Trump peace plan attracts some Gulf states, but not consensus backing

Thousands of words will be written about President Trump’s Middle East peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians announced on Tuesday. At best, some articles may contain a passing reference to the attendance at the White House event of the ambassadors from Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It’s a pity, because the effective endorsement of the plan by these states is hugely significant.

Only two Arab countries currently have peace agreements with Israel: Egypt and Jordan. Neither was represented at the White House when President Trump announced the plan with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Domestic public opinion in both countries disapproves of relations with Israel. Bahrain, Oman and the UAE are Gulf countries traditionally somewhat less concerned — at least recently — about the Palestinians.

Their concern instead is Iran, which Bahrain and the UAE face across the waters of the Persian Gulf and with which Oman shares the Gulf’s gateway, the Strait of Hormuz. With the uncertainty of U.S. regional policy of late, the prevailing wisdom had been that the Gulf countries would have not done anything that might irritate Tehran. Evidently, however, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE have decided that relations with the Trump White House are even more important than keeping steady relations with Iran.

The three other Gulf Arab states, which together make up the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar — did not attend the announcement. The surprise here was Saudi Arabia, whose effective leader, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, has said, albeit semi-privately, that he sees Israel as being a natural partner to the kingdom in terms of trade and technology.

But Bahrain hosted a peace plan seminar last summer attended by Israel business executives; the UAE is allowing Israel to have a pavilion at the Dubai Expo later this year; and Oman had decades of contacts with Israel even before Netanyahu visited in late 2018. Saudi Arabia has not yet managed such public manifestations of relations.

Of the other Gulf states, Kuwait always has been vocally pro-Palestinian, despite expelling thousands for cooperating with Saddam Hussein’s occupation in 1990-1991. And Qatar, which ironically was the first Gulf state to open up to Israel in the late 1990s — for which it was condemned by its neighbors — now prefers a balancing act that tilts towards the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, where it hands out cash for public works projects and impoverished families.

But this is the Middle East, and the Qatar example is a useful reminder that trends can be reversible. Public opinion in the Gulf states is not totally absent, particularly in Bahrain where elements of the majority-Shia population are prone to incitement by Iran. And this also will be a test for the new Sultan Haitham of Oman, who replaced Sultan Qaboos upon his death this month.

The most immediate hurdle could be an Arab League foreign ministers meeting, which has been called for Feb. 1 in Cairo. The organization hates to be divided, although as it stands today, it’s hard to think of a draft resolution on President Trump’s plan that could achieve consensus backing.

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.

Tags Arab League Bahrain Benjamin Netanyahu Donald Trump Gulf States Israel-Palestinian conflict Middle East peace plan United Arab Emirates

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