How Israel’s agreements this year with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates made the Middle East more volatile.
Given the long trajectory of U.S. policy toward the Middle East, it is not surprising that, in the wake of Israel’s newly announced normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the actual reaction in Arab societies has been somewhat lost.
Since the deals were announced in mid-September, Bahrain’s Shiite opposition has harshly criticized them.
Dissenters have tweeted out a series of statements protesting the normalization decision, with the blunt hashtag “Normalization is betrayal.” Among the most prominent of these critics is the exiled Shiite cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim, who issued a statement through the account of a moderate opposition group, al-Wefaq, which is banned by the government. Qassim was a formidable leader in the uprising against the government during the 2011 Arab Spring and lives in exile because the government revoked his citizenship. In his statement, Qassim called on the people to resist “psychological defeat” and work to overturn the normalization of relations with Israel, or at least place obstacles in its way.
In turn, in recent weeks, small but significant protests have popped up across Bahrain. On Oct. 2, for example, protesters took to the streets for what al-Wefaq dubbed the “Friday of the Fall of the Treasonous Agreement.” The small groups of protesters hoisted Palestinian flags and other signs, and stepped on images of the Israeli and American flags. According to the Bahraini human rights activist Maryam Alkhawaja, riot police were “out in full force” as the protests started. Since then, rallies have continued sporadically, mostly in villages rather than in the capital.
Other Shiite groups across the Arab region have criticized the Gulf normalization deals, too. Hezbollah criticized the Bahraini decision in no uncertain terms, describing it as a “great betrayal” of the Palestinians and accusing Bahrain’s “tyrannical regime” of acting on U.S. orders. Meanwhile, marches have erupted in Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, and, of course, the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The question, of course, is whether all this outrage will amount to change. In many ways, the normalization agreements were primarily motivated by a desire on the part of all three countries—the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel—to counter the influence of Iran. (Saudi Arabia has not yet joined the agreements, but Saudi influence likely played into the Bahraini government’s decision.)
In turn, the normalization has perturbed Tehran, whose foreign ministry called Bahrain’s decision “shameful.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that Bahrain would have to bear any “consequences” of the normalization, although it seems unlikely that Iran will actually intervene in any concrete way.
If anything, the normalization agreements will likely succeed in their goal of further isolating Iran. But as long as Gulf citizens are protesting, the deals have the potential to destabilize the Arab world.
It isn’t that Arab Shiite communities are opposed to normalization because they are aligned with or have loyalties to Iran. In fact, Shiite communities across the Arab world broadly oppose the Iranian regime. Among Shiites in Iraq, for example, polling data indicates that unfavorable views toward Iran have risen steadily in recent years. While 86 percent of Iraqi Shiites had a favorable view of Iran in 2014, by 2019 that percentage had fallen to 41 percent, according to surveys conducted by the Baghdad-based Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies.
In reality, Arab Shiite communities oppose normalization for two main reasons. First, the deals will reduce pressure on Israel to end the Palestinian occupation and create a two-state solution. Second, an economic and political alliance with Israel will empower Arab autocrats to further crack down on their domestic opposition by reducing the likelihood of backlash from the United States and other international actors.
Their fears about a crackdown appear warranted. For example, on Sept. 30, Yossi Cohen—the director of Israel’s national intelligence agency—made his first official visit to Bahrain. The following day, Bahraini authorities reportedly summoned a number of individuals and forced them to sign agreements promising not to take part in any protest—a pledge that did not prevent marches that same week.
The government’s response is in keeping with a long history of human rights violations. According to Human Rights Watch, in the years since the 2011 uprising, the Bahraini government’s repression of citizens has only worsened. The authorities have “imprisoned, exiled, or intimidated into silence anyone who criticizes the government.”
That protests are continuing anyway should give Gulf regimes, Israel, and the U.S. government pause. With Gulf regimes already having been pushed to the brink by COVID-19 and related economic challenges, it is unclear whether they can withstand broad domestic blowback, especially if coupled with whatever external pressure Iran can muster.
Although protests have receded in recent days, opposition to normalization remains deep-rooted. Earlier this month, the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies released the results of a survey in which it asked individuals in 13 Arab states whether they would support or oppose diplomatic recognition of Israel by their countries. In all countries surveyed, a majority of respondents opposed the recognition of Israel; in six countries, this figure was higher than 90 percent.
When it comes to normalization, then, the UAE and Bahrain may have lit a powder keg with a short fuse, just as the 10-year anniversary of the Arab Spring approaches. Since inking the normalization deals, the two states have signed a flurry of trade and economic agreements with Israel, while holding high-profile meetings on bilateral cooperation. If they wish to preclude further unrest, the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel would be wise to tighten ties much more slowly. Likewise, Arab states that are considering normalization agreements with Israel would be wise to pay particular attention to how their populations might respond.
Geneive Abdo is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. Twitter: @AbdoGeneive