The Abraham Accords: a symptom of a changing Middle East dynamic?

By Brooke Siegler 

Image source: CNN

On September 15, 2020 the UAE and Bahrain made history by becoming the third and fourth Middle Eastern states to establish and normalise relations with Israel. This is the first time since 1994, when Jordan normalised relations with Israel, that an Arab country has openly agreed to diplomatically engage with and recognise Israel. Although it is an important step towards regional normalisation and potential stability, the signing of the accords is not as significant for the regional dynamic as the 1994 agreement between Jordan and Israel. Unlike Jordan, the UAE and Bahrain were not actively engaged in a war with Israel and have secretly cooperated with Israel in the past.  There are many reasons why the establishment of relations, enshrined in the Abraham Accords, are important to the future of the Middle East as a region. More significantly, the accords raise questions about whether a deeper shift is occurring in the region, and whether Israel is gaining the regional acceptance it has sought since its founding in 1948.

The Abraham Accords—aptly named after the biblical father of the three major world religions— encompass details of how the three countries will establish diplomatic and economic ties. The diplomatic recognition will mean a great deal to Israel, who has been seeking legitimacy and recognition from its neighbours since its founding. The exchanging of ambassadors, flight connections, tourism opportunities, and cultural and scientific endeavours are just a small part of the remaining potential of this new relationship. Subsumed within these new developments is the economic benefit of open trade between Israel and the two Gulf nations. 

The establishment of relations between Israel and these Gulf countries also signifies a deeper shift in regional attitudes in two intertwined ways. Firstly, the normalisation points towards Saudi acquiescence of Israel as a legitimate state as the Kingdom state likely approved its neighbours new approach towards  Israel. Saudi crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman indicated the Kingdom’s shifting attitude towards Israel in a 2018 interview where he states “ that Israelis ‘have the right to have their own land’ and insisted that ‘our country doesn’t have a problem with Jews.’” Both the UAE and Bahrain likely sought approval from their powerful neighbour, and Saudi’s concession on the matter indicates that despite decades of hateful rhetoric against Israel, the Sunni state may be shifting its position and attitude towards its stated enemy by decreasing its support for Palestinians and aligning with Israel in the fight to defeat Iran. An indication of Saudi’s decreasing support of Palestinians can be seen last week when a member of the Saudi royal family accused Palestinian leaders of betraying their people during an interview on Saudi-owned television. Secondly, this potential attitude shift from Saudi Arabia suggests that it is ramping up its strategy towards its regional adversary, Iran. Many factors, such as the Iran nuclear deal with the Obama administration, Iranian aggression in Syria and Yemen, and US retrenchment in the region have pushed the gulf states closer to Israel in their fight against Iran. Both Israel and the gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, have the common goal of limiting Iranian hegemony in the region, and the normalisation of relations will allow for more effective and coordinated efforts.

Finally, the lack of consideration of Palestinians within the accords is profound and deeply impactful. Although a condition of the accords was that Israel cease its annexation of Palestinian territory, the inclusion was an afterthought, as they were barely mentioned on the day of the signing of accords. This again reinforces the notion that Arab states are moving away from defending Palestinians and aligning with Israel in order to advance the regional fight against Iran, which is dangerous for the future of the Palestinians. Moreover, Israel has interpreted this negotiatory policy as a ‘suspension’ of annexation, not cessation. An important impetus for the normalisation of relations, however, came about when Israel did not begin the planned annexation process of the West Bank on July 1. The UAE, and subsequently Bahrain, supposedly took this opportunity to normalise relations with Israel if annexation ceased to be an active policy. Thus, although the protection of Palestinians played a role in motivating states to normalise relations, they were largely ignored within the accords as a whole. The marginalisation of the Palestinians could potentially have negative consequences in the fight for their land. 

Ultimately, the establishment of relations between Israel and the two Gulf states indicates a deeper shift in the dynamics of the Middle Eastern region. First, it indicates, for the Arab countries, a shift away from supporting the Palestinians against Israeli illegal annexation. This is a step away from a strategy of active resistance towards Israel that has been a mainstay of Arab policy since the establishment of Israel. Secondly, it indicates a more pronounced effort to halt the expansion of Iranian power in the region. By sacrificing their support for the Palestinian struggle for statehood, the Middle East, and more specifically the Arab states, have prioritised curbing Iranian hegemony. Whether or not this shift towards resisting Iran will come at the expense of the Palestinian cause is yet to be seen, but the Gulf alignment with Israel has certainly hindered the Palestinian struggle against Israel. On the other hand, the accords are a positive step forward for Israel in their mission of gaining regional acceptance as a state. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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