Bahrain became the fourth Arab state to formalize diplomatic relations with Israel on September 11. Manama and Tel Aviv’s deal came less than one month after the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel signed the US-brokered Abraham Accords. Nonetheless, the motivations which officials in Abu Dhabi and Manama had for formalizing relations with the Jewish state are significantly different.
Also, given the differences between these two Arab countries’ domestic political arenas, Manama has accepted more serious risks to its stability and regime legitimacy than Abu Dhabi has in this process of normalizing relations with Israel.
The UAE is a far more independent, wealthy, and militarily powerful country than Bahrain, making UAE-Israel relations more balanced than those between Bahrain and Tel Aviv. The UAE signed the Abraham Accords without much external pressure in the picture.
On the other hand, Bahrain, which has not functioned as a sovereign state since 2011 because of the Saudi and Emirati roles in crushing the Gulf country’s “Arab Spring” uprising that year, came under significant American, Saudi, and Emirati pressure to formalize its relationship with Israel.
Pressure on Bahrain
On August 25, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa told US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that Manama would only normalize relations with Tel Aviv if the Israelis agree to the Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002, requiring Israel to return to its 1967 borders and permit the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. White House advisor Jared Kushner subsequently visited Bahrain on September 1 to discuss Manama following in the UAE’s footsteps vis-à-vis Israel, only to be rebuffed as was Pompeo.
Bahrain suddenly abandoned its support for the API by formalizing relations with Tel Aviv without Israel agreeing to concede anything to the Palestinians.
Yet, only ten days later, Bahrain suddenly abandoned its support for the API by formalizing relations with Tel Aviv without Israel agreeing to concede anything to the Palestinians (even disingenuously so), underscoring both the limits of Manama’s influence over Israel and the extent to which Bahrain’s leadership was compelled to please the Trump administration.
It is fair to consider how the UAE may have provided Bahrain financial incentives to sign its “peace deal” with Tel Aviv, which serves to make Abu Dhabi less isolated in the Gulf sub-region vis-à-vis Israel. Experts such as Zaha Hassan, a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also contend that Saudi Arabia must have given Bahrain the “green light” to do so. The Saudi kingdom does have interests in seeing its archipelago neighbor become a “hub for Saudi-Israeli exchange” that would make it easier for Riyadh to enjoy closer contacts with Israel without the Saudis having to take the risks of formalizing their own relations with the Jewish state.
These assumptions about external pressures on Manama are quite safe to make given the extent to which the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been making all the important decisions involving Bahrain’s foreign policy since 2011. The security assistance and economic support from the Emiratis and Saudis are responsible for keeping the Al Khalifa family in power and in debt to its two fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members.
As one informed Bahraini interlocutor told this author, Emirati investment in post-2011 Bahrain has made the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) so powerful that no Bahraini who criticizes the UAE’s de facto leader has a shot at gaining any power in Manama.
Iran, Sectarianism, and Risks of Blowback
Despite such external forces, Manama has its own interests in working with Israel which are very much about the perceived Iranian threat, whereas the Emirati interests which led to Abu Dhabi signing the Abraham Accords are far more numerous and wide-ranging. “The UAE is, like the proverbial fox, interested in a great many things…with Israel, including countering both Iran and Turkey, reaching out to Republicans and Democrats in Washington (especially Democrats), strengthening the pro-status quo coalition, and developing a commercial and research partnership with Israel on high-tech and cyber activities,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf states Institute in Washington.[i]
“Bahrain’s interest in closer ties to Israel can be summed up in one word: Iran.”
“Bahrain, by contrast, is the proverbial hedgehog: it’s only interested in one thing, and that very deeply. Bahrain’s interest in closer ties to Israel can be summed up in one word: Iran.”[ii] The Al Khalifa royals view Iran as a “uniquely existential menace, given that both the Shah’s regime and the Islamic Republic have at times claimed that all of Bahrain is rightfully Iranian territory and that the country is merely a province of Iran.”[iii]
Internally, the UAE and Bahrain do not have the same political, economic, social, and sectarian dynamics. Therefore, these two countries’ “peace deals” with Israel will likely play out very differently. To be sure, all Arab governments that formalize relations with Israel face risks of blowback from their own population. After all, no regional leader can afford to forget the fate of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. At the same time, all Arab states worry about Iran’s ability to exploit the fact that the “Arab Street” remains firmly opposed to normalization even as more Arab governments proceed in this direction.
Despite the recent history of Bahraini authorities repressing opposition elements in their country, the archipelago kingdom has a highly active civil society and dissenting voices are far more vocal in Bahrain than in the Emirates. Among Bahrain’s activists, there is a tradition of firm commitment to the Palestinian struggle against Israel. On August 14, eight Bahraini political groups, which represent diverse ideologies, expressed opposition to Arab states formalizing relations with Tel Aviv and demanded that their government refuse the normalization path.
Among Bahrain’s activists, there is a tradition of firm commitment to the Palestinian struggle against Israel.
This underscored how widespread anti-Israeli sentiments are in Bahrain, as well as the willingness of actors in civil society to speak out against legitimizing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. In this current era, such displays of dissent in the UAE are simply unimaginable. As the Cato Institute’s John Glaser argued, “the UAE barely has a citizenry to worry about” considering that the country is home to 8 million expatriates and fewer than 1.5 million Emirati citizens.
Bahrain’s high sectarian fervors are relevant to this analysis. As opined by Cinzia Bianco, a Research Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, Bahrain’s decision to not normalize relations during the same month as Abu Dhabi had to do with the fact that Ashura, a sacred day of mourning for Shi’a Muslims around the world, was in late August. Although there are Shi’a Muslims in the UAE—including Emirati nationals and expatriates—they are not nearly as restive, rebellious, subversive, or attracted to the Islamic Republic as are elements of Bahrain’s Shi’a communities.
Two days after Bahrain and Israel made “peace,” the top Bahraini Ayatollah, Sheikh Isa Qassim, who lives in Iran, called on Bahrainis and all people of the Middle East to resist Arab states’ normalization of relations with Tel Aviv. Officials in Manama have reason to worry about the Iranian regime’s ability to not only foment unrest in Bahrain through “soft power” means, but also, according to some sources, to arm radical Shi’a groups in the GCC country.
Ultimately, Bahrain’s empowered Sunni royals and elites face a difficult conundrum. The internal opposition as well as the real – albeit all too often overstated and exaggerated – links between elements of the Shi’a opposition and Tehran subject Bahrain’s government to greater threats from within. These factors have led to Bahrain’s government relinquishing its sovereignty to regional and global allies in the interest of regime survival. Yet under this Saudi, Emirati, and American pressure, the Bahraini leadership lacked the means to independently decide its own approach vis-à-vis Israel. Time will tell what price Manama pays for taking the risks of normalizing relations with the Jewish state.
[i] Hussein Ibish, interview with author, September 13, 2020.