Bahraini Rana Al Khalifa on women in politics: Confident, brave, patient

Dr. Shaikha Rana Al Khalifa speaks on her role at the Foreign Ministry, women’s rights and empowerment in Bahrain and the wider region, the Abraham Accords, and Bahrain’s approach to COVID-19.

 Shaikha Rana bint Isa Al Khalifa participates in the 24th Conference of the States Parties to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, November 2019. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shaikha Rana bint Isa Al Khalifa participates in the 24th Conference of the States Parties to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, November 2019.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 Dr. Shaikha Rana bint Isa bin Daij Al Khalifa, born in 1973, was appointed undersecretary of Bahrain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2017. Before that, from 2011, she served as the ministry’s assistant undersecretary for Arab and Afro-Asian Affairs and organizations. She previously participated in several bilateral and multilateral meetings at the United Nations and various international organizations, such as the Asian Cooperation Forum, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), including meetings between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and GCC member states.
She has a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a master’s degree in peace and conflict resolution from American University in Washington, DC, and a doctorate in international law from the University of Exeter in England.
In the latest episode of Facing the Middle East With Felice Friedson, Dr. Shaikha Rana Al Khalifa speaks on her role at the Foreign Ministry, women’s rights and empowerment in Bahrain and the wider region, the Abraham Accords, and Bahrain’s approach to the COVID-19 crisis.
The Media Line: You’re Excellency, Dr. Shaikha Rana bint Isa Al Khalifa, it is a pleasure to have you here on Facing the Middle East. Thank you for joining me.
Shaikha Rana: Thank you so much! Pleasure’s all mine. So happy to be here with you today.
TML: This is an exciting time to be Bahrain’s first female undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. What exactly is your role?
Shaikha Rana: Well, as often as I remind myself, my appointment as undersecretary, while at the same time being the first-ever female Arab undersecretary of the regional Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the highest honor I have received throughout my professional career and in my personal life, and I owe it to, of course, His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa for gracing me with this opportunity to serve my country at this capacity. So, as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs undersecretary, I’m in charge with handling all matters related to the ministry’s day-to-day administration, fiscal management, employment, human resources-related issues, and of course, consular affairs. And on top of juggling these more administrative tasks, my profession also naturally includes a political dimension to it. So, I’m also the deputy head of the National Committee to Combat Trafficking in Persons.
TML: Not an easy task!
Shaikha Rana: Not at all!
TML: Can you elaborate on that at all? Especially if we’re speaking about women today.
Shaikha Rana: Yeah, well, as a woman, I feel as though I am uniquely equipped to both micromanage the day-to-day affairs of the ministry and also plan and execute on a long-term public policy goals and agendas. As a working mother, I have been blessed with the unique set of transferable skills between presiding over the needs of my family and household, and also my duties at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as the undersecretary. So, in fact, I find these two roles in practice, very similar in nature. I view my primary role at the ministry as less of a bureaucratic and more of a benevolent caretaker, much like the duties of a mother to my children. And as head of the Diplomatic Corps Committee, I am very much inclined to a view and treat each and every single one of our diplomats according to their needs, aspirations, personal experiences, and professional aptitudes. This is a facet of my managerial style that I completely attribute to my motherly instincts, and it’s something I feel only women will fully be able to understand and to relate to.
TML: You just said that being a mother and obviously a wife has added to your position. How has that also gained more notice to your work?
Shaikha Rana: Well, juggling both being a mother and also, you know, professional curator at the ministry.
TML: You hold a Ph.D. and two MBAs and studied in the United States. How did your academic achievements prepare you for this position?
Shaikha Rana: I have a Ph.D. from the United Kingdom and a bachelor's and a master’s degree, as you said, from the United States. So, as all my higher education was centered around the field of politics and international relations, I feel as though it was only logical for me to work in the field of diplomacy. Of course, holding more than one degree in this area has only strengthened my focus and it has broadened my horizons when it comes to dealing with all forms of international political developments. The translation of international relations theories and abstract knowledge into concrete practice began to bear fruit almost instantaneously after having worked in academia for the first years of my professional career.
I was subsequently appointed as an advisor at the office of His Excellency, the minister of foreign affairs, and that was when I first examined my knowledge in the real world and I could proudly state that a word, not for my degrees, and academic interests in the fields of politics and international affairs that I would not have been able to serve my country and progress to the position that I hold today. And moreover, I cannot stress enough how important my Ph.D. in international law has been in this regard. I see this mainly because it is nearly impossible to establish any sort of bilateral or multilateral relations without being legally aware and knowledgeable of each party’s rights and responsibilities. And in addition to that as well, international law concerning diplomatic relations is customary. Therefore, it’s a sort of a common universal language for all diplomats, regardless of the country that they serve in, [and] the department or area that they specialize in. So, needless to say, this knowledge has prepared me to easily manage and outmaneuver all sorts of tricky consular-related situations; most recently with the COVID-19 evacuations, but I can elaborate more on this particular affair later in the interview, as it is a topic that’s worthy of discussion on its own.
