The rising international phenomenon of minilateralism refers to informal, targeted initiatives by a small group of participant states that seek to resolve a specific threat, contingency, or security issue within a finite period of time.1 Minilateralism is a reaction to the failure of multilateral organizations to achieve global cooperation on the most relevant international issues such as fair trade, climate change, and health crises.
This paper will examine a recent example of minilateralism — the partnership between India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States that was signed on 14 July 2021.2 Dubbed I2U2, after the first letters in each country’s name, the initiative came on the heels of the Abraham Accords, which in December 2020 normalized relations between Israel and a group of Arab states led by the UAE. After brokering the Accords, the U.S. took the initiative for a “new Quad,” which will combine the U.S.’s space and cybersecurity capabilities, India’s expanding labor force, Israel’s advanced technology, and the UAE’s ability to attract start-ups.
The potential economic benefits of this minilateral partnership are enormous; however, the I2U2 members all have different political ideologies and even religions. Differences in opinion amongst the partners on how to deal with Russia, China, and Iran, for example, could upend the I2U2’s agenda, especially if they consider expanding their membership.3 Thus, while the I2U2 Quad aims to develop emerging sectors by using each country’s unique capabilities to fill economic, technological, and innovation voids, it will also seek to tone down any geopolitical differences.
Beyond economics: The rationale and goals of the I2U2
The leaders of India, Israel, the UAE, and the U.S. convened virtually for the first time under the auspices of the I2U2 on 14 July 4
to discuss the movement of people and goods across hemispheres, and increasing sustainability and flexibility in six core areas: water, energy, transportation, space, health, and food security.5 The I2U2 aims to leverage private-sector capital and technological and scientific expertise in order to develop joint investments, and the two initiatives presented at the summit illustrate these goals.
For the first project, Quad members want to develop a hybrid renewable energy system in India’s Gujarat state that will help India towards its objective of gaining 500 gigawatts of non-fossil fuel capacity by 2030. Indian food companies are eager to participate, and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency wants to sponsor a feasibility study for the $330 million project,6 which will combine solar and wind power with battery storage to produce 300 megawatts of energy. Another venture that illustrates the partnership’s potential is the UAE’s investment on 14 July 2022 of US$2 billion to develop a series of “food parks” in India over the next five years. The initiative aims to improve India’s agriculture, food processing, and retail sectors by reducing waste, economizing water consumption, and enhancing crop yields through the use of cutting-edge environmental farming technology. The private sector in the U.S. and Israel will contribute by providing expertise and innovation.7
In addition to investments in clean energy and agricultural projects, I2U2 partners are finding synergies in the emerging technology sector, which includes Artificial Intelligence, semiconductors, drones, anti-drone technology, data processing, decentralized finance, and crypto currency. The International Semiconductor Consortium, for example, is a joint project between the UAE’s Next Orbit Ventures and Israel’s Tower Semiconductor that will invest US$3 billion in India’s southern state of Karnataka to build a chip-making .8 The initiative serves as a model for the potential of the I2U2, combining Israel’s expertise in such technology with the UAE’s financial power and expertise in scaling digital solutions to bring US$10 billion-worth of economic and technology incentives to further modernize India’s emerging economy.9
Potential risks of the I2U2
The creation of the I2U2 stems from a mutual desire to mobilize the private sector’s capital and develop technologies to solve shared challenges, but conspicuously missing from the Quad’s mission are security goals. Unlike the Indo-Pacific Quad, each country in the I2U2 will continue to pursue its own security goals, individually or in different coalitions, and focus on business with its new partners.10
Security issues are a sensitive matter because of the different capabilities and political limitations of the member states. The I2U2 appealed to India, for example, because of its close ties with Israel and the UAE, but also because it cannot yet develop a defensive posture in the Gulf region given its proximity to rivals Pakistan and China. The partnership represents a diplomatic solution for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as he can maintain his country’s peaceful relations with Iran while taking advantage of the deepening ties between signatories of the Abraham Accords. Unlike India’s role in the Indo-Pacific quad,11 the I2U2 also offers India an opportunity to collaborate with the U.S. on its own terms and conditions, not as a formal ally, but as a strategically autonomous partner. Israeli-UAE security cooperation is growing but remains inadequate due to their nominal geographic size. The U.S. has massive capabilities but is limited by its other global security commitments, including the Russian-Ukrainian war and the strategic pivot to Asia.12
