The late December rain that pelted the roof of the Westin Poinsett hotel in downtown Greenville was the kind of weather that made the Bahraini ambassador to the United States think fondly of his warm and sunny home nation.
Nestled in an armchair in the hotel lobby, with a bodyguard nearby, Ambassador Sheikh Abdullah bin Rashed bin Abdullah Al Khalifa – Ambassador Khalifa, for short – wasn’t too perturbed by the dismal grey skies outside.
“I haven’t even gone out yet,” he said with a smile, before nodding up at the ornaments, garlands of holly and the glimmering Christmas tree. “The view in here is beautiful enough, though, isn’t it?”
Ambassador Khalifa was in town to commemorate the $1.12 billion purchase of 16 new F-16 Block 70 aircraft, production of which is already underway at Lockheed Martin’s Greenville facility. The aircraft is expected to be delivered by 2021, making Bahrain the first customer to receive the new aircraft. Between 150 to 200 new jobs will be created locally over the course of the aircraft’s production.
“Looking at the relationship between the two countries as a whole, we see that Bahrain has for a long time been a steadfast partner of the U.S.,” Khalifa said.
He noted the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet being headquartered in Bahrain and the importance of that “huge network of US personnel, individuals and families in Bahrain.”
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“The region is quite volatile,” he added, “and we believe it is our obligation to protect those US personnel.”
The sale comes after the Trump administration removed an Obama-implemented hold on selling aircraft to Bahrain due to concerns over human rights abuses against the nation’s Shia Muslim minority. Just this past November, US Senator Chris Murphy, one of many Democrats who have criticized the Trump administration’s decision to proceed with the aircraft deal, took a trip to Bahrain to visit the family of Nabeel Rajab, a prominent human rights activist who has been detained since 2016 due to Twitter comments critical of the Bahraini government.
When asked to comment on the Obama-era hold, Khalifa said the overall concerns that unite Bahrain and the United States should be seen as the prominent factor.
“I think there is an acknowledgement today of the threats that the region is facing, and in order for us to continue doing our job, we need to upgrade our systems,” Khalifa said. “It’s important to look at the historical relationship we have. I think over time, we’ve been able to achieve more and more cooperation between the two countries.”
Despite political concerns between the Sunni-led government and the Shias, the island nation of Bahrain, with its 600,000 citizens, has maintained a global reputation as a relatively liberal stronghold of arts, culture and sports in an otherwise fraught region.
“I think that for people who have no clue what Bahrain has been doing, it’s worth the visit,” Khalifa said. “We have people from different countries, different races, different religions. You’ll find a warm, hospitable, welcoming country.”