By: Yahya AlHadid, Chairman of Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights- GIDHR
When then-U.S. President Donald Trump broke the news on his Twitter account—”our two GREAT friends Israel and the Kingdom of Bahrain agree to a Peace Deal”—it seemed right away that, for Bahrain, the purpose of joining the Abraham Accords was less about Israel and more about the United States. In becoming the second Arab nation to recognize Israel in less than a month in September 2020, following the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain saw normalization as a way of strengthening its already close relations with the U.S. and its position in Washington, especially among the pro-Israel community, in order to bolster American support for Bahrain and deflect criticism of the kingdom’s human rights record.
The Bahraini government still saw benefits from Israel, including Israel’s more advanced security and intelligence capabilities, starting with its Pegasus spyware, which Bahrain has used against dissidents and political activists that it regards as internal threats to the monarchy. As Bahrain’s interior minister said in a revealing statement when the Abraham Accords were signed—since he usually doesn’t comment on foreign policy—normalization with Israel was also aimed at protecting Bahrain’s “internal security” from the ongoing “danger” of Iran in the region.
Yet a year and a half later, it is clear that Bahrain, like the UAE, didn’t have its own citizens in mind when it normalized relations with Israel. For all the public relations around the Abraham Accords, normalization is not, for example, opening the doors of Israel’s universities or research laboratories to Bahrainis and other Gulf citizens. The promise of “people-to-people” ties was spin used to sell a deal between authoritarian regimes in the Gulf and an apartheid government in Israel.
The ruling regimes in the Gulf know perfectly well the limitations of these normalization agreements. But they have other goals in mind.
The Bahraini regime is one of the weakest in the Gulf. It tends to conform to Saudi and Emirati policies, or even demands. Take the joint blockade of Qatar by its neighbors starting in 2017. Bahrain had no stakes in the standoff, but it was used by the Saudis and Emiratis as a spearhead in their dispute with Qatar. More recently, last November, Bahrain publicly urged its citizens to leave Lebanon and banned all Lebanese imports after Saudi Arabia did the same and withdrew its ambassador, amid a dispute with Lebanon over comments by a Lebanese minister who criticized the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Normalization with Israel falls into this pattern. Bahrain would not have normalized relations with Israel if the Saudis and Emiratis hadn’t already come to a consensus about it first.
On the other side, Israel is clearly the biggest beneficiary of the Abraham Accords. It has new, oil-rich markets for its arms industry, in Gulf states with huge budgets for buying weapons. Israel’s military is deepening its cooperation with the militaries of Bahrain and the UAE, under the umbrella of the United States. All four countries held their first publicly acknowledged naval exercise last November, in the Red Sea. And with the international support of more Arab governments with which it has normalized relations, Israel can further undercut regional support for the Palestinians. An American official who helped broker the Abraham Accords has even admitted that their entire aim was to isolate the Palestinians—to put them “on an island.”
Of course, Bahrain’s not-so-secret relationship with Israel predates the Abraham Accords. In a meeting with the U.S. ambassador to Manama back in February 2005, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa confirmed the existence of Bahrain’s contacts with Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. The king also hinted at Bahrain’s readiness to further its relations with Israel in other areas, but admitted that “it will be difficult for Bahrain to be the first.” In 2017, the king let it be known that he opposed Arab boycotts of Israel and wanted Bahrainis to be able to travel there freely, despite the lack of diplomatic relations.
Ties between Bahrain and Israel then went more public in 2019, when six Israeli media outlets received official invitations to Bahrain to cover the so-called peace conference organized by the Trump administration, under the banner of “Peace to Prosperity.” In May 2020, Bahraini authorities shut down the livestream of a webinar organized by the Bahraini Democratic Youth Society criticizing the prospects of Gulf normalization with Israel, only minutes after it had begun.
So Bahrain’s move to fully normalize relations with Israel was hardly a surprise. But while it was widely telegraphed by Bahrain’s government, Bahrainis themselves were largely against normalization—and remain so today. Many Bahraini elites, religious scholars, political associations and civil society organizations categorically rejected the idea of normalization. Many Bahrainis took to the streets to protest peacefully after the Abraham Accords were unveiled, showing their solidarity with the Palestinians and opposition to Israel’s occupation, and condemning the Bahraini government’s “betrayal” of the Palestinian cause. Bahrain’s security forces responded with excessive force. The authorities then prosecuted citizens who participated in those demonstrations. Yet protests have continued, including last fall when Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited Bahrain to open Israel’s first embassy in Manama.
While Bahrainis themselves are still defiant, and continue to voice their opposition to normalizing with Israel, the kingdom’s rulers remain subordinate to its neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, following its lead and seemingly waiting for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s latest directive. But the Bahraini government is further undermining its own legitimacy by ignoring its own people, in a country where civil society has supported the Palestinians for decades, and where public opposition to normalization was clear long before the Abraham Accords.