TML: I agree with you. You know, many Middle Eastern countries are struggling with women’s roles, particularly gains in the political arena. You’re a member of the Supreme Council for Women, which is headed by Her Royal Highness, Princess Shaikha Sabika bint Ibrahim Al Khalifa, wife of His Majesty King Hamad. Empowerment of women is not new to you, as one of the kingdom’s mandates is to guarantee women’s rights alongside men. Are you content with the realities on the ground?
Shaikha Rana: Yes, indeed. I am. It is true that you can always improve on perfection, even though we are not nearly there. We can safely say that as far as regional standards go, the situation surrounding women’s rights in Bahrain is rather excellent. It is therefore worth considering and going over our strides and female empowerment, just to appreciate how far we’ve come in recent years.
The Supreme Council for Women was established on the 22nd of August in 2001, meaning that this year is going to mark 20 years since an efficient machinery was established in the country to oversee and promote all matters pertaining to women’s rights, but that is not the start of the story. Through Bahraini women, [they] were granted political suffrage in 2002. They have been also able to participate in the municipal elections as far back as the 1930s.
Bahrain, since the 1920s and ‘30s, for almost a hundred years now, have provided public school education to girls alongside boys. So, what’s more is that Bahraini women have actively taken in a more professional role since the 1950s when they became teachers, nurses, and eventually university professors and doctors.
So, a Bahraini woman has legally been able to also own businesses since the 1960s, we have had women serve in both chambers of our national parliament, and Bahraini women have been serving as ambassadors to their countries since the 1990s. And the first-ever female to hold a cabinet position in the government was appointed in 2004, and in 2006 Bahrain made history with the appointment of the third-ever female, a woman, and the first Arab to hold the presidency of the United Nations General Assembly. So, Bahrain, in many years has been represented. Nearly half of all Bahrainis are currently active in local and labor markets. And I think, yeah, there’s a lot of achievements there.
TML: Why is it Bahrain’s best-kept secret? It’s the best-kept secret in the Middle East. Most people aren’t aware.
Shaikha Rana: There’s always also room for achievement and we feel that what we’ve maintained, we would like to progress to what there is and this solid foundation of a women empowerment has maintained, has led the road to getting where we are, and we have more women in public office, especially in ministerial positions.
We are definitely in an area where female empowerment can be promoted more aggressively. A strong female presence in the government’s cabinets, sends a signal to all women in the country, particularly the youth, that being successful in your career as a woman is not the exception, but rather the rule.
TML: What would you say is the nation’s biggest foreign relations triumph?
Shaikha Rana: This is a difficult question to answer, because I’m sure, well, not really sure, where to begin. I am proud to declare that the kingdom has had many foreign policy triumphs since its independence in 1971. However, if we look at the past few years, I would have to say that the Abraham Accords and achieving and maintaining Tier 1 status, the United States State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report, are tied for the No. 1 spots. This is because with regards to the Abraham Accords, the normalization of relations between the kingdom of Bahrain and the State of Israel marks a milestone for the Middle East almost a perennial pursuit of regional peace. And as for the issue of the State Department’s Tier 1 classification, it is also undoubtedly a major success for the kingdom because it stands as a testament to the achievements of not only our labor market reform efforts, but also if we are able to look at things more holistically that reflects our government’s commitment to generally cultivate the human rights of the denizens, may they be passport holding citizens of the kingdom or foreign laborers in Bahrain.
TML: You’ve embraced social responsibility and have stated that Bahrain has been a pioneer in the field of community service. Looking back at this year of COVID-19, how has Bahrain led the way for the world to emulate?
Shaikha Rana: Well, thank you for bringing up this topic. First of all, let me start by saying that the successful management of the public health situation here in the Kingdom of Bahrain would not have been the same without the guidance, wise guidance of our leadership, His Royal Highness, the crown prince and prime minister, Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, managed to cultivate a public policy response to the local COVID-19 situation, which reflects measures that call both for caution and restraint, and while also managing the inevitable economic trade-offs that such a crisis normally entails.
