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Bahrain's foreign policy has taken a distinctive turn, aligning closely with Western, particularly American, positions in the region.
This article was translated from Arabic to English
Since the beginning of Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip in October 2023, Bahrain has adopted a distinct and somewhat controversial foreign policy, diverging significantly from the stances taken by other Arab nations, irrespective of their varying perspectives.
Bahrain’s position currently stands out as the most closely aligned with Western, particularly American, positions in the region. This alignment extends beyond the Gaza conflict to include other related disputes, such as the disturbances in the Red Sea near the Yemeni shores.
This entire scenario prompts numerous questions regarding the motivations and calculations driving the Bahraini regime to pursue such a foreign policy. It also raises questions about the objectives the regime aims to fulfill with its current stances.
Simultaneously, there is a compelling need to delve into the internal political dynamics within Bahrain itself. Understanding these dynamics is crucial in comprehending why the regime is steering in this particular direction, seemingly independent of the prevailing sentiment on the Arab street.
Bahrain’s foreign policy before the war
In fact, Bahrain began pursuing this foreign policy even before the outbreak of the conflict in the Gaza Strip. In September 2023, in contrast to other Arab Gulf states that were navigating their relations between the East and West, Bahrain opted to enter into the “Comprehensive Security Integration and Prosperity Agreement” with the United States.
The primary objectives of this agreement, as emphasized by U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, were to enhance security and defense collaboration, foster economic ties and deepen scientific and technical cooperation, particularly in regards to digital security.
This agreement went beyond the routine regulation of existing defense relations between the United States and Bahrain, established through the permanent stationing of the U.S. Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain since its restructuring in 1995.
The significance of the new agreement lies in its attempt to advance operational and field coordination between the armed forces of both nations, with the explicit goal of securing vital shipping and trade corridors in the Arabian Gulf region. Moreover, the agreement facilitated joint planning to address regional security threats, with a focus on establishing “special rules of engagement” in response to potential military risks.
At that time, it became evident that Bahrain’s decision to deepen its defense and military ties with the United States was driven by the need to counter the Iranian threat in the Gulf region. Many provisions of the agreement appeared to specifically address Iranian security and military influence in the region.
This was particularly notable in the requirement to update security plans semi-annually, reflecting a commitment to joint efforts aimed at deterring external threats. The agreement also outlined the formation of joint working groups between the two parties to assess progress in developing deterrence plans and addressing the possibility of external aggression.
The Arab Gulf states: An opposite direction to Bahrain’s foreign policy
During that particular stage, the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council members were moving in a direction opposite to Bahrain’s foreign policy.
Prior to the outbreak of the Gaza war, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was actively pursuing reconciliation with Iran, avoiding any steps perceived as threatening to Iran’s strategic interests in the region. Similarly, the Qatari regime maintained a positive relationship with the United States while concurrently fostering good economic, diplomatic and political ties with Iran.
Even the United Arab Emirates, before the war, was in the process of solidifying its reconciliation with Iran following the restoration of diplomatic relations in August 2022. In fact, the UAE upheld balanced and non-tense relations with the Iranian regime, unlike some Western countries that took a confrontational stance against Iranian influence in the Gulf region.
Bahrain’s foreign policy stood out as a clear exception in this context. While the agreement was being signed, tensions persisted in Bahraini-Iranian relations. The Iranian regime targeted Bahrain on the human rights front, while Bahrain expressed dissatisfaction with Iranian interference in its internal affairs.
It’s well-known that the Bahraini regime has historically been sensitive to Iran’s attempts to meddle in this matter. The significant Shiite demographic presence in Bahrain has consistently fueled fears among Bahrain’s Sunni rulers, belonging to the Al Khalifa family, that Iran might exploit sectarian divisions to overthrow the ruling regime in Bahrain.
Bahrain’s foreign policy after the Gaza War
Once hostilities erupted, Bahrain stood out as an exception among Arab countries. In the initial stages of the conflict, Bahrain, aligning with its UAE counterparts, condemned the actions of the Hamas movement. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa of Bahrain characterized the practices of Hamas as “barbaric, horrific and indiscriminate,” particularly emphasizing their involvement in “kidnapping and negotiating hostages” amid the ongoing war.
