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The US and Bahrain have signed a security and economic agreement, a signal of Washington’s renewed engagement with its Gulf allies and a potential blueprint for follow-on deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The deal, agreed by US secretary of state Antony Blinken and Bahrain’s prime minister, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, on Wednesday, would strengthen military and intelligence co-ordination, the White House said.
Bahrain, which hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, is already a non-Nato Washington ally regarded by the west as a bulwark against Iranian influence.
“There’s keen interest in the Gulf in having explicit security agreements with the US,” said Jon Alterman, Middle East programme director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank in Washington. “The Bahrain agreement falls far short of what neighbours are seeking, but it will be the key reference point for their negotiations.”
Gulf states are searching for protection akin to Nato’s Article 5 commitment of mutual defence, but the US Senate is not keen to create binding commitments for the country to fight another war in the Middle East, Alterman added.
Bahrain, along with the UAE, normalised relations with Israel in 2020. The US hopes to elicit a similar response from Saudi Arabia, in return for security guarantees and economic incentives.
The US and EU last week backed the development of a ship and rail corridor connecting India to the Mediterranean Sea through the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel.
Lengthy US-UAE discussions towards another comprehensive partnership have yet to make a breakthrough. The UAE was angered at what it saw as a tepid US response to missile strikes by Yemeni rebels on its capital last year. Abu Dhabi’s technological co-operation with China has also raised alarm in Washington.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, while both concerned about the Iranian threat, are also working to improve bilateral ties with Tehran as the region pursues de-escalation.
The agreement comes as the Gulf kingdom struggles with domestic division. On the eve of the crown prince’s visit to Washington, hundreds of opposition prisoners suspended their protest against conditions in Bahrain’s jails after the government agreed to introduce changes.
The kingdom has failed to find social peace since the Arab spring unrest of 2011, when protests led by the majority Shia Muslims were brutally quelled by the minority Sunni-led government, backed by Gulf leaders who feared the spread of democracy movements and Iranian encroachment across the Arabian peninsula.
The White House said promoting human rights was an “important topic” of discussions with the crown prince.
The agreement also spans economic co-operation, hoping to build on the US-Bahrain free trade agreement of 2006, which has helped to more than triple trade to $3bn a year.
It promotes the development of “trusted” digital technologies to support secure telecommunications networks, which the US described as the first binding agreement of its kind.