What Bahrain's warming Syria ties mean for Gulf politics
Bahrain decided to fully renormalise diplomatic relations with the Syrian government by appointing a new ambassador to their embassy in Damascus on 30 December 2021.
Such a move is certainly significant to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s nearly 11-year effort to regain control of the country, and it is hardly a surprise that Manama has become the next Arab state to mend ties.
While the decision marks a continuation of a gradual, albeit accelerating, effort by the Arab world and international community to move past the conflict, it could also offer an important insight into the state of Gulf politics – specifically that of Saudi and Emirati influence and competition.
Arab renormalisation: Efforts and influences
Bahrain’s move to re-normalise is unsurprising. Manama chose to re-open its embassy in Damascus in 2018 following a similar decision by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) the same year. It has also issued sentiments of support for Syria’s territorial sovereignty and what it called a fight against terrorist elements within its borders.
All of this aside, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa certainly views any effort to counter Iranian influence in a positive light given his history of alignment with Saudi Arabia. This is likely crucial to Manama’s calculations as it typically defers to its neighbours on foreign policy – specifically that of Riyadh.
"Bahrain's decision could offer an important insight into the state of Gulf politics – specifically that of Saudi and Emirati influence and competition"
However, it seems less likely that Saudi Arabia is directing renormalisation efforts given its relative silence, although this is not to suggest a lack of Saudi awareness on the subject. Rather, such normalisation efforts are emanating from other centres of power, particularly that of Abu Dhabi and Amman.
Jordanian King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein has pursued active diplomatic efforts to bring Assad in from the cold, reportedly even presenting a six-page renormalisation plan to every Arab nation and many major international players involved in Syria based on the argument that a new path is necessary to resolve the crisis. Bahrain has certainly been briefed on this approach and could be planning accordingly.
That said, the more likely source of influence lies with the Emiratis, who have conducted aggressive diplomacy to bring Assad back into the Arab fold. While it is still unclear if Amman and Abu Dhabi are coordinating their approach to Syria, UAE actions reflect an alignment of basic interests at a minimum.
This includes Abu Dhabi’s calls for Damascus’s return to the Arab League – sentiments shared with the likes of Algeria and Egypt - and the Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s recent visit to meet with Assad in Syria and his consistent calls for an end to US sanctions.
Bahrain likely sees such actions by the Emiratis, coupled with Abdullah’s detailed diplomatic campaign, as powerful reasons to ride the shifting currents, and Abu Dhabi’s increasing involvement in Bahrain certainly plays a leading role.
But for Manana, there are likely other internal and external considerations at play.
There are benefits to renormalising diplomatic relations with Syria before the rest of the Arab world. This includes lucrative reconstruction contracts should sanctions be lifted as well as diplomatic influence in Damascus.
From Manama’s perspective, the geopolitical gain from taking an early seat at the table alongside the Emiratis and Jordanians could be substantial. Furthermore, the costs are quite low given an implicit acceptance by the United States, the opposition’s supposed largest supporter outside of Turkey.
By moving early and offering Damascus incentives, Arab states seem to believe they can limit Iranian influence in Syria and improve their standing. Bahrain has a Shia majority population, and lacking any viable defence outside of its neighbours, certainly views Tehran’s militia capabilities and geopolitical gamesmanship across the region with wary eyes.
Outside of the Iranian factor, it is also important to consider Bahrain’s counterrevolutionary stance against the Arab Spring. While some Arab states did rush to back various militias and armed groups at the onset of the conflict in Syria, Manama has hardly operated as a revolutionary powerhouse, again in no small part due to its lack of foreign policy independence from Riyadh.
Rather, it has worked in lockstep with the Saudis while also holding relatively good relations with the Russians – especially following the Islamic State's (IS) takeover of much of Syria. On top of this, King Khalifa experienced – and suppressed – the 2011 Bahraini uprising early in the Arab Spring, hardly making him sympathetic to rebels in northern Syria.
Yet even with this in mind, it is impossible to imagine Bahrain making these decisions outside of Riyadh’s influence – a point that keeps circling back into focus.
Riyadh shifting or regional competition?
It is difficult to believe that Saudi Arabia is not privy to and acting upon geopolitical shifts regarding Syria, let alone Bahrain’s decision to renormalise. However, whether Riyadh was actively involved in the Manama-Damascus rapprochement and supported the shift is up to interpretation.
Conventional thinking correctly pins Bahrain’s foreign policy decisions to Riyadh. Along these lines, should the Bahrainis be acting out of self-interest – a stance that is inseparable from Riyadh in many regards – it would hardly be surprising if the Kingdom chose to test the waters of renormalisation through its small Gulf neighbour to avoid further public backlash against itself.
"This is one of the rare, but not only, cases of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia being on different pages. To be sure, I don't think Bahrain would have done this if Saudi Arabia had a huge problem with it"
Some of Riyadh’s recent diplomatic overtures to Assad could support this notion. On 4 May 2021, Saudi intelligence chief General Khalid Humaidan met his counterpart Ali Mamlouk in Syria in the first known meeting between the countries in a decade. The meeting supposedly laid the groundwork for an eventual reopening of the Saudi embassy in Damascus, although this has yet to be realised.
On the other hand, there is compelling evidence to believe Riyadh is not behind Manama’s decision. From this vantage point, Saudi Ambassador to the United Nations Abdullah al-Mouallimi’s vilification of the Assad regime at a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 16 December is crucial.
“Don’t believe them if their leader stands on a pyramid of innocent people claiming a great victory; how can he declare victory from amongst the remains of innocent people and the ruins of people’s houses,” argued Mouallimi following a planned vote on a UNGA resolution regarding Syria – some of the strongest words from a Saudi official to date on the subject.
Such statements, coupled with previous diplomatic actions and Bahrain’s renormalisation effort, make Saudi Arabia’s Syria policy difficult to interpret. This apparent conflict of stances between Riyadh and Manama could reflect the latter’s gradual shift towards the UAE instead.
Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy, highlights this dynamic. “I think it [Bahrain] is a client of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Since 2011, the Emiratis have put a lot of money into Bahrain. Just as Bahrain followed in the footsteps of Abu Dhabi with respect to the Abraham Accords – which Riyadh has not joined – this is another case of a development in the region that suggests that Abu Dhabi has a little more influence in Bahrain than the Saudis.”
Still, Cafiero suggests Riyadh probably only minimally disagreed with its neighbour’s choice, arguing “this is one of the rare, but not only, cases of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia being on different pages. To be sure, I don’t think Bahrain would have done this if Saudi Arabia had a huge problem with it.”
Much remains to be seen regarding renormalisation efforts with Damascus and Gulf politics surrounding the issue. While Bahrain’s decision raises many plausible questions and explanations as to Saudi intentions, the state of the region’s geopolitics and shifting relationships is complex.
Ultimately, Riyadh could be testing the possibility of rapprochement with Assad, or Manama could be further aligning with Abu Dhabi at the expense of the Saudis – perhaps in support of balancing the two powers to grow its own autonomy.
The former would be ground-breaking for Damascus, lending Assad additional leverage on the regional and international stage to finally claim victory in the war. The latter would suggest a deeper level of regional competition between the Saudis and Emiratis than initially suspected – a more likely scenario at present.
For now, one fact is clear – the Syrian revolution seems to be nearing the end of its hard-fought campaign, much to the expense of Syrians everywhere.
Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @langloisajl