Ibrahim Dawood Nonoo says he’s made his dead grandfather proud. As a Jew living in a Muslim-dominated Gulf state, he’s always been the odd man out; in a few days, he will be the odd man in.
His grandfather’s pride may well extend to the few dozen other Jews who live, work and play alongside the more than 600,000 Muslims in the oil-rich state of Bahrain.
A decree issued by Bahrain’s leader, Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, this week named 19 newcomers — Nonoo included — to Majlis al-Shoura, Bahrain’s consultative council.
It Was a Man’s World
Nonoo will be joined by four women, who are also making history as the first of their “kind” to be admitted. They will officially join the council on October 3.
The previously all-male, all-Muslim council reviews laws drafted by the Cabinet before they are sent to the emir for final approval.
Nonoo, a Jewish businessman, whose family is of Iraqi origin, said his nomination to the council did not come as a total surprise to him.
Nonoo’s family arrived in Bahrain in 1905 and has lived there ever since. He is one of only 35 Jews known to reside in the state. In essence, the Jewish population is a handful of families.
“I was born here,” said Nonoo, “and my religious faith was never a problem. I am a Bahraini before anything.”
Free to Pray
Unlike some Muslim nations, Bahrain’s laws allow for religious freedom.
But even if Nonoo was not surprised, his appointment marked a first and “it is surely a sign of changing mentalities” said one Western diplomat.
“Gulf States, with the exception of Saudia Arabia, have been slowly opening up to Israel. There are a lot of business deals happening already,” the diplomat said.
Emirs of Qatar, Bahrain and Oman all met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak during the U.N. Millennium Summit in New York last month.
“This is a big achievement,” said newly appointed female council member Mona Al Zayani, who earned a PhD. from the University of Southern California.
“It puts women in a position to be observed and we can prove we are worthy of the confidence bestowed upon us.”
“I am looking forward to this,” says Alice Samaan, a Christian who is also a new appointee. “It is a challenge to walk into a place that was reserved for men. I hope we can contribute in issues that will benefit women and young people.
Right on Minority Rights
Women in Bahrain have enjoyed relative social freedom compared to other Gulf States.
“Women are very active in the private and public sector,” said male council member Fouad Shehab.
“This Majlis [council] will really represent this society. Women have a different look at issues, they will complement men,” Shehab said.
Shehab, who has been re-appointed for a second term, said he was proud to see Bahrain introduce women and non-Muslims to politics.
In Saudia Arabia, non-Muslims are not allowed to practice their faith and women hold very few rights.
Bahrain authorities dissolved the island state’s first elected parliament in 1975, two years after it was set up.
Restoration of the elected parliament was the main spark to political unrest by Bahrain’s majority Shiite Muslim community in 1994. The disturbances abated in 1998.
Political parties are banned in Bahrain, the Gulf’s financial and banking hub.
Bahrain’s population is estimated at 650,000 of which 45,000 are Christians.