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An Arab ambassador surprises

Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo, ambassador to the U.S. from the Arab nation of Bahrain, stopped by Dilworth Paxon's Center City headquarters last night on her rounds trying to kindle interest in the island country and its three-year-old Free Trade Agreement with the U.S.

Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo, ambassador to the U.S. from the Arab nation of Bahrain, stopped by Dilworth Paxon's Center City headquarters last night on her rounds trying to kindle interest in the island country and its three-year-old Free Trade Agreement with the U.S.

Nonoo's not what Americans might expect in an ambassador from a mostly Muslim Arab country: She's a member of Bahrain's tiny but prominent Jewish minority, noted Joseph Jacovini, chairman of Dilworth (which represents the Inquirer, among other corporate clients.)

Bahrain is as big as, and a little more crowded than, Delaware County. It lies in the tough neighborhood between conservative Saudi Arabia (run by Sunni Muslims, like Bahrain's ruling family) and radical Iran (run by rival Shia Muslims, like Bahrain's majority); so the country cultivates powerful outsiders, and hosts a big U.S. military base.

"We're a very tolerant society. We have Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Jews," she told the lawyers. "We were among the first to educate girls... We were the first to find oil in the Gulf, in 1932. And we're the first to realize we're going to be running out of oil soon."

So Bahrain has tried to make itself "one of the major financial hubs in the Middle East." It's developed a small textile industry. And it's got the Free Trade Agreement, the first between the U.S. and a Gulf country. "My job here is to promote Bahrain and get it out to as many people as possible."

Questions from the lawyers: How are your beaches? "You don't come to Bahrain for the beaches," said Nonoo. What did she think of yesterday's Wall Street Journal article about the Muslim backlash against Bahrain's liberal ways? "Bahrain has always been a very welcoming country... Very religious people say some things in Bahain shouldn't be happening... But the beautiful thing about Bahrain is, you have a choice. You want to drink, you drink. You want to cover, you cover." And women can drive, unlike in Saudi Arabia.
U.S.-Bahrain trade topped $8 billion last year; our exports include cars and airplanes: "We're buying 24 Boeing Dreamliners. It was supposed to be 16." Farming "is very basic. We grow onions..."

What can Bahrain import from Philadelphia? "We're looking for finance, education, information technology. Real estate expertise. Hotels and tourism... Our universities are highly subsidized." And law firms? "And law firms."