While bin Hamad navigated between condemning both the Hamas movement and the Israeli bombing of Gaza, his stance, in alignment with the UAE, contradicted the consensus among other Arab nations. During this period, most Arab countries were emphasizing the imperative to cease the war as their primary and sole demand, avoiding any comparison between the actions of the Hamas movement and the Israeli army. Such a comparison could potentially be seen as justifying the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip.
Facing public pressure, the Bahraini Parliament announced in November 2023 that the Israeli ambassador would leave the Kingdom, and economic ties with Israel would be severed. This move was framed as a confirmation of Bahrain’s unwavering historical support for the Palestinian cause.
However, the Bahraini government quickly clarified that the Israeli ambassador had left Manama “some time ago” for reasons unrelated to the parliamentary announcement and had since returned. Israel corroborated this, emphasizing the stability of its relations with Bahrain, established under the “Abraham Accords” in 2020.
Notably, Bahrain, while not the only Arab country maintaining diplomatic ties with Israel after the outbreak of the Gaza war, emerged as the only Arab nation expressing readiness to join the “Operation Prosperity Guardian” coalition led by the United States. The coalition aimed to counter Houthi naval operations targeting Israeli and Israel-bound ships. This decision followed unequivocal statements from the Bahraini Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejecting any threats to “freedom of international navigation” in various strategic waterways.
Following initial combat missions conducted by American and British forces against Houthi military targets, U.S. President Joe Biden announced Bahrain’s provision of “support” for these operations without specifying the nature of this support. Given Bahrain’s regional capabilities, it is likely that American forces used Bahrain’s air bases and warehouses to carry out strikes in Yemen. Once again, Bahrain stood as the sole Arab country participating in supporting this initiative.
The Bahraini regime’s accounts and interests
The Bahraini street expressed strong discontent with various positions that involved the country in military operations alongside the United States, leading to widespread demonstrations.
Notably, opposition was not confined to traditional Shiite forces but also included influential Sunni figures, typically distant from Shiite opposition activities. Hamas, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which wields influence in Bahrain, played a significant role in mobilizing Sunni political Islam forces against the current foreign policy of the regime in Bahrain.
On the flip side, it appears that the Bahraini regime maintains its perspective, distinct from the sentiments on the streets. The regime vividly recalls the events of 2011 when protests, inspired by the Arab Spring, posed a significant challenge to the government’s stability. It was only through the deployment of Gulf “Peninsula Shield Force” that the rule of Al Khalifa was restored.
Consequently, the Bahraini regime perceives the internal Shiite opposition, given its substantial demographic influence, as an enduring strategic threat. This perception remains regardless of its foreign policy, especially in the event of Iran deciding to leverage this issue to instigate regime change at any given moment.
Confronted by this perceived strategic threat attributed to Iranian influence, the Al Khalifa regime initially relies on its alliance with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia provides crucial support through its military forces, operating under the auspices of the Peninsula Shield Force, to uphold the stability of the Bahraini monarchy in the face of potential internal sectarian protests. The events of 2011 underscored the pivotal role of Saudi intervention, particularly if protests were to reach critical levels.
Simultaneously, the ruling family places a strong reliance on influential Western political and military backing, notably from American, Australian and British forces stationed in Bahrain. These foreign forces serve as a safeguard for the Bahraini regime against any direct external security or military threats emanating from Iran.
In explicit terms, the presence of foreign forces on Bahraini soil, coupled with alignment with U.S. foreign policy, is viewed by the Bahraini regime as indispensable immunity. This arrangement is considered vital for a small country situated in close proximity to a regional power with expanding influence, such as Iran.
Ultimately, the Bahraini regime’s policies are intricately shaped by two simultaneous factors: the historical opposition of the internal Shiite demographic to the rule of the Sunni royal family, and the escalating influence of its external neighbor, Iran, which has recently garnered more prominence and power at the regional level.
Iran consistently seeks means to support the Bahraini opposition. The convergence of these two factors, both internal and external, underscores why the Bahraini regime is the most apprehensive among Gulf regimes regarding its relationship with Iran. It also renders it the most susceptible to any uptick in Iranian influence.
Consequently, Bahrain emerges as the Gulf country most eager for Western support and most inclined to maintain a distance from any diplomatic reconciliation with its Iranian neighbor.