Interestingly, the Indo-Pacific Quad, which also involves the U.S. and India, along with Australia and Japan, shares a democratic political identity and concentrates on one main goal — to contain the rise of China in the region. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, China has taken notice of the Quad’s activities, and tensions have escalated with each of the Quad members; U.S.-China tensions remain high, Australia continues to bear the brunt of the Chinese economic sanctions after they suggested the World Health Organization investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in 2020, and India and Japan have clashed with China over territorial disputes. China’s ambassador in Tokyo even publicly criticized former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, stating that the new Quad reflects a “Cold War mentality”13 and that it is “100 percent outdated.”14
The I2U2 could help solve some geopolitical complexes such as reframing ties between the U.S. and Middle Eastern states, however, potential clashes between members could lead to the failure of the group and may even worsen foreign relations among the four countries. From a security perspective, the U.S. interest in the Middle East is about keeping their influence in the region intact and balancing China’s power, whereas the UAE wants to gird its reputation as an investment hub in the Middle East and North Africa region The U.S. and India’s aim to counter China’s influence in the region could cause a conflict for the UAE, who has economic ties with China in energy, space, and technology. Moreover, Israel’s primary concern seems to be keeping a check on the Iranian ambitions, but India wants to maintain its good relations with Iran. These diverse interests need to be addressed and balanced to avoid political chaos, especially if any coalition member wants to introduce geopolitical goals to the I2U2 in the future. This would be problematic at present as the group members have conflicting positions on how to deal with China, Russia, and Iran.16
Another future hurdle for the I2U2 is the potential expansion of membership. In the next few years the I2U2 could become the I2U2+ by including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and different Arab Gulf states in the short term and possibly France, Greece, and Italy in the long term.17 The benefit of minilateralism, however, is the flexibility that comes from working with a few, select countries on a specific mission — in the I2U2’s case, economic partnerships. The coalition’s cohesion could be affected should the group expand and/or widen its scope. The four founding members should take sufficient time to drill down on the core purpose of the I2U2 before including other members,18 especially considering that new members will all bring divergent security concerns. Expanding membership could undermine the benefits of an increased number of members to the coalition, making consensus and coordination more challenging and potentially diverting the group’s focus on economic cooperation towards geopolitics, which could be divisive.
The I2U2 could become an example of minilateralism that combines practical, development-oriented problem solving with peace-building strategies across all religious and political regimes. The new Quad offers U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration a means to broaden its vision of the world order from “democracy versus authoritarianism” to one that embraces other significant features of national identity and helps to develop strategic partnerships with constitutional federations such as the UAE.19 If India, Israel, the UAE and the U.S. deliver the cost-effective, high-quality inaugural projects of the I2U2, they will attract and build confidence among the private sector partners upon whose participation in the projects may determine the future of the group and its prospects of success.
The I2U2 is one of the most recent examples of the minilateral initiatives taken by the Biden administration that are intended to renew, reframe, and connect partners with a collective vision. The Quad has adopted a distinctly economic approach, launching projects in agriculture, technology, and clean energy. The focus on economics has allowed India, Israel, the UAE and the U.S. to develop trust and cohesion without getting involved in geopolitical conflicts. The coalition should solidify its primary purpose before expanding, so that it avoids economic exploitation and a clash of security interests among its members.
