By Annabelle Saba
On the 13th of August 2020, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) became the third Arab country to normalise relations with Israel, after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. A month later, Bahrain also joined the Washington-sponsored deal and the two nations signed the Abraham Accords with Israel on the 15th of September, with a view to finally normalising their relations.
These agreements illustrate a turning point in the Middle East’s geopolitical balance:
Evidently, the conclusion of this agreement will allow the mutual opening of embassies, visa exemptions, the establishment of economic partnerships as well as security and military cooperation. But rather than a landmark event, it is actually the formalisation of a long-standing relationship between the absolute Gulf monarchies and Israel.
Scholars are debating whether these new accords should be considered a peace agreement at all, since neither the UAE nor Bahrain were at war with Israel. However, the agreement does remain historic in that it is the first time in a little over 25 years that we have had an agreement between Muslim Arab countries and the State of Israel. But why is this happening now?
The Emirati Rise
The UAE wants to consolidate its role as a regional player, strengthen its alliances in the region against key players such as Iran and Turkey, as well as earn the likes of the next US administration.
Mohammed ben Zayed (MBZ), the Emirati crown prince, has been fascinated by Israel for years, in which he sees an exceptional model of development from which he would like to be inspired. A technological partnership with the most developed country in the region would allow it to acquire expertise in sectors such as armaments, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence (AI).
Ideologically, MBZ is leading the charge for primacy on Arabness and nationalism to eclipse Islamism and promote a more plural version of Islam to its populace, as well as the region. This is because the Emiratis have dreams of greatness, as evidenced by the various proxy wars in which they have been engaged in, whether in Libya, Yemen or Syria.
As a result of the Abraham Accords, the Emiratis will have for the first time in years the opportunity to purchase high-tech weapons, including F-35 fighter jets that Washington usually reserves for Israel. Other countries in the Gulf such as Bahrain and Oman are also looking to be part of these changing dynamics, as they are equally aiming to diversify their economies and increase their presence as regional players.
The Abraham Accords are just the start of normalised relations between Israel and its neighbours, with many more to follow.
In October 2020, the Sudanese government expressed interest in joining the accords, and managed to be removed from the US “state-sponsors of terror list” in exchange for a normalization of its relations with Israel.
Whilst Sudan agreed to normalise relations with Israel, it is still awaiting approval from its yet-to-be formed legislative council for the deal to go forward.
So, who’s next on the list?
Several analysts suggest that Oman, Kuwait, Morocco and even Saudi Arabia will soon join the deal, in a climate where economic cooperation and mutual tourism could facilitate the region’s woes and improve the region’s outlook, especially at a time where Covid-19 has added on to the crisis management in the region.
A normalisation of relations with Israel would pave way for poorer countries such as Sudan and Morocco to be relieved of debt and attract foreign investment and will provide richer Gulf countries with opportunities to diversify their economies away from oil and to maximise their influence and geopolitical presence in the region.
What about the Palestinian cause?
The Arab countries agreed in 2002 that the creation of a Palestinian state should come before a peace agreement and recognition of the Hebrew state. This is a subject that has soured relations between Israel and the Arab states for decades, and it now seems to have been swept under the carpet.There is no doubt that the normalisation of relations with Israel is tantamount to abandoning the Palestinian cause in the sense usually understood in the Arab world of resistance to the very idea of Israel’s existence.
A reconfiguration of the region is definitely underway. For the Gulf and North African countries to achieve their economic, political and modernisation goals in the region, a cooperation with its Western allies would not only benefit their development but would be essential. Naturally, a further proximity of the Gulf States to the West makes it impossible for them to provide any support other than humanitarian aid to the Palestinians.
Some state that the status of the Palestinians in the Arab world is ambiguous in reality: they constitute a permanent reminder of its powerlessness in the face of Israel and the West. Others emphasise the importance of moving on from a conflict that has been unresolved for over six decades.
However, to speak of “normalisation” in relation to relations between certain countries such as the UAE and Israel is, moreover, irrelevant: it is only a matter of writing down on paper things that already exist in reality.
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