The unspoken question in the air at the Connect2Innovate conference was whether Saudi Arabia will be the next Arab state to normalize relations with Israel.
By Israel Kasnett, JNS
Since the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, the governments of Israel and Bahrain have continued to build on that initial agreement. But the real action took place last week on the 45th floor of the Wyndham Grand Hotel in Manama where, for the first time ever, Bahraini government officials and businesses met with Israeli companies to explore avenues of cooperation and the potential for business development.
The “Connect2Innovate” conference brought together government officials, major companies, international organizations, business communities and tech innovators to focus on challenges across fintech, logistics and supply changes, water, energy and climate. The event was a joint initiative of Bahrain’s Ministry of Industry and Commerce, Economic Development Board (EDB), the Embassy of Bahrain in Israel and the Embassy of Israel in Bahrain, together with Start-Up Nation Central (SNC)—a nonprofit that connects governments, corporations, and investors to the Israeli innovation ecosystem.
Hamad Bin Salman Al Khalifa, the assistant undersecretary for domestic and foreign trade at Bahrain’s Ministry of Industry and Commerce, told JNS he was pleased with the turnout and happy the event was taking place. He also said that while he has yet to visit Israel, he would like to.
The conference took place just as the United Arab Emirates announced it would halt military purchases from Israel over concerns the political protests taking place across the country could destabilize the government. At the same time, Saudi Arabia reconciled with Iran, and speculation spread that Bahrain could potentially follow suit. In addition, Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians has long been considered an obstacle to Israel’s relations with Arab and Muslim countries.
But geopolitics and the Palestinian issue no longer seem to affect that relationship. Concerns that the UAE decision, the Saudi-Iran deal, the political turmoil in Israel or the killing of Palestinian terrorists would raise eyebrows in Bahrain were short-lived, as not a single government official or business representative brought up the topic. Clearly, business was on everyone’s mind, and no one seemed interested in injecting politics into the newfound and burgeoning relationship based largely if not solely on bilateral business ties.
For example, Esam Isa Alkhayyat, head of investment development at Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior, told JNS he was optimistic about the future of relations between Israeli and Bahraini businesses.
Khalid Yusuf Ahmed Al Jalahma, Bahrain’s ambassador to Israel, also expressed his enthusiasm at the conference. “I am confident that the technological tools and products developed by the Israeli startup companies will bring great benefit to the Bahraini economy and vice versa,” he said.
During the conference, SNC signed an MoU with Bahraini government entity Tamkeen to promote and strengthen human capital development between Bahrain and Israel.
However, Israeli Ambassador to Bahrain Eitan Na’eh told JNS that the big takeaway from the conference was that “it is actually happening.”
He noted that Bahrain’s minister of industry and commerce, Abdulla bin Adel Fakhro, had attended the conference just a few hours before he had to take off to India.
“He could have said he couldn’t make it to the conference,” said Naeh. “I think it says something.”
“I feel that something is happening,” he added. “There are already talks about partnerships. I see meetings all over town on different issues such as Fintech and energy.”
While the BDS movement in western countries works to vilify Israel and prevent people from buying Israeli products, Muslims to the east have no such interest. Na’eh recalled Bahraini visitors to Israel being blown away by how well they were treated, by the hospitality of Israeli businesses, and cab drivers who refused to take their money when they heard they were from Bahrain. “Do you have any complaints?” Na’eh asked them. “Yes,” they replied. “We didn’t have enough time to shop for Israeli products.”
Na’eh emphasized that it is important to change perceptions of Israel from black-and-white to complex. The only way to achieve this, he said, is to get people to come and visit Israel, where they can see for themselves the nuances of Israeli society and culture. He suggested that Israel fund a “Taglit”-style program that would bring Arabs and Muslims on trips to Israel to see the country for themselves.
Taglit-Birthright Israel, also known as Birthright Israel, is a not-for-profit educational organization that sponsors free ten-day heritage trips to Israel for young adults of Jewish heritage.
The unspoken question in the air was whether Saudi Arabia could potentially become the next country to openly develop a relationship with Israel, either on the government or business level. But according to Na’eh, Saudi Arabia is not the end game, but rather the key to the rest of the Muslim world. While it is true that the Abraham Accords agreements with the UAE and Bahrain took place only with permission from the Saudis, other Muslim countries, such as Indonesia or Malaysia, are likely waiting for some level of an Israeli-Saudi agreement before deciding to normalize with Israel as well.
SNC CEO Avi Hasson told JNS that the Saudis “are looking closely at what Israel is doing with the Abraham Accords countries.”
He said the Israeli-Saudi relationship could grow in “baby steps” without a “big announcement,” but that SNC’s job is “to be ready” so that if and when political circumstances mature, “we’ll have a strong base to start from.”