On September 13, Bahraini Crown Prince and Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa joined U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington to sign the landmark Comprehensive Security Integration and Prosperity Agreement (C-SIPA). C-SIPA signifies a renewed commitment to enhancing security and economic ties between the U.S. and Bahrain. The agreement’s marked a pivotal moment in Washington’s relationship with Manama.
Bahrain occupies a strategically important geographic position astride key shipping routes and strategic waterways. A Major Non-NATO Ally since 2002, Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, making Manama an instrumental part of Washington’s regional power projection capabilities.
Enhancing Bilateral Ties
C-SIPA’s security dimensions underscore Washington’s dedication to the stability of Bahrain, a steadfast U.S. ally that has long perceived a grave threat from Iran. Though the specifics of the 1,600-word agreement remain classified, it likely encompasses elements such as force training, intelligence sharing, and the lifting of the arms embargo that has constrained Bahrain’s military capabilities. C-SIPA is poised to enable Bahrain to modernize its military, enhancing its capacity to respond to regional security threats effectively.
C-SIPA also seeks to expand economic cooperation between the two partners by building on recent momentum in the U.S.-Bahrain trade relationship; in 2021, U.S.-Bahrain bilateral trade almost reached $3 billion, up from $1.5 billion in 2020. The accord opens avenues for American investment across various sectors of Bahrain’s economy, including technology, healthcare, and infrastructure. It also includes clauses that support technology cooperation, with particular focus on artificial intelligence and enhancing vital chip supplies. Additionally, the agreement could lead to increased trade between the two nations, benefiting Bahrain’s export sector and providing the U.S. with an increasingly reliable regional partner for future commerce. The economic cooperation envisioned by C-SIPA not only provides immediate benefits to the signatories, but also contributes to the region’s general economic stability by tying the United States to the well-being of its ally.
Shifting the Geopolitical Balance
Unlike U.S. defense treaties with its European or East Asian allies, C-SIPA does not include a mutual defense guarantee. The United States, wary of being drawn into another regional conflict, may be reluctant to provide such guarantees to its partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Instead, the pact emphasizes maximizing deterrence, enhancing coordination, and establishing effective lines of communication in the event of conflict.
Despite this, the symbolic nature of the agreement should not be underestimated. The accord is widely seen as a template for similar agreements with other GCC member-states, reflecting the Biden administration’s efforts to strengthen its commitments and partnerships in the Gulf. C-SIPA suggests that the U.S. is keen to maintain its security influence in the region and disincentivize its allies and partners from forging stronger partnerships with Washington’s main strategic rivals, Russia and China.
The agreement is also a sign of Washington’s commitment to countering Iranian influence in the region. Like many of the GCC states, Bahrain remains wary of Tehran’s aims in their backyard. Recent Saudi-Iranian détente notwithstanding, Manama is concerned about Iran’s (real or perceived) interference in Bahrain’s domestic affairs and this apprehension is unlikely to subside.
On the other hand, Iran—which already sees the normalization of Gulf Arab states’ relations with Israel as a major threat—will likely perceive the deepening of the U.S.-Bahrain alliance with suspicion. In response, Tehran might increase its military posture in the Gulf or conduct military exercises to signal its forces’ readiness.
Perhaps it is no surprise that Manama and Washington penned the agreement ten days after Israeli Foreign Minister, Eli Cohen’s visited Bahrain. During his visit, Cohen emphasized the importance of increasing direct flights, tourism, trade, and investment between the two nations. Bahrain serves as a strategic partner for Israel in the Gulf region, providing opportunities for Israeli businesses and investors to access new markets. The accord fits neatly into the United States’ preferred vision for the Gulf. Washington has overtly supported the normalization of ties between Tel Aviv and its partners throughout the Arab world through the Abraham Accords, and C-SIPA helps reassure Bahrain that Washington remains an invested actor in the Gulf.
It was significant that after Hamas launched Operation Al-Aqsa Flood into southern Israel on October 7, resulting in the death of roughly 1,400 Israelis, Bahrain joined the UAE in outright condemning Hamas. This was a contrast to other GCC states which did not explicitly condemn the violence waged by Hamas earlier this month. Six days after Hamas waged that attack, Blinken was in Bahrain as part of a quick regional tour that he did to coordinate with U.S. allies and partners in the Middle East. Exactly one month after Blinken and Bahrain’s Crown Prince and Prime Minister were in Washington signing the C-SIPA, they were in Manama discussing the “importance of preventing the [Gaza-Israel] conflict from widening and maintaining stability in the region” with Blinken “reaffirm[ing] the strong strategic partnership between the United States and Bahrain,” according to the State Department’s readout.
C-SIPA speaks to the Biden administration’s realpolitik approach to international affairs in the Gulf. As a presidential hopeful, Biden branded Saudi Arabia a “pariah” and vowed to recenter human rights as a core pillar of U.S. foreign policy. In power, his administration has signaled its determination to work closely with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain to enhance the United States’ ability to compete with Russia and China in the Gulf. The White House clearly views these Gulf Arab states as extremely important partners, which Washington has no choice but to work with in the face of major challenges to its global standing. Consequently, Biden has encountered substantial criticism from the human rights community, which has strongly denounced him for prioritizing power politics at the expense of addressing human rights violations in Bahrain.
Nonetheless, in what represents significant continuity from Donald Trump’s presidency, President Biden has deprioritized the advocation of human rights abroad. Perhaps this should not surprise observers, as the international arena becomes more contentious and U.S. power comes under threat from near-peer competitors. It is clear that his team has determined that it serves U.S. economic, geopolitical, and national security interests to double down on Washington’s decades-old partnerships and alliances with Gulf Arab states like Bahrain.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.