At last, the big day of the Bahrain workshop on the Palestinian economy is coming. After two years of negotiations and secret plans, the Trump administration should soon propose a US framework of guidelines for resolving the oldest struggle in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The location of this event will be Manama (June 25-26), the capital of Bahrain and focal point of some important Middle Eastern dynamics. The conference will bring together government and business leaders from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Israeli and Palestinian officials will not take part, or, rather, the Palestinians are boycotting a conference in which they are marginalised, while a small business delegation led by former general Yoav Mordechai – who served for 36 years as Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) –, will represent Israel. Jordan and Egypt, two historical mediators in the Middle East peace process, will also participate although with a critical stance towards the US-led workshop. Qatar, a real broker for the Palestinian camp and in several regional issues will also be present. In addition, several Arab Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), will participate to support Trump’s hard line against Iran.
The choice of Bahrain as the setting for this important workshop was not accidental, but highly strategic. Usually this kingdom, located between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the Persian/Arabian Gulf, receives less attention on the regional political scene. Bahrain witnessed uprisings in 2011, when local authorities blamed Iran for escalating tensions between Bahrain’s Sunni and Shia populations. In addition, this little archipelago hosts the United States Fifth Fleet. The US State Department also approved the sale of arms for around $6 billion to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates on May 4. Finally, the country is Riyadh’s strongest ally in the region and is considered to be a fierce supporter of Saudi strategies in the Middle East, including combatting Iranian influence and the Palestinian peace process.
The upcoming summit was announced on June 16 on the CNN website by the White House’s Special Representative for International Negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, as “the opportunity of a generation” and – maybe – a unique chance to benefit Palestinians and others in the region. In fact, in terms of US ambition, the workshop – rebranded “Peace for Prosperity” – is an important opportunity “to share ideas, discuss strategies, and galvanize support for potential economic investments and initiatives that could be made possible by a peace agreement”. The main goal of the Bahrain conference should be to encourage stability in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, thanks to the US-Arab allies’ economic involvement (in particular the Gulf States) in this Middle East peace plan.
The 50 billion dollars in loans and investments offered at the Bahrain summit may offer a chance for peace. However, the plan also needs a clear political proposal – which will be absent in this workshop – by Jared Kushner, the US senior administration official in charge of the Middle East Peace Process and key “architect” of the US plan. In fact, the US delegation in Manama will be composed of Kushner, Greenblatt and Brian Hook, US Special Representative for Iran and Senior Policy Advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The delegation has a double target: on the one hand, they would avoid politicising the debate in order to encourage the US Peace Plan; on the other, the same delegation could use this event to extend discussion to the Middle East’s other top priorities. In the White House’s perceptions, the Manama conference is aimed at reaffirming not only Washington’s priorities in the MENA region, but also the US’ shared commitment with local allies to ensure peace and stability in the region. In fact, the United States will hold the Bahrain economic conference to launch its Middle East peace plan, also known as “Deal of the Century”. President Trump has promised to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, it seems, he hasn’t considered the numerous traps in this great bargain between the Israeli and Arab regimes (notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for different reasons), and has excluded the Palestinians from this deal. Nevertheless, the Manama workshop will be the first part of a whole roadmap for resolving the conflict.
Washington’s current approach to the Manama conference might well translate into a real effort to improve the economic conditions of the Palestinians, but it doesn’t say much about the political issues that are so important to them. Indirectly, this perspective was also confirmed by US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who told the The New York Times that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is not on the table for discussion. At the same time, the workshop does not mention another key point: the Palestinians’ right to sovereignty over an independent state. This position is in line with the Trump administration’s on this issue, since Washington has denied any commitment to improving the Palestinians’ conditions in refugee camps and in the West Bank. Moreover, the United States has reduced its funds to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and suspended the work that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) used to do in the occupied Palestinian territories. In addition to this, following Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the relocation of the US Embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, on March 25, the United States confirmed what most Israelis have always believed, which is that the Golan Heights are part of Israel. An extraordinary diplomatic success for Netanyahu that helped him win the elections in April 2019.
