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The Manama Workshop and the Course of Normalization in the Gulf

9 MINS READJul 15, 2019 | 09:30 GMT
Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and adviser, discusses the U.S.-sponsored Middle East

Bahrain hosted the "Peace to Prosperity Workshop" on June 25-26, launching the economic component of the Middle East peace initiative led by Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and adviser.

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By Kristin Smith Diwan for The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington 

Bahrain hosted the "Peace to Prosperity" workshop on June 25-26, launching the economic component of the Middle East peace initiative led by Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser. There has been plenty of skepticism regarding its progress toward its ostensible purpose of improving the economic well-being of Palestinians. 

The Palestinian National Authority boycotted the workshop and came in for much criticism from the podium. Palestinians mostly followed their leadership's lead in shunning the conference. And there was little evidence of serious engagement with the Palestinian development community and nongovernmental organizations, many of which have been harmed by punitive measures from the Trump administration. After the close of the conference, Jason Greenblatt, the president's special representative for international negotiations, suggested that without commitment on the political side of the deal, the United States might not even seek pledges.

This comment led many analysts to conclude that the workshop was less about Palestinian prosperity and more about drawing Arab, especially Gulf, countries into the peace process — and into deeper normalization with Israel. The occupation of Palestinian territories has long been seen as a barrier to Israel's acceptance in the region. But today there is a growing alignment of interests between Israel and key Gulf Arab states due to their common antagonism toward Iranian expansion and desire for security cooperation. This has increased talk of reversing the normalization process by pursuing an "outside-in" strategy: improving Israel's relations with Arab states as a means to pressure the Palestinians toward a resolution, or simply as an end in itself.

In terms of political normalization, the workshop failed. No Israeli officials were invited to the meeting in order to keep the event "apolitical," presumably to assuage the discomfort of Gulf and Arab partners attending without official Palestinian counterparts. Yet the workshop could be seen as another marker in the steady uptick in Gulf engagement with Israeli social and political interlocutors, all the while calibrating for the controversial steps taken by the Trump administration that have inflamed Arab and Muslim public opinion and made a rapprochement with Israel even more difficult.

Trump Administration Complicates Pace of Normalization

The host of the Peace to Prosperity workshop, Bahrain, reflects the new political calculation in the Gulf regarding Israel. Bahrain's leadership has lifted the ban on travel to Israel and has encouraged visits there such as the one by a Bahraini delegation promoting religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence. This follows a model pioneered by the United Arab Emirates of ecumenical outreach as a means to counter political Islam while establishing connections with politically connected religious figures. The king's son, Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, spoke at a 2018 ceremony at the Los Angeles-based Museum of Tolerance, which was established by Rabbi Marvin Hier, who gave a benediction at Trump's inauguration and has visited Bahrain on the invitation of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. This strategy has facilitated the improvement of Bahrain's standing in Washington since the 2011 political crackdown on protesters, while solidifying the anti-Iran alliance.

The workshop in Bahrain may have been less about Palestinian prosperity and more about drawing Arab, especially Gulf, countries into the Middle East peace process.

In an interview after the workshop with Israel Channel 13 — a first by a Bahraini official — Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa stated clearly that Israel is part of the region's heritage. The interview was also remarkable for the absence of any criticism of Israeli policies, whether in occupying Palestinian territory or intervening militarily in Syria. Instead the foreign minister blamed Iran: "If it was left to the Arabs and Israelis, we would have been much closer to peace than today. But Iran is exacerbating the issue with money and weapons and with soldiers of militias."

This same shift in tone, offering reassurance to Israel while reaffirming mutual antagonism toward Iran, was evident in an interview by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with The Atlantic in 2018 when, for the first time, a Saudi leader acknowledged that the Israelis have "the right to have their own land." This has been picked up in the Saudi media in editorials expressing mounting exhaustion with the Palestinian issue. An op-ed in the Saudi newspaper Okaz bemoaned the exploitation of the Palestinian cause by Saudi competitors, including the Iranian revolutionary government, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Houthis, and Turkey, arguing that an issue of such widespread regional impact can't be left in their hands. It urged a new vision and praised the workshop as an important step in that direction.

Yet despite some growing appetite in the region to move on the Israel file, the Kushner team had a difficult time securing Arab participation in the Manama workshop. Key states, Egypt and Jordan, declared their participation late and sent delegates below the ministerial level. With the exception of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which sent delegations headed by a finance minister and minister of state for financial affairs respectively, Gulf Arab representation was similarly modest. Kuwait boycotted the meeting altogether. The reluctance of Arab states to commit at a high level was likely behind the Trump administration decision not to invite Israeli officials, leaving Israeli participation to business leaders and select journalists.

