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US Touts Bahrain Defense Agreement as Model for Middle East Strategy

The upgrade to US-Bahrain ties marks the latest sign of Biden’s emerging Middle East strategy following the announcement of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor at the G20 summit last week.

WASHINGTON — The United States on Wednesday signed an agreement with Bahrain that entails Washington’s support for the Gulf kingdom should it come under foreign attack.

Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who is also the country’s prime minister, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken inked the agreement to expand the two countries’ defense and economic ties during a ceremony in Washington.

Biden administration officials hope the deal will be the first in a series with Middle Eastern nations as the US seeks to maintain its influence in the region following major military withdrawals as it competes with China on the global stage.

Details of the deal are expected to be made public in the coming days, a senior administration official told reporters on Tuesday. The official said the agreement builds upon existing US-Bahraini military ties and a free trade agreement signed by the two countries in 2004, while aiming to bring Manama into partnership with the United States in its race to become the global leader in artificial intelligence (AI) technology.

It further expands intelligence sharing and stipulates a process for Manama to consult with the United States on a potential response in case Bahrain is subjected to “external aggression,” said the senior official, who spoke to reporters on Tuesday on condition of anonymity ahead of the signing ceremony.

While the official said the agreement is not explicitly directed at Iran, Gulf states have sought greater assurances that Washington will defend them from threats by the Islamic Republic, which has long claimed Bahrain, a majority-Shiite island nation, as one of its historic provinces.

“This is defensive in nature; it’s about deterrence,” the senior official said. “The ultimate objective of agreements like this is to ensure that you never get to that worst-case scenario.”

The agreement — which comes after nearly a year of shuttle deliberations between US and Bahraini officials — falls short of the Article 5-style defense guarantees long requested of Washington by Gulf leaders, and thus does not require Congressional approval, the senior official said.

Why it matters: In contrast to its predecessors, the Biden administration has pursued a more ground-up approach in its attempts to build a broad Middle East coalition to deter Iran while heading off China’s defense and technology inroads in the region. But it has nonetheless faced stiff headwinds.

This week’s bilateral agreement with Bahrain suggests the administration is narrowing its push even further, starting with a piecemeal agreement with Manama — a major non-NATO ally that hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet — which may encourage Gulf neighbors to emulate.

US Central Command has led the Biden administration’s efforts to bring regional militaries into mutual cooperation with Israel since the signing of the Abraham Accords, but lingering distrust between Gulf countries and continued objections to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians have inhibited progress.

Wednesday’s deal seeks to cement the Pentagon’s recent progress while laying groundwork for additional Gulf countries to join the envisioned coalition.

The agreement includes a provision that allows the US and Bahrain to invite other countries to join, the senior official said, describing the deal as a “cornerstone” through which “a broader grouping of countries” can promote stability and economic growth in the Middle East.

It is also the first legally binding agreement between the United States and a foreign country that promotes cooperation on what administration officials call “trusted technology,” or emerging tech deemed not to threaten US intelligence and defense interests.

Why Bahrain? Bahrain has hosted fluctuating numbers of US military forces since the 1970s. It permitted the George H.W. Bush administration to amass troops in the country following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and it allowed US aircraft based there to launch the first strikes on Iraqi soil at the onset of the campaign to destroy the Islamic State in 2014. 

The island nation has also hosted a US-led maritime security coalition and was the first country to partner with the US Navy’s new artificial intelligence-enabled drone task force, dubbed Task Force 59, starting in 2021.

Wednesday’s deal seeks to formalize many of the initiatives CENTCOM has led over the past two years in the region, from integrating regional air and missile defenses to stringing together mesh networks of AI-enabled sensors to monitor Iranian activities in Gulf waterways.

“We very much believe the United States of America is at the forefront of the AI revolution, and Bahrain has been a very close partner in that regard,” the senior administration official said.

“Recognizing partners that have significantly contributed to US national security is what we need to be doing, and this does that,” said Mick Mulroy, a former Pentagon policy official and retired CIA officer.

“It is critical that our partners know the US is going to be there for the long run. We need to make things like being included as a major non-NATO ally mean something,” said Mulroy, now an ABC News analyst.

A strategy emerges: Washington’s agreement with Bahrain is the second major Middle East strategic announcement by the Biden White House in less than a week, following more than two years of lingering questions over its apparently waning interest in the region as the US focuses on a rising China.

During the G20 summit in New Delhi last week, Biden unveiled key pillars of his administration’s response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which includes several countries in the Middle East. 

Biden and other leaders announced a plan to link India, Gulf states, Israel and Europe via a new trade and energy transport corridor that bypasses the Suez Canal. The White House also announced plans to free up hundreds of billions in international loans to promote development in lower- and middle-income countries via the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The moves come as China’s economy has begun to stall after years of unchecked growth. 

Devil’s in the details: Skepticism about US military commitment continues to run high in Middle Eastern capitals — particularly in the Gulf — following Washington’s failures to contain Iran’s nuclear advances and the Biden administration’s withdrawal of tens of thousands of military forces from the region.

Gulf states will likely be watching what exactly this deal entails for Washington’s commitment to defend Bahrain against Iran.

Wednesday’s agreement serves as a comparatively low-risk trial balloon for the United States, as Manama isn’t entangled in any conflicts abroad — unlike Saudi Arabia and the UAE, whose foray in Yemen has triggered unprecedented pressure from Congress to withhold major arms sales to those countries. 

“If both the US and Bahrain fulfill their ends of the bargain by sharing more intelligence that makes both safer — and by collaborating on initiatives that are force-multipliers for both — then the new agreement could serve as a model,” Kirsten Fontenrose, a former senior director for the Gulf region at the White House National Security Council, told Al-Monitor.

“But if either is left wondering what they get out of the arrangement, then the US will not be likely to offer the same to nations that expose the US to more geopolitical risk than Bahrain does,” Fontenrose said.

What’s next: The administration plans to notify details of the agreement to Congress, where lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are rallying support for the US-led Middle East defense initiative. 

Know more: Even if the United States can forge similar bilateral deals with additional Gulf states, it won’t be a substitute for a true regional coalition that shares a common operating picture, former officials say. 

“Upgraded bilateral agreements would just be the sum of the parts,” Fontenrose said.

Source : MEMO