Despite widespread belief among experts that Trump’s Middle East peace plan will be in favour of Israel, it is unlikely that the deal may meaningfully contribute to ensuring peace. Perhaps, the White House’s decision to present the economic matters of the Deal of the Century could be an opportunity to also talk about other regional issues, like Iran. From this standpoint, the conference in Manama might be a pretext for the Trump administration to define new steps in the “maximum pressure” strategy against Tehran. This might be especially true after the latest incidents in the Gulf of Oman and the frequent outbreaks of violence in the Gaza Strip, where Iran could leverage the escalation led by the Islamic Jihad, a pro-Iranian militia in Gaza, to increase its pressure on Israel. The “Deal of the Century” is a perfect example of this multidimensional diplomacy, or rather transactional diplomacy: here, the US and its Middle Eastern allies declare once and for all that the “Palestinian problem” has come to an end, pushing for the normalisation of relations between Israel and the US’ Arab allies (in particular, Saudi Arabia) and encouraging the establishment of a new strategic axis between the Sunni-Arab bloc (led by Riyadh) and Israel to contain Iran.
Beyond the specific issues, as noted by retired US Ambassador Gerald Feierstein, “there is broader concern that [the United States and Saudi Arabia] may simply fall victim to over-expectations of what the other side is willing or capable of doing. The Trump administration’s expectations that the Gulf States may formalize relations with Israel in the absence of, or as a prelude to, an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians are inflated. Shared concerns over the threat posed by a hegemonic Iran do not alter the unwillingness of the Gulf States to normalize their contacts with Israel without an acceptable agreement for the Palestinians”. In fact, both countries have bet on this event without necessarily believing in the success of the US peace plan. There are several reasons for which to consider a full support for the deal unviable: first of all, the reluctance of both public opinions to disadvantage one or another player (in Saudi perceptions, the losers are the Palestinian people, while for the United States this position is Israel’s); secondly, the pre-eminence of other political priorities in the regional agenda (Iran above all).
Despite Trump’s narrative of offering a great deal, Saudi Arabia has not deviated from its traditional positions on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, turning a cold shoulder to the principles of the plan. Beyond rhetoric, Saudi Arabia’s committed support for the deal is aimed only at achieving its two regional goals: on the one hand to contain Iran’s leverage in the Middle East, on the other to see its moral and political leadership in a new regional order recognized. But to reach those goals Riyadh might take a final step in this deal. In fact, Saudi Arabia, which is the guardian of the Two Holy Mosques (Mecca and Medina), is trying to take over Jordan’s custodianship of the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem as a way to facilitate the Trump administration’s peace deal and its political aspirations. This initiative is even more important for Saudi Arabia, which could play a pivotal role in the US peace plan in the Mideast, but at the same time could gain credit as the only guardian and custodian of all the holy sites in the Arab and Islamic world. A further signal of how Saudi Arabia would reaffirm its new geopolitical status in the region through a combination of soft and hard power.
In an attempt to stabilize the region through a system of checks and balances, the Trump administration has definitively abandoned the Obama legacy, preferring a solid Arab-Israeli axis to fight Iran. At the same time, there is broad conviction in the US that it’s time for America’s partners to start solving their problems by themselves. This should also be kept in mind when talking about US disengagement in the region, which is not in question. Also, the Gulf’s arms race and the US’ arms sales to Middle Eastern countries are part of Washington’s disengagement strategy. And in fact, although methods or levers of power to defend US interests in the Middle East can be changed, the disengagement process is ongoing.
In conclusion, proclamations and anti-Iranian rhetoric still show Trump’s uncertain attitude to foreign policy. If Washington aims to define new steps in its foreign and security strategy in the region, that are coherent with the targets of the White House and its local allies, it will have to start believing in this Middle Eastern peace process in order to deal effectively with the main regional challenges. Conversely, we may have to get used to a marked American irrelevance to one of the most critical issues at the global level.
 On May 9, Israel Hayom, an Israeli newspaper, published the main points of the deal from a leaked document circulated by the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
 D.M. HALBFINGER, U.S. Ambassador Says Israel Has Right to Annex Parts of West Bank, The New York Times, June 8, 2019.
 G.M FEIERSTEIN, US-Gulf Relations in the Age of Trump: The End of the Trust Deficit?, Middle East Institute (MEI), p. 7, March 29, 2017.
 R. BAROUD, Palestine: What ‘Deal’, What Leadership, What Resistance?, al-Jazeera Centre for Studies, July 5, 2018,.
 Jordan’s guardianship of the holy sites has been granted by several peace agreements such as the Jordan-Israel peace treaty of 1994. The guardianship means Jordan’s administrative and security supervision of these holy places. For more details on the peace treaty see the official text.
 R. ABOU JALAL, Is Riyadh really pushing for control of Jerusalem holy sites?, al-Monitor, July 2, 2018,.