Two years ago, when the Abraham Accords were signed and Donald Trump hailed them as a truly historic moment, there were very few who believed anything substantial could come out of them. Even a US intelligence report of the Department of Homeland Security warned that these pacts could lead to an increase in terrorism. But this has been far from the case. As it stands today, the Biden administration has revamped enthusiasm for a sort of Abraham Accords 2.0., which would extend the Arab-Israel normalisation to Saudi Arabia, the most powerful state in the Arab world. In this context, the New York-based Council of Foreign Relations recently published a report calling for a new security pact between the US and Saudia Arabia in exchange for Riyadh’s support for lower oil prices and normalisation with Israel. The report shows how a case for altering the Middle East’s strategic landscape is being made in Washington to tackle new geo-political realities emerging from the ongoing military conflict in Europe involving Russia and Ukraine (US/NATO).
In the wake of the US “exit” from the Middle East – which practically meant a departure of US military resources and the disappearance of security guarantees against the “Iranian threat” – states like Saudi Arabia were able to assert an autonomous stand on critical foreign policy issues, especially, Kingdom’s ties with Russia and the management of global oil production and supplies. The US seems to have learnt a lesson and it has accordingly operationalised some damage control procedures with Israel playing the new regional vanguard to “protect” Arab states against Iran.
On June 20, Israel’s Defence Minister announced the existence of a “Middle East Air Defence Alliance”, an alliance that involves the US as its global mentor. According to the minister, the programme is “already operative and has already enabled the successful interception of Iranian attempts to attack Israel and other countries.” The fact that this alliance has been in the making for over a year means that the Biden administration was/is very much working in the footsteps of the Trump administration to upgrade Israel as an effective replacement for the US role in the Middle East – a replacement that is tied to Washington’s own preoccupation with Russia and China in Europe and the Indo-Pacific region, respectively.
Therefore, what many believed to be a symbolic agreement only between some Arab states and Israel has now become substantially concrete in the form of an actual military alliance. This is immensely consequential insofar as it will broaden the ambit of conflict in the Middle East. On the one hand, it will complicate the prospects and possibilities of normalization between Iran and Arab states – especially, Saudi Arabia – and, on the other hand, it will push further militarization. With the year-long US-Iran talks to renew the nuclear deal facing what looks like a permanent deadlock and western media reporting Iran “weeks away” from making a bomb, Israel and its regional associates are most likely to use this context to further cement their alliance, pushing Iran to take countermeasures in alliance with Russia and China.
Even if a US-Iran deal can be salvaged, geopolitical trajectory involving Israel as the leading player in the Middle East is unlikely to change. Its most important reason is the underlying geoeconomic transformation that the Abraham Accords have unleashed to connect Israel and with Arab states in more enduring ways.
For instance, it was only three weeks ago that Israel and the UAE signed the first-ever free trade pact. Even when this deal did not exist last year, bilateral trade between both states totalled US$900 million. With this deal, bi-lateral trade is expected to multiply in the coming months and years, reaching US$5 billion in the next five years. Nearly, 1,000 Israeli companies will be working in Dubai, adding to the port-city’s strength as the centre of regional trade and investment.
For Israel, however, this means a much greater integration with the Arab world and a much deeper role in shaping regional policies around key issues, especially Iran’s role in the region. Most importantly, Israel will not only not face any criticism over its annexation of the Palestinian territories from these states, but the overall issue of Palestine will lose its significance as a question yet to find a just resolution.
Besides the free trade deal, Israel is cementing its geoeconomics ties via gas deals as well. It recently happened between Israel and Egypt, which is probably the largest military power in the entire Arab world. Three weeks ago, in the wake of the gas crisis hitting Europe as a result of the ongoing military conflict between Russia and Ukraine and European sanctions on Russia, Israel signed a multi-billion dollar gas deal to supply gas to Europe via Egypt. Although this supply of Israeli gas to Europe is merely a drop in the bucket compared to Europe’s demand/supply from Russia, it remains that, as far as the Middle East is concerned, Israel and Egypt have certainly entered into an era of deep and broad cooperation that is likely to have region-wide effects. This is evident from Turkey’s proposal for transporting Israeli gas via Turkey into Europe. As Israeli experts have stated, the actual benefit of such deals for Israel is “more normalization of Israel in the region.”
Given the deals, there is hardly any denying that Israel is fast emerging as the most connected state in the Middle East, with Israeli companies, even without formal normalization with Riyadh, already making lucrative deals in Saudi Arabia and establishing their deep roots. As mentioned, above this is happening under direct US auspices, with Joe Biden’s July visit likely to accelerate – and smoothen – the integration further.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.