Bahrain’s charm offensive

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Much has been written about the political and emerging economic significance of the historic Abraham Accords. For the most part, the focus has been upon high-level governmental interactions and business-to-business collaborations. Tourism and travel between Israel and new Accord states has also been pursued, highlighting regional cooperation and interaction.

So, it was particularly interesting to learn about the diplomatic “charm offensive” pursued by Bahrain’s undersecretary of state for political affairs, Sheikh Abdulla Al Khalifa, during a two-day visit to New York City last week, in advance of traditional political meetings scheduled in Washington, D.C. While in New York, Al Khalifa reached out directly to the local Jewish community and held a series of meetings with synagogue rabbis, communal and business leaders and several university students, all with an eye toward improving people-to-people connections between Bahrain and American Jews.

Reports from the meetings show how deftly Al Khalifa navigated many of the thorny issues that need to be addressed as Bahrain seeks to capitalize on its ground-breaking normalization process with Israel. Showing classic diplomatic dexterity, Al Khalifa gave credit to the Trump administration for orchestrating the Accords and to the Biden administration for helping to implement and expand them. And he was careful to avoid the uncomfortable discussion of human rights issues in Bahrain, focusing instead on the development and expansion of the “warm peace” being pursued by Bahrain with Israel, and emphasizing people-to-people connections. And as part of that pitch, Al Khalifa made clear his interest in assistance from the American Jewish community in helping to spread a positive message about Bahrain.

By all reports, participants were impressed — and with good cause. This is an entirely new grassroots approach to international relationship building and presents some appealing prospects. But it also has risks, and we urge caution. Participants were invited by Sheikh Al Khalifa to spread the word about “the values of coexistence and acceptance and tolerance that Bahrain has been upholding for so long.” While that sounds good, it paints an entirely misleading picture of the Bahrain the world knows.

Freedom House, which monitors human rights around the world, refers to Bahrain as “one of the Middle East’s more repressive states” and says it violently crushes pro-democracy protests and political dissent. And according to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor of the U.S. State Department, Bahrain is a human rights mess, with a very long list of cringe-inducing violations of citizens’ personal, political and societal freedoms. The Sunni-dominated monarchy of Bahrain rules the country’s Shia majority with brute force. And there are few signs of the “acceptance and tolerance” to which Al Khalifa referred.

The Abraham Accords offer an unimaginable array of possibilities. But we can’t be blinded by the glitter of opportunity and the smooth talk of diplomacy. As much as we may want to promote enhanced relationships with our Accord cousins, we must demand that our partners respect human rights and human dignity.

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