Analysis: Israeli president visits the UAE and Bahrain for the first time

Israeli president Isaac Herzog > Elad Brami, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Isaac Herzog this week returned to Israel after a two-day visit to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. The Israeli President’s visit underlined the changed relationship between the two Gulf states and the Jewish state following the Abraham Accords, while also highlighting some potential difficulties on the horizon.

What happened 

  • Herzog arrived in Bahrain on Sunday morning for the first visit by an Israeli president. On Monday, after meeting the king and foreign minister, he headed to the UAE.
  • “Bahrain has chosen to roll out the red carpet to a future of partnership, peace and prosperity with my country,” the President wrote.
  • Demonstrations in Bahrain before Herzog’s arrival indicated the splits and public unease in the island kingdom and the UAE about the “warm peace” the two states are pursuing with Israel.
  • The visit also comes as Israel’s new Gulf allies await Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to office.
  • The past two years have seen major economic and strategic steps forward in relations between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain.
  • Despite hopes at the time the Abraham Accords were signed, other major players in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, have not yet normalised relations with Israel, while Jordan remains outside the Negev Forum which was formed this year.

“Message of peace to the region” 

As he set off for the Persian Gulf, Herzog declared the visit “a message of peace to the region”.

  • Herzog was welcomed to Manama by Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani. After meeting with the foreign minister, Herzog travelled to the Al-Qudaibiya Palace, where he was received by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. In a highly symbolic moment, the national anthems of Israel and Bahrain were played before the two heads of state entered the palace.
  • In his welcome, the king expressed his “firm position in support of achieving a just, comprehensive, and sustainable peace that guarantees the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people”.
  • Herzog said: “You are at the forefront of making history in the region, where Jews and Muslims can dwell together, the sons of Abraham, and move forward in peace.”
  • On Sunday evening, Herzog visited the Bahrain Economic Development Board with Bahrain’s crown prince and Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad. Bahrain is reportedly eager to boost inward investment from Israel.
  • On Monday, Herzog flew to the UAE, to which he is paying his second visit. The President met with the UAE’s foreign minister, Abdullah Bin Zayed, and the ruler of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Bin Zayed told Herzog that “we built a very strong bridge between the countries” and said the president should consider the UAE his “second home”.

Bibi’s return 

The UAE and Bahrain appear to be nervously contemplating the return of Netanyahu to Israel’s premiership. Netanyahu signed the Abraham Accords before leaving office in summer 2021 and placed great store on ending the Jewish state’s regional isolation. On Sunday, Zayani spoke warmly about the incoming prime minister to journalists. “We truly in Bahrain look forward to working with the new government under the leadership of one of the major signatories and partners of the Abraham Accords,” suggested the kingdom’s foreign minister. “We believe that he firmly believes in peace, especially as stated in the Abraham Accords, and in the principles of the Abraham Accords.” His comments came after Netanyahu held a phone call with Bahrain’s crown prince and prime minister last month. However, there is deep concern about the Prime Minister-elect’s far-right coalition allies. In October, it was reported that bin Zayad, the UAE foreign minister, had warned Netanyahu ahead of the elections that including Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich in his government risked endangering ties with the country and the Abraham Accords. Netanyahu is said to have responded that he was handling the matter. In the UAE, Herzog, a former leader of the Israeli Labor party, attempted to reassure Israel’s new friends. “The Abraham Accords are a national consensus in Israel on all sides of the political spectrum,” he said.

Eye on the public 

Demonstrations were held in Bahrain prior to Herzog’s arrival with chants of “Death to Israel” at rallies – reportedly organised by pro-Iran opposition groups – on Friday.

