Thursday, 4th July 2019

Bahrain ‘workshop’ consolidates Trump ties, alienates Arab Street

Bahrain basked in a return to international prominence, as Manama hosted the 25-26 June Peace to Prosperity conference – the ‘economic workshop’ organised by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner as a first public step towards delivering US President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (GSN 1,082/5). So often overlooked as the smallest part of the GCC-3 alliance alongside its bigger neighbours Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Bahrain claimed to be playing a significant role in pursuing a major international relations goal. But for all the hype, the event was far from a diplomatic success.

As noted by its many detractors, the conference featured virtually no Palestinians, as the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) and besieged Gaza-based Hamas both boycotted it. The organisers did not invite Israeli government representatives either – a result, they said, of the PA’s boycott. Peace to Prosperity did attract some heavy-hitters, many of them undertaking a precarious balancing act by pointing out obvious truths while trying not to offend their hosts. International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde, for example, highlighted the need for free movement of goods, people and capital within the West Bank and Gaza as the “right conditions” to set up future prosperity.

Coming from a New York property developer dynasty like his father-in-law, Kushner seems to think money alone can provide a solution to the decades-long impasse. But without a political element there is in reality little to discuss. In his proposals, Kushner made no mention of a Palestinian state while calling for $50bn of investment over ten years, much of it to come from Gulf allies. The US has failed to acknowledge that the ‘Arab Street’ and swathes of international opinion see no merit in what looks like an imposed buy-out solution.

In response to the summit, protestors took to the streets in several countries, including Morocco, whose King Mohammed VI was said to have been embarrassed when Kushner recently turned up to share an Iftar supper and talk through his proposals. ‘M6’ and his late father, King Hassan II, have long supported the Palestinian cause (and still chair the Arab League’s Al-Qods Committee). There were demonstrations elsewhere, including Iraq and Jordan, whose King Abdullah II is under pressure to balance US demands with popular opposition to the ‘deal’.

In the GCC-3 countries, there are different calculations. The Saudi and UAE leaderships can usually act with impunity at home. Similarly, Bahrain’s minority Sunni leadership has cracked down on the majority Shia’s political aspirations while ignoring the stream of criticism from international human rights groups; the Al-Khalifa know that, when the going gets tough, they can look to their allies for another financial or military bail-out. The Khashoggi affair showed there may be limits to acting with impunity abroad, but Trump’s instinct to stand four-square behind Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) over the murder in Istanbul has given GCC-3 leaders the confidence this White House will not abandon them like Barack Obama’s administration dropped Egypt’s then-president Hosni Mubarak. With shared friends and security interests, Saudi and UAE relations with Israel have intensified and become more public. The former taboo of dealing with Jerusalem has been set aside, at least by MBS and some other younger generation leaders (GSN 1,065/1). However, there are signs the Gulf-Israel rapprochement may have peaked. Last year King Salman Bin Abdelaziz moved to limit MBS’s Israeli outreach, when the monarch voiced his opposition to the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and insisted any peace process should be based on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative promoted by Riyadh. In June, another key Trump ally, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, said he would not accept any deal that ran contrary to Palestinian wishes.

Arab leaders may still need to heed public opinion, even when it diverges from their own views. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) observed that in Bahrain many senior leaders from participating Arab states made sure to publicly declare their “unyielding commitment” to the Arab Peace Initiative, despite Trump’s efforts to shift them. “Such statements were issued even by Arab governments who, before the US recognition of Jerusalem… seemed willing to support Trump’s efforts to coerce the Palestinian Liberation Organization to accept considerably less than the Arab Peace Initiative stipulates,” the ICG said. A weakened Palestinian polity was still able to prevent an Arab-Israeli summit in the Gulf.

For now, the GCC-3/Trump/Netanyahu alliance will hold steady. But Gulf rulers will do more than feign the usual disinterest when Israelis go to the polls again on 17 September; after Netanyahu was unable to form a new coalition government, Bibi’s political future is again in question. And they will be looking on with even more than their usual intense interest as the 2020 US presidential election comes into view.

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