this from Mr Cohen who had minutes earlier persuaded the Emir to buy a further pounds 6.5m of air-to-air missiles (profits to Hughes and Raytheon Co, USA).

The Sheikh was buried within hours, his body wrapped in a cotton shroud and 10,000 mourners weeping as he was interred at the royal cemetery in Riffaa.

His successor? For King Abdullah the Second of Jordan, military commander, Sandhurst cadet and US graduate, read the Emir Hamad of Bahrain, military commander, Sandhurst cadet (after the Mons Officer Cadet School, Aldershot) and US graduate (US Army Command and Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas).

Sheikh Hamad used to send in the armoured cars against Shia rioters in Bahrain, those who demanded a restoration of the democratic parliament that the late Sheikh Issa dissolved in 1975, suspending the constitution for good measure at the same time.

Sheikh Issa regarded Britain as an old friend - so much sohe used Britain as a dumping ground for his political prisoners - and thought so highly of our constabulary he appointed the sinister ex-Special Branch man Ian Henderson - a true Scot, who earned his colours "fighting" the Mau Mau in Kenya - as his head of security (Henderson's torture chambers have entertained many a Bahraini Shia opponent).

And the Royal Navy was always welcome. The US Fifth Fleet was even more welcome; it was, after all, headquartered in Bahrain. Indeed, the security pact between Bahrain and Washington became one of the linch-pins of Bahrain's security as its American and British allies repeatedly warned the fun- loving Emir of the dangers of Iranian "fundamentalism" and then of aggression from Iraq (the Emir's - and our - old friend when Saddam was invading Iran).

US pilots and our very own RAF boys took off from the pseudo-secret air base in southern Bahrain to bomb the Iraqis in 1991. And for this, we were very grateful. The late Emir was not a wicked man. He rarely employed capital punishment, he had a sense of humour and enjoyed Western company - especially the female flight attendants who sunned themselves on the Sheikh's personal beach from which ordinary Bahrainis were banned.

When it was obvious that Bahrain's oil reserves would run out within 10 years, he shrewdly created a new Gulf free banking zone and trade sector, marred only by the violence that took 40 lives since 1994, provoked by the lack of democracy on Bahrain's 265 square miles of 35 tiny islands.

In its jail languishes today Sheikh Abdul Amir al-Jamri (on trial for spying and incitement), whose son Mansour yesterday paid his condolences to the new Emir Hamad in the hope that he would "open a new page of reconciliation with the Bahraini opposition".

Perhaps he will. But Hamad has promised a continuation of his father's policies and is a tough guy when it comes to putting down dissent. As for the Americans, they will, of course, back the Emir Hamad. His father, Mr Cohen said, had given "steady support for the efforts of the United States to promote peace in the region".

Indeed he had. And while Washington has been plotting the overthrow of Saddam and demanding "democracy" for the Iraqi people, Mr Cohen said nothing about the lack of democracy in Bahrain.

Nor about the rather less than democratic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where he arrived at the weekend, another American ally whose king may soon be visited by the Grim Reaper.

n In Baghdad, the official newspaper of Iraq's ruling Baath Party, al- Thawra, said yesterday: "The cause of [the Emir's] death ... was the harsh words he heard from the US Defense Secretary, William Cohen." The newspaper quoted anonymous sources in Cyprus as saying: "The Emir was very affected."

Another Iraqi newspaper, Babil, also noted the timing of the emir's death. "We wonder, what did Cohen tell the late Emir so he caused the man a heart attack," said the paper.

It is owned by President Saddam's son, Odai. (AP)

Obituary, Review, page 6