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Monday, June 1, 2020

Bahrain’s heart-warming Arab hospitality

by Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor

I was honoured to be awarded with the ‘HH Sheikh Isa bin Ali Al-Khalifa Award for Voluntary Work’ in recognition of my philanthropic endeavours. While being recognised for one’s efforts to make a difference is always encouraging and appreciated, I believe it is the duty of everyone to help those less fortunate, which, most importantly, is one of the pillars of the Islamic faith.

Earlier this week [mid Sept] I flew to Manama for a presentation ceremony held at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel where I and other recipients from all over the Arab World were presented with our highly coveted awards. My mistake was I should have planned a longer stay rather than a day’s hop, but I intend to right that error by returning very soon.

Just one day there experiencing their Royal Highnesses’ warm welcome, and a wealth of good feeling from my Bahraini brothers and sisters, impacted me more than I can say. From the moment the award’s patron HH Sheikh Isa bin Ali greeted me at the airport until I left for Dubai my team and I were overwhelmed with exceptional kindness.

Some of the day’s highlights included the opportunity to meet and discuss a variety of topics with the Prime Minister HRH Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa following the event and I must add that I was very impressed with his grandsons, Sheikh Isa bin Ali, the award’s patron and his brother HH Khalifa bin Ali, whose love of country, dignified manner and sense of duty is a testament to the royal family’s strong roots. I also very much appreciated the opportunity to get to know Bahrain’s Deputy Prime Minister HH Sheikh Ali bin Khalifa Al-Khalifa over lunch.

Many years have passed since my last visit to Bahrain and I could not help marvelling at the way modernity has been blended seamlessly with historic attractions and perhaps this is one of the reasons the Arab League selected the city as “The Arab Capital of Culture” in 2012.

Yet, as I strolled around the ancient well-kept streets of Muharraq’s oldest district, I was gripped by a sensation of peace in a place where our pure Arab traditions have been preserved. This is where the past meets the present, a place where our beautiful Gulf Arab culture, rooted in hospitality, dignity, generosity and care for others, still exists, uninterrupted by the distractions of the 21st century.

The relaxed ambience took me back to the old days when everyone knew one another and lived according to the beliefs of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. A time when no one’s front door was locked and there was no necessity to make an appointment to visit friends. Passersby smiled or stopped to chat. I even came across a few of my regular readers, who said they appreciated my frank and forthright views on regional issues.

Simply, my royal hosts and the Bahraini people I met treated me as one of their own. I have rarely felt so much at home anywhere in the world; it was almost as though I was visiting family. When I looked into their eyes I could feel genuine warmth of the kind that comes naturally, rather than out of mere politeness.

I was reminded once again of the unbreakable ties the peoples of Arab Gulf States share; ties of history, religious beliefs, traditions, cultural heritage and, very often, blood. Whether we are Emiratis or Saudis, Bahrainis or Kuwaitis, Qataris or Omanis, we are honourable, fiercely proud people bound by our tribal ancestors and our readiness to stand by each other when the chips are down. This is what makes us special.

Our Gulf Cooperation Council is much more than a loose political or economic union such as the EU. It is the bank that guards the future of all of us in its vault because no matter what passport we hold, how we choose to wear our Ghutras or the number of skyscrapers dotting our skylines, we are one.

Yes, we are one and it is thanks to the people of Bahrain that fact I have always been aware of unconsciously has hit home. Like any family, we will have our disagreements but we must never forget that hand-to-hand, heart-to-heart we can never be defeated by those of our enemies plotting to split us apart.

God in His wisdom has blessed us with lives of plenty but let us not forget, or allow our children, to forget our past struggles when we possessed little other than each other, a time when there were so many helping hands stretched out; when people would go hungry to offer their last meal to a stranger.

Those values remain the backbone of Bahrain just as they were when as a young boy travelling with my father en route to performing the Hajj, I fell seriously ill cutting our journey short. Unable to find a vessel sailing to Dubai, we took a boat to Bahrain where we were received by the Ruler’s Chief of Protocol and taken to a simple hotel that we could ill afford.

The owner must have understood our plight because he sent us a meal of curry and rice on the house. The following day, we were astonished to be invited to meet with the then ruler Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al- Khalifa, whose generosity enabled us to embark on a safe journey home. As I have discovered once again his compassionate spirit is engrained in the DNA of the Bahraini royal family today and still lives in the hearts of Bahraini people. God bless you all!

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