It has been over a year now since our public health authorities first detected a local case of a COVID-19 infection, and we have since then not once needed to impose a lockdown or a curfew, nor bar entry into the Kingdom of Bahrain [to] travelers. Instead, a more measured approach was advocated by our government. Whereas we have the social distancing measures [which] were legally enforced alongside the public awareness campaigns, cautioning locals to take things more seriously and to refrain from unnecessary gatherings and outings, which might jeopardize their own health, as well as the health of those closest to them.
Shops and restaurants were still allowed to operate with a few restrictions such as, distancing between tables, and limiting the number of customers served at one time. So, these measures have been imposed and rolled back depending on the ebb and flow of each new case. I would also like to expand on some of the details of the evacuation efforts for both Bahrainis and those living abroad that we offered other countries wishing to temporarily repatriate their own nationals regarding the Kingdom of Bahrain.
So, as a person was in charge of overseeing the implementation of the international COVID-19 repatriation program, I could proudly declare that to this date over the past year we have successfully managed to evacuate a grand total of 6,460 Bahrainis living abroad. This took a total of 52 individual flights to achieve, and would not have been possible without the help of our embassies, diplomats abroad, as well of course, as local authorities, the countries within [which] those citizens of ours were residing. Moreover, the kingdom has to date, helped facilitate the repatriation of a total of 28,757 foreign expats back to their home countries with another 4,900 plus legal residents being allowed back in the months later at their own discretion. So, as you can see, our approach when dealing with this pandemic was very much based on a more holistic view of human security, with the focus being on how to best serve and protect our citizens for the duration of what was accurately predicted to be a persistent state of affairs.
It was, for the most recent that the Kingdom of Bahrain government paved the way for vaccines to be distributed. So, equally all those residing within the borders of the country with no exception, and with no priority given to all citizens over the expense of expats or even visitors. There was this approach, if I may add, was explicitly adapted and followed through by the orders of His Majesty, the King, who believes that the safety and well-being provided by the government should extend to all those residing in Bahrain.
TML: Your country is mixed with Sunni and Shia, and home to residents for more than 100 nations. How do you balance the melting pot of religions and cultures?
Shaikha Rana: Well, first of all, let me set the record straight. The Kingdom of Bahrain is home to more than just Muslims, whether they are Sunni or Shia. In fact, this has historically been the case for quite a long time. Bahrain hosted and continues to host members of all major world religions.
Apart from having one of the first mosques in the Arabian Gulf region that dates back to the early days of Islam, we also possess the remains of one of the region’s first historic Christian churches. In fact, the village of Al Dair is named after this church, as the Arabic name for the village translates to monastery. Over 100 years ago, Bahrain also welcomed the American Christian missionaries whose legacy today includes the American Mission Hospital here in Bahrain, and Al Raja School, which I previously attended as a student, and now I’m currently chair of the board.
So, Bahrain today is home to a very active Christian community from all denominations, with each having their own church as per the vision of peaceful coexistence and tolerance advocated by His Majesty, the King, and His Majesty a few years back also donated a plot of land to the Catholic church, which will be ready in the upcoming months where we will finally see the operation of the region’s largest Catholic cathedral.
So, Bahrain also has, in addition to all of this, been home to the Jews since the 19th century with our local synagogue dating back to those years. And members of our Jewish community are quite active here in Bahrain and even retain public figures such as my colleague, Ambassador Houda Nonoo here at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and also the Shura Council member, Nancy Khedouri.
So, we are also host, in addition to all of this, to the Hindu community. Not only of whom are merely expats here, but also they have been citizens of Bahrain. The temple dates back to over 200 years, and the family that takes care of the temple – we have seen the fifth generation of this family here in Bahrain, and this is all why I just tend to use the word balancing in your question.
So, my country’s government is not engaging in some balancing act with our citizens and residents’ villages, because they are all equal, valuable to the community as a whole and an inseparable part of our nation and national identity.
TML: Her Excellency, Dr. Shaikha Rana bint Isa Al Khalifa, so much to discuss here, but economic prosperity is essential for any country. Having been involved in advancing ties with Ethiopia, Nepal, and the Philippines, [and] many other states, of course, how do you evaluate the fields of commonality of what will succeed?
Shaikha Rana: To be fair, there is really no set of criteria by which to measure the success of developing ties with other nations. So, success in this case, however, is often rooted in the same fundamental principle of maintaining mutual respect, and noninterference in another’s internal domestic affairs.
So, once this is granted, a healthy and productive relationship between us and any other country as well, guaranteed. As to your question regarding the field of commonality over the course of my diplomatic career, I have found that you really can’t pin down the advancement of a relationship with another country to any single domain or aspect of that relationship. Relations with one country might flourish due to cooperating on mutual security interests, while relationships with another country might revolve solely to the flourishing of economic ties and an ever-expanding trade volume between us.
