On Sept. 15, 2020, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and then-U.S. President Donald Trump met on the South Lawn of the White House to sign the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between the two Gulf Arab states and Israel. Morocco followed suit several months later, signing a similar agreement with Israel on Dec. 22, and on Jan. 6, 2021, Sudan and Israel also agreed to normalize relations. A year on, these accords have had a significant, if not yet fully realized, impact on the Middle East, affecting everything from geopolitics and economics to tourism and people-to-people (P2P) ties, and they also reflect the changing dynamics in the region and beyond, particularly with the U.S. and China.
Diplomatic and trade relations
The accords have had a wide range of direct implications, some of the most high profile of which have been on the diplomatic front. In June 2021, Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, inaugurated the new Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi during a two-day trip, announcing, “We are here to stay; we call on all the countries of the region to recognize that and to come to talk to us.” The following month, the UAE became the first Gulf state to open an embassy in Tel Aviv; at the opening, UAE Ambassador Mohamed al-Khaja noted that the two countries had “signed major agreements across various fields, including economy, air travel, technology and culture.” In March 2021, the Bahraini government appointed Khaled Yaousif al-Jalahma as the first ambassador to Israel, although its embassy has not yet opened. Lapid also flew to Morocco to inaugurate the Israeli liaison office in Rabat in mid-August, announcing that the two countries will establish full diplomatic relations and open embassies in two months’ time. Finally, Sudan and Israel have agreed to open embassies, but this is still a work in progress.
On the economic front, in March 2021, the UAE announced the establishment of a $10 billion investment fund across multiple sectors in Israel, including energy, manufacturing, water, space, health care, and agri-tech. Since then, numerous deals have been inked between the two nations. Asher Fredman, CEO of Gulf-Israel Green Ventures, said, “Seeing all that has been accomplished in the field of sustainability and seeing all the ideas being realized in a real-world situation is remarkable,” adding that, “This partnership will only get stronger.”
Reflecting on the past year, former Bahraini Ambassador to the U.S. Houda Nonoo, said, “The signing of the Abraham Accords will no doubt be one of the biggest Middle East milestones in our lifetime.” Economic relations between Israel and Bahrain are still developing — text for an economic cooperation agreement was only distributed to the Israeli government for approval at the end of July — but according to estimates from the Israeli Foreign Trade Administration, there is potential for trade to reach the hundreds of millions of dollars.
For its part, Morocco-Israel trade is still relatively low, but enthusiasm is high and trade will likely grow in the coming month, after the two countries build chambers of commerce and apply the agreements signed during Lapid’s visit. Commercial ties between Sudan and Israel are still quite limited and trade is not reaching its potential, as they have not yet finalized their accord.
It is no surprise that trade between the UAE and Israel greatly exceeds the rest, since the two countries’ initial motivation for the agreement was explicitly linked to this commercial potential and their GDP is by far the highest. However, we are likely to see an increase in trade between the other parties in the post-COVID era as ties between various sectors and enterprises develop.
Tourism, academics, and P2P ties
On the Israeli side, the Abraham Accords created a great deal of enthusiasm that led to a wave of tourism across the region, particularly to Dubai. Dubai and Israel were the first to establish direct flights in November 2020, by six different companies (Israeli, Emirati, and international). In the first month after Dubai opened up, more than 67,000 Israeli tourists visited. While this is not a huge number, that is likely because of the COVID restrictions in place; without the pandemic, we could see a much higher number. Bahrain and Israel also started about 14 direct flights, but they have not yet fulfilled their potential, likely due to the pandemic.
Morocco has been on the map for Israeli tourists for years, mostly because of the long-standing connection between the Jewish people in both countries, but the first direct flight only landed in Marrakech on July 25, 2021. With the start of direct flights between Tel Aviv and Marrakech, tens of thousands of Israelis applied for entry visas at the Moroccan mission in Tel Aviv, but only a few were granted, as they were not prepared for so many requests. Sudan, however, is still closed for Israeli tourists because the normalization agreement is not yet complete.
On the flip side, the numbers of Arab tourists travelling to Israel is much lower, which is not entirely surprising given that Israelis are well-known travelers. However, we can except a rise in the number of tourists from these four countries in the years to come, particularly to visit the holy sites in Jerusalem/al-Quds and other sites in the region.
On the academic front, very few students from Israel have gone to study in these four countries or vice versa. In June 2021, the first and only Emirati student arrived in Israel to study at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC), a private research college. In addition to the usual concerns, like cultural differences and the time needed to establish academic linkages, COVID restrictions caused further delays and made everything more complicated.
