Profiling the First Peacemakers: Getting to Know the UAE and Bahrain

November 13, 2020

by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update

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Manama in Bahrain

It had been almost 27 years since the last peace treaty was signed between Israel and an Arab state. Then, starting in August, two Arab nations reached peace accords with Israel in less than a month: the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain. While Sudan followed in October with the promise of yet more peace accords to come, it was the UAE and Bahrain that started this groundbreaking parade of peace.

What type of country breaks that longstanding diplomatic stalemate? What was it about the UAE and Bahrain that prompted them to take that step? Many have pointed to the mutual threat that Iran poses to Israel, the UAE and Bahrain as a key reason for the Arab nations reconciling with their Jewish neighbor. Yet while the common Iranian threat certainly helped encourage the UAE and Bahrain to reach for peace, that is just one factor in the multi-faceted profiles of these two Arab peacemakers.

Identities of the Peacemakers

On the surface, the UAE and Bahrain have a lot in common. Both countries declared independence from Britain in 1971. Both are smaller oil-producing states in the Persian Gulf, and both are led by monarchies. Both are friends of the United States and threatened by Iran.

The populations of both countries comprise a large percentage of immigrants. Almost half of Bahrain’s population are immigrants, mostly from Asia. The UAE’s immigrant population is even bigger, accounting for nearly 88% of the inhabitants in 2019, with most of those immigrants also coming from Asia. The influence of these immigrant populations—or perhaps the openness the UAE and Bahrain leaders displayed to allow so many immigrants into their countries in the first place—may be one reason why they were so willing to be the first Arab Muslim nations this millennium to reach peace deals with Israel.

Yet despite all the similarities, the UAE and Bahrain are not identical.

In terms of population, one is much larger than the other. According to a July estimate in the US Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, Bahrain has slightly more than 1.5 million people. The UAE is notably larger at just shy of 10 million people as of July.

Economically, both countries rely on oil, and while the UAE has been blessed with more success in the financial realm, both nations have experienced trouble. Bahrain has struggled with debt, while the UAE has managed to stay afloat despite taking hits from the decline in oil prices and the 2008 financial crisis.

Dubai in the UAE

Economics—especially for Bahrain—are another benefit to peace with Israel. The summary of the peace accords states that “normalized relations will accelerate growth and economic opportunity across the region by expanding business and financial ties” between Israel and the Arab states. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summed this up well in a press release: “This will be a warm peace, [an] economic peace in addition to the diplomatic peace, also peace between peoples.”

The Kingdom of Bahrain has a tiny military, numbering only 10,000 active personnel. But what it lacks in numbers, Bahrain makes up in its ties to the US military. The island hosts the American fifth fleet and US Naval Forces Central Command, with the US State Department’s US Relations with Bahrain web page calling Bahrain “a vital US partner in defense initiatives.”

The UAE has its own ties to the US. In addition to the US being the main supplier of arms to the UAE, the US has also helped the Gulf nation develop nuclear energy. According to a US State Department spokesperson, the US “enjoys a longstanding strategic partnership with both Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.”

Priorities of the Peacemakers

While the characteristics of Bahrain and the UAE may make them more open to peace with Israel and more willing to work with the United States in that regard, one factor that certainly helped was the common Iranian threat to all the peace partners. While Iran’s desire to wipe Israel off the map is well known, the Islamic Republic has engaged in conflict with the UAE and Bahrain as well.

The UAE has battled Iranian proxies in Yemen and has a territorial dispute with Tehran over the ownership of three islands that the UAE says are occupied by Iran. For its part, Bahrain has even had to fight Iranian malevolence in its own country.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran has sought to undermine the stability and security of Bahrain by fomenting sectarian tensions and providing arms to proxy groups and terrorists and continuously threatens the UAE as well,” the State Department spokesperson explained. “The United States remains committed to our deep and effective partnerships with our Gulf partners to counter Iranian threats.”

In a region dominated by conflict and decades of Arabs saying “no” to peace with Israel, there have been glimmers of commonalities between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain for a while now—from economic needs to mutual alliances with the US to the shared threat of Iran. The State Department spokesperson noted that US President Donald Trump recognized those overlapping interests.

Commenting on President Trump’s role in the peace accords, the spokesperson said: “He built trust with our regional allies and reoriented their strategic calculus by identifying shared interests and common opportunities, moving them away from perpetuating old conflicts.”

In other words, the profile of these peacemakers—their strengths, weaknesses, hopes and fears—turned out to be a good recipe for Middle East peace.

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