TML: You’re involved with culture, tourism, security, [and] investments. You talked about international law earlier, too. How do you juggle all that?
Shaikha Rana: It takes years of experience, really.
TML: Bahrain hosted the Peace to Prosperity peace conference, which preceded the Abraham Accords. You must feel a sense of accomplishment seeing the four subsequent normalizations with Israel. What can you share?
Shaikha Rana: Well, the peace in the Middle East is a noble goal, and one not limited to the aspirations of my country alone. Having said that, it has always been my position of my country following the directions of His Majesty the King, to pursue a foreign policy which advocates peace and cooperation, not just in the MENA region, but everywhere else in the globe. So, it should therefore come as no surprise to those who have been following Bahrain’s behavior and interactions, both domestically and internationally, that we would be amongst those nations to have signed the Abraham Accords.
So, it gives me great pleasure to see that barely a year after we held the Peace to Prosperity workshop, that our efforts will bear fruit. And if you and your audience would humor me for just a brief moment, I honestly don’t think this historic milestone and regional peace would have been realized this soon without the conference. So, I look forward to seeing more of our brotherly neighbors in the region and beyond that take the same step.
We, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Sudan have taken normalization relations with Israel, and I look forward to working with my Israeli colleagues as I am sure that this is only just the start of what is going to be a productive relationship, not only for our two nations, but for the region as a whole.
TML: International Women’s Day, it’s upon us, and on a sad note trafficking of both women and men still exists. What measures have you promoted in Bahrain against this, and what do you advocate globally that should be done?
Shaikha Rana: We here in the Kingdom of Bahrain reckon very seriously with all matters pertaining to the trafficking in persons. In fact, one of the major driving forces behind the establishment of the Labor Market Regulatory Authority, or the LMRA for short. In 2006, it was for our government to develop a more stringent set of criteria and equip itself with the fight against the unfortunate modern-day slavery.
The vision of this institution is one that is grounded in humanity and the preservation of human dignity. So, since its inception, the LMRA has worked to ensure that the treatment of expatriate employees and employers, you would receive as equally just and humane.
So, to this end, the authority has worked to produce an increasingly safer harmonious labor market in the country, helping draft laws and regulations to which have helped more solidly secure the rights of employees and the obligations of their employers, whether they are working as domestic service or in the hard manual labor. So, skilled factory workers, or even corporate employees.
The LMRA, for instance, imposed rules, where in those seeking to hire domestic workers, ensure that they have the necessary funds to cover both their salaries and living expenses for enrolling this particular type of labor into their service. Moreover, local companies are annually audited and charged fees by the LMRA rate to make sure that they are in compliance with our labor laws, and they are subject to the fines and suspensions, even legal actions, whereas they are found to be in transgression of the set laws.
So, as deputy of the National Committee to Combat Trafficking in Persons, I am proud to once again, reiterate that the Kingdom of Bahrain, for the third year in a row, has been awarded the Tier 1 status in the United States State Department’s Annual Trafficking in Persons Report, a milestone no other country in the region has yet achieved.
And [it is] a testament to the progress we have made in our efforts to better reform and regulate our domestic labor market. So, as for the rest of the world, I encourage those in the region and beyond not only to look at Bahrain’s example when combating modern-day slavery, but also to really take this matter to heart. Sure, this is a matter of being a global issue as its core requires cooperation [and] coordination between all international stakeholders as trafficking rings are notably cross-border in nature, but this matter is also very much a human one, which is to say, that no decent human being should stand idle while his fellow man and woman are taken against their will and put into these chains, sometimes quite literally.
TML: What advice would you give a young person, and particularly a woman who’s looking to enter into politics?
Shaikha Rana: Well, to all youth out there, but especially to women, I have one key piece of advice to offer them: to be confident, to be brave and above all, to have patience. The world of politics is an exciting but also a very demanding one. There will be days when you might feel compelled to quit or move on because the oftentimes depressing and heartbreaking developments, we are accustomed to seeing on TV, but know this, you are here to make the world a better place, and it’s not always butterflies and rainbows. You will never have taken up this burden of responsibility, so never forget why you decided to pursue a job in politics or diplomacy, and let that be your motive that makes you go on for the rest of your career.
TML: Her Excellency, Dr. Shaikha Rana bint Isa Al Khalifa, quite a pleasure to have you join me here on Facing the Middle East.
Shaikha Rana: Thank you so much for hosting me! It was my pleasure to be with you here today. Thank you!