Bahrain picks Jew as U.S. envoy, local media critical

MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain has nominated a Jewish woman to be its ambassador to Washington, the Gulf Arab kingdom’s foreign minister said on Sunday, dismissing doubts about her suitability to represent the small Muslim country.

Houda Nonoo’s appointment as Bahrain’s envoy to the United States had been rumored by local media for months, stirring intense debate about Bahrain’s diplomatic aims and whether a Jew would truly represent Arab sentiment regarding top U.S. ally Israel.

“Regardless of religion, first and foremost she is Bahraini, just as her father was, just as her grandfather was,” Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa told reporters.

Nonoo would become the first Jew to became an ambassador for a modern Arab nation, according to the Jewish Virtual Library website.

Bahrain, a U.S.-allied island of some 1.05 million people, is home to only about 35 Jews, but they are well represented in the business community and have served at senior levels of government.

Most Bahraini Jews trace their roots back to Iraqi emigrants, and at its height in the early 20th century Bahrain’s Jewish community numbered at least 1,000 people. Most left after anti-Jewish attacks following the creation of Israel in 1948.

Many Bahrainis and at least one local rights group have said Nonoo’s nomination was a public relations exercise to highlight Sunni-ruled Bahrain’s tolerance of minorities.

Meanwhile Bahrain’s Shi’ite Muslims -- the majority on the island -- complain of discrimination in jobs and services.

“Such a decision hopes to detract attention from the unwritten law of sectarian discrimination in Bahrain ... Shi’ites make up more than 70 percent of the population, they hold less than 18 percent of high ranking positions,” the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights said in a statement.

Bahrain denies discriminating against its Shi’ite population.

Media commentary also paints Nonoo’s nomination as an attempt to gain influence with Washington’s powerful Jewish lobby.

Nonoo has declined to speak to Reuters.

In Bahrain, as elsewhere in the Middle East, anti-Israeli sentiment runs high, but most Bahrainis and members of the Jewish community say their countrymen differentiate between Judaism and Israel’s actions.

Bahrain has no official diplomatic ties with Israel, and last year an athlete running under the Bahraini flag was censured by the country’s athletics association for taking part in a race in the Jewish state.

Editing by Matthew Jones