By Afro-Middle East Centre
Recent statements by Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa criticising the Arab boycott of Israel and advocating Bahraini visits to Tel Aviv, point to the increasing normalisation of Gulf Arab states with Israel under the auspices of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Al-Khalifa’s statement can be read as as a testing of the waters by Saudi Arabia, and partly as an attempt to gain favour with the US administration to form an alliance against Iran. It is also part of a bigger trend among Gulf Arab countries to normalise links with Israel, thus likely resulting in a decrease in the already-limited support for the Palestinians.
The statements, disclosed by Abraham Cooper and Rabbi Marvin Hier of the pro-Israel Simon Wiesenthal Center, emerged following the participation of Bahrain’s Prince Nasser Al-Khalifa in an event of the centre, and his visit to the pro-Israel Museum of Tolerance, both in Los Angeles, USA. The Wiesenthal Centre event was funded by Bahrain, and, during it, Nasser, accompanied by over forty Bahraini officials, signed a declaration on religious tolerance, which was endorsed by Hamad. In an indication of his royal family’s attitude to Israel, Nasser agreed to the playing of the Israeli national anthem at the event, and respectfully stood for it. The king’s subsequent silence reinforces the veracity of the revelations, and illustrates his regime’s confidence that no reputational harm will result. Cooper and Hier also announced their intention to construct a ‘tolerance museum’ in Bahrain’s capital Manama. The Wiesenthal Centre built a similar museumover the Ma'man Allah Muslim cemetery in East Jerusalem, despite opposition from Palestinians.
Manama often touts its treatment of minorities as a regional exemplar, mainly in an effort to deflect from criticism of its suppression of the Shi'a majority, which has endured systematic marginalisation, and which regularly experiences state violence, including torture, including at the hands of Nasser. Incidences of such violence have increased since the 2011 Middle East uprisings that saw large protests in Bahrain and resulted in the deployment of Gulf (mainly Saudi) troops to Bahrain in March 2011.
Hamad’s statements point to a broader pattern of Gulf Arab normalisation with Israel, partly in an attempt to contain Iran. In recent years, visits between Israeli and Gulf officials have increased, and covert cooperation and intelligence sharing between the Gulf and Israel has intensified. In July, Britain’s The Times reported discussions between Saudi and Israeli officials aimed at fostering economic ties, while some reports claimed that bin Salman secretly visited Israel in August. Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, had previously invited the crown prince for an official visit, and Netanyahu has repeatedly recently bragged that Israeli-Arab ties were at their best levels. Saudi Arabia and Israel have common cause in their desire for a regional bloc to contain Iran, which Saudi Arabia sees as threatening its regional aspirations. Bahrain fears the influence of the Islamic republic on its Shi'a population, which comprises two-thirds of the total. Bahrain often accuses Iran of meddling, and has instrumentalised this to crack down on dissent. These dynamics have been bolstered by the US president, Donald Trump, his vigorous support for Israel, and his focus on containing Iran at Tel Aviv’s request. Saudi, Bahraini, and Emirati officials have enthusiastically supported Trump’s administration, leveraging their connections with Israeli sympathetic think tanks to garner favour.
It is thus likely that Hamad’s comment was issued with Saudi endorsement. This is especially since the Bahraini monarchy is dependent on Saudi largesse for its survival. Saudi troops remain in Bahrain, and, in 2012, Riyadh unsuccessfully sought GCC unification as a means to protect the Bahraini regime, and to consolidate Riyadh’s influence in the council. Moreover, Bahrain generates most of its revenue from the Saudi Aramco-controlled Abu Safah oilfield, and is disproportionately reliant on Saudi tourism. Bahraini foreign policy has thus been beholden to Saudi Arabia. Manama touted GCC unification in 2012, and Bahrain is a key supporter of both the 2014 Gulf ambassadorial recall from Qatar and the 2017 blockade on Qatar. Hamad has also defended the Saudi king, labelling twitter critics as Qatar proxies, and threatening Bahrainis sympathetic to Qatar with five-year imprisonment terms. This despite the fact that Bahrain-Qatar ties regarding oil exploration and trade had been increasing since 2014, and Bahrain, unlike Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is supportive of its Muslim Brotherhood-styled party, Minbar Al-Islami.
Warming Gulf ties with Israel are likely to damage the already-debilitated Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. The flawed 2002 Arab peace initiative, which proposed Arab governments normalise ties with Israel in return for Israeli relinquishing of territories occupied since 1967 and Tel Aviv’s partial endorsement of the Palestinian right of return, will be rendered more irrelevant as Israel will no longer see any need to make any concessions. Israel’s strategy of negotiating with individual Arab states has seen results, and this is likely to continue. Moreover, Gulf Arab regimes are increasingly forcing Palestinians to forego their aspirations in an attempt to speed up this process. Gulf and Egyptian support for Mohammed Dahlan to succeed Mahmoud Abbas can be partially understood in this light, especially since Dahlan maintains good ties with Israel, and is willing to consider land and population swaps as part of a ‘peace’ initiative.