28.09.2020 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Why Bahrain-Israel Accord may be the Key to the New Middle East?


While the UAE-Israel accord was/is historical in its own sense and triggered forces of ‘normalisation’ in the Middle East, this agreement looked a lot like a result of solo flight of the Emirati political elite because of Saudi refusal to follow suit until the resolution of Israel-Palestine conflict and peace agreement. The UAE-Israel accord was then seen as a part of the UAE’s increasing drive towards assuming the leadership role of the ‘Muslim Ummah.’ However, the Bahrain-Israel accord, while not coming out of the blue at all, does underscore that most of the Gulf-Arab countries are already on-board for peace with Israel, charting a new territory of bi-lateral and multilateral relations. Bahrain, by all standards, is a junior Gulf player and its close dependence on Saudi Arabi indicates that the tiny Gulf kingdom would not have taken such a decision without Saudi blessings.

The ruling elite of Bahrain has been closely depending on Saudi Arabi ever since the latter played a pivotal role in saving the former from an Arab Spring uprising almost a decade ago. Since the uprising, the Bahraini rulers have depended on the threat of military force from Saudi Arabia to keep the country’s Shiite majority in check. Bahrain is, therefore, largely regarded around the region as a dependent client of the Saudi royal court.

The Bahrain-Israel accord is, therefore, very much an enactment of a Saudi scripted play. The physical bridge that connects Bahrain with Saudi territory powerfully symbolizes the direct connection between their domestic and foreign policies.

Although the Saudi kingdom is in no rush to normalize its own relations with Israel, it has already taken some concrete steps that indicate what is to follow: a Saudi-Israel normalisation post King Salman era.

There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia, despite the UAE’s own quest for the leadership role, remains the most important Muslim country. Without winning recognition from the Saudis, Israel will remain a half-accepted country. But the Saudis, as it stands, have already opened up their air space for the Israeli flights, meaning thereby that the doors of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries will also open sooner than later.

Indeed, a lot of groundwork in Saudi Arabia is being done to materialize this goal. As reports in the media show, Saudi social and electronic media have recently begun to increasingly host religious scholars urging equal treatment of Jews or others warming up to better relations with Israel — messages that could not be spread without Prince Mohammed’s consent. This is in addition to how even TV series are being used to spread the new normal. Israel is neither portrayed as an enemy, nor is its very existence challenged.

Although the Saudis still continue to link normalisation with the resolution of Israel-Palestine conflict, what needs to be remembered here is the fact that Bahrain, too, had initially rejected Washington’s quest for diplomatic accord with Israel. Indeed, Mike Pompeo’s visit looked a stark failure when Bahrain’s state media reported its continued support for the ‘Palestinian cause.’ Why this stance has quickly vanished into thin air is rooted in the fact that major Arab states, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, were supporting the Trump administration’s original ‘peace plan’, which involved annexation of Palestinian territory. It was the fear of another massive Arab uprising that prevented these states from fully endorsing the plan and putting further pressure on the Palestinians to accept the plan. This explains why the Arab League, dominated as it is by the Saudis, refused to condemn the Israel-UAE accord in the first place.

The Saudi elite, as it stands, is already largely pro-normalisation. It was, in fact, two years ago when Prince Mohammad said in an interview that normalisation with Israel could be the key to economic development in the region.

What is even more important and what really shows the political thinking of the current Saudi elite is Prince Mohammad’s vision of the Middle East and his tendency to divide it into two categories. The first category consists of the “triangle of evil,” consisting of Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood. The second category consist of a group of ‘moderate Sunni states’, led by Saudia. Israel, as it stands, was/is no longer an ‘evil state’ or even an issue to deal with or a party to a decades-long dispute needing resolution.

What the Bahrain-Israel accord therefore indicates is that normalized relations with Israel is already a new normal in the Middle Eastern political landscape. If the very existence of Israel was an issue until few years ago, the question has already changed fundamentally. For many Gulf-Arab states, therefore, it is only a matter of when and not if they will ever establish direct diplomatic relations with Israel and be able to exchange diplomats as well as state-of-the-art military and technological hardware.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.