Avi Melamed ~ Inside The Middle East
On July 21, 2022, the King of Bahrain Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, published a decree (Decree 38 of 2022) ordering the appointment of Khalifa bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa as the head of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities. https://www.culture.gov.bh/en https://www.instagram.com/culturebah/ @culturebah
Arab news sites and social media platforms claim the reason for the decree is that Shaikha Mai bint Muhammad Al-Khalifa, was fired from her position as head of the authority, allegedly due to her opposition to normalization with Israel.
Reportedly, she refused to shake the hand of the Israeli ambassador during an event that took place in June at the residence of the US ambassador in Bahrain.
Another report claimed that the background to her dismissal was her objection to a proposal by American investors to restore the Jewish quarter in the capital of Bahrain.
Some Arab media platforms claimed that she was fired following an Israeli demand for her dismissal. They base their claim on the fact that the King’s decree was published a few hours after a phone conversation between Israeli Prime Minister Israel Yair Lapid and Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamed.
The story is getting some traction on social media networks in the Arab world.
As expected, Palestinians expressed support and admiration for Ms. Al-Khalifa for her alleged rejection of normalization with Israel. For example, former Palestinian minister Dr. Hanan Ashrawi (@DrHananAshrawi) expressed support for Ms. Al-Khalifa due to her apparent opposition to normalization. A spokesman for the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas said that Shaikha Mai’s refusal to shake hands with the Israeli Ambassador of Bahrain is a “true reflection of the Bahraini people’s genuine position of supporting the Palestinians.”
Social media platforms calling for the boycott of Israel such as @Boycott4Pal also expressed support and admiration for Ms. Al-Khalifa for her “brave rejection of normalization with Israel”.
Kuwaiti poet and intellectual, Dr. Suad al-Sabah wrote a letter to Ms. Al-Khalifa on her Twitter account (@suad_alsabah), praising her for her courageous position and stating that “it is essential to embrace the hand that refuses to shake other hand and refuses to clap”.
On the other hand, Bahrain’s National Communication Center https://www.ncc.gov.bh/en completely denied the report that she was fired on the grounds of opposition to normalization. According to the center (which is a governmental agency), Ms. Al-Khalifa’s dismissal was within the frame of a new round of governmental appointments that included 17 government positions. The center thus claimed that the report of her dismissal due to alleged opposition to normalization is baseless.
Supporters of the official Bahraini version point to the fact that Ms. Al-Khalifa, in her previous role as Minister of Culture, showed great interest in the heritage of Bahraini Judaism and participated in official events of the Jewish community in Bahrain. They also noted that in November 2020 Israel officially issued a greeting in Arabic to Ms. Al-Khalifa on her candidacy for the position of CEO of the World Tourism Authority (UNTWO https://www.unwto.org/).
Others who share the argument that Ms. Al-Khalifa’s dismissal has nothing to do with her allegedly anti-normalization outlook, indicate the fact that she has been serving in her position for a long time (since February 2015), as well as the fact that her daughter, Hala, replaced her as the head of the Bahrain Culture and Antiquities Authority.
Ms. Al-Khalifa herself made only one indirect reference to the story. On July 22, 2022, she wrote on her Twitter account (@Mai_AlKhalifa) “I thank you from the bottom of my heart for every message that has reached me. Only love unites us and protects us”.
Not surprisingly, official Iranian platforms, as well as Iranian social media platforms, express solidarity with Ms. Al-Khalifa.
One should note the majority of Bahrain’s population are Shi’a Arabs. And there is a robust Shi’a opposition to the Sunni monarchy that rules Bahrain. There are confirmed reports of Iranian attempts to evoke unrest in Bahrain. Therefore, the monarchy wants to make sure the story dies and does not result in serious aftershock waves beyond the expected immediate sentiments of solidarity expressed by some Arab circles. That interest is reflected in Ms. Al-Khalifa’s diplomatic statement, which aims to end the story.
Understandably, one may argue that Ms. Al-Khalifa’s friendly relations with the tiny Jewish community in Bahrain (about 50 people) and its leader Ibrahim al-Nuno contradicts the report about her anti-normalization position. Yet one should note that a common argument among Arabs rejecting normalization is that they reject normalization with Israel, yet they are not against Jews or anti-Jewish.
However, in my view, the accumulating information – and particularly Ms. Al-Khalifa’s diplomatic statement – suggest that the reports that her dismissal was due to the diplomatic incident with the Israeli Ambassador, (which probably does reflect Ms. Al-Khalifa’s resentment of Bahrain’s normalization with Israel) – are not baseless.
Short Biography of Ms. Al-Khalifa
MA in Political History at the University of Sheffield.
2008 – 2010 Bahrain’s Minister of Communication and Culture
2010 – 2014 Bahrain’s Minister of Culture
2015 – Today Head of the Bahrain Culture and Antiquities Authority since February
She serves as Chair of some cultural foundations in Bahrain.
She has also held the position as the head of Bahrain’s Tourism and Exhibitions Authority.
She was the first woman to serve as a Minister in the Arab Gulf monarchies.
In 2005 Forbes magazine described her as one of the 50 most influential women in the Arab world.