Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have all committed to attending. The White House announced last week that Egypt, Jordan and Morocco would also send representatives, though it remains unclear whether they will in fact do so.
Tareq Baconi, a Ramallah-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, described the Palestinian issue as “formative” for Arab populations, who see supporting Palestinians as a means of resisting Israeli expansion and American influence in the region.
“The Palestinian question was, and continues to be, the core of Arab identity,” he said.
President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special representative for the negotiations, organized the economic “workshop” set to take place in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, on June 25 and 26. They’ve billed it as a critical component of Trump’s “deal of the century” to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and they say it will encourage development and investment in the Palestinian economy.
But critics, including Palestinian leaders, maintain that discussing economic issues without addressing key political disputes represents an exercise in futility. They have derided what some describe as the Trump administration’s colonialist approach. Washington has enacted a number of policies that support Israel’s expansion, including moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and endorsing Israel’s claim to the disputed Golan Heights.
Palestinian government spokesman Ibrahim Melhem issued a statement last week rejecting any proposals that do not establish a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. A Palestinian ruling council also urged “our Arab masses” to protest the Bahrain conference.
Still, some Arab states will heed the Trump administration’s call — either out of political opportunism or necessity, experts say.
The gulf states — particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE — have various incentives for getting on board with the summit. As tensions between these countries and Iran have ratcheted up in recent years, experts say security concerns have outstripped political affinities with Palestinians, at least at the government level.
“Now there’s an effort to try to portray Iran as the biggest threat that is facing the region now, and various Arab regimes are using the specter of Iran, the boogeyman of Iran, to justify normalization of relations with Israel,” Baconi said.
Saudi Arabia and Israel in particular have increasingly found common ground over this mutual adversary, in addition to their shared concern over Sunni extremist groups in the region.
“These two realities have brought Israelis and the gulf closer,” said Aaron David Miller, a Distinguished Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center who served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in multiple Republican and Democratic administrations.
Since Trump has proved considerably more hawkish on Iran than his predecessor, he added, “both Israel and the gulf states have a preternatural determination to remain on the right side of the Trump administration.”
The Saudi-Iranian rivalry has probably had the opposite effect on Lebanon and Iraq, Miller said, prompting them to boycott the conference. Iraq’s government is Shiite and is partially made-up of figures from Iranian-backed militias that helped Iraq fight the Islamic State.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah — a Shiite political party and paramilitary organization supported by Iran — exerts significant influence over Lebanese politics. Beirut will play host to a rival conference to be held simultaneously as the Bahrain summit.
Beyond its stance on Iran, regional experts say Saudi Arabia has additional reason to curry favor with the Trump administration: Trump has proved a reliable friend to the kingdom and its crown prince in the face of growing international condemnation of the monarchy after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi, a Saudi critic of the monarchy who wrote columns for The Washington Post, was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October by a Saudi hit team. International investigations and American intelligence assessments have concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman probably knew of the plan to murder Khashoggi.
Portraying itself as a strong ally against Iran has helped Saudi Arabia withstand this firestorm and retain the Trump administration’s support, Miller said.
Congress has moved to halt American arms sales to Saudi Arabia amid global outcry over Khashoggi’s death — and Trump has repeatedly sided with Saudi Arabia over Congress. In February, the White House refused to submit a report describing Mohammed role in Khashoggi’s killing to Congress. Saudi Arabia has insisted the crown prince, often known by his initials, MBS, did not order the killing.
“When you ask me why those states are showing up here, it’s not because they think Jared Kushner has found the key to peace,” Miller said. “It’s largely, particularly in the Saudi case, driven by the debt that MBS owes, and continues to owe, to Trump for basically having his back in the case of his basically willing decision to eliminate Jamal Khashoggi.”
Bahrain typically takes its cues from Saudi Arabia, Miller said. But Qatar, which is mired in a deep political and economic impasse with the Saudis, often donates money to the Palestinians. Miller speculated they may pledge funds at the summit next week.
The calculus is a bit different for Jordan and Egypt, experts say. Both countries rely heavily on American aid; they each received more than $1 billion from the U.S. government in 2018.
Jordan, which has seen sluggish economic growth in recent years, cannot jeopardize this much-needed cash boost, according to Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.
“They cannot afford to anger Donald Trump, who is well-known to act in unpredictable ways,” he said.
If Egypt and Jordan do send representatives to Manama, it would add legitimacy to the summit. Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab states that have entered into peace agreements with Israel and both countries share land borders with Israel.
Still, the prospect of Egypt and Jordan attending the conference was met with explicit disappointment by the Palestinians.
Palestinian government spokesman Melhem wrote in a Facebook post that his government “expresses its deep regret about the announcement of the participation of those in Cairo and Amman in this workshop, and calls on them and all other brotherly countries and friends to withdraw from participating in it.”
Despite the geopolitical pressures Arab states face to attend the conference, analysts say they still cannot afford to ignore the deep-seated emotional resonance of the Palestinian issue for their publics. A recent Doha Institute public opinion poll of the Arab world found that 87 percent of respondents reported holding a negative view of U.S. policy toward Palestinians.
“The calculus has shifted on the political level, but on the popular level, I think the question of Palestine continues to inform popular sentiment,” Baconi said.
With that in mind, Arab governments considering supporting the Bahrain conference are doing so with reservations. King Abdullah II of Jordan told reporters last week that his country merely wants to be in the room during negotiations and that he has repeatedly insisted upon a two-state solution. Even Saudi King Salman has said he won’t back any deal on the Israel-Palestinian issue that does not provide a separate state for the Palestinians.
“This tells you a great deal about the popular imagination, about public opinion, not just in the Arab east, but in the gulf,” Gerges said.
It’s too early to gauge the political consequences Arab governments might face for attending. Some experts, including Miller, say it unlikely that popular indignation over the summit will translate into any sort of large-scale popular action.
Baconi isn’t so sure.
“It might not have manifested itself yet, or to the extent as expected, but there will continue to be popular opposition” to any deal perceived as anti-Palestinian, he said.