Gaza War Widens Gap Between Arab Rulers and Citizens

As the afternoon light softened, a man holding a megaphone stepped to the front of a crowd of about 200 people in the Bahraini capital, Manama, and began to shout at the top of his lungs.

The demonstrators, waving Palestinian flags, repeated his words with gusto, imploring their American-allied authoritarian government to expel the Israeli ambassador who was appointed two years ago, after Bahrain established diplomatic ties with Israel.

“No Zionist embassy on Bahraini land!” they chanted. “No American military bases on Bahraini land!”

Less than four miles away, American and European men in full military regalia gathered for the Manama Dialogue, an annual conference that brings together senior officials from Western powers and the Middle East to discuss regional security. They milled about a gilded ballroom in the heavily guarded Ritz-Carlton hotel just hours after the protest — largely unaware that it had even occurred.

When Bahrain’s crown prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, took to the stage, he pleased much of the audience by condemning Hamas, the Palestinian armed group that runs Gaza and which led the Oct. 7 attack on Israel that killed about 1,200 people, according to Israeli authorities.

The war in Gaza that followed the attack has not only laid bare a chasm between many Arab leaders and their people; it has widened it.

Bahrain, a Gulf nation of about 1.6 million, has witnessed an outpouring of popular support for the Palestinians and a surge in hostility toward Israel since the war began. The Israeli military responded to the Hamas attack by bombing and laying siege to Gaza in a military campaign that has killed more than 16,000 people, according to Gazan authorities.

While there has long been a disconnect between many Arab states and their citizens over their approach to the Palestinian cause, the war has brought that gap into the sharpest focus in years. At many protests across the region, people have gone beyond condemning Israel to chant in support of Hamas and to criticize their own governments.

In Morocco and Jordan, thousands have rallied to demand their countries cut ties with Israel. In Cairo, pro-Palestinian protesters gathered in Tahrir Square, where Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising began, and revived a revolutionary cry for bread, freedom and social justice.

And in Bahrain, protesters said that in addition to feeling a deep sense of shared Arab and Islamic identity, they saw connections between Palestinian liberation and their own liberation from political repression.

“I look forward for us to be free people,” said Fatima Jumua, a 22-year-old Bahraini woman who attended the protest in Manama. “Our existence and freedom is connected to the existence and freedom of Palestine.”

For decades, most Arab governments refused to establish ties with Israel before the creation of a Palestinian state. But that calculus shifted in the years before the war, as authoritarian leaders weighed negative public opinion toward Israel against the economic and security benefits of a relationship — and the concessions they might extract from the United States, Israel’s top ally.

“Bahrain’s government wants to be seen as a voice of moderation in the United States, and it is increasingly using its new relationship with Israel to shape this perception in Washington,” said Elham Fakhro, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a think tank. “But at home, it is having a different effect.”

In 2020, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco established relations with Israel in deals brokered by the Trump administration and known as the Abraham Accords, joining Egypt and Jordan, which have had peace agreements with Israel for decades.

The deals were celebrated by the Western governments that have long supported the region’s royal families and in September, the Bahraini government signed a comprehensive security pact with the Biden administration.

But polls showed that most ordinary Arab citizens increasingly view the establishment of ties with Israel dimly.

In Bahrain — with its Sunni Muslim royal family and majority-Shiite Muslim population — officials declared that the accords encouraged tolerance and coexistence. But that rang hollow to many citizens as the government continued to crack down on domestic dissent.

The Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel unite Bahrainis across sectarian and political lines — Sunnis and Shiites, secular leftists and conservative Islamists, young and old. Asked in a poll before the war what impact the Abraham Accords would have on the region, 76 percent of Bahrainis said a negative one.

The accords were “forced against the will of the people,” said Abdulnabi Alekry, a 60-year-old Bahraini human rights activist.

Ms. Fakhro of Chatham House said Bahrain had been on edge for many years because of tensions between the government and opposition movements.

“This crisis is further widening that rift,” she said.

Bahrain crushed an Arab Spring uprising in 2011 with help of Saudi and Emirati forces. It also hosts one of the region’s most important American military bases.

Bahraini protesters said they view Israel as a colonial-style occupying power and a Western-backed project designed to dominate the region. Some said Israel should not even exist.

Ms. Jumua said the Palestinians and the rest of the region’s people all live under the sway of Western powers.

“Until now, we see that we can’t move without American approval,” she said.

Back at the Ritz-Carlton hotel the morning after the protest, senior Arab and American officials returned to the glitzy ballroom to debate a path forward for Gaza.

Asked about negative public opinion toward the Abraham Accords, Brett McGurk, a top White House official for the Middle East, said he was focused on the immediate crisis. But beyond that, he said, American policymakers remained committed to “integration” of Israel and its neighbors.

Before the war, the White House had been holding talks with Saudi Arabia about a complex deal in which the kingdom, the most powerful Arab country, would recognize Israel.

‘We cannot allow what Hamas did on Oct. 7 to knock that permanently off path,” Mr. McGurk said.

But some Palestinians feared that a Saudi-Israel deal would have further undermined their struggle for statehood.

A senior Bahraini official said that his government believes Israel is here to stay, and that the region’s peoples must coexist. Bahrain is concerned about the war fueling anger and extremism, he added, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. The Abraham Accords should be protected as a tool to bring peace, he said.

But when asked about the gap between Arab leaders and public opinion, the official did not directly address the question. Instead, he said that Bahrain believed the situation in Gaza was catastrophic and was doing everything it could to foster peace.

The most scathing indictments of Israel at the conference came from the foreign minister of Jordan — where much of the population is of Palestinian origin — and a senior Saudi royal, Prince Turki Al Faisal, who called for sanctions on Israel.

Prince Turki — a former Saudi intelligence chief — dismissed the notion that building ties between Arab States and Israel would bring peace, calling it an “Israeli, American and European illusion.”

As Prince Turki spoke, another protest was gathering steam about six miles away, stretching for blocks through the narrow streets of Muharraq — a town of low-rise buildings in shades of white and beige. The air smelled of gasoline from idling cars as streams of people blocked traffic, waving Palestinian flags and carrying children on their shoulders.

Freedom of association and assembly remain highly restricted in Bahrain. But many of the recent protests received government permits — providing a semi-sanctioned space to let off steam.

Thousands of marchers shouted in English and Arabic until they grew hoarse.

“Down, down, Israel!”

“America is the head of the snake!”

Some chanted in support of Hamas, urging it to bomb Tel Aviv.

In his speech the day before, Bahrain’s crown prince had lamented Gaza’s “constant bombardment,” calling it an “intolerable situation.” But he stopped short of threatening a diplomatic break with Israel and called the U.S. “indispensable” to any peace process.

When he finished, his guests dined on saffron-poached peaches and chicken breasts stuffed with ratatouille. Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, Bahraini officials told participants they were determined to protect their deal with Israel.