Cover Story


July 17 -23, 2019

Gulf Weekly Naman Arora
By Naman Arora


British Ambassador Simon Martin and his wife Sophie, who will be leaving Bahrain by the end of this month, are departing with fond memories of an island that has felt like home for the last three years.

GulfWeekly sat down for a farewell interview with the couple who, as we had reported in our 2016 coverage, had gotten married just a year before being shipped off on a diplomatic mission to the sunny shores of Bahrain.

Sophie said: “Our time in Bahrain has been quite blessed. We received an extraordinary welcome when we got here. We are going to miss the friends we made here the most when we go back.”

The Martins have been here during a momentous point in British-Bahraini relations. The countries celebrated 200 years of diplomatic relations in 2016, having deepened their economic, military and political ties since signing the Treaty of Friendship in 1816.

In recognition of this occasion, the Martins, supported by the embassy in coordination with the British Council, organised 200 events including a Bahrain-UK food month, a museum exhibition, several documentary premieres and many more events touching on business, entrepreneurship, heritage, culture, sports, health, education, technology, food, and fashion.

The one thing common at most of the events they attended, which they had to get used to, was the presence of cake.

Simon added: “I think the biggest culture shock to me was the preponderance of beautifully decorated and purposely made cakes for every major event. But I did enjoy all the cake cutting we had the opportunity to do.”

Amongst the major events that the Martins led was the opening of the UK Naval Support Facility, previously known as the HMS Juffair, a sign of the deepening military and economic ties between the countries, who already had annual bilateral trade relations exceeding BHD420 million.

The project, under the blessing of His Majesty the King Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, created a permanent Royal Navy base in the Kingdom that is home to around 500 personnel as well as the HMS Montrose, a Duke class frigate.

Another significant contribution that they made was restarting a century-old Hindu tradition around the embassy’s resident Banyan tree. As the GulfWeekly previously reported, during the tradition, called Vat Savitri, married Hindu women are invited to tie a ceremonial knot around the tree as they fast for their husbands’ long lives.

Adapting to the work culture of Bahrain, as they delved into these projects, was a significant adjustment for Sophie who did some part time work with the Applied Science University in Sitra in addition to her proliferous diplomatic duties.

The work culture in Bahrain, compared to that in the UK, can be more relaxed and less constrained.

Sophie added: “When I started working here, my colleagues and I worked within a middle-ground third work culture, instead of trying to change the local trends. The Brits tried to relax and go with the flow, while our Bahraini colleagues tried to adapt to our schedules in terms of planning and organising.”

Beyond this acclimatisation, the Martins had little difficulty adjusting to Bahrain. Even the heat turned out to be not as severe as they expected.

Simon specified: “The only time that I had visited Bahrain before was in a February. So I suspected it was going to be very hot and uncomfortable for most of the year. And yet, we discovered it has a really nice climate for most of the year. There’s only a couple of months where it is hot and sticky. But other than that it is wonderful, which is why I like that there is more being done to promote tourism in Bahrain.”

Simon and Sophie did their part in promoting tourism to the kingdom, especially amongst their personal circles. Their family, including Simon’s son, Alex, daughter Ellie, Sophie’s son Harry, daughter Lydia and mother, visited Bahrain more than 40 times in three years.

“Our families have come at least twice, which shows how attractive the kingdom was to them,” said Simon. “They loved it, and of course, having them here made our time here all the more pleasurable. When we moved here, we worried about missing our family, but they visited us often, making this feel more like home.”

Beyond these visits and their diplomatic duties, the couple managed to accomplish a lot. They were regular stalwarts at environmental projects and beach clean-ups around the island, with Sophie leading the charge on the reduction of plastic in day-to-day lives.

They are excited to see Bahrain reduce its carbon footprint and plastic usage, even if it comes the day after they leave. In terms of other changes they hope to see on the island, Simon, an avid cyclist, would like to see more cycling and running tracks.

He added: “There is a real athletic culture here but the environment, both climatically and otherwise, are not conducive to it. There aren’t many safe places to cycle except in the south of the island.

“Another thing, which they are already working on as well, is easy-access beaches. Right now, you have to go to one of the exclusive resorts to get access to a good beach. But in the UK, we are used to hundreds of thousands of people on beaches, which would be great to see here as well.

“And finally, I am excited to see the changes coming to public transportation. The Metro is going to make a big difference, not only in revolutionising transport but also leading to greater connectivity between the aspects already here. For example, we live within a few hundred metres of The Avenues, but to walk there, we’d have to cross 17 lanes of traffic. Having the metro means that people can also use the associated infrastructure to be more connected locally.”

Cycling lanes and safer walkable infrastructure, already in the works, will be a boon to Bahrain, which has seen a significant uptick in walkway accidents to the point that HH Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, head of the Supreme Council of Youth and Sports, has ordered a study, still in the works, analysing the issue and providing recommendations.

The Martins look forward to seeing these changes come to fruition and are excited to visit the country again, having already extended their stay to four years, the maximum permissible under ambassadorial guidelines.

The kingdom has also enjoyed having the two here. From Simon’s cricket adventures to the contributions made locally and internationally in the diplomatic domain, the two have changed lives and improved life locally.

The ambassador was honoured by HM the King last week with the Order of Bahrain (Wisam Al-Bahrain) – First Class for his tremendous role in bolstering relations between the two countries. These ties are going to become even more crucial for both countries in a post-Brexit era.

Simon said: “Once we are outside of the European Union, however that uncertainty shakes out, our bilateral relationships with Bahrain and other countries of the Gulf become even more important. So we are open to trade and investment in both countries, with a lot of interest in the UK in doing business with Bahrain and neighbouring countries.”

This relationship will have to be delicately cultivated and maintained by the incoming British Ambassador, Roderick Drummond, who along with his wife Yasmin, have been posted in the Middle East four times previously.

Simon highlighted: “Brody (Roderick) and Yasmin will be fantastic in their role. Roderick speaks Arabic and as a sportsman and Scotsman, he is going to fit in perfectly well in the kingdom. We couldn’t have hoped for better successors. We wish them the best of luck and hope they have as much fun as we did.”

As for Simon and Sophie, they are headed for a well-deserved respite from diplomatic responsibilities. A house they had purchased before moving, with the intention to renovate it, awaits them. Perhaps in due time, they might be called back to public duty, or better yet, visit their friends in Bahrain.

The GulfWeekly would like to wish them both the best of luck in all their future endeavours and hopes to catch up with them when they visit the island next.

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