(File pix) Yang di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Muhammad V sharing a light moment with Bahrain’s King Hamad Isa Al-Khalifa at Istana Negara in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month. (Bernama photo)

BAHRAIN’S King Hamad Isa Al-Khalifa recently visited Malaysia at the invitation of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Sultan Muhammad V. He also had an audience with Sultan of Pahang Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah. This was the first trip of a Bahraini ruler to Malaysia in 43 years of diplomatic relations.

King Hamad acknowledged the steadily-growing Bahraini-Malaysian relations, particularly in military cooperation. He hailed the pivotal role of Malaysia and its positive contribution in serving regional and international security and stability as well as strengthening cooperation under the Islamic Alliance for combating terrorism and extremism.

The visit of the 67-year-old reform-minded leader of Bahrain is an honour for Malaysia. Bahrain is an enormously important country situated in the energy-rich Persian Gulf. This island nation of one million has unique cultural, economic and geopolitical features.

One of the major characteristics of Bahrain’s national culture is religious tolerance. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Bahais and Hindus live side by side in peace and harmony in Bahrain. At a time when the Iranian regime tries to undermine Bahrain’s stability by emphasising the Sunni-Shia divide, King Hamad has risen above this sectarianism by accentuating the virtue of unity and oneness of all faiths.

There has long been simmering tension between the populace, which is 70 per cent Shia Muslims, and the minority Sunnis to which the ruling Al-Khalifa family belongs to, and in which the latter controls nearly all the power and wealth, as well as constituting the majority of the ruling class. The Shia Muslims have complained that they have been excluded from top positions in the military and government.

Bahrain is an archipelago of 30 islands tucked in a gulf between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and, therefore, has shares of uninterrupted flow of oil and gas from the Persian Gulf to international markets. Today, the free flow of oil and gas across Bahrain’s waterway plays a critical role in Western energy security.

King Hamad was defence minister from 1971 to 1988. Earlier that year, he had completed a course at the United States Army’s Command and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He also took other military courses in the US and at Sandhurst in the United Kingdom, while taking charge of the development of the Bahraini armed forces. King Hamad is credited with the creation and maintenance of the armed forces as a professional unit.

When he became king in 1999, King Hamad began a sweeping democratisation process for the country. Censorship has been relaxed and draconian laws have been repealed, while exiles have been repatriated, and the stateless Bidoons have been granted citizenship.

In the February 2001 referendum, which permitted women to vote for the first time, Bahrainis overwhelmingly supported the transformation of the traditional monarchy into a constitutional one.

Meanwhile, religious figures, one of the political forces in the country, need to have proper licences to be able to deliver their sermons and speeches. Islam and democracy, in parallel to civilisational dialogues, are among the topics that should be included in the mandatory training sessions.

Oil was discovered in Bahrain in the 1930s, which was relatively little compared with the other Gulf States. King Hamad’s father, Sheikh Isa Salman Al-Khalifa, who became Emir in 1961, was determined to diversify the economy, and he set about establishing Bahrain as a major financial centre. The country provides its people with free medical care, education and old-age pensions.

Due to Bahrain’s long history of active civil society, King Hamad established the Isa Award in 2009 to honour those who have served humanity in a profound way.

Malaysian Medical Relief Society (Mercy) founder Tan Sri Dr Jamilah Mahmood from Malaysia was presented with the Isa Award in May 2013. She was honoured for many years for continuous humanitarian works following the establishment of health centres by Mercy in countries affected by natural disasters, such as Sudan, Indonesia and Myanmar.

When US President Donald Trump looks around the Muslim world for a model of religious freedom, Bahrain is one country he can point to.

He suggested, “Trump’s foreign policy team must invite King Hamad to the White House for a working visit with the president in getting a sense of the geopolitical challenges facing the broader Middle East and a better understanding of what ails the Middle East from him. Importantly, a Trump-Hamad meeting would send a positive message to those anxious about Trump’s feelings toward Islam in general and the Muslim world.”

Such reflection resonates here in Malaysia as our country is part of the global progressive Muslim society. A consolidation in the Malaysia-Bahrain ties would, hopefully, mirror a more optimistic outlook on the global perception of Islam.

Dr. Paridah Abd. Samad ia a Fulbright scholar and Japan Institute of International Affairs fellow, is a former lecturer of UiTM Shah Alam and International Islamic University Malaysia, Gombak

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