By Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann
Will you be bored in such a small country? The question came up as my wife and I were getting ready to go to Bahrain, where I became the US ambassador in 2001. I had spent three years as ambassador in Algeria when the country was in the grip of a violent insurgency and then three very busy years as a deputy assistant secretary of State responsible for the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. I didn’t know the answer, although I was looking forward to more time with my family than had been possible when I served alone in Algeria and then, in Washington, usually returned late from the State Department. I suppose I could learn golf, I said.
Well, it turned out there was nothing boring about Bahrain. Socially, the tour was a delight. Bahraini’s mix much more freely with the foreign and diplomatic community than is the case in most of the other Peninsula countries. The country is very open with churches and mosques both open and the American Mission Hospital still an institution praised by Bahraini’s of all persuasions. My wife and I made many Bahraini friends and are still in touch with some of them to this day. One of the great pleasures of serving in Bahrain was that it was far easier to make friends with the citizens than is the case in some of the neighboring countries. There was also a vibrant foreign community. We had many friends among them as well, but tried hard not to be too caught up in the social whirl of the expatriate community so that we could enjoy our ever expanding circle of Bahraini friends.
Politically, Bahrain was still in the early phase of the changes mandated by his Majesty, King Hamad bin Isa. At the embassy we were able to work with the Government of Bahrain to advance numerous programs in cooperative efforts for democracy and justice, even as we maintained contacts with opposition figures. It was a time of considerable hope and opening.
I arrived in Bahrain shortly after 9/11 and just as the war in Afghanistan was beginning. In those and later military operations in the region, we often asked Bahrain for help and support. We were never turned down as Bahrain and his Majesty demonstrated repeatedly that Bahrain was a dependable friend in an unstable region. I was glad that, shortly after I arrived the United States agreed to award Bahrain the status of a Major Non-NATO Ally. It was a status Bahrain had desired and I was glad that I was able to play a role in bringing about this well deserved recognition.
Another issue which took a great deal of time was the negotiation of a free trade agreement. Initially, US policy had preferred to approach this as a regional issue, an approach I thought unlikely to work as some of the economies of the neighboring countries were not prepared to be as open as Bahrain’s on issues critical to the United States such as banking regulation, labor standards and protection of intellectual property. It took a good deal of work and most of my time in Bahrain, working closely with colleagues in the Bahrain Government to work through these issues. The banking sector was the most advanced in the region and was pioneering new efforts in the regulation of Islamic finance. We were able to help make the American government aware of these changes, even expanding courses of the US Federal Reserve in cooperation with the Bahrain Institute of Banking and Finance (BBF). Other issues, like balancing protection for the shrinking US textile industry with openness for the Bahraini sector, took a lot of work and compromise on both sides.
we got to the point where we could begin formal negotiations. Those negotiations were still ongoing when I
left Bahrain to work in Iraq. However,
somewhat later, I was very pleased to be in Washington and present when the final
accord was signed.
So as it turned out, between the social life, internal politics, regional politics, and expanding economic relations I never had time to be bored. And I never did learn to golf.
Ronald E. Neumann is an American diplomat who served as the United States Ambassador to Afghanistan (2005–2007), Bahrain (2001–2004) and Algeria (1994–1997).