Teaching history should not be comfortable, says senior Bahraini foreign policy expert

Muneera Al Khalifa discusses the whitewashing of Gulf history with Emirati diplomat Omar Al Ghobash in a webinar on the Future of Diplomacy

Muneera Al Khalifa speaking at the Abu Dhabi Diplomacy Conference 2018 in Abu Dhabi. Pawan Singh / The National
Muneera Al Khalifa speaking at the Abu Dhabi Diplomacy Conference 2018 in Abu Dhabi. Pawan Singh / The National

Gulf diplomats must learn their history to represent their country's interests, Bahraini diplomacy expert Muneera Al Khalifa said on Tuesday night.

Ms Al Khalifa was speaking with a senior Emirati diplomat as part of the The Future of Diplomacy series, which investigates foreign policy in a world transformed by the coronavirus outbreak.

Ms Al Khalifa is executive director of the institute that trains Bahraini diplomats, the Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khalifa Academy for Diplomacy Studies.

It was the fourth online talk in the series hosted by Omar Ghobash, Assistant Minister of Public and Cultural Diplomacy.

Omar Ghobash is hosting a series of web talks assessing the world's response to the challenges posed by Covid-19. Chris Whiteoak/The National
Omar Ghobash is hosting a series of web talks assessing the world's response to the challenges posed by Covid-19. Chris Whiteoak/The National

Of the many traits a diplomat must possess, knowledge of history may be the most essential and most lacking, said Ms Al Khalifa.

“The future of diplomacy is the past,” said Ms Al Khalifa, who studied national identity and nation building in the Gulf during her PhD at Oxford University.

“The success of any diplomat is a deep and thorough understanding of history.”

However, she said Gulf history is understudied and often overlooks internal conflict or disagreement.

Why do we avoid teaching historical narratives if one element of the narrative doesn’t neatly fit into what we’re used to?

Muneera Al Khalifa, Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khalifa Academy for Diplomacy Studies

She suggested that this selective retelling of local history is an obstacle for diplomacy.

“So my question is the following, why do we avoid teaching historical narratives if one element of the narrative doesn’t neatly fit into what we’re used to?” she asked.

“Teaching history should not be comfortable and if we expect people to understand our story, our message, our principles, our culture as diplomats, as ambassadors, we need to convey our history,” she said.

“But before conveying our history, we need to understand it in its entirety.

“Perhaps [it is] not the history that sits well with us, and not the history that serves certain groups but the history as it is.”

She opened with a story about the Arab nationalist movement and demonstrations in 1957 that lead to the imprisonment of three Bahrainis on the British island of St Helena, some 1,950 kilometres west of Africa's south-western coast.

Then she discussed Iran’s claim to Bahrain’s sovereignty in the 1960s and the diplomatic work of Bahrainis that secured Bahrain’s recognition as a sovereign state at the UN in 1971. These episodes set the tone for Bahrain's national development, foreign policy and diplomatic resolution of disputes but are typically overlooked.

The ritual pouring of bitter Arab coffee in Bahrain in November 1971. Horst Faas / AP Photo
The ritual pouring of bitter Arab coffee in Bahrain in November 1971, the year Bahrain was declared an independent sovereign state. Horst Faas / AP Photo

“This is an episode with lessons for Bahrainis and yet it is not given the credit it deserves in history books, because it perhaps it doesn’t neatly and comfortably fit the mould or an easy going narrative,” said Ms Al Khalifa.

“Or perhaps its due to tensions that characterise the current climate or perhaps the general approach that we hate that it happened so we don’t want to discuss it in detail.”

Mr Ghobash asked, “What are we giving up in not learning our history, teaching our history and actually writing our history?”

He added, “We have this tendency in the region to say, everything was beautiful, there was willpower, desire, unity and then we did it. But the real story is one of negotiation, reading people’s personality, understanding small little groupings.”

In her address, Ms Al Khalifa suggested history is overlooked when it is uncomfortable.

“We tend to shy away,” she said.

This minimizes the work of diplomats and historic figures, like the UAE’s Founding President Sheikh Zayed.

“Sometimes it’s counter productive. I remember attending a talk about Sheikh Zayed and his attempt to unify the UAE. It wasn’t an easy job, I think it’s a testament to his character when you show what he actually had to go through.

“Making it easy and simple, it doesn’t give historical figures the credit that they deserve.”

The Future of Diplomacy series is hosted by the Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy in the UAE.

The authority aims to strengthen the intellectual, cultural and humanitarian legacy of the country through national and regional initiatives.

Updated: June 11, 2020 06:30 PM

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