Much of the PR-fest around Bahrain’s normalization agreement with Israel has featured the fact that tiny Bahrain counts a small Jewish population among its diverse social groups. Many have extrapolated from this that it’s an unusually tolerant and inclusive country. This is a mistake.
Bahrain has a long history of ethnic diversity, and is a tolerant and friendly place for visitors. But it is also a repressive place, where, over the past decade, all opposition parties have either been banned or had their leaders jailed, and many dissidents have been tortured, exiled or stripped of their citizenship.
As far as tolerance goes, there is a deep sectarian tinge to Bahrain’s politics, as the ruling family, the Al Khalifa, are Sunni Muslims, while the majority of the population, who are Shia Muslims, feel treated as second-class citizens, whether in the allocation of state jobs, access to what limited political representation exists, or the telling of local history.
But it’s not all about sect: power and wealth are concentrated in the hands of the ruling family, not the Sunni community as a whole, and the government suppresses visible signs of opposition from Sunni and Shia alike.
Insulting a friendly government is a crime in Bahrain, and people have been jailed for "crimes" as minor as criticizing, on Twitter, Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated intervention in Yemen, or calling for the downfall of Sudan’s former dictator Omar Al-Bashir. Bahrainis could therefore face penalties for criticizing the normalization agreement with Israel.
So it is telling that so many of them have taken to social media to do so using the hashtag #Bahrainis_Against_Normalization. Moreover, sympathy for the Palestinians cuts across sectarian lines.
These days, Shia opposition groups express a particular fellow-feeling with the Palestinians because (despite the many differences in the two contexts) they see both populations as engaged in a struggle for rights against a system of ethnic discrimination, and believe a host of policies are designed to push them to migrate. One Bahraini activist told me the Bahraini Shia "really feel like Palestinians."
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Yet there is also a long history of solidarity with Palestinians among Bahrain’s Sunni Muslims. Some Bahrainis who normally toe the government’s line, including Sunni opinion-formers, spoke out against the UAE’s agreement with Israel, but then went completely (and understandably) silent when their own government followed suit.
Nevertheless, 17 Bahraini civil society groups did publish a statement opposing Bahrain’s own normalization agreement with what they term "the Zionist enemy" and the "usurping Zionist entity," describing it as a violation of both the popular consensus in the country and of the kingdom’s own law that criminalizes normalization, and declaring Bahrainis would stand with the Palestinians until they gain independence, with Jerusalem as their capital, and the right of return.
The public reaction in Bahrain has been in stark contrast with the welcome given to the agreement in Israel. Part of the reason for this is that there are very different perceptions of what is at stake between Bahrain, Israel and the Palestinians.
For those in Israel and the U.S. who assumed Gulf Arabs hated Israel out of prejudice or antisemitism, the agreements have appeared to represent a much-needed shift from ancient ethnic hatreds to peace between peoples.
That narrative has been deliberately evoked by the Trump administration’s marketing of the UAE and Bahrain agreements as "The Abraham Accords," inflating them to the status of a historic breakthrough between global faiths. Certainly, powerful images such as the UAE chief rabbi blowing the Rosh Hashanah shofar in Dubai must have brought hope and relief to many.
But the objections to normalization center on politics more than religion. Since 2002 Bahrain has been committed to the Arab Peace Initiative, through which all 22 members of the Arab League offered to normalize relations with Israel on the basis of an end to occupation and a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.
The UAE at least announced it had halted the de jure West Bank annexation that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was threatening; Bahrain does not yet seem to have secured any gesture towards the Palestinians. Neither has obtained any commitment to begin to unwind the conflict and occupation, address gradual de facto annexation, or rule out de jure annexation at a later stage.
On the contrary: both countries have opted to make these agreements with an Israeli prime minister who has frequently said he will not countenance a Palestinian state. And they have signed them with an American president whose administration is not even on speaking terms with the Palestinians.
However, President Trump has reassured nondemocratic Gulf leaders (or diverted their nominal concerns about the Palestinians) by helpfully downplaying their own human rights issues, from the killing of Jamal Khashoggi two years ago to the wider state of repression in the region.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Trump is less popular with the public in the Gulf.
They are embarrassed when he speaks contemptuously of Gulf leaders, such as when he declared the Saudi monarchy wouldn’t last two weeks without U.S. military backing, or that OPEC countries were ripping off the world, or boasts about the massive sums they spend on American weapons. Many in the Gulf would rather see those resources being redirected into education and health at home.
The Bahraini government’s calculations will also have been influenced by the interests of the UAE, which is a major donor to Bahrain (which has little oil and is running up debt), and which did not want to be the only country taking this step. The Saudi crown prince also seems to have encouraged the move as a trial balloon.
In this context, Bahraini critics of the agreements see them as intensifying cooperation between repressive governments, inevitably leading to an even harsher squeeze on dissent.
They are concerned that their government appears to be more interested in winning support from the U.S. than in reflecting Bahraini public opinion. And they fear that increased co-operation on security won’t just be directed against Iran and ISIS, but will help enable regional governments to ramp up their capabilities to hack and monitor dissidents and human rights activists.
