The Unlikely Emissary
The Jewish Female Ambassador From Bahrain Represents Her Country’s Pluralism As Sectarian Uprisings Challenge The Kingdom
As the first Jewish ambassador posted abroad by an Arab country and the first female ambassador to the United States from Bahrain, Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo is accustomed to defying expectations. When she hosted her first Bahraini independence day event at the embassy, guests eagerly rushed to greet her husband, assuming he was the Arab country’s newly appointed ambassador. They were surprised when the diminutive woman by his side reached out to shake their extended hands instead. “When I walk into a meeting with the male deputy chief of mission, people often think he is the ambassador,” says the 46-year-old Nonoo with a laugh, as we sit in her vast office on the second floor of the embassy.
Since her arrival in 2008, Nonoo, slim with shoulder-length auburn hair, has been the public face of Bahrain in the United States. Her appointment sent a message: The Sunni family that rules over the 274-square-mile island nation is determined to distinguish itself from its neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula. Unlike them, the majority-Muslim Bahrain works hard to portray itself as a modern nation where women are welcome in politics and its Jewish and Christian citizens are considered integral to the social fabric.
Nonoo was a wise choice as a diplomat for a country trying to burnish its credentials in the West. “Bahrain made history by appointing a Jewish woman to an ambassadorial post,” says Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), who has been on numerous AJC missions to Bahrain. “She is a remarkably talented, energetic, thoughtful representative of that kingdom. She has a business background, a human rights background and a political background.”
As ambassador, Nonoo’s task is to leverage her well-known charm and humor to shepherd her country’s strong relationship with the United States. Lacking the oil resources of its neighbors, the nation of 1.3 million has positioned itself as a strategic friend of the Western world: The country hosts the 4,000-strong U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, allowing the U.S. to keep an eye on nearby Iran. In 2006, Bahrain became the first country on the Arabian Peninsula to sign a Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. The World Bank ranks it second only to Saudi Arabia in ease of doing business in the Middle East.
Bahrain’s reforms began when the current king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, took power in 1999. A graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he is a member of the Sunni al-Khalifa family, which has ruled Bahrain since 1783. The king ended the virtual state of emergency that had remained in place since the country’s independence from Britain in 1971. He disavowed torture, freed political prisoners and invited exiles to return. Under his reign, Bahrain became the first country in the Persian Gulf to hold parliamentary elections and the first to grant women the vote in 2002. In December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the tiny state a “model partner” and said she was “impressed by the commitment that the government has to the democratic path that Bahrain is walking on.”