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.’
But what about the evidence that the Alliance’s leaders were less than honest about their reasons for going to war? ‘Nothing is 100 per cent, nothing is perfect. But we think they’ve been honest enough to be followed by the entire world. And whether they’ve missed one or two things, well, things happen in wars. But in general everybody is with America and with Britain in what they have done so far. We just have to wait a little longer, and we will see the good things that are happening in Iraq. But often, you know, no news is good news.’
In a defiantly counter-intuitive view, the King pronounces that the Americans are ‘not having trouble’ in Iraq. ‘I accept there are a few incidents here or there; there will always be someone resisting. But there are more killed in the United States every day by car accidents. We are sorry that we are losing soldiers, but these things happen.’ He sets great store by the newly appointed governing council in Baghdad, though the Arab League (of which the King is the current chairman) has been far more sceptical, saying that an elected body would have more credibility. The King’s aim for Iraq is the same: he wants it to be ‘a democratic federation, as soon as possible, the sooner the better’. He also wants Iraq to have a close relationship with America ‘for ever, for the good of Iraq’. That might just be taking counter-intuitiveness a little too far. However badly the Americans want their troops home, the King expects them to be there this time next year, and beyond. ‘I think the Iraqis should ask the Americans to stay there longer. If they can find a reason to ask them, that will be a good thing.’
He wishes ‘the good news’ would be told. ‘People are relieved in this region. People think there will be no more wars. People think this has put an end to local wars.’ Stability, he feels sure, is now guaranteed by the removal of Saddam and the plan for a settlement of the Israel/ Palestine question, and the implication is that the demonstration by the Americans of their power will keep any other potential troublemakers in line. ‘We will have a crisis until we have the two states, and we have the new Iraq, but we know there is a solution now to get rid of those crises. I don’t think any government in this region now thinks along the lines Saddam did when he thought it was a good idea to occupy Kuwait, or thought of a one-party system where people are not free, so I think we are in good shape. There will always be problems, but problems we can solve.’
On the basis of the success of the reforms in Bahrain, the King has offered his government’s services to the people of Iraq to write them a new constitution. ‘We would be happy to receive all parties and to try to solve the Iraqi problem. If they want our help, we are willing to help in every way.’
Does he think, given the difficulties American soldiers are facing in Iraq, that an Arab peacekeeping force might be the answer there? ‘If the Arab League wanted to send a force, Bahrain would be part of that force. It would always be a good idea, but they have to be invited by the Iraqis; otherwise,’ he adds, with a genial glint, ‘they might be shot at.’
His support for the attack on Saddam was unconditional; but would he feel so good about helping America if, say, it planned a showdown with Syria or Iran? ‘There isn’t a plan to treat Syria or Iran the way Iraq was treated,’ the King says. ‘I have not heard of or seen any policy or any action that supports going into Syria or going into Iran. I’ve read about it in the papers, but that’s that.’ Popular feeling in Bahrain is very much against further American military enterprises in the region; and if the Bahrainis wouldn’t support it, nobody would. Clearly, he wants no more conflict, and implies that he might use his influence on the Bush administration to urge it to hold back from a showdown with Damascus or Tehran. Syria in particular, he says, ‘has
co-operated very well with the authorities’ about any possible escape there by former senior Iraqis. ‘The border is so huge between Iraq and Syria, and it is very rough terrain. There could be one or two that have got in there, but I don’t think it’s a policy of the Syrians.’
He is, though, unequivocal in his backing of America’s and Britain’s conduct since 11 September 2001. ‘I think it’s about time somebody started a war against terrorism so people can feel free,’ he says. His own methods in curbing fundamentalism have been more pacific. The new constitution and the freedoms it has conferred have marginalised extremists. ‘This was not the plan. It happened. The plan was to do the right thing for the people of Bahrain. I read their mind, I’ve lived with them, I have been to the same schools, I am not away from their aspirations, I’m one of them.’
He feels there are lessons here for other Islamic societies, though he agrees that Bahrain was lucky to have a relatively well-educated society that was able to appreciate the benefits of liberalisation. ‘It helps when you are open-minded, have an open society, open economy, and people can have gains out of it. Society is more stable this way. Our region is moving forward. Every country is going in the same direction of a more open society. And I think the reason is education. The more educated people you have, the more they understand what is happening in the world, the more they can compromise.’
Bahrain is joined to Saudi Arabia by a short causeway, and needs its larger neighbour economically, refining its oil and providing banking services. Saudi reformers see the island nation as a model, not least in how to deal with fundamentalism. Given the economic relationship, the King treads carefully. He denies that Saudi Arabia is a volatile breeding ground for fundamentalists, arguing: ‘Today it is more stable than on any other day in its history. Because the enemy of Saudi Arabia is shouting loudly about trouble, there is a problem, because the enemy is losing. The enemy is those terrorist groups and fundamentalists. However, the government of Saudi Arabia is operational against them. It has made up its mind to act against them, and people are more comfortable now there is clarity. And they are happy about what they are doing, whereas a few months ago they could not decide whether to go for it or not.’
Saudi Arabia, he says, is in favour of going ahead with reform. ‘Those terrorist groups, they’ve been the real obstacle to change and reform in Saudi Arabia. You can’t have reform and change with people threatening you at every minute. But once you declare war on them you can go ahead with your reform at the same time.’ It is only the sheer size of the country, he says, that prevents Saudi Arabia from proceeding with reform as quickly as he has, but he is in no doubt that the country’s rulers have the ‘vision’ to do so.
Just before the invasion of Iraq, the King invited Saddam to come into exile in Bahrain to avert bloodshed. ‘Bahrain is a nice place, we thought. If I’d been invited to Bahrain, I would have come. He would have been safe, and there would have been no war.’ However, the invitation was declined. So what, I ask the King, if Saddam is alive and reading this week’s Spectator? Could he still have sanctuary? The King chuckles. ‘Now it’s too late, I think. It’s a different game now.’
Simon Heffer is a Daily Mail columnist.