Bahrain and the United States have forged a surprising strategic cooperation agreement, catching many by surprise amid the ongoing speculation about a possible US-Saudi-Israel deal. While the world’s attention was diverted elsewhere, Washington and Manama secretly negotiated an accord that signals a significant shift in US commitment to the Gulf region and beyond.
Bahrain, along with many of its neighboring nations, has long sought greater reliability and predictability from the United States. They desire a partner they can depend on consistently, not just in dealing with the Iranian threat but in all strategic matters. Arab allies often perceive the US as inconsistent, with one administration being friendly and the next treating them with disregard or dragging its feet on crucial bilateral cooperation.
This discord between Arab leaders’ expectations and the unpredictable nature of the US relationship stems from a flawed Washington perspective: the belief that the Gulf Arab states need the US, with its military assets, troops, technology, and markets, more than the US needs them. The novel aspect of this agreement lies in the United States acknowledging that this perspective is no longer valid.
Credit goes to the Biden administration for recognizing and adapting to this new reality, reshaping policies that will reshape the modern Middle East. In this legally binding agreement, the United States commits to consultation and providing assistance if Bahrain faces an imminent security threat. This represents an unprecedented level of security assurance extended by the US to an Arab state, setting a new standard for future agreements with regional powers.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has highlighted that the pact will enhance coordination between the armed forces and intelligence capabilities of both nations. Critics who argue that this agreement falls short of a NATO Article 5-style security guarantee miss the broader point. This pact with Bahrain sets a new benchmark and will serve as the foundation for forthcoming agreements with other regional powers – and more of them are likely on the horizon.
The question arises: Why Bahrain, and why now? Bahrain’s leaders initiated discussions on this agreement over a year ago, recognizing the opportune moment to elevate their historically close relationship with the United States. Bahrain has played several “firsts” in this partnership – hosting a major US military base (Naval Forces Central Command), signing a free trade agreement with the US, and gaining major non-NATO ally status.
However, evolving regional threats and the impact of globalization compelled the need for an even stronger partnership. The Abraham Accords provided further momentum, creating a new strategic landscape with opportunities that Bahrain was keen to capitalize on.
For the US, the path to this agreement was not straightforward. President Biden and his foreign policy team initially approached office with caution about deeper Middle East involvement. Nonetheless, recent events such as the Afghanistan withdrawal, disputes with Saudi Arabia over oil production, failed nuclear talks with Iran, and growing competition with China have underscored the importance of not taking Gulf partners for granted. This has led to a drive to formalize the interdependent nature of these relationships.
The choice of Bahrain as the inaugural regional partner for this pact is logical. It combines strategic importance, especially in securing vital maritime chokepoints, with political alignment on key issues. Bahrain has consistently been a steadfast and dependable ally, maintaining a close alignment with Washington on economic, foreign policy, and outlook matters.
What lies ahead? Expect other Arab nations to follow suit, either by joining the US-Bahrain pact or negotiating separate agreements building on this precedent. Bahrain has once again led the way, demonstrating what imagination and determination can achieve.