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Mark Kelly goes back to Bahrain, but with a different mission

The Arizona senator, a former Navy top gun in the first Gulf war, reflects on a recent Abraham Accords Caucus trip to the kingdom

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Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) talks to campaign volunteers on Election Day on November 08, 2022 in Tucson, Arizona.

As he touched down in Bahrain earlier this month, Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), who returned last weekend from a bipartisan delegation to meet with Abraham Accords member countries, couldn’t help but recall the relatively dire circumstances of his first visit to the Persian Gulf kingdom.

“I hadn’t been in Bahrain in about 30 years, since the middle of Operation Desert Storm,” Kelly, a former Navy pilot who flew combat missions during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Thursday. “I had a hydraulic failure and couldn’t get back aboard the aircraft carrier.”

Instead, he made an emergency landing at what was then known as Shaikh Isa Air Base on the small island nation of Bahrain, a U.S. coalition partner in the war against Iraq and now a signatory in a series of diplomatic agreements that normalized relations between Israel and a handful of Arab nations. 

“The Bahrainians really appreciated that story,” Kelly, now 58, said of his recent visit, during which he and his Senate colleagues met with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, among others. “It’s kind of full-circle for me in a totally different job and a different reason for being there.”

The trip to Bahrain was one of the first stops in a 10-day jaunt through the Middle East, which concluded on Sunday. Led by Sens. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and James Lankford (R-OK), co-chairs of the Abraham Accords Caucus, the delegation also visited Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

“From Israel to Morocco, Bahrain and the UAE, we were hearing the same message,” Kelly, who sits on the Armed Services Committee, told JI. “That our involvement is incredibly important and we need to continue to strengthen these partnerships.”

Among the top issues raised during the trip were the challenges associated with countering Iran’s influence in the region, Kelly said. “The negative impact that the Iranians are having in every one of these countries that we visited, but basically any other country in the Middle East, is significant, and we’ve got to do something about it,” he told JI. “We’ve got to make sure they do not get a nuclear weapon.”

He said Gulf leaders in particular are “worried” about increasing tensions with Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen after a series of missile attacks targeting the UAE as well Saudi Arabia last year. “Their expectation is that that will continue and get worse over time,” Kelly said. “Having a missile-defense system where all these countries are working together with us — and working with Israel, by the way, too — they look at it as, this is necessary.”

“It’s us out there in the Arabian Gulf interdicting weapons coming from Iran to the Houthis that are used to attack our allies,” the senator added. “China hasn’t interdicted anything. They want to make bad deals with countries that are our allies. They’re not a positive force in the region in any way.”

In Israel last week, the delegation held discussions with a number of high-ranking government officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Amir Ohana, the speaker of the Knesset.

While Rosen had reportedly requested not to meet with controversial far-right members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, which the senator has downplayed in subsequent public statements, Kelly insisted that there was no manner in which such possible tensions would undercut U.S. support for the Jewish state.

“We can work with any government in Israel, and we need to, and this government, I am convinced, will be a strong partner for us,” Kelly said. “We might not agree on everything. That’s OK. At a very high level, I feel like we’ve got the same goals.”

Thinking back to the Gulf war, the senator recalled that the Iraqis had “tried to pull Israel into direct conflict” as part of an effort to weaken the U.S. coalition driving Iraq from Kuwait. “You’ve got to give a lot of credit to Israel as they were getting bombarded with Scuds,” Kelly said. “They were understanding and patient and didn’t retaliate, and that’s hard to do. They’ve been a very reliable partner for us.”

The senator, who first visited Israel shortly before his election to the Senate in 2020, said that Netanyahu was “very optimistic” about Israel’s relationship with Saudi Arabia amid chatter that the Gulf monarchy will eventually join the Abraham Accords.

According to Kelly, the potential for expanding the Accords to include Muslim-majority nations outside the Middle East was a subject of conversation in the delegation’s meeting with Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE president known as MBZ. “If I recall this correctly, MBZ felt, when Saudi Arabia, if they were to get there, that this gives us opportunities with other countries, including, potentially, Indonesia,” said Kelly, who visited the UAE last year on a separate delegation.

In his recently published memoir, Never Give an Inch, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote that the Trump administration had come “breathtakingly close to having a major Asian nation sign on” to the Abraham Accords “before we left office,” though he did not say if the country was Indonesia.

“This helps peace and stability,” Kelly said of the Accords’ impact in the region. “It also helps the economy of all these countries. The tourism that’s coming from Israel to UAE is really significant. It’s good for the UAE economy. They recognize that.”

Beyond geopolitics, Kelly, who is a former astronaut, said he had recently met with two Emirati astronauts in Houston and relayed details of his encounter to the UAE president. “I did find out that they’re doing well, so I passed that onto MBZ,” he said. 

The senator is also connected to the family of Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who died in 2003 in the Columbia space shuttle explosion. They had been stationed together in Houston before Ramon’s death.

Looking ahead, Kelly, who won his first full term this past November, said he hopes to return to the Middle East again to visit other countries including Saudi Arabia and Oman, which he regards as “the next options” in the effort to grow the Abraham Accords. 

In the meantime, he argued that the State Department “needs to stay engaged with” member countries, while stressing the urgency of developing an “integrated missile-defense system” to address the Iranian threat, among other things.

Even as he is eager to bolster the Accords in the coming years, Kelly suggested that the prospect of brokering such partnerships with Israel had never occurred to him when he was aboard an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf three decades ago.

“Back then, I was a 25-year-old Navy pilot, and living on a ship,” he said. “I was just trying to figure out when the next port call is and ‘what do I got to bomb the next day?’ I mean, really.”

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