Foreign policy issues cloud Bahrain’s horizon

8 November 2023

MEEDs December 2023 special report on Bahrain also includes: 

Bahrain waits for major infrastructure projects
Bahrain takes renewables strides
Bahrain charts pathway to net-zero future
Bahrain banks have cause for cheer


Bahrain’s Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad al-Khalifa, first deputy chairman of the Supreme Council for Youth & Sports and head of the Bahrain Olympic Committee, flew into Doha on 28 October to watch his compatriots take on Japan in the final of the Asian Men’s Handball Qualification Tournament for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Sheikh Khalid was welcomed on arrival by Qatar's Sheikh Thani bin Hamad al-Thani in what was another sign of the ongoing process of rapprochement between the two countries, following the 2017-21 boycott of Qatar by Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The rebuilding of the bilateral relationship has been a slow process. Indeed, Bahraini officials complained on several occasions in 2022 that Qatar had repeatedly declined to take up its offer of talks.

However, the process picked up momentum in early 2023, with several meetings at the headquarters of the Gulf Co-operation Council in Riyadh. In mid-April, the two sides agreed to restore full diplomatic relations, although they have yet to reopen embassies or appoint new ambassadors.

Regional tensions

Other foreign policy issues are causing greater diplomatic headaches these days. As one of the two Gulf countries to sign normalisation deals with Israel, Bahrain has found itself in a difficult position in light of the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October and the subsequent heavy bombardment of Gaza by Israeli forces.

That issue rose to the fore on 2 November, when the Council of Representatives issued a statement saying the Israeli and Bahraini ambassadors to each other’s country had returned home and there had been a “cessation of economic relations”.

This was initially taken by many commentators to mean that diplomatic relations had been broken off, but the reality appears to be a suspension rather than a formal severance of ties. The Bahrain government subsequently issued a statement confirming its ambassador to Tel Aviv had returned home “some time ago” and the Israeli ambassador to Manama had also left. There had been protests outside the embassy since the Hamas-Israel war began.

In addition, direct flights between Bahrain International airport and Tel Aviv airport “stopped as of several weeks ago”, Manama said.

However, the statement made no mention of diplomatic relations being cut. The Israeli government meanwhile said that bilateral relations were “stable”.

However, there is clear potential for the war to escalate and the Bahrain-Israel relationship to worsen. Speaking at the 10th emergency special session of the UN General Assembly on 1 November, Bahrain’s ambassador to the UN, Jamal Fares al-Ruwaei, warned about the risks that Israel’s bombing of Gaza could radicalise a new generation. “Such scenes of death and destruction can create entire generations filled with accumulated anger and thirst for vengeance,” he said.

The authorities in Manama will be watching closely in case future protests against Israeli actions include explicit challenges to the Bahrain regime itself.

Economic headwinds

On the economic front there have also been challenges. Italian energy major Eni recently pulled out of the offshore Block 1 licence it secured in May 2019. An exploratory well was drilled on the block in mid-2021.

Bahrain has also yet to make any significant progress on the Khaleej al-Bahrain offshore field, which was discovered in April 2018.

In a more positive development, a $7bn upgrade of the Bapco refinery is due to enable a ramp-up of production to about 380,000 barrels a day by mid-2024, which should bolster government revenues, though there have been some reports of delays.

Bahrain’s headline real GDP growth estimate for 2023 has meanwhile been curbed to 2.7 per cent in the latest update from the Washington-based IMF, down from an estimate of 3 per cent in April. This is down from an estimated 4.9 per cent growth in 2023 and comes amid an extension of Opec+ oil production cuts. Real GDP is forecast to rise back to 3.6 per cent in 2024.

Although high oil prices have bolstered the country’s fiscal position over the past two years, the government has also had to continue trimming public spending to bring its budget closer to balance. In 2023, Bahrain is running an estimated fiscal deficit of 5 per cent of GDP.

Capital Intelligence sovereign analyst, Dina Ennab, predicts the budget deficit will fall to 5 per cent of GDP in 2023, compared to 6.1 per cent in 2022. It could fall further, to 3.6 per cent of GDP by 2025, “provided the government continues to contain public spending and improves revenue mobilisation”, she wrote in a mid-October ratings review.

This is still a far larger deficit than the government has been aiming for. In early June, the government issued its two-year budget for 2023-24 and said it was targeting a deficit of less than 1 per cent of GDP in 2024.

Under the Fiscal Balance Programme launched in 2018, the government had initially aimed to balance its books by 2022, but the year before that deadline – and amid the Covid-19 pandemic and lower oil revenues in 2021 – it pushed the target date back to 2024.

The government’s forecast revenues of BD3.1bn ($8.2bn) in 2023 and BD3.5bn in 2024 are based on a conservative target of oil prices averaging $60 a barrel. The IMF estimates that the country will need an oil price of $108.3 a barrel to balance its budget this year, falling to $96.9 a barrel in 2024 – both figures are by far the highest in the GCC.

Should instability spread around the region, there could be the sort of spike in oil prices that would, in theory, bring the budget into balance, but the wider geopolitical and macroeconomic consequences would almost certainly be broadly negative for Bahrain and neighbouring countries.

Image: Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad attends Olympiad qualifier in Doha. Credit: Bahrain News Agency
Dominic Dudley
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