In the Abraham Accords universe, the relationship between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is the one that gets the most attention and has sparked the greatest excitement. It may be because of the enormous volume of trade that has sprung up between the two countries, the cachet of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, or the flow of Israeli tourists to the UAE, but the normalization spotlight has fallen squarely on bilateral Israeli-Emirati ties. Nevertheless, relations between Israel and Bahrain are in the news this week with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s visit to Manama, which came less than two weeks after Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s own visit to the island kingdom. Normalization is often lumped together as one catch-all category, but there are a number of ways in which Bahrain stands out from its Emirati, Moroccan, and Sudanese counterparts in highlighting larger regional trends at work. While the Israel-Bahrain relationship is free of the quid pro quo aspect that characterized other normalization deals, it also implicates external actors in a way that goes beyond Israel’s other regional relationships.
In a way, the Israeli-Bahraini relationship is the most focused one among the new normalizers not because of what it entailed, but because of what it didn’t. Bahrain is alone among the normalizers in that it did not seek anything from the U.S. as an explicit or tacit condition of normalizing ties with Israel. It did not get F-35s or Reaper drones, recognition of sovereignty over disputed territory, or removal from the State Department list of terrorist-sponsoring states. Bahrain was also not using formal diplomatic relations with Israel as a transparent way of improving its standing in Washington, even if that was an ancillary benefit. While Bahrain’s decision was not entirely about its bilateral relationship with Israel, it is the state where there were the fewest outside considerations. This does not mean that it is the relationship with Israel most resistant to external pressures—that goes to the UAE given not only the security relationship but the robust trade and tourism that have developed—but it does give it a measure of permanency that comes with being free from other entangling factors.
The outside factor that bears the most on Israel and Bahrain is one that makes the relationship with Bahrain particularly valuable to Jerusalem, which is Bahrain’s role as an unofficial proxy for Saudi Arabia. Bahrain’s only overland transportation link beyond its borders is a series of connected bridges to Saudi Arabia, and it is dependent on its neighbor politically, economically, and militarily. Saudi troops literally saved the Bahraini monarchy from being toppled during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, and Bahrain is widely viewed as a Saudi client state. As a result, Saudi acquiescence was almost certainly a prerequisite for Bahrain to normalize ties with Israel, and Bahrain is thus seen in some quarters not only as a test case but as a stalking horse for Saudi Arabia. It is not insignificant that Gantz’s flight to Bahrain was in an Israeli military aircraft that openly flew through Saudi airspace, and the more that Bahraini ties with Israel flourish, the more opportunities there will be to demonstrate an Israeli-Saudi relationship that exists short of formal normalization. Even if Israel didn’t value a relationship with Bahrain on its own terms, it would see value in it for the Saudi aspect.
But Israel certainly does value the relationship with Bahrain independent of whatever it means for Saudi Arabia. Gantz and his Bahraini counterpart signed a defense cooperation memorandum, marking a first for Israel with a Gulf state. Israel will now have a naval officer permanently stationed in Bahrain—an Israeli first in an Arab state–and while the details of the agreement were not made public, it likely means joint naval operations to deter Iranian threats to shipping and other maritime activities. Bahrain also made public an agreement to purchase radar and anti-drone systems from a company that is an affiliate of Israel Aerospace Industries, which opens the door to the possibility of regionally integrated radar systems and information sharing that could operate against Iranian missiles and UAVs. This all leaves the Israeli-Bahraini security relationship at a publicly more advanced stage than the Israeli-Emirati security relationship, which should make clear that Bahrain is not merely window dressing in the normalization sphere.
Much like the Israel-Bahrain relationship has a Saudi angle, the defense cooperation between the two has an American angle. U.S. defense influence on Bahrain is significant given that it is the headquarters for CENTCOM’s naval command and the Fifth Fleet, and Gantz’s visit to Manama included a meeting with Naval Forces Central Command Vice Admiral Brad Cooper and a tour of the USS Cole. It was a demonstration of how bringing Israel into CENTCOM—a move made by the Trump administration in January 2021—has enabled regional integration and the way in which the U.S. can use its position to move normalization forward. The open inclusion of Israel alongside not only Bahrain but Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Oman in the NAVCENT naval exercises that conclude today is an example of this working in practice. American influence can extend beyond things like naval exercises as well; the fact that Bahrain elected to purchase Patriot anti-missile systems from the U.S. rather than the Russian S-400 means that it can potentially collaborate with Israel on David’s Sling, which protects against medium range missiles and rockets and is compatible with Patriot launchers.
The Israel-Bahrain relationship should not be relegated to a class beneath the Israel-UAE relationship. Aside from the strides the two countries have made with each other, greater Israeli-Bahraini cooperation with American encouragement can also lead to a model of the U.S. bringing partners together in a regional framework to counter threats that allows the U.S. to lessen its own footprint. Given regional concerns about a U.S. exit from the Middle East, fostering greater security cooperation between Israel and Bahrain under NAVCENT auspices is a good way to leverage an American presence in the region that shifts some of the security burden off the U.S. directly.