16.10.2020 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Bahrain in the Wake of US and Israeli Policies


Bahrain, a small emirate located in the Persian Gulf, became the next country following the UAE to establish peaceful relations with Israel, after heavy pressure from the US. Of course, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa called this step a “historic achievement” designed to serve not only the interests of his kingdom, but also to help establish peace in this turbulent region of the world. The King and his Sunni courtiers were not at all disturbed by the fact that most of the Islamic world viewed this document as a colossal betrayal of the Arab people in Palestine, and many other Arab nationalities. Bahraini residents (up to 80% of them are Shiites who actively oppose the rule of the country’s Sunni minority) also disagree with the authorities in assessing what happened: 17 civic movements simultaneously issued a joint statement that “rapprochement will not bring peace, and the people do not support it”.

It is noteworthy that the journalists who were present when the agreement was signed in Washington later wrote that the Bahraini delegation, up until the very last moment, was not even aware of the content of the document, and ascertained its details with US officials literally just minutes before signing it. In other words, the Bahraini rulers, in essence, signed the treaty “with their eyes closed”, and this clearly confirms the version put forth that the King of Bahrain took this step after getting the “green light” from his “elder Saudi sister”, and the pressure from the United States.

This cannot help but bring to mind 1871, when the powerful British Empire imposed the status of a protectorate on the tiny emirate, but in reality turned it into its next colony. Back then this British resident in the Persian Gulf, after visiting Bahrain, simply slipped a blank sheet of paper to the emir, which he was then forced to sign. And what else could the Arab do when a British warship was anchored abeam off Manama, with its cannons aimed at the city? It just seems like some kind of “déjà vu”, with a time difference of 150 years, which points to a paucity of methods used by Western diplomacy. This is just the time period since when the rulers of the emirate have unquestioningly followed in the wake of first British politics, and now those espoused by the United States and Saudi Arabia. It is not by chance that it is in Manama where the headquarters of the United States Fifth Fleet is located, so that the Bahraini people will be thrown into the flames of destruction if there is any military conflict in the Persian Gulf unleashed by their rampaging rulers in Washington.

The lion’s share of Israeli PR surrounding the agreement to normalize relations with Bahrain is devoted to the fact that the tiny emirate is still home to a small Jewish diaspora, along with other communities. Proceeding from this fact, and not having sufficient information, many felt that Bahrain is an unusually tolerant and “democratic” country. However, unfortunately that is wrong.  Yes, on one hand, Bahrain has a long history of ethnic diversity, and is a tolerant and friendly destination for many migrant workers and tourists. But it is also a repressive state, and one where over the past decade all opposition parties have been either banned or had their leaders imprisoned, and many dissidents have been tortured, deported, or stripped of their citizenship. As far as “tolerance” goes, Bahrain’s politics have deeply sectarian overtones, since the ruling Khalifa family is made up of Sunni Arabs, while the majority of the population is Shiite that feels like second-class citizens in their own country. This also applies to the allocation of government posts, appointments to officer positions in the army and law enforcement agencies, access to education, salaries for equal work performed, and the fact that Shiite organizations and parties are prohibited.

But the matter is not just the religious connotations among the local population: power and wealth are concentrated only in the hands of the ruling family, not the Sunni community as a whole, and the government, made up mostly of those who represent the Khalifa family, suppresses any visible signs of opposition from both Sunnis and Shiites. Insulting members of the government, for example, is a serious crime in Bahrain, and many Bahrainis have been jailed for “crimes” as trivial as criticizing Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated intervention in Yemen on Twitter, or calls for the downfall of former Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir. That is why the Bahraini people could face penalties for criticizing the agreement to normalize relations with Israel.  And that is why many of them took to social media to vent their protests, using the hashtag #Bahrainis_Against_Normalization. In addition, sympathy for the Palestinians is so strong that the rulers of the emirate, including the king, have been sharply criticized by many Bahrainis.

