Magazine article The Spectator

'Good Things Are Happening in Iraq'

Magazine article The Spectator

'Good Things Are Happening in Iraq'

Article excerpt

There are no cloud-capped towers, but it is a gorgeous palace - or, rather, ranch. King Hamad of Bahrain, a short, stocky but powerfully built man in his early 50s, strides out of his marble hall to shake my hand on his distinctly palatial doorstep. It is about 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade in this desert kingdom, so we head for the air-conditioning as swiftly as possible.

His Majesty, who succeeded his father as Emir in 1999 and became King two years ago after establishing a constitutional monarchy, is between rides. He is wearing a green polo shirt with a discreet gold crown on the left breast, jodhpurs and riding boots. Each bears his insignia as a five-star general. We are at his ranch, which is situated in lavish gardens out in the sandy wastes of what passes for rural Bahrain, because he is spending this boiling afternoon with his horses. It is a lifelong passion, and when he went to the Leys School in Cambridge in 1964 it presented a problem. 'I wanted my horse to be with me, my favourite one,' he says. 'I was in love with that horse. But they said, "The horse cannot be in the same school as you. It has to be in a stable."' Once he had come to terms with this deprivation, he grew to love England, and in a region still long on Anglophiles he is one of the more demonstrative. He frequently visits London, and claims to like the traffic and the rain. In the second of those he is the victim of heredity, for his great-grandfather liked it too. The King recalls a headline from a British paper on the old man's visit to England in 1936 which read, 'London welcomes the Sheikh who loves grey skies.'

Bahrain matters at the moment for two reasons. First, the King is George W. Bush's best friend in the Middle East, and probably Tony Blair's as well. Mrs Blair was treated like a living goddess on a recent visit here, and in return pronounced Bahrain to be 'the human-rights pearl of the Arabian Gulf'. In his role as Dubya's and Tony's friend, the King is supremely placed to exert influence, especially on an American administration that understands the Arab mind perhaps less well, or less subtly, than it might.

Second, the King has instigated constitutional reforms that could well become the model for other nations in the region, and quite possibly even for the new Iraq. There is no other democracy in the Gulf. Although members of the King's family occupy positions of power - his uncle is prime minister and his son, the Crown Prince, is commander-in-chief of the armed forces - he now has a bicameral legislature. Rather like our own, the upper house is appointed and the lower one elected. What really sets Bahrain apart from its neighbours is that women have equal legal rights. Not only could they vote in last year's elections to the lower house, they could also stand for it. None managed to be elected - the electorate remains less enlightened than the ruler - but six sit in the upper house. Also, unlike in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, women comprise a substantial proportion of the workforce in both the private and public sectors. The country's wealth is based on banking and financial services, and the success of that sector would be impossible without women. The Bahraini experiment, which Islamic fundamentalists hoped would fail, has not. The country is a building site, with huge investment pouring in. Prosperity is tangible, with growth at 6 per cent a year and scheduled to stay there.

Having set his own house in order, the King is now busily defending his beleaguered friends in the White House and Downing Street. Although many of his people and politicians are unimpressed with America's conduct in Iraq post-Saddam, he defends his ally robustly. 'Time seems to be very slow in Iraq. But it is only three months since Britain and America went in. And three months is not enough time in a big country like Iraq with so many different groups and beliefs: but the dramatic change is for the good of Iraq and for the people of Iraq. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.