Pompeo arrives in Bahrain for next leg of Middle East charm offensive

US secretary of state expected to try and push for normalization between Jerusalem and Manama, and for Bahrain to play role in warming ties with Saudi Arabia

Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani (R) hosts US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Manama on August 25, 2020. (Twitter)
Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani (R) hosts US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Manama on August 25, 2020. (Twitter)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Bahrain Tuesday on a Middle East trip aimed at forging further ties between Israel and the Arab world after a landmark US-brokered deal with the United Arab Emirates.

Manama is the third leg of the tour that has already taken in Jerusalem and Khartoum. It is due to end in the United Arab Emirates, which earlier this month became the third Arab country to agree to normalize relations with the Jewish state.

Pompeo has said he is hopeful other nations will follow suit, despite criticism of the deal from some parts of the Arab world.

Sudan on Tuesday also dashed US hopes for a speedy breakthrough, saying its transitional government, which replaced ousted strongman Omar al-Bashir last year and is set to rule until elections in 2022, has “no mandate” to take such a weighty step.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bump elbows, ahead of making a joint statement to the press after meeting in Jerusalem, on August 24, 2020. (DEBBIE HILL / POOL / AFP)

Manama, whose contacts with Israel date back to the 1990s, was the first Gulf country to welcome the UAE move and is considered a front-runner to follow in its footsteps.

Like most Gulf countries, Bahrain shares with the Jewish state a common enemy in Iran, which Manama accuses of instigating protests by the nation’s Shiite Muslim community against the ruling Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty.

Ronit Katz (L) and then-Foreign Minister Israel Katz (C) with Foreign Minister of Bahrain Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa (R) on July 22, 2019. (Twitter)

Bahrain — a close ally of regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia — is seen as unlikely to establish official relations with Israel without Riyadh’s blessing, but it could play an important intermediary role.

“While Saudi Arabia cannot directly normalize relations amid a stalemate in the peace process, Bahrain could become a hub for Saudi-Israeli exchange,” Andreas Krieg of King’s College London told AFP.

Saudi Arabia, while not condemning the UAE-Israel deal, has refused to normalize ties until Israel signs an internationally recognized peace accord with the Palestinians.

Not only would a formal recognition of Israel be seen by Palestinians and their supporters as a betrayal of their cause, it could also hurt the kingdom’s image as the leader of the Islamic world.

The Palestinian leadership has derided the UAE’s move as a “stab in the back.”

While in Bahrain, Pompeo will meet Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa before talks with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan on the next leg of the tour.

On Tuesday, the US chief diplomat spoke by phone with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, who is seen as the driving force behind the Israel agreement.

The two discussed the historic deal “and the prospects for strengthening it in a way that serves the foundations of peace and stability in the region,” the official Emirati news agency WAM said.

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