When the Abraham Accords were signed between the UAE and Israel in September last year, it appeared to be part of Donald Trump’s campaign for re-election. By projecting himself as someone who could bring peace to the Middle East, he must have expected to receive a big boost to his foreign policy success story. Whether the Accords were just a political ploy remains a moot question; however, the impact that these Accords have left on the Middle East is unmistakably profound. For one thing, for both the UAE and Israel, this has been far more than a mere “marriage of convenience.” To a very large extent, both countries have been remarkably successful in turning their nascent diplomatic connections into a vehicle of deep and strategic ties. By now, this is quite obvious that the primary rationale for the UAE behind developing ties with Israel was not to prevent the latter from annexing more and more of the Palestinian land. Rather, it was to develop direct ties with the region’s most powerful country and use this relationship to drive economic growth, increase its own influence in the region and raise its international profile.
In other words, while the agreement was called “accords”, the way this agreement has unfolded shows this has been an alliance not only against the Palestinians but also Iran, Turkey and even Saudi Arabia because of the immense benefits it has brought to Abu Dhabi.
As UAE Minister of Economy Abdulla bin Touq Al Marri recently said, the first year of UAE-Israel ties has been marked by intense bi-lateral activity. “We exchanged ambassadors; we have signed over 60 MOUs (memorandums of understanding). We have 600-700 million of bilateral trade happening, we have funds of billions of dollars that has been announced. We’re looking to create over a trillion dollars of economic activity over the next decade.”
According to the head of the Israeli consulate in Dubai, Sztulman Starosta, said about 200,000 Israelis had visited the UAE over the past year, despite Covid, and an estimated 40 companies from his country had set up in the Gulf state’s free-trade zones. While their trade has already reached US$500 million, they are already eyeing to double the volume in next one year, with their bi-lateral trade expected to reach US$1 trillion in a decade.
While both countries are increasing their trade, creating a sort of economic interdependence, it remains that both Israel and the UAE could emerge as the region’s strongest military allies as well. This is especially true in the wake of gradual US withdrawal from the Middle East, especially from Saudi Arabia. The US decision to remove its air defense systems from Riyadh has left the Kingdom not only militarily vulnerable to the Houthis, but its geo-political influence is also waning. While the Kingdom is taking steps to make itself the centre of trade in the Middle East, rivalling Dubai, it remains that it does not have powerful regional states on its side. On the contrary, all other countries – Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan – that have recognised Israel are seeing relations with the UAE-Israel alliance as the key to securing their own vital national interests.
Both Israel and the UAE are deeply tied to each other already. This is evident from the fact that this year’s crisis in Palestine (the war between Hamas and Israel) virtually left no impact on the state of their bi-lateral ties, even though Arab countries, especially those who have not signed agreements with Israel, were putting pressure on the UAE to condemn Israeli atrocities. A crucial reason that contributed to the success of their ties to withstand the pressure generate by the crisis was/is the fact that, while Israel and the UAE established formal diplomatic ties only in September 2020, their economic ties have a much longer history. Secondly, if the Palestinian crisis had ever been a hindrance, the Abraham Accords would never have been signed in the first place. The fact that these Accords were signed regardless of the irresolution of the Palestinian crisis only shows the broader regional lever strategic and geo-political undercurrents shaping the Israel-UAE ties.
It is for the same reason that Riyadh has, as of recently, been actually opposing the growing UAE-Israel ties. Seeing how the Abraham Accords have actually unfolded to the great advantage of the UAE, Riyadh has come to see these developments as antithetical to its own interests. For Riyadh, the sheer pace of their ties could very well unseat Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Muslim world. While it would still be the centre of the Muslims world because of Makkah, it is unlikely to have the same high degree of influence to shape geo-economic and geo-political landscapes that the UAE has. The UAE, unlike Saudia, is already playing a role in Afghanistan. Not only has it offered asylum to the depose Afghan president, but is plans have been carrying humanitarian aid to Kabul as well.
For the UAE, therefore, its formal alliance with Israel has been a game-changer, as far as its regional and international position is concerned. On the hand, Dubai remains the centre of trade, and on the other, its ties with Israel have also allowed to keep its ties with the US pretty warm. Unlike the Biden administration’s onslaughts on Saudia, the UAE’s ties with Washington remain stronger, as the latter has already cleared the sale of F-35s to Abu Dhabi, which means the UAE is the only country, apart from Israel, to have these jets in the Middle East.
The fact that both the UAE and Israel have vowed to continue developing their ties at the same pace means that Saudi tactics are unlikely to have any negative or dampening impact on the Accords. On the contrary, Saudi attempts to put pressure on Abu Dhabi could take a counter-productive turn, with the UAE, alongside the US, turning to support MBS’ jailed political rivals in the Kingdom.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.