Bahrain's bid for Middle East peace role may come up short

Bahrain's bid for Middle East peace role may come up short
© MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

It’s excruciatingly hot at this time of year in Bahrain, but inside top hotels such as the Four Seasons, the air conditioning is impressively cool. It’s too early to know whether it will facilitate much warm diplomacy at the U.S.-sponsored “Peace to Prosperity” economic workshop starting this evening at the hotel.

The signs are not good. On Monday, the Gulf Daily News, Bahrain’s main English-language newspaper, failed to mention the conference, despite it apparently being a major building block in President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's top adviser on Asia to serve as deputy national security adviser United Auto Workers strike against GM poised to head into eighth day Trump doubles down on call to investigate Biden after whistleblower complaint: 'That's the real story' MORE’s proposal for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, an issue that has divided the Middle East for more than 70 years. Coverage in the official Bahrain News Agency also has been thin. A BNA report announcing that Jordan would send an official from its Ministry of Finance referred to the “two-state solution” without once using the word “Israel.” A pro-government website, Citizens for Bahrain, also avoided the word in an article referring to “rampaging Zionist settlers.” 

The Palestinian Authority refused to attend, prompting Israel’s hoped-for invitation to vanish. But several Israeli business executives will be there. Additionally, after White House arm-twisting, Bahrain is allowing a small group of Israeli journalists to cover the story, despite the lack of diplomatic recognition. One Israeli television reporter tweeted excitedly from the Royal Jordanian aircraft flying him from Amman to Manama, about the prospect of making the first live broadcast from Bahrain to an Israeli audience.

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Even before the recent attacks on oil tankers and Iran’s shooting down of an American drone, the prospects for the workshop did not look good. Initially intended for participation at finance minister level, it now will be a meeting of deputy ministers, at best. Egypt and Jordan felt they were invited late in the day, and Lebanon isn’t coming.

A probably accurate assumption is that the conference originally was intended by the White House to be a fig leaf for more open economic relations between Israel and the Gulf duo of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. MbS and MbZ, (Mohammad bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed), respectively the crown princes and de facto leaders of the two Gulf Arab states, perceive Israel as a natural partner in a post-oil future, according to people who have met them.  The fact that all three countries are worried about Iran acts as a further bond.

But that hope was premature. The event at the Bahrain Four Seasons is not going to be a coming-out party. The opening cocktail party is unlikely to have scenes of warm exchanges between Israelis and Arabs — and even less likely is the chance that the Bahraini authorities will allow Israeli television cameras to cover the occasion.

The economic plan, which notionally will frame the discussion at the conference, was published by the White House over the weekend, anticipating (rather than promising) more than $50 billion of economic support for the Palestinians over the next 10 years. As expected, the plan does not foresee a Palestinian state and thus was dismissed by many Palestinians and others. The purported agenda for the conference also has been tweeted. It includes notables such as International Monetary Fund Chair Christine Lagarde, suggesting a top-down, rather than bottom-up, approach.

Optimistically, one might say that the conference will be good for Bahrain — as long as the Iranians, across the Persian Gulf, behave. But there are local tensions: the island’s majority Shia community and Bahraini Sunnis are pro-Palestinian, though in the short term they probably will not publicly oppose the diplomatic efforts of Bahrain’s monarch, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. He is proud of hosting the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet and has perpetual optimism for bringing faiths together.

Yet the grading of the conference’s success (or otherwise) perhaps should be postponed for a while. Like the poor visibility caused by the sea mist that often envelops the Four Seasons at this time of year, it can be hard to see very far ahead.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.