Shiite opposition groups express particular sympathy for the Palestinians because, despite the many differences between these actions of protest, they believe that both peoples are engaged in a struggle for rights against a system involving ethnic discrimination, and believe that many political measures are geared toward incentivizing them to emigrate. One activist that has spoken out in foreign media outlets wrote that Bahraini Shiites, in some ways, “really feel like Palestinians”.  However, there is also a long history of Palestinian solidarity with the Sunni Arabs in the emirate. Some Bahrainis, who usually toe the government’s line, including Sunnis that help form public opinion, spoke out against the UAE’s agreement with Israel, but then completely – and understandably – fell silent when their own government followed suit on instructions from the US.   Nevertheless, 17 Bahraini civic associations issued a statement opposing Bahrain’s agreement to normalize relations with what they call “a Zionist enemy” and “a usurping Zionist entity”, describing it as a violation of the country’s popular consensus and the kingdom’s own legislation, which criminalizes the normalization of relations. They also firmly stated that the Bahraini people will side with the Palestinians until they gain independence, with their capital in Jerusalem, and refugees are granted the right to return.

Public reaction in Bahrain stands in stark contrast to how the deal was welcomed in Israel. This is partially because very different perceptions exist among the Bahrainis, Israelis, and Palestinians about what is at stake. For those in Israel and the United States who believed that the Arabs in the hated Israel because of prejudice, or anti-Semitism, the agreements seemed to represent a much-needed shift from ancient ethnic hatreds to fostering peace among peoples. This narrative was deliberately prompted by the Trump administration’s actions to promote the UAE and Bahraini agreements as “the Abraham Accords”, inflating them to the status of a historical breakthrough between world religious faiths. Of course, “powerful images” such as the UAE’s Chief Rabbi blowing the shofar in Dubai on Rosh Hashanah were supposed to bring both hope and relief to many.

But the objections to normalization are more focused on politics than on religion. Since 2002, Bahrain has been formally committed to the Arab Peace Initiative, in which all 22 members of the League of Arab States have proposed normalizing relations with Israel solely as a means to end the occupation and achieve a two-state solution, with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.

At least the UAE announced that it has demanded a de jure end to the annexation of the West Bank, something threatened by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and which he now quietly continues to pursue. Bahrain has seemingly not yet made any gesture regarding the protection of Palestinians’ legitimate rights, since no Bahraini ruler has made any commitment to move towards resolving the Palestinian issue and Israeli occupation, trying to handle the process of gradual de facto annexation, or rule out de jure Israeli annexation at a later stage.

Quite the contrary, both countries – the UAE and Bahrain – have preferred to sign various agreements with a country whose prime minister has repeatedly stated that under no circumstances does he support a Palestinian state. On top of this, these Arab ministers signed the agreements in the presence of US President Donald Trump, whose administration refuses to even talk with the Palestinians.  However, the US president has mollified the “undemocratic leaders” in the Gulf states (or deflected their token concerns about the Palestinians) by solicitously downplaying their own human rights issues, ranging from the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi two years ago to more widescale repressions carried out in the region. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump is not very popular among society in the Persian Gulf. Many Arabs are perturbed when he contemptuously speaks of leaders in Persian Gulf countries – for example, when he declared that the Saudi monarchy would not last two weeks without US military support, or that OPEC countries rob the world blind and then brag about the huge sums they spend on American weapons. Many in the Gulf would prefer that these resources be redirected toward education, healthcare, and other social needs in their home countries.

It is quite understandable that the plans the Bahraini government had were influenced by the interests of Saudi Arabia and the UAE; the latter is a major donor to the emirate, which has little oil and whose debt is increasing continuously. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman actively encouraged this step as a trial balloon, evidently before signing an agreement with Israel himself.  In this context, Bahraini critics of the accords see them as representing reinforced cooperation between two repressive governments, which inevitably leads to even more intense pressure to clamp down on dissent.  They are concerned that their government appears to be more interested in securing US support than in reflecting Bahraini public opinion. And they fear that expanding cooperation in the field of security will be channeled only against Iran and DAESH (a terrorist organization banned in the Russian Federation), but will also allow regional governments to bolster their capabilities to quash dissidents and human rights advocates.

Viktor Mikhin, a corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.