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Bahraini Ambassador Discusses Bahrain and Middle East at Naval Academy

Posted on: April 12, 2013 08:00 EDT by Jessica Clark

Bahraini Ambassador to the U.S. Houda Nonoo spoke at the Naval Academy March 21 about her country’s pursuit of democratic values and the relationship between Bahrain and the U.S.

Nonoo is the first female Bahraini ambassador to the U.S. and the first Jewish ambassador to be appointed in a Middle Eastern country.

Prior to her appointment, Nonoo was president of the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society where she worked on issues such as women’s rights and labor conditions. She had for three years been a member of the Shura Council, Bahrain’s parliament.

Nonoo opened her remarks by honoring the long-standing relationship between Bahrain and the United States, especially the U.S. Navy. There has been an American naval presence in Bahrain since 1948.

“Although there have been many regional crises since then, and although America has not always been popular among our neighbors, Bahrain has been proud to work side by side with our American allies in the service of our shared interests and values,” said Nonoo. “I have visited Annapolis many times and each time I do I'm reminded of the many reasons that make the United States a great country: honor, service and sacrifice.”

Bahrain remains proud to serve as the home of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, said Nonoo.

“The endurance of our military and security is particularly important as we confront common threats throughout the region,” she said.

That continuing relationship is vital to the broader security of the Middle East, she said.

Nonoo went on to discuss the challenges Bahrain has faced in its endeavor to embrace democracy, especially since the Arab Spring in 2011.

“Bahrain's history is as a meeting place for trade between empires, and our exposure to a wide variety of cultures has bred an atmosphere of tolerance and respect for minorities that is uncommon in our corner of the world,” she said.

For example, Bahrain has set the example for the region with its position on women’s rights, opening its first school for girls in 1928 and granting women the right to vote in municipal elections in 1934. Women now serve in a number of areas in Bahraini society - as cabinet members, diplomats, teachers, judges, and in both houses of parliament.

Bahrain’s parliament was established more than a decade ago as part of a series of reforms instituted by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to make Bahrain’s political system more democratic.

“It has led objectively to the largest expansion of political and economic liberty among Middle Eastern countries, a widely accepted fact prior to February 2011,” said Nonoo.

On February 14, 2011, Bahrainis took to the streets to demand greater employment opportunities and better access to affordable housing, but these peaceful demonstrations were hijacked by a small group of extremists in an attempt to advance the divisive sectarian agenda, she said.

The demonstrations strained social cohesion, imperiled law and order, and brought Bahrain to the brink of civil war,” said Nonoo. “These events have placed the Bahraini government in the unfortunate position in which it must balance the need to protect freedom of expression with how to confront violent protest and imperiled public safety.

 “As someone who owes a tolerant, multicultural, nonsectarian Bahrain a great deal for my personal and professional success, it has been very painful to watch how sectarian strain has brought Bahrain to where it is today,” she said.

The government of Bahrain has taken a number of important steps to shed light on abuses, implement meaningful reforms and pursue a dialogue that will ultimately lead to the resolution of  political differences within the country, and Nonoo said she is heartened by the response.

“The reform program of the past decade may not have yet accomplished all it set out to, but the future of Bahrain requires that we move forward and not backward,” she said. “Any resolution to our political differences requires that we preserve the freedoms Bahrain has already achieved while working to make its political system more representative.”

Nonoo said the success of this national dialogue is especially important given Bahrain’s centrality to American national security.

 “Bahrain greatly values our military relationship with the United States and understands that American power is a force for good in the Middle East,” she said. “As Bahrain's representative in the United States, I'm committed to working with our friends and allies to build a better future for all Bahrainis. Although the work remains difficult, a progressive and inclusive Bahrain is worth fighting for.”

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