However, at the level of the institutions themselves, despite COVID-19, many delegations found a way to meet and exchange ideas and knowledge. For example, Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan and Gulf Medical University in Ajman signed an agreement that includes exchanges of undergraduates, graduate students, and researchers, as well as joint publications and the development of joint programs in medical sciences, medical education, and health systems administration. Delegations from Israel’s Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) and the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) visited the Emirates Policy Center (EPC) in Abu Dhabi, with INSS signing a memorandum of understanding with the Emirati think tank.
Alongside academic relations, P2P relations have also started to rise over the last year. Again, the UAE-Israel axis has proven the most fruitful so far, but it is by no means the only one. Ambassador Eitan Na’eh, who served as the head of mission in the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi for the first half of 2021, said in an interview that the accords have not only allowed for direct flights between the two countries, but also the “normalization of relationships” or in other words P2P ties. A window of opportunity has been opened, he added, and governments and people should embrace “new structures and new thinking about the Middle East.”
Morocco and Israel have long had a stronger P2P relationship because of the large community of Moroccan Jews in Israel, estimated at around 1 million, the second-largest Moroccan community abroad after France. The accords helped bring the P2P relationships to the forefront and facilitated reciprocal flights and visits, which in the past required significantly more effort.
Implications in the region and beyond
Beyond the bilateral level, the accords have also had significant regional implications. Turkey and Iran both reacted as one would expect. Then-Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif criticized the deal during a recent visit to Lebanon, describing it as a stab in the back for Lebanon and other Arab countries. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to cut diplomatic ties with the UAE and shut its embassy over the deal. The accords faced their greatest test yet in the spring of 2021 during the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, and although these four countries came under attack, the agreements have remained in place.
While then-U.S. President Trump played a major role in facilitating these agreements by offering significant concessions, China has taken a different approach. A day after the accords were first announced, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian indicated that Beijing was “pleased” to see the countries taking steps to reduce tensions in the Middle East, but he went on to add that, “We hope the relevant parties can take concrete actions so that the Palestinian issue can return to the equal footed dialogue and negotiations.” Zhao’s focus on China’s ongoing support for Palestine and not the accords can be seen as part of Beijing’s effort to focus on its broader regional agenda and differentiate itself from the U.S.
The Abraham Accords are thus not only about the Middle East, and their implications need to be seen in a wider international context as well. It is already clear that the growing rivalry between China and the U.S. will be one of the most, if not the most, important international developments of this decade. The motivation for Trump’s decision to push for these accords is clear: to stop or at least to slow down China’s growing influence in the region and to offer countries a new security and economic framework under American leadership. The Chinese, however, want to secure their growing position in the Middle East, mostly to keep the energy flowing and to use regional trade routes to facilitate their flagship global infrastructure plan, the Belt and Road Initiative.
The recently signed 25-year agreement between China and Iran is a major example of Beijing’s growing involvement in the region. It is far from the only one, however. During his last visit to Syria in July 2021, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared, “China and Syria have always trusted and supported each other.” This is in sharp contrast to the U.S.-Syria relationship and serves as a clear indication of the way China sees its position in the Middle East more broadly. This was Wang’s second visit to the region in the past six months, following his March visit to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, the UAE, Oman, and Bahrain.
As they ramp up their competition, China and the U.S. are trying to attract more and more “client states,” and the countries of the Middle East are no exception. This dynamic has played out recently in the Gulf around the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The UAE and Qatar have a long rivalry and both Washington and Beijing have tried to attract their support. The UAE, which is closely aligned with U.S. (and Israel, Bahrain, Morocco, and more), now hosts the ousted former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, while Qatar, which is closer to China (and Iran, Turkey, and more), has hosted Taliban leaders for a long time as well as Afghan peace negotiations more recently. Therefore, the accords between Israel and the four Arab countries need to be viewed in the context of U.S.-China competition. In essence, the most important component of this relationship is not necessarily the countries themselves, but the U.S. and China, and the ways in which they perceive and react to each other.
The main implication is that if this group of countries wants to preserve the accords, they need to maintain their close ties with the U.S.; otherwise, the U.S. government will be less invested in the accords, and in the UAE’s F-35s, Morocco’s recognition of its sovereignty over the Western Sahara, and Sudan’s removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, all of which are important components of the accords and entirely in the hands of the U.S.
Roie Yellinek is a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
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