The reason for this Arab and Gulf reluctance is rooted in a number of U.S. missteps. The punitive measures imposed on the Palestinians prevented a full Arab embrace of the process. Moreover, the Trump administration's recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital inflamed Muslim public opinion and raised the political costs for engagement, particularly for those responsible for the management of holy sites, namely Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The lack of clarity on the political end game hasn't engendered confidence, although this ambiguity did allow Arab states the space to participate in the workshop without having to confront uncomfortable political realities. The acknowledgement by Kushner on the eve of the workshop that the United States will be offering something less than the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia as the basis for a political resolution further undercuts the Gulf Arab formal position.

Gulf Reactions to the Manama Workshop

With the exception of the host state, Bahrain, coverage of the Peace to Prosperity workshop by Gulf Arab media outlets was rather modest. The participation of many Gulf delegations was not publicized. Oman, while declining to acknowledge its participation in the workshop, took the opportunity to announce its decision to open an embassy in Ramallah, the first Gulf Arab state to do so.

Given this muted public stance, popular reactions to the Manama workshop crystallized around two extremes: Bahrain which hosted it, and Kuwait which rejected it.

Despite the Bahraini leadership's embrace of its role as host and budding intermediary with Israeli society, there are clear signs that domestic opinion does not support steps toward normalization. The Bahraini government had a test case in hosting the Global Entrepreneurship Congress in April, which invited Israeli speakers. Gulf activists involved with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeted Gulf participants on social media asking them to boycott the event, with some success. The elected Council of Representatives, normally reliably pro-government, issued a statement condemning the participation of Israeli speakers and supporting the Palestinian people. In response, the Bahraini government disavowed its role in the conference organization. Israeli speakers were dropped from the program, but their ultimate participation remains ambiguous.

There's a growing alignment of interests between Israel and key Gulf Arab states today, due to their common antagonism toward Iranian expansion and desire for security cooperation.

The higher stakes of the government's hosting the Peace to Prosperity workshop in partnership with the Trump administration generated more loyalty but also some objections. This time the Bahrain parliamentary bloc, a loyalist coalition within the Chamber of Representatives, issued a statement welcoming Bahrain's hosting of the workshop and praising the Saudi and Emirati support.

Others weren't so pleased. Three political societies associated with Sunni Islamists and nationalists issued statements rejecting the hosting of the conference and any form of normalization. More secular political figures also offered their objections via Twitter, as did the now abolished Shia Islamist al-Wefaq, but there were no sizeable demonstrations from an opposition weakened through years of confrontation and overwhelming security measures. The most vociferous reaction came not from inside Bahrain, but from neighboring Iraq, where protesters stormed the Bahraini Embassy in Baghdad, removing its flag and replacing it with a Palestinian flag.

In contrast with its neighbors, Kuwait's relatively open political culture permitted an open-throated call for solidarity with the Palestinians. A broad coalition of civil society groups issued a joint statement condemning the holding of the workshop in a fellow Arab country. In a unanimous vote, Kuwait's Parliament urged a boycott of the conference. The emir concurred, and alone among its Gulf neighbors, Kuwait declined to send a delegation. This earned the gratitude of the Palestinians, who raised the Kuwaiti flag alongside the Palestinian one, along a road named for Kuwait's parliamentary speaker who has championed the Palestinian cause internationally.

Not Quite a "Game Changer"

Bahrain's foreign minister declared the Peace to Prosperity workshop to be a potential "game changer," much as former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit to Egypt provided momentum for the Camp David peace accords. This seems unlikely. The foreign minister himself seemed to acknowledge the tentativeness of such a breakthrough the next day in an interview with Al Arabiya, in which he restated the traditional Arab position on Palestine and insisted that the Manama workshop was not a step toward normalizing ties with Israel before a political settlement.

Still, deeper Gulf engagement continues. The week following the workshop the Emiratis welcomed Israel's foreign minister to a United Nations climate conference in Abu Dhabi, the highest level Israeli minister to ever visit the United Arab Emirates. And while Oman formally denied Israeli claims of the establishment of a foreign office in Oman, many analysts see the Ramallah embassy as a precursor to the opening of formal ties with Israel, a view that received a massive boost when Sultan Qaboos bin Said welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Muscat in October 2018.

Their calculations may vary — solidifying a common front against Iran or, like Oman, balancing for diplomatic purposes; earning the approval of Washington or the benefits of Israeli technology — but the direction of Gulf engagement with Israel is clear. Formal ties may yet await an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Kristin Smith Diwan is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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