On July 13, 2009, a company called The Center for International Development was registered in Bahrain. In October 2020, however, it was revealed that this commercial consulting firm was a front providing cover for Israeli diplomacy. As someone born in Manama, Bahrain, I was incredibly surprised to read that Israel has been conducting undercover diplomacy in Bahrain for more than a decade now.
Personally, I had always thought that Bahrain, and its neighboring Arab countries, were entirely unsupportive of Israel and were protective of their brother Muslims — the Palestinians. My mother, however, who had lived in the Middle East for thirteen years, was not surprised at all. Like all nations, she said, self-interest takes priority and that means that the Palestinian cause was less relevant to Bahraini officials than keeping Iranian influence at bay.
Iran, not Israel, has long been the “enemy” of Sunni states like Bahrain. The U.S. has also held influence in the Middle East for quite some time and, alongside U.S. flailing policy in the region, America has always given rich Arab countries more leeway. This means that the Middle Eastern power brokers’ foreign policy, which is strongly influenced by U.S. interests, dominates over smaller, poorer countries.
Countries like Palestine, which has its statehood recognized by over 138 United Nations member states, have become dispensable in the eyes of U.S. power, and so wealthy countries that align with the U.S., like Israel, are able to advance themselves at the expense of their neighbor.
For context, negotiations over a potential secret diplomatic mission started in 2007 to 2008 through a series of secret meetings between Israel’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and her Bahraini counterpart, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa. The two diplomats developed a strong relationship and, along with a decision by Bahrain’s regional rival Qatar to shut down Israel’s diplomatic mission in Doha, convinced the Bahrainis to approve the opening of a secret Israeli mission in Manama. Knowing their domestic populace would likely disapprove of an alliance, Bahrain created this fake company which, according to its website, provides consultancy services to Western companies interested in non-oil investments in the Gulf.
The front company was in fact hiring a very specific type of employee: Israeli diplomats with dual nationality. One of the shareholders listed in public records is Brett Jonathan Miller — a South African national who was appointed in 2013 as Israel’s consul general in Mumbai, India. A second shareholder, Iddo Moed, is a Belgian citizen who today serves as the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s cyber coordinator. On the company’s board was Ilan Fluss, a British national and now the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Deputy Director-General for the economy. In 2018, the company appointed a new CEO — an American. By availing of dual citizens, Israel was able to spread its political reach and influence further outside of the Middle Eastern sphere. Perhaps, in doing this, Israel is able to covertly amass alliances that will legitimize, in the eyes of international communities, its statehood and controversial expansion.
The existence of the covert diplomatic mission in Manama, the Bahraini capital, shows the depth of this secret diplomatic relationship. From the Bahraini standpoint, Israel’s assistance helps Bahrain counter Iran. Bahrain follows Saudi Arabia in practically every aspect of its foreign policy initiatives ever since the kingdom turned to Saudi Arabia to save the monarchy from an Arab Spring uprising threatening their power. And Saudi Arabia has been locked in a fierce struggle for regional dominance with Iran since the borders between the two were drawn up.
The decades-long feud between the two is exacerbated primarily by religious differences. Saudi Arabia sees itself as the leading Sunni Muslim power whilst Iran is predominantly comprised of Shia Muslims. Saudi Arabia, home to the birthplace of Islam, historically saw itself as the leader of the Muslim world, and was challenged in this respect by the 1979 Islamic Revolution that produced a revolutionary theocracy. The religious differences between the two continue to sharpen as Iranian influence, despite Saudi efforts, continues to spread. This religious schism is reflected in the Middle East as countries that have Shia or Sunni majorities, or, in Bahrain’s case, a Sunni monarchy, look to Iran or Saudi Arabia respectively. Saudi, therefore, pushes and expects Bahrain to engage in activities that contain Iran’s rising influence.
Because of Bahrain’s Saudi-fueled stance against Iran, the Sunni nation has chosen to ignore Palestine and embrace Israel as a key ally. Bahrain, like most of the Arab world, had long rejected diplomatic unity with Israel in the absence of a peace deal establishing a Palestinian state on lands captured by Israel in 1967. Palestinian leaders called Bahrain’s decision to recognize Israel before a Palestinian state a “stab in the back,” and a deadly blow to pan-Arabism, a political belief that promotes the idea that Arabs should unite to form one state and act with a united front. Without Arab support, Palestinian independence from the imperialistic nature of their relationship with Israel is likely impossible.
On October 18 of last year, in Manama, minutes after the signing of a joint communique on establishing diplomatic relations, an Israeli official handed the Bahraini foreign minister a note with a request to open a genuine embassy in Manama. The infrastructure is already largely in place thanks to the secret mission, Israeli officials say. Palestinian leaders continue to condemn any steps from Arab states toward normalization with Israel, and they hope a Biden administration takes office in January with a new set of policies toward the region. Ultimately though, supporters of the deal believe Israel can help Bahrain counter threats from Iran and Hezbollah, terror attacks by ISIS and al-Qaeda, and the rise of regional rivals Turkey and Qatar.
The other driving force behind Bahrain’s embassy with Israel is the U.S. Though multiple U.S. administrations proposed a peace process that would result in two states, one Palestinian and one Israeli, the Trump administration dimmed the prospects of a two-state solution, siding almost entirely with Israel. Israel, since its very creation, has had a unique and close bond to the U.S. For instance, Israel has received $3 billion from the U.S. annually for the last decade, making it the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II.
This is coupled with the fact that the U.S. has had, since the ’70s, an increasingly volatile, relationship with Iran. During the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi, was forced to leave following months of political and social upheaval. His replacement, religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini, returned from exile and what followed was the highly publicized U.S. Embassy hostage crisis, Iran-Contra scandal, and the “Axis of Evil” speech. More recently, the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani sullied what was a semblance of peace there was left from the nuclear deal pushed by the Obama Administration. The influential leader and head of the Iranian Quds Force was killed by a US drone attack in January 2020, hiking tensions between the US and Iran.
The world is also waiting to see whether Iran will strike back at Israel or the U.S. over the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program. Senior Iranian officials have stressed that Iran will take revenge against the perpetrators, but also respond by continuing Fakhrizadeh’s legacy — the nuclear program.
The White House, therefore, has an incentive to leverage momentum from Israel’s normalization deals with Bahrain and the UAE to get more Arab countries on board to gain more Middle Eastern allies in their enmity with Iran. Saudi Arabia quietly gave political support to the UAE and Bahrain, and it took a smaller step of its own by beginning to allow Israeli airliners to use its airspace. At least publicly, the Saudi position is that its energies are focused on a resumption of negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. But, given they’re the power broker for Bahrain especially, the covert embassy would say otherwise.
Self-interest is at play here. For the Middle Eastern regional powers and the United States, Iran is seen as the ultimate enemy, and becoming friends with Israel is seen as the most optimal way to keep Iran in check. What happens to Palestine is merely in the peripheral. This is important to keep in mind moving forward: recognition of Israel is becoming normalized, putting Iran in jeopardy and sidelining the Palestinian cause. What will happen in the future will likely serve to strengthen this trend.