  • Demonstrators are said to have burned an Israeli flag and clashed with riot place. No protests were allowed once Herzog had arrived in the country.
  • However, polling suggests that public support for closer relations with Israel has fallen markedly (although so, too, has sentiment towards the US, as pro-Russia and pro-China feelings rise). While analysts suggest that attitudes towards normalisation remains much more positive in Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia than in Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan and Egypt, “even in countries signed onto the accords … support has dwindled from larger minorities in the initial period after the accords were signed”.
  • Joshua Krasna, Middle East expert at the Moshe Dayan Centre at Tel Aviv University, argued societies remain deeply divided over normalisation: “There’s a division between very modern, western-oriented people, some of them younger, some of them older, who are interested in business, are not very religious, and those who are much more conservative, more religious.”
  • As the Times of Israel reported on the second anniversary of the signing of the Accords: “Israel has made a concerted effort to ensure that people-to-people ties grow in a way that they never did after the agreements with Egypt and Jordan.” However, the paper noted: “As time goes on, the Abraham Accords are becoming less popular on the streets of Israel’s new allies.” It added: “The asymmetry manifests itself outside of polling. Throngs of Arab tourists to Israel have not materialised, and the rulers of the Abraham Accords countries have yet to reciprocate visits by Israel’s president and prime ministers.”
  • Nonetheless, in an op-ed last week, Herzog expressed a desire for a “future of student exchanges, of joint projects between youth, of collaborative ventures between universities” within the “broader region”. He argued that “the climate crisis is one of the areas in which our small countries can and must punch above our weight”, he also suggested: “our mission is to create a renewable Middle East”.
  • There is also a difference between public opinion in Bahrain and the UAE. The Emirates’ government and royal family retain greater support and trust than in its neighbour.

Holocaust lessons 

Despite setbacks, one important indication of change in the region is evident in the manner in which the UAE is soon to include teaching about the Holocaust in its school curriculum. A senior historian at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, which has been working with the UAE’s Culture and Youth Ministry on curriculum development, noted: “Holocaust denial in the Arab-Muslim world has been a historic challenge for us … but these important developments are indicative of a change that we saw beginning in Morocco, where they began addressing the Holocaust more.”

The economic payoff 

  • In a sign of the importance of the economic dimension to the Abraham Accords, Herzog’s delegation included a raft of Israeli business leaders and organisations.
  • Officials at the economic forum told The Times of Israel that by January there would be five direct weekly flights between Tel Aviv and Manama. They also suggested that, in the next few months, that number would rise to seven.
  • Herzog, however, outlined a more radical agenda before he departed for the Gulf. “Direct flights between Israel and Bahrain were only the beginning,” he wrote. “The free trade agreement that we hope to conclude in the foreseeable future will unleash an outburst of trade, as Israelis discover Manama as their gateway to the Gulf, as Bahrainis discover more opportunities for business with Israel’s dynamic, innovative economy.”
  • As an analysis by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy outlines, Israel’s economic relationship with the UAE is flourishing.
  • In the first of its kind between Israel and an Arab state, a free trade agreement – which required tariffs on 96 percent of goods to be immediately or gradually eliminated – was reached with the UAE in May.
  • Bilateral trade, which hit approximately $1.154bn in 2021 – a jump of 510 percent on the previous year – is set to double to $2.5bn in 2022. By contrast, trade between Egypt and Israel is estimated to be no more than $330m in 2022 – more than double that between Israel and Jordan.

What next? 

  • Saudi Arabia remains publicly committed to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative formula of normalisation linked directly to a two-state solution. However, there is speculation that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who assumed the role of prime minister in September, may in the future use the loose and flexible language of the 2002 plan to increase relations with Israel.
  • At the same time, the Saudis won’t be keen to give Joe Biden, who has been fiercely critical of MBS, a diplomatic win and are also thought to be awaiting the departure of the politically weak and ageing Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, before making any substantive move.
  • Although it has diplomatic relations with Israel, Jordan has stood aside from the Negev Forum, which was formed this year between Israel, the US, Egypt, Morocco, the UAE, and Bahrain. Jordan is reluctant to participate until the Palestinians do – but the Palestinian Authority will have no truck with a forum arising from the Abraham Accords, which were signed on the watch of its arch-enemy Donald Trump.