Shortly after President Isaac Herzog’s Arkia charter flight took off Monday evening from Abu Dhabi for his journey back to Israel, the plane contacted Saudi air traffic controllers and made its way northeast.
The presidential flight over Saudi Arabian airspace is a tangible sign of the progress Israel has made in a region that rejected overt cooperation for decades. Since the 2020 Abraham Accords normalization agreements, Saudi Arabia has allowed Israeli airlines to use its airspace for flights to and from signatories United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and over the summer announced it would be open its skies to all Israeli commercial flights.
But it’s also a reminder of the barriers the agreements have run up against in the two years since they were signed on the lawn of the White House.
The Saudis have been willing to offer minor gestures like opening their skies, but they are content to sit on the sidelines and observe how Israel’s relationships with Bahrain and the UAE develop before making any drastic moves.
With Israel seemingly unable to expand the Abraham Accords, its relationship with Bahrain will be another reason for Mohammed bin Salman and the rest of the Saudi leadership to keep their cooperation with the Jewish state covert and limited.
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During his trip, Herzog was hoping to use his influence to push the Jerusalem-Manama relationship forward and reinvigorate the accords.
President Isaac Herzog ahead of his visit to Bahrain, December 4, 2022 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
The benefits of peace
For those watching closely, it’s an open secret that there is reason for concern about the trajectory of Israel-Bahrain ties. While Israeli headlines tell of comfortable and joyous encounters between Israelis and Arabs in the Gulf, the data shows a worrying and unmistakable trend: As time goes on, the Abraham Accords are becoming less popular on the streets of Israel’s new allies.
Washington Institute polling showed 45 percent of Bahrainis holding very or somewhat positive views of the agreements in November 2020. That support had steadily eroded to a paltry 20% by March of this year. Trends are similar in the UAE.
Despite the robed honor guards on white horses, signs that Bahraini officials, like their people, aren’t thrilled with the first two years of the partnership with Israel were hiding in plain sight during Herzog’s first trip to the island kingdom.
Both Israel and Bahrain see Iran as their main threat. “Bahrain is extremely hawkish toward Iran. It is far more unequivocal than the UAE,” said Moran Zaga, an expert on the Gulf region at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.
The threat from Tehran was a major focus of the Manama Dialogue security conference last month, he said. But surprisingly, during Herzog’s visit, none of the Bahraini royals even mentioned their foremost rivals in their prepared statements. Instead, they wanted to talk about expanding the trade relationship.
Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saudi, left and Bahrain FM al-Zayani, at the IISS Manama Dialogue, December 6, 2020 (screen shot IISS)
Responding to a question from The Times of Israel about slumping public support, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdul Latif Al Zayani spoke surprisingly openly.
“Many people are anxious to see the benefits of peace,” he said, “and therefore we should look at it as an opportunity whereby we work together, and that’s the main objective of having the warm peace strategy.”
“It’s not incumbent on Bahrain alone to show the benefits of the Abraham Accords,” he continued in a seeming rebuke of Israel, “but is incumbent on all of us.”
Al Zayani said it was crucial to create tangible results for Bahrain’s public: “In any process, you are going to have supporters, and you need to make them confident that they have supported the right thing… There are also skeptics who we need to show them the benefit of the Abraham Accords.”
The more guarded King Hamad only hinted at the need to improve ties, saying that Herzog’s visit could play an important role in “consolidating relations between our two countries.”
Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdul Lateef Rashid Al Zayani speaks to journalists in Manama on December 4, 2022. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
A source close to the Bahraini government told The Times of Israel that Manama wants to see Israeli investment in the kingdom, not just have Israelis show up to raise Gulf funding for their projects back home.
Looking at its neighbors, Bahrain feels at a disadvantage. It is far behind the UAE and Qatar economically, and has not been able to turn itself into a global economic force. “At best, its a financial hub for the Arab world,” said Zaga. “That’s where it’s gotten stuck, and it hasn’t been able to create any tools beyond that to attract trade, tourism and investments.”
Israeli officials, including Herzog, seem aware of the need to help the Bahrainis show results.
In an article in Bahraini daily Al Ayam and in The Times of Israel, Herzog wrote that he and his Bahrain interlocutors would be “making sure the benefits of regional friendly relations reach each and every Israeli and Bahraini.”
Speaking to Israeli journalists in Abu Dhabi on the second day of his trip, Herzog emphasized that Bahrain and Israel “want to upgrade the agreements and are working to add more countries.”
