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Saudi Arabia, key backer of Bahrain, silent on deal but likely approved it

Riyadh seen unlikely to follow Abu Dhabi and Manama in normalizing ties with Israel for now

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on September 18, 2019. (Mandel Ngan/Pool Photo via AP)
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on September 18, 2019. (Mandel Ngan/Pool Photo via AP)

Regional power player Saudi Arabia remained noticeably silent following Friday’s announcement of a normalization agreement between Israel and Bahrain.

Bahrain is seen as a client state of its neighbor and close ally Saudi Arabia, and the tiny Gulf state is not likely to have moved forward with normalization without approval from Riyadh.

Friday’s agreement, and other recent developments, including Saudi Arabia opening its airspace to Israel, suggest Jerusalem and Riyadh may be inching toward warmer relations, but an agreement is likely not coming soon.

The New York Times late on Friday quoted unnamed Trump administration officials who have been pushing the Saudis to recognize Israel saying that this possibility remains remote at best for now.

Opening official ties with Saudi Arabia would be a historic achievement for Israel, and mark a significant shift in the region. The Saudis have remained non-committal, however, despite support for normalization from Washington and shared interests with Israel.

No Saudi officials were known to have commented publicly on the Israel-Bahrain agreement as of Friday night.

Bahrain is the second Gulf state to announce a normalization deal in the space of a month, following in the footsteps of its neighbor the United Arab Emirates. Jordan and Egypt are the only other Arab states to maintain official ties with Israel.

Like the UAE agreement, Friday’s Bahrain-Israel deal will normalize diplomatic, commercial, security and other relations between the two countries.

A Bahraini protester faces tear gas during clashes with riot police following a protest against the arrest of the head of the banned Shiite opposition movement Al-Wefaq, Sheikh Ali Salman (on the poster) on January 1, 2015, in Bilad al-Qadeem, a suburb of Manama. (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH)

Saudi Arabia, Israel, the UAE and Bahrain share Iran as a common foe and maintain close ties to Washington. Bahrain accuses Iran of instigating protests by the nation’s Shiite Muslim community, which makes up the majority of its population, against the ruling Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty.

Bahrain relied on a Saudi-led military intervention to crush domestic unrest during the Arab Spring, and leans on Saudi Arabia, and other countries, for financial support as it struggles with debts.

When White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, who helped broker the Israel-UAE agreement, visited Saudi Arabia and Bahrain earlier this month, Bahrain’s king said his country would only move forward with normalization in concert with Saudi Arabia, and that stability in the region relied on Riyadh.

The Saudis said at the time that they would not go forward with a deal.

This combination of pictures shows (L) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairing the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020, and (R) King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, speaking with another delegate during the 40th Gulf Cooperation Council summit held at the Saudi capital Riyadh on December 10, 2019. (Ronen Zvulun and Fayez Nureldine/Various Sources/AFP)

In what was seen as a significant step forward, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, allowed Israeli planes to fly through their airspace last month.

On August 31, an Israeli El Al jet flew for the first time over Saudi Arabia to the UAE carrying a US-Israeli delegation led by Kushner to mark Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem agreeing to formalize their long-secret ties.

Kushner said on Thursday that Saudi airspace was now open to all Israeli flights, to and from the east.

Israel’s Intelligence Ministry said in a report earlier this month that Riyadh’s security concerns closely align with Jerusalem’s, paving the way for cooperation.

“The kingdom’s network of threats largely overlap with Israel’s network of threats, which may serve as the basis for military and intelligence cooperation in a bilateral framework or as part of regional alliances,” the report said.

At the civilian level, the Saudi “Vision 2030” program outlining the country’s long-term goals, including the hope of diversifying the Saudi economy, presents “opportunities in the areas of technology exports, trade channel development, and cooperation in energy and electricity, agriculture, food and water, aviation, tourism and employment,” according to the report.

The “moderate and quiet rapprochement” between Israel and Saudi Arabia that has taken place over recent years was made possible by political and economic changes in the world, among them the election of US President Donald Trump; the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal; fluctuating oil prices; wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen; the decreasing importance of the Palestinian question; and the rise of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the ministry’s researchers posited.

Despite its apparent tacit support for the Israel-Bahrain agreement, Saudi Arabia has said it will not normalize relations until Israel agrees to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, in keeping with the decades-old stance of most Arab nations.

Under the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, formulated by Saudi Arabia’s former king Abdullah, Arab states agreed to only forge ties with Israel after an accord is reached with the Palestinians based on the 1967 armistice lines.

Arab support for the Palestinian cause appears to be waning, however. That was highlighted on Wednesday when the Arab League failed to pass a resolution proposed by the Palestinian Authority which would have condemned the Israel-UAE normalization deal.

As part of its deal with the UAE, Israel agreed to shelve its plans to annex parts of the West Bank. The Palestinians vociferously opposed the deal, calling it “despicable,” and “a betrayal,” however.

The Palestinian Authority and the Hamas terror group both condemned Friday’s Israeli-Bahraini normalization deal as another “stab in the back” by an Arab state and act of “aggression” against their people.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas speaks in the West Bank city of Ramallah on September 3, 2020. (Alaa Badarneh/Pool/AFP)

Egyptian’s president lauded the Israel-Bahrain accord as “historic,” while Jordan neither praised nor condemned the agreement, instead stressing that a just peace in the region had to end Israel’s rule over the Palestinians.

Kushner, who is  seen as a key player in both normalization agreements, earlier this month met Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman in Saudi Arabia’s northwest Neom region, the home of a massive high tech hub being built by the oil giant and reportedly the site of the first open business deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The pair discussed “the need to resume negotiations between the Palestinian and Israeli sides to achieve a just and lasting peace,” according to the Saudi government news agency SPA.

They also discussed how to bolster the US-Saudi partnership “in all fields” in order to boost regional and international security and stability.

Last month, following the announcement of the Israel-UAE deal, Kushner said a normalization with Saudi Arabia was an “inevitability.”

Bahrain is believed to have opened contacts with Israel discreetly in the 1990s, with the ties accelerating in recent years. It was expected by many to be the next country to open relations with Israel, as it has long made public overtures to the Jewish state. It hosted the first major gathering of the Trump administration’s peace effort, a Peace to Prosperity workshop, in Manama in June 2019.

Other Arab nations believed to be on the cusp of fully recognizing Israel include Oman and Sudan.

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