The Israel-Bahrain mutual recognition agreement is clearly a win for the pro-Israel lobby, Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump, but it is not the game-changing move that Trump called “an historic breakthrough to further peace in the Middle East” on Friday. What’s more, opposition to the deal among the Bahraini public is likely to be significant, and could at some stage lead to a backlash against the deal.
The Bahrain agreement itself is clearly less important than last month’s Israel/United Arab Emirates recognition deal. Bahrain only has 1.5 million people, and has for years had a friendly if informal relationship with Israel. The big U.S. naval base there, home port to the Fifth Fleet, also shows that the island nation’s ruling royal family is hardly hostile to the west.
Still, mainstream U.S. press accounts that explain that Bahrain’s royal family would not come to formal agreement with Israel without the tacit approval of Saudi Arabia are almost certainly correct. And an eventual Israel/Saudi normalization would absolutely be significant, and strike a blow at Palestinian hopes.
The New York Times analysis, by David D. Kirkpatrick, hinted at a potential anti-deal backlash inside Bahrain when he noted how Saudi Arabia had invaded the island nation in 2011 to suppress a pro-democracy uprising at the start of the Arab Spring. Kirkpatrick pointed out that Bahrain
lost much of its autonomy nearly a decade ago, when its rulers turned to their neighbor Saudi Arabia to save them from an Arab Spring uprising threatening their power.
Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University (he also appears on social media as @abuaardvark), described the uprising in Bahrain and the Saudi invasion in his excellent book, The New Arab Wars. Lynch explained that the movement started in February 2011, and that “within weeks, more than half the country’s citizens had joined the protests.” He added that even though most of the protesters were from the country’s Shia’ majority (the ruling royal family is Sunni), their “slogans focused on democracy and human rights rather than on sectarian concerns.”
Then, the Bahraini royal family invited Saudi troops to roll across the 15.5-mile causeway into the island nation to put down the pro-democracy uprising. Lynch concluded:
Blocking popular mobilization came at a horrifying cost, one which could alienate a majority of the population for a generation and radically circumscribe the legitimate base of an already shaky regime.
The U.S. mainstream press accounts of the Israel-Bahrain agreement mostly ignored this history. Leave it to the Israeli daily, Haaretz, to report on the hostile reaction among some of Bahrain’s public to the deal. Haaretz said that “Bahrain’s opposition umbrella group, the al-Wefaq political association, condemned the move and called it ‘betrayal.'” The paper explained that al-Wefaq “is illegal in Bahrain, but is very influential there.”
Of course, there’s no shortage of regimes in the Mideast that ignore what their citizens actually want. But the U.S., Israel, (and others) could be making an even bigger miscalculation: assuming that the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, the murderous Crown Prince Mohammed, will stay in power indefinitely. He does openly favor the overtures to Israel, but it’s doubtful his view is unanimous among the Saudi elite. Prince Mohammed is continually impulsive and erratic; this March, in a fit of pique he caused the world oil price to drop 20 percent overnight. The Saudi royal family and political system are notoriously opaque, but the Saudis have deposed their rulers in the past. Anyone who is betting on Prince Mohammed better have a fall-back plan.