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Why Gulf nations are normalizing ties with Israel

Bahrain is the latest Arab nation to recognize Israel

- September 24, 2020

On Sept. 11, the Kingdom of Bahrain became the fourth Arab nation to formally normalize relations with Israel. The plan resembles the mid-August announcement by the United Arab Emirates and Israel: the complete normalization of diplomatic, commercial, security and other relations between the respective parties, without any Israeli movement toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Supporters of the Emirati and Bahraini moves say these are landmark steps toward peace in the broader Middle East. My research suggests these moves instead reflect the new regional order that has emerged since the 2011 Arab Spring. Nearly a decade later, a shared interest in containing the power of external adversaries, particularly Iran, is the likely driver of these new rapprochements. Formalized relations with Israel may also help Gulf nations garner bipartisan favor with the United States.

But the new ties — and the U.S. approval — will also allow autocratic regimes even more of a green light to repress domestic challenges, with less chance of international pressure.

Israel’s regional ties have increased steadily

Ties between Israel, Bahrain and the UAE have been growing for quite some time. Even before the inception of formal relations, Israel and many Gulf Arab states had engaged in functional cooperation, particularly concerning matters of security, and have participated in increasingly public high-level meetings on shared regional concerns.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE, post-2013 Egypt, Bahrain and Israel are working together to dominate the regional balance of power. This “Counterrevolutionary Bloc” (CRB) is opposed to the two other ad hoc regional alliances that have emerged: Qatar and Turkey, both of which have both sought greater independence in their foreign policy by supporting elements of popular uprisings elsewhere in the region; and Iran and its regional proxies/allies, which have also sought to benefit from the region’s upheaval.

For Israel and Bahrain, the greatest point of convergence has been their shared agenda concerning Iran. Bahrain’s Sunni Al-Khalifa monarchy — which rules over a Shi’a majority that has historically been barred from political power — regularly accuses Iran of meddling in its internal affairs and attempting to manipulate segments of the Shi’a population to overthrow the regime. Israel also has a shared interest in maintaining the Sunni-dominated status quo in Bahrain — they fear any move toward Shiite inclusion could push Bahrain toward becoming an Iranian ally or satellite.

What’s in it for Bahrain?

The ruling Sunni Al-Khalifa family rules over a majority Shi’a population. Following the eruption of mass mobilizations within Bahrain in 2011 against the Al-Khalifa family, the government portrayed these protests as inspired by Iran and led by Iranian agents.

This strategy served two purposes. First, it sought to scare off Sunni protesters, and tamp down on unified opposition to the Al-Khalifa family — discouraging protesters who adopted the slogan “not Sunni, not Shi’a, just Bahraini” in the early weeks of protest in 2011.

Second, casting Iran as the perpetrator of the upheaval would garner external approval for the government cracking down on the protests — blaming Iran helped portray Bahrain’s ruling family as a buffer against Iranian expansionism. In formalizing relations with Israel, the Al-Khalifa family has acquired a powerful, influential ally in its fight against domestic opposition.

Outside the Al-Khalifa family, the party with the most interest in maintaining the status quo within Bahrain is Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, of course, has its own concerns about Iran’s power in the region. Riyadh also has great interest in preventing the emergence of political liberalization that would challenge the legitimacy of the ruling al-Saud monarchy, including demands for change from its own repressed Shi’a minority.

Therefore, normalization between Bahrain and Israel also serves to advance Saudi security interests. Saudi Arabia is also gauging the prospects of normalization with Israel but remains wary of jeopardizing its religio-political legitimacy, which is built upon the manufactured Islamic credentials of the ruling family. For now, Saudi Arabia appears content to reap the benefits of normalization between its allies and Israel. However, new reports suggest there may be a rift between Saudi’s King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is eager to formally join forces with Israel while the king remains wary of such moves.

What about the Palestinians?

The announcement of this deal also comes at a critical time for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. His government has also witnessed large protests calling for Netanyahu’s resignation in the wake of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and continued allegations of corruption. Procuring formal recognition from two Arab states without making concessions to the Palestinians represents a significant political win for an embattled Netanyahu.

The issue of Palestine had traditionally been a point of contention in the efforts to normalize relations between Tel Aviv and the Arab Gulf states. But in the new regional context, scholars argue, Palestine has largely faded from the concerns of ruling elites.

Bahrain, Israel and the other CRB countries have pushed this normalization despite popular opposition to the move, particularly in Bahrain. Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim, Bahrain’s top Shi’a cleric, rejected the normalization in a statement published by the dissolved Bahraini opposition party, al-Wefaq. This is in addition to statements denouncing the move from a broad array of Bahraini political and civil society associations from across the political spectrum, including several leftist, nationalist and liberal groups.

This latest rapprochement, then, is not so much an organic, bottom-up normalization between Israel and Arab publics. Instead, it’s a top-down decision, with little regard for popular opinion or the objections of the Palestinians.

Editor’s note: An earlier version mischaracterized Bahrain’s Shi’a population. We regret the editing error.

Jonathan Hoffman is a political science PhD student at George Mason University. His research focuses on political Islam and geopolitical competition in the Middle East. Find him on Twitter: @Hoffman8Jon.