Bahrain-Israel Links Grow as Normalisation Takes Off

14 September 2021 Leighton G. Luke, Research Manager, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

New air and diplomatic links between Bahrain and Israel are coming into effect and, together with increased trade volumes, constitute the latest developments flowing from the Abraham Accords, which are beginning to bring demonstrable benefits.

 

Background

New air and diplomatic links between Bahrain and Israel are coming into effect and, together with increased trade volumes, constitute the latest developments flowing from the Abraham Accords. Under that agreement, signed in a ceremony on the White House lawn on 15 September 2020, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, with some deal-sweetening from the US, agreed to the full normalisation of their respective relationships with the State of Israel.

Comment

Khaled Yousif al-Jalahma, Bahrain’s first ambassador to Israel arrived to take up his posting on 31 August. Mr al-Jalahma, whose previous postings include a four-year stint as deputy ambassador to the United States, went on to present his credentials to Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in the Knesset (Parliament) on 2 September 2021. Mr al-Jalahma’s arrival was preceded by the four-day visit to Israel in early August of Bahraini Undersecretary for International Relations, Dr Shaikh Abdulla bin Ahmed Al Khalifa.

The Bahraini flag carrier Gulf Air announced on 9 September that it will begin operating twice-weekly flights to Tel Aviv on 30 September. In a neat gimmick, the flight numbers – GF972 and GF973 – are also the international calling codes for Israel and Bahrain, respectively.

While the Israeli national carrier, El Al, is yet to announce flights of its own to Bahrain, Gulf Air’s Tel Aviv flights will offer another boost to regional connectivity and will complement the flights between Tel Aviv and Dubai that have already been taken up by El Al, Israir, Arkia and Fly Dubai. While that connectivity will be welcomed by travellers and cargo forwarders alike, it is arguable that senior management at El Al should see the arrival of Gulf Air as an opportunity to prepare for the competition that must eventually arrive from award-winning Emirati carriers Emirates and Etihad.

Among all of the Gulf states, Bahrain is also home to the region’s only native Jewish population and the airline is wisely looking to entice Jewish North American and European visitors to Israel to add a Bahraini side-trip to their itineraries. Recognising that potential, the Ritz Carlton Bahrain hotel has begun to offer kosher menus, and tourism authorities in the Kingdom are reportedly eager for other operators to do the same.

Priced from US$299.00 ($408.00) return for departures from Tel Aviv and 210.30 dinars ($761.00) for bookings from Bahrain, with a flying time of between two-and-a-half and three hours, the Gulf Air flights arguably may not be great value. Despite such attractions as beaches, markets and historical sites, it is probable that, rather than having Bahrain itself as the destination, or even as a stopover, most of the Israeli travellers on the Tel Aviv-Manama flights will use them as connections to onward destinations. Even so, Israeli passengers will still be a useful source of revenue that was not previously available and which meshes with the Bahraini Government’s moves to expand the country’s tourism industry as a means of diversifying the economy in the wake of low oil prices and reduced hydrocarbon reserves. Oil continues to be the Kingdom’s main export and accounts for 85 per cent of the government budget.

Reflecting the effective global shutdown of civil aviation during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Bahraini non-oil sector shrank by three per cent in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the year before. More positively, the sector is predicted grow by 3.8% in 2021 this year and 3.7% in 2022; the overall Bahraini economy is forecast to expand by between 3.1% and 3.3% this year.

Although the Abraham Accords are now just one year old, they have already brought economic benefits; in just the first seven months of 2021, the trade in goods between Israel and the UAE increased to US$613.9 million, compared to US$50.8 million recorded over the same period in 2020. According to a report by the Times of Israel, citing figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics, trade between Israel and Bahrain over the same period increased from zero to US$300,000.

For Bahrain, in addition to the obvious security aspects of the Abraham Accords, the benefits of normalisation include the ability to make use of Israeli technology and know-how in such fields as energy, food and water security, agriculture and health services.

While the Biden White House’s dealings with the Middle East may generally be characterised as tepid in comparison to its predecessor, it is notable that it has not backtracked on any aspect of the Abraham Accords. While that may account, at least in part, for the lack of any further normalisations by other Middle Eastern and North African countries, for the existing signatories, normalisation is beginning to bring some demonstrable benefits.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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