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With Bahrain Deal, Israel's Mantle in the Gulf Expands, Eyeing Big Saudi Prize

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  (L) in Jerusalem on August 13, 2020, and (R) Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in the Saudi capital Riyadh on May 21, 2017.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) in Jerusalem on August 13, 2020, and (R) Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in the Saudi capital Riyadh on May 21, 2017.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Normalization between Israel and Gulf states is beginning to look like such an obvious step that Bahrain, the newest member of the club, won’t be getting its own ceremony with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump. Instead, it will play a supporting role to the star of Tuesday’s show at the White House, the United Arab Emirates.

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The question that arose immediately after the official announcement of the normalization of ties with Bahrain was who’s next, as if Manama were a whistle-stop on the normalization route, the final destination of which is Saudi Arabia. All of the other possibilities, from Oman to Morocco, Tunisia to Sudan, are henceforth just stations along the way.

Bahrain, which at the time of its 2010 census had a population of 1.2 million people, of which around half were foreign nationals, is no stranger to Israel. There have been at least two visits to Israel by senior Bahraini officials and last year the economic part of Trump’s Middle East peace plan was presented at a conference in Manama, but until about a month ago the kingdom’s official position was support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict, which must be reached before the normalization of ties with Israel.

Over the past month, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa faced massive pressure over the issue from Trump, who last week was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice – first by a right-wing Norwegian lawmaker for brokering the Israel-UAE deal and later by a Swedish legislator for mediating the Serbia-Kosovo agreement. After all, if then-President Barack Obama was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize before making significant progress in the Arab-Israeli arena, Trump has already overtaken his immediate predecessor in the White House. He presumably hopes that by Election Day, November 3, he can persuade Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to join his Gulf state neighbors in normalizing ties with Israel and fete him at ceremony in the White House. For now, the crown prince has made do with sending envoys.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s day-to-day ruler, forged the path in coordination with Saudi Arabia. Bahrain’s king, who is entirely dependent on Saudi Arabia, to which it is linked via a 25-kilometer causeway, received a Saudi “license” to move forward with normalization, but Riyadh itself is still waiting for its commission, which will include the exoneration of the crown prince in Washington and the rehabilitation of the kingdom’s reputation on Capitol Hill.

For now, Crown Prince Mohammed is demonstrating for Trump his power to build the Arab mantle for the president’s Middle East peace plan. He opened Saudi airspace to Israeli planes and began to tie up the loose ends of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul – the crown prince obtained the “forgiveness” of Khashoggi’s family, saving the five Saudi officials who were convicted in his murder from the death penalty. This mantle is intended not only for Trump or for Israel; it gives Saudi Arabia the regional support it needs in order to advance its own normalization with Israel.

Bahrain is an important part of the Persian Gulf’s strategic defense against Iranian influence. It hosts a U.S. Navy base with around 6,000 service members, and could serve as a launch pad for attacks on land and sea threats from Iran. Israelis are focusing mainly on the enormous investment potential of the UAE and, now, of Bahrain, but few are talking about the possibility for military cooperation, apart from reports on the activities of Israeli spyware companies. Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, have stressed that they do not intend to take part in military activity against Iran.

The Saudis were circumspect in responding to attacks on Saudi and UAE oil tankers and installations, and Abu Dhabi signed a cooperation agreement on protecting shipping in the Gulf. But it would not be far-fetched to assume that someone in Israel is already examining the possibility of stationing Israeli submarines in the Gulf, that could benefit from logistics services in Bahrain or the UAE, as an extension of the cooperation that has been expressed in joint exercises by the respective air forces of Israel and the UAE.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner (L) meets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (R) during his visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 1, 2020. Credit: SAUDI PRESS AGENCY/REUTERS

Bahrain sees Iran as not only a regional strategic threat but also as a threat to its own regime. More than 60 percent of Bahrainis are Shi’ite Muslims, who are at best seen as a subversive population and at worse as an Iranian fifth column. They are of prime concern to Bahrain’s internal security service, the infrastructure of which was laid by Ian Henderson, a British police officer who was in charge of suppressing the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s.

In Bahrain, he headed the General Directorate for State Security Investigations from 1966-98, and was known as “the Butcher of Bahrain” due to the torture and other human rights violations that allegedly took place under his command. Shi’ites face institutional discrimination and oppression in Bahrain. Their involvement in government is far below their representation in the population. They are kept out of high-ranking public and military positions and operate as a vibrant political opposition that strives for equality.

When the Arab Spring demonstrations erupted in 2011, it was Shi’ite activists who “captured” Manama’s Pearl Square and the main streets of the capital. They were also the primary targets of the security forces, first Bahraini and then Saudi, who came to help the government in Manama to control the protests. By some estimates, hundreds of people were killed in these protests; thousands were injured and thousands of arrests were made.

Manama is convinced that Tehran was behind the protests and that it continues to recruit Bahraini Shi’ites in order to bring down the government, which has been ruled by the Khalifa family since the middle of the 18th century. Bahrain is considered a liberal country, where non-Bahraini women are not required to wear traditional dress and alcohol is relatively easy to find. That’s also why so many Saudis come to visit on the weekends. But it was ranked 149 out of the 167 countries on the 2019 Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit. The king appoints the 40 members of the upper house of the National Assembly, the Consultative Council, and he can dissolve the parliament’s lower house, the Council of Representatives, an elected body that can include women. The country’s media outlets are owned by or controlled in part by the royal family, which also supervises social media in the kingdom.

But Bahrain is also considered a leading country in the encouragement of foreign investment and entrepreneurship. Income tax is levied only on foreign petroleum companies, not on citizens or residents, and most health and education services are free. About 85 percent of the kingdom’s revenue is from petroleum, with tourism – mainly from neighboring Arab states – accounting for the remainder. Visitors come for business or for entertainment, not for historic sites or the nature. In fact, Bahrain is a boring country that cannot compete with the attractions of the UAE, which itself is not exactly Rome or Paris.

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