Authoritarian rulers in the Gulf are experts at deploying the appearance, and language, of social liberalism to distract from – or even justify – their political authoritarianism. They have found that emphasising their religious tolerance is an excellent way to look liberal to a Western audience, especially when the religious groups concerned are tiny minorities with no troublesome political claims.
Religious tolerance is incredibly important in a region where religious identity has so often been weaponized to both mobilize and target people politically, and which is still recovering from the recent genocidal violence of ISIS. But peace and pluralism also require political tolerance. Religion is far from the only driver of conflict, violence and oppression in the region.
The Trump administration has had little interest in human rights in the Gulf, but it has placed a premium on freedom of religion, as something that matters to Evangelical Christian voters back at home. It’s a long way from the 1990s and 2000s, when Gulf rulers felt pressure from both Western countries and local populations to democratize. Most of them brought in some elements of elected representation.
In Bahrain, where King Hamad came to power in 1999, there were official statements that the country would restore an elected parliament that had been suspended since the 1970s. Officials claimed Bahrain was on track to become a British-style constitutional monarchy and George W. Bush called it a model for the region.
Opposition politicians recount the excitement of that time; the king was cheered in the poorest and angriest of the Shia areas, because he had brought hope.
But then the king changed his plans. He could not convince the larger royal family to accept an elected parliament that might constrain its powers and investigate its wealth.
Instead, in 2001 King Hamad wrote a new constitution, replacing one that had been carefully written by an elected body as part of Bahrain’s transition to being an independent state. He installed a parliament that was gerrymandered to ensure Shia Muslims could not win a majority of seats, and where the powers of the elected chamber were offset by those of an upper house directly appointed by the king every four years.
The hopes for representation and more democracy were dashed; the opposition felt not only deprived, but betrayed.
They also noticed that unlike all other Gulf states, where the path to citizenship was hard and narrow, to limit those eligible as citizens to lavish economic benefits, Bahrain was rapidly handing out passports to new arrivals.
No solid data on sectarian affiliation is publicly available, but both Sunni and Shia Bahrainis of different political viewpoints say that citizenship was primarily offered to Sunni Muslims from other Arab countries and from Pakistan (as detailed in a 2006 report by a former government advisor turned whistleblower, Salah Al Bandar).
The intention appears to have been to alter Bahrain’s demographic balance, in the hope that new Sunni citizens would be more loyal to the king than its Shia subjects, who were perceived by the government as ungrateful and troublesome. Instead of enabling citizens to choose their government, it seemed the government was choosing its citizens.
Later, several hundred Shia dissidents were stripped of their citizenship and left stateless, in a clear message to others that their ability to keep their nationality depended on a measure of political compliance.
By 2011 uprisings were sweeping the Arab world, and Bahrainis gathered on the anniversary of the king’s new constitution to demand an elected parliament and a constitutional monarchy. The government accused them of being Iranian agents seeking an Islamic republic, pouncing on the presence of some Islamists among the protestors. (Later, the government said they were Qatari agents too.)
There were on-off talks about the possibility of government appointments and constitutional reforms, but this stopped for good when Saudi Arabia led a Gulf armed force into Bahrain. Tanks rolled across the causeway and hundreds of people were imprisoned, fired from their jobs, and tortured.
The uprising of 2011 had another lesson for Bahrain’s rulers: while Western countries might deter foreign armies, and cooperate on counterterrorism, they would not necessarily quash internal protest movements.
Since the nineteenth century, the ruling family has relied on the protection of a major Western power against external threats: first the British during its imperial period in the Gulf, and then the U.S., which stations its Fifth Fleet’s naval base in Bahrain. After 2011, Bahrain opted to become more dependent on its bigger neighbors – Saudi and UAE – who were willing and able to protect a fellow monarchy against internal as well as external challenges.
These events, nearly a decade ago, marked a decisive shift in Bahrain’s politics, back to the repressive system seen before the current king came to power.
Today, some Bahraini activists say that they think the normalization agreement with Israel was only possible because the country’s opposition groups, civil society, and relative freedom of speech have been decimated. But Bahrainis still speak out on social media more than their counterparts in UAE and Saudi Arabia.
The Bahraini government shares some of Israel’s concerns about security threats from Iran, but the deeper drivers of insecurity and unrest in Bahrain come from the absence of civil and political rights, for a population that is more politically mobilized and less well-off than most of the others in the Gulf.
As Israel and the UAE embark on a new "strategic agenda" for the region, and as Bahrain seeks to deepen its cooperation with both countries, it would be a mistake to think that security is all about fighting external threats from Iran and ISIS, and staying in the White House’s good books, without addressing the glaring issues at home: rights, justice and the social contract between Gulf governments and the people under their control. Tolerance at home would be a far more credible basis for a real peace between those peoples.
Jane Kinninmont is a political and economic analyst specializing in the Middle East. She has written extensively on civil society and politics in Bahrain. Twitter: @janekinninmont