Minilateralism’s simplicity and straightforwardness contrast positively with multilateralism as an instrument to enhance inter-state cooperation. The smaller number of participants and ad hoc, voluntary nature of minilateral arrangements have the benefit of flexibility, which is important for innovative solutions. The I2U2 could become a model for states to achieve shared strategic goals if the coalition’s inaugural initiatives succeed and the group members reap substantial benefits.
1 Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, “Explaining the Rise of Minilaterals in the Indo-Pacific,” Observer Research Foundation, September 23, 2021, https://www.orfonline.org/research/explaining-the-rise-of-minilaterals-in-the-indo-pacific/.
2 Anil Wadhwa, “India, the Middle East and the New Quad,” Chanakya Forum, March 10, 2022, https://chanakyaforum.com/india-the-middle-east-and-the-new-quad/.
3 Daniel Markey and Hesham Youssef, “What You Need to Know about the I2U2,” United States Institute of Peace,
July 28, 2022, https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/07/what-you-need-know-about-i2u2.
4 Anil Wadhwa, “India, the Middle East and the New Quad,” Chanakya Forum, March 10, 2022, https://chanakyaforum.com/india-the-middle-east-and-the-new-quad/.
5 Akash Podishetty, “Decoding I2U2 and Its Geopolitical Implications,” Business Standard News, July 25, 2022, https://www.business-standard.com/podcast/current-affairs/decoding-i2u2-and-its-geopolitical-implications-122072500057_1.html.
6 “Joint Statement of the Leaders of India, Israel, United Arab Emirates, and the United States (I2U2),” The White House, July 14, 2022, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/07/14/joint-statement-of-the-leaders-of-india-israel-united-arab-emirates-and-the-united-states-i2u2/.
7 Kallol Bhattacherjee, “India to Give Land for I2U2-Backed Food Parks,” The Hindu, July 15, 2022, https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/positive-agenda-prime-minister-narendra-modi-addresses-first-i2u2-summit-virtually/article65639365.ece.
8 Mohammed Soliman, “The I2U2 Needs an Ambitious Tech Agenda,” Middle East Institute, September 14, 2022, https://www.mei.edu/publications/i2u2-needs-ambitious-tech-agenda.
10 Daniel Markey and Hesham Youssef, “What You Need to Know about the I2U2,” United States Institute of Peace, July 28, 2022, https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/07/what-you-need-know-about-i2u2.
11 Kabir Taneja, “Middle Eastern Quad? How Abraham Accords Opened West Asia for India,” ORF, October 19, 2021, https://www.orfonline.org/research/middle-eastern-quad/.
12 Mohammed Soliman, “The I2U2 Needs an Ambitious Tech Agenda,” Middle East Institute, September 14, 2022, https://www.mei.edu/publications/i2u2-needs-ambitious-tech-agenda.
13 Sheila A Smith, “The Quad in the Indo-Pacific: What to Know,” Council on Foreign Relations, May 27, 2021, https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/quad-indo-pacific-what-know.
15 Anil Wadhwa, “India, the Middle East and the New Quad,” Chanakya Forum, March 10, 2022, https://chanakyaforum.com/india-the-middle-east-and-the-new-quad/.
16 Daniel Markey and Hesham Youssef, “What You Need to Know about the I2U2,” United States Institute of Peace, July 28, 2022, https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/07/what-you-need-know-about-i2u2.
17 Mohammed Soliman, “The I2U2 Needs Muscle. Cairo and Riyadh Can Help,” Middle East Institute, September 19, 2022, https://www.mei.edu/publications/i2u2-needs-muscle-cairo-and-riyadh-can-help.
18 John Calabrese, “The US and the I2U2: Cross-Bracing Partnerships across the Indo-Pacific,” Middle East Institute, September 27, 2022, https://www.mei.edu/publications/us-and-i2u2-cross-bracing-partnerships-across-indo-pacific.
19 Daniel Markey and Hesham Youssef, “What You Need to Know about the I2U2,” United States Institute of Peace, July 28, 2022, https://www.usip.org/publications/2022/07/what-you-need-know-about-i2u2.