In a possible message to the incoming Netanyahu government, Herzog said that “this requires Israel’s leadership to understand that this challenge continues.” And in a message likely meant to allay concerns in Manama and Abu Dhabi, Herzog went out of his way to note that “there is great importance to the Abraham Accords.”
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (C-R) walks alongside his Bahraini counterpart Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani during the Negev summit in Sde Boker on March 28, 2022. (Jacquelyn MARTIN / POOL / AFP)
But for the time being, an official in Herzog’s entourage said that Bahrain feels like “the UAE’s little sister” in the Abraham Accords.
Improving the relationship will take a “government effort to move in a direction of more regional cooperation with more countries,” the official said, while lamenting the fact that there has not been much tourism to Israel from Bahrain, and not enough in the other direction either.
Meeting with Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed at his home in Abu Dhabi, Herzog sought to reassure the UAE’s de facto ruler as well. “The Abraham Accords are a national consensus in the State of Israel,” he said, “for all parties and for all factions of Israeli politics.”
“After two years of the Abraham Accords, when we took off so beautifully, now we need to reach cruising altitude, meaning upgrading the relationship even further, strengthening it and bringing more nations on board,” the president continued.
Quick action by the king
Herzog made sure to bring a robust economic delegation with him, representing organizations that include Israel’s Innovation Authority, Start-Up Nation Central, Manufacturer’s Association, and Export Institute.
“We want to promote more Israeli exports to Bahrain, more economic collaboration and cooperation between Israeli industrial companies and Bahraini companies,” Nir Deutsch, director of foreign trade and international affairs at the Manufacturers Association, told The Times of Israel.
Deutsch and Association President Ron Tomer met with Bahrain’s youth minister on an exchange of trade school delegations, and along with the rest of the business leaders on the trip participated in the Bahrain Economic Development Board, hosted by Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad.
“The first thing on our agenda is to promote trade between the countries,” said Deutsch. “It could also help beyond Bahrain because of its location as a gateway to other main Gulf countries.”
President Isaac Herzog (L) meets with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa (R) at the Al-Qudaibiya Palace in Manama, Bahrain, December 4, 2022. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
Deutsch stressed the importance of concluding a free trade agreement between the countries — as Israel has done with the UAE — in order to ease investment in both directions.
He said that the officials and business leaders he met in Manama showed a “real desire to enhance economic relationship between the countries.” Deutsch’s account of the trip is supported by the action’s of Bahrain’s top leadership.
King Hamad asked Amir Shani, vice president of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, what he could do to enhance bilateral trade. Shani said that there needed to be daily direct flights between the countries.
Hours later, at the Economic Development Board event, Bahrain announced that within weeks there would be five weekly direct flights, and that number would reach seven in the coming months.
Signs of hope?
While Israel works to allay Bahraini concerns, and while the Saudis observe from the sidelines, there were signs of a possible breakthrough on another, more unlikely front.
The UAE’s bin Zayed postponed his meeting with Herzog to make his first visit to Qatar since January 2021, when a Saudi-led boycott of the gas-rich peninsula that started in June 2017 finally came to an end.
Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, right, greats UAE president Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, upon his arrival at the Hamad airport in Doha, Qatar, December 5, 2022. (Qatar Amiri Diwan via AP)
The visit, on the invitation of Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, built on “the existing brotherly relations between the two nations and their people,” the UAE’s official WAM news agency said.
From Doha, bin Zayed headed directly home to meet with Herzog.
Qatar is generally vocal in its harsh criticism of Israel, but has been willing to maintain a variety of contacts with the Jewish state.
Shortly before the World Cup kicked off in Doha, Israel and Qatar came to an agreement that would allow for direct charter flights from Tel Aviv, as well as an Israeli diplomatic presence in the country during the tournament.
Jerusalem also engages with Doha to grant permissions for the distribution of Qatari aid in the Gaza Strip, but details on such contacts are rarely publicly confirmed.
Qatar hosted an Israeli trade office from 1995 to 2000, but has been seen as unlikely to join other Gulf states in establishing full ties with Israel due to its own relationship to Iran. But given the recent agreement between the two countries, observers could not help but to take note of MBZ flying to Doha hours before hosting Herzog.
“He could get on his plane on any other day,” mused Zaga. “Why specifically on the day he’s meeting Herzog? There are no coincidences like that in the Gulf.”