Reporter's Notebook

With F1 as showcase, Bahrain pushes image of tolerance post-Abraham Accords

Hosting regional reporters for grand prix, Gulf kingdom touts itself as model of ‘modern peaceful coexistence,’ calls normalized ties with Israel key part of foreign policy vision

A Gulf Air Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft performs a flyover over the racetrack before the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir on March 5, 2023. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP)
A Gulf Air Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft performs a flyover over the racetrack before the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir on March 5, 2023. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP)

SAKHIR, Bahrain – Kicking off this year’s Formula 1 season, tens of thousands of motorsports fans gathered at a location seemingly off the beaten track — a desert race course in this Gulf kingdom.

Since opening in 2004, the Bahrain International Circuit has hosted a F1 Grand Prix annually barring 2011 and 2020, when it was respectively scrapped due to major civil unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizers of this year’s race reported record turnout, with nearly 100,000 fans and elsewhere taking part in the activities throughout the weekend.

Bahrain, an archipelago in the Persian Gulf, has seen markedly lower attendance figures than other locations that host F1 races, including nearby Abu Dhabi. However, the diverse makeup of the crowd, which included fans from Bahrain, Europe – F1’s traditional heartland – and elsewhere emphasized the message of tolerance stressed by local officials throughout the event.

A central plank in this messaging push is Bahrain’s establishment of formal relations with Israel as part of the 2020 Abraham Accords, a series of US-backed agreements that saw the Jewish state also normalize ties with the United Arab Emirates and Morocco.

Though it lacks the elements that make Morocco and the UAE uniquely appealing destinations for Israelis — namely the long-standing and deep Jewish cultural connections in the case of the former, or a major global entrepot like Dubai in the latter — officials in Bahrain were adamant it has special appeal in terms of its own history and culture as well as the businesses opportunities.

Additionally, they were unperturbed by the relatively slower pace at which relations have developed, touting a slow but steady approach they feel will result in long-term success, while underscoring that Manama’s support for the Palestinians will continue to feature in bilateral relations with Jerusalem, even if not as a central element.

‘Naturally developed coexistence’

For the race, this reporter was among a group of regional journalists hosted by the Bahraini government, which cast its now nearly two decades of hosting F1 and other international events as an organic development firmly keeping with the country’s history and vision of “successful modern peaceful coexistence.”

“We take pride as Bahrainis in living in an archipelago with a rich history of more than 5,000 years, a history that has been developed over the centuries,” Shaikh Abdulla bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, the undersecretary for political affairs at Bahrain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said during a briefing. “We really believe Bahrain is unique, unique in the sense that coexistence… has been developed naturally.”

“Bahrain probably might be the only country in the region where you’ll have Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Bahais,” he added.

Red Bull Racing’s Dutch driver Max Verstappen (C) leads the race during the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir on March 5, 2023. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP)

As Manama has moved toward Jerusalem, Jews in the kingdom have enjoyed more tolerance, with Bahrain’s sole synagogue, the House of the Ten Commandments, again holding public prayer services after decades in which the tiny local Jewish community worshiped privately.

At the synagogue, where the Book of Esther was read this week to celebrate the Purim festival, several objects on display attest to this increased official openness, including a plaque with the Ten Commandments written in Arabic and Torah scroll given to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa during a 2020 visit by former US president Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who played a leading role in the Abraham Accords.

The Purim celebrations themselves also offered a window into Bahrain’s character, particularly regarding its foreign relations, with attendees including members of the local community, visiting Israelis and Jews serving in the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which is headquartered in the country.

A rabbi reads the Book of Esther during Purim celebrations at the House of the Ten Commandments in Manama, Bahrain, March 6, 2023. (Alexander Fulbright/Times of Israel)

According to Khalifa, this domestic religious tolerance is manifested in Bahraini foreign policy, a main pillar of which is the promotion of peace. He said that to advance this goal, “probably the most notable step taken by Bahrain was signing the Abraham Accords.”

“We believe that enhancing regional cooperation and development will certainly enhance regional security and stability,” the senior diplomat said.

‘Path to future successes’

Along with increasing security and stability, the establishment of ties with Israel also offers Bahrain potential economic benefits as it seeks to diversify from oil production. One field in particular that it hopes to expand is international tourism, with the F1 Grand Prix serving as a showcase for the kingdom.

“We believe that Israeli tourism is part of the overall strategy that we have to encourage tourism in Bahrain,” Khalid Ebrahim Humaidan, the chief executive of Bahrain Economic Development Board, told reporters.

He said “there are definitely opportunities in other sectors,” highlighting his country’s manufacturing capabilities and Israel’s robust tech industry. “There are many conversations we can have with Israeli investors,” he said.

A picture shows a view of the skyline of Manama on February 28, 2023. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP)

Humaidan acknowledged that economic ties have been slow in developing since the Abraham Accords, but insisted Bahrain was positioning itself for success in the long run.

“The right opportunities are being concluded and that will hopefully pave the path to future successes,” he said.

‘More occupation is rejected’

As the two countries look to build on their newfound diplomatic ties, one area in their relations that continues to be a cause of friction is the Palestinians, though at a less intense level than previously.

Khalifa, the foreign ministry official, described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “the most pertinent and pressing historical conflict in the region,” which the formation of ties with Israel can help resolve.

“This remains to be the cornerstone of regional security and stability, and we certainly do believe in the two-state solution for the longest-standing conflict in the region,” he said. “I believe there is solidarity among the Arab states, among the Islamic states and among many international states to support the Palestinians and support their historical right in achieving their own independent state with eastern Jerusalem as its capital.”

“We do believe, just like Jordan and Egypt, that having relations with Israel will certainly enhance the chances of achieving peace in the region, so we continue to work and build on that,” he said.

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)

Responding to a reporter’s question on how relations with Israel will support the rights of Palestinians, Khalifa said “there is no doubt that having more occupation is rejected.” He noted the upcoming Islamic holy month of Ramadan and said Bahrain opposes “stopping people from praying,” an apparent reference to the flashpoint Temple Mount holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Despite the critical tone vis-à-vis the Palestinians, Khalifa declined to weigh in when asked if Bahrain is concerned about the major protests in Israel against the government’s planned overhaul of the judicial system, which has faced criticism in the US and other Western countries.

“This is an Israeli matter to be dealt with,” he said. “Our focus is on bilateral relations with Israel.”

The reporter’s flight and accommodations were provided by the National Communication Centre in Bahrain.

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