Bahrain is slated to host a conference in its capital Manama, a conference that would deal with the economic aspects of the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan also known as the “Deal of the Century.” The conference, scheduled to take place next month (June 25-26), is meant to focus on providing billions of dollars to revive the Palestinian economy. While Israel plans to dispatch a delegation led by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has already announced its refusal to attend, despite the conference aim to revive its failing economy. A senior PA official has called the White House planned conference and the “deal of the century,” a “financial blackmail.”
Bahrain’s willingness to accept the Trump administration’s request to host such a conference, despite objections from the PA, is indicative of the new attitudes emerging from the moderate Sunni-Arab Gulf states. Although relations with the Jewish state are still unofficial, a new openness can be detected toward Judaism, Jews, and Israel. The National, a publication based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), reported on May 1, 2019, that the Saudi head of the Muslim World League, and former Saudi Justice Minister, Dr. Mohammad Al Issa, has signed up to become the most senior Islamic leader to visit Auschwitz at next January’s observance of the Holocaust Remembrance Day. Dr. Al Issa stated that, “By paying my respect to the victims of Auschwitz, I will encourage Muslims and non-Muslims to embrace mutual respect, understanding and diversity.”
Dr. Al Issa also asserted that “He who denies the Holocaust seeks to repeat it…rational human beings must unite and work together to restrain the advocates of murder and extermination, otherwise the lessons of history won’t be useful.” Dr. Al Issa’s empathy toward a seminal event in Jewish history - the Holocaust, reflects a general tendency in the Arab Gulf states of seeking to strengthen their ties with Judaism.
Bahrain has been a pioneer in the process of cultivating relations with Jews and Judaism. In 2008, it appointed the first Jewish female, Houda Ezra Ebraim Nonoo, as its ambassador to the U.S., a first such official appointment in the Arab world. Last estimate of the Jewish population in Bahrain was 36. On December 27, 2016, the New York Times reported that, “Orthodox Jews in black coats and skullcaps danced with Arabs in flowing robes and checkered kaffiyehs at the Hanukkah celebration over the weekend in Bahrain, a Muslim majority monarchy whose king has sanctioned celebrations of the Jewish holiday.” The event drew the ire of the Hamas terrorist group in Gaza, which called the celebration “a humiliating and disgraceful display.”
In 2017, Bahrain set another precedent, when a delegation of Bahraini Muslim clergy arrived in Israel with the aim of advancing inter-religious tolerance. In the same year, the UAE displayed Jewish artifacts, including an old Hebrew bible from Yemen, and a headstone with a Hebrew inscription, at its newly inaugurated Louvre Museum in its capital Abu Dhabi. In addition, the UAE declared 2019 the “Year of Tolerance,” and within its framework it formally recognized the Jewish community (mostly Jews from other countries) in the Emirates and opened its first synagogue in Dubai.
Qatar, identified as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and known as a major funder of the Hamas terrorist organization in Gaza, is scheduled to host the World (soccer) Cup in 2022. It has pledged to accommodate Jews from around the world and Israelis with kosher food. The Qatar National Olympic Committee, together with the State of Israel, co-funded the Doha stadium in the Israeli-Arab city of Sakhnin in the Galilee. In 2018, the Qatari government provided attractive junkets to American-Jewish leaders. They wooed many of whom had previously criticized Qatar for being a threat to Israel. The idea behind this gesture was to improve Qatar’s image in the U.S. Qatar has used American Jews to appeal to President Trump to condemn the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE on Qatar. Yet, at the same time, Qatar has been trying to spy on American Jewish organizations.
According to the pro-Palestinian Middle East Monitor, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have succeeded in leading Arab countries to forge overt relations with Israel. In 2018, Saudi Arabia allowed Air India to use its airspace for flights to Israel. The Middle East Monitor also reported that “Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, “Offered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas $10 billion over ten years, to force him to accept the U.S. peace plan with Israel.” The same publication headline stated on May 4th, 2019, “Israeli Delegation to visit Saudi Arabia in 2020.”
The détente between Israel and the Arab Gulf states was built since PM Netanyahu’s second term (2009). In 2018, he secured an official state visit to Oman, and an audience with its leader - Sultan Qaboos. In February, 2019, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid al-Khalifa told the Times of Israel that “Ties with Israel will be normalized eventually.” Saudi Arabia, on its part, supported Israel’s 2014 operation against Hamas in Gaza.
The Arab world is bitterly divided at this time. Assad’s Syria, and Shiite controlled Iraq, both with close ties to the radical Iranian regime, are against the U.S. initiative, and criticize any friendly gesture toward Jews and Israel. Jordan, albeit pro-western, is hesitant about the Bahrain conference and the “Deal of the Century.” King Abdullah II is concerned about the reaction of his majority Palestinian population. Al-Sisi’s Egypt is content to stay neutral on the “Deal” and the “conference.” The Saudi’s and their Gulf allies, absent Qatar and Kuwait, are gambling on U.S. protection and warmer relations with the American Jewish community and Israel.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder of the Hampton synagogue in NY, has been a leader in pushing for an inter-religious dialogue and for close relations between Muslim leaders and Israel. In an interview with the Associated Press News, Schneier said, “I think there is a very keen interest in bringing Islam and Judaism together, but our role as Jewish leaders – we also need to sensitize and educate and expose both Gulf leaders and Muslim interfaith leaders to the fact that Israel again is not a political dimension for the Jewish people; it is the very core of our religion.”
It is apparent that the Gulf states cozying up to Israel and Jews has do with existential interests. Iran is clearly seen as a major threat to the Gulf kingdoms and to Saudi Arabia in particular. The close relations between Netanyahu and Trump render Israel an asset. The perceived influence of the organized Jewish community in the U.S. is another reason the Gulf states seek a warmer relationship with Jews and Judaism. One shouldn’t however, overlook the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman’s efforts to modernize his kingdom and loosen the social strictures imposed by the Wahhabi religious establishment.
The bottom line is that the Gulf states have a lot to gain from warm relations with the Jewish community and an open and formal relationship with the Jewish state. They could invest in Israel’s innovative industries and take advantage of Israel’s renowned high-tech sector. Israel’s environmental innovations could address the challenges of water shortages in the Gulf states. Similarly, the Gulf states student population could benefit from Israel’s world-class universities. Tourism is an area that could benefit both parties.
The U.S. is in a strong position to make the existing détente into a full fledge relationship between the Gulf states and Israel.