On September 15, 2020, United States President Donald Trump hosted the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) H.H. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the White House lawn – scene of the signing of the historic 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Peace Accords twenty-seven years earlier. The gathering announced the signing of the Abraham Accords – named after the common patriarch of the three monotheistic Abrahamic religions – establishing peace, diplomatic and trade relations, and a normalization of bilateral ties between the State of Israel, the UAE, and the Kingdom of Bahrain.
The accords, founded upon the shared strategic, economic and trade interests between the parties, constitute the first major breakthrough for regional peace in more than a quarter century since the Oslo accords, which Israel’s late President Shimon Peres trumpeted as the coming of a “new Middle East” that would bring reconciliation and prosperity to the region. The UAE and Bahrain, under the guidance of H.H. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and H.M. King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, have now become the third and fourth member states of the 22-nation Arab League – after Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994) – to establish full diplomatic and trade relations with the Jewish state.
With the Republic of Sudan becoming the fifth Arab state to announce a normalization of relations with Israel on October 23, a mere 72 days after the signing of the Abraham Accords, and more Arab nations expected to sign on, the unprecedented road to peace could unlock business potential and create new opportunities for trade and investment not only for the Arab Gulf states, but across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
The Abraham Accords: Strategic and Political Drivers of Peace
On their face at odds with the long arc of Arab-Israeli relations, the accords reflect and extend incremental progress in links between Israel and Arab Gulf states over the last two decades. A number of long and shorter-term macro and micro-level developments contributed to this normalization process. They include joint security concerns and geopolitical interests as well as common understanding that regional peace, tolerance, and mutual trade serve as keys to economic prosperity.
In a longer perspective, Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait constituted a turning point in the national security perceptions of the Arab States of the Gulf region. Governments were compelled to reconsider their views of the regional strategic landscape, as conceptions of security and stability were shattered in the aftermath of the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat’s support for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait angered member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – also known as the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf – and prompted a sense of betrayal that has lasted to this day.
Meanwhile, Israel, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon sent delegations to the 1991 Madrid Conference on Arab-Israeli Peace, also attended by a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, and held historically unprecedented direct negotiations. The Oslo Accords (1993), which established the self-governing Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (1994), followed the Madrid talks.
That same year, the Sultanate of Oman hosted the first visit to the Gulf region by an Israeli leader, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In 1996, the Sultanate and the State of Qatar established trade relations with Israel, the first countries of the six-nation GCC to do so. Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, visited Muscat in 1996, meeting with Sultan Qaboos bin Said to discuss the formal launch of trade relations.
The Al-Aqsa Intifada and subsequent Israeli-Palestinian clashes in 2000 provoked domestic and regional pressure on Qatar and Oman to backtrack on these ties. In the wake of “Operation Cast Lead,” Israel’s 2008-2009 military operation directed against the Hamas government in Gaza, Oman closed the Israeli trade office while Doha permanently severed trade relations with the Jewish State. Given Qatar’s more recent alignment with Turkey, Iran and Hamas, formal relations between Qatar and Israel seem unlikely to resume anytime soon.
Today’s Middle Eastern politico-economic landscape has profoundly changed. Egypt’s stagnating economic development has tempered its aspirations to lead the Arab world. Iraq has experienced inter- and intrastate conflicts with Iran, the United States, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) going back to the 1980s. The political, economic, military and strategic decline of these actors has presented an opportunity for the Arab Gulf States to fill the consequent regional power vacuum.
Equally important, in every GCC member state, excepting Oman, between 1995 and 2006, younger leaders willing to set in motion political reforms and economic liberalization programs succeeded rulers in power since the 1970s and 1980s. The Arab Peace Initiative launched by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at the Beirut Arab League Summit in 2002 – re-endorsed at the 2007 and 2017 summits – signaled a breakthrough in Arab willingness to formally and collectively recognize Israel’s existence once an independent Palestinian state is established.
More recently, the major realignment of international relations in the footsteps of the “Arab Spring” of the early 2010s reframed the major political fault lines of the MENA region. The 2017 diplomatic rift that isolated Qatar from its GCC partners, which largely stemmed from Qatar’s support of Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist groups, has impacted the Gulf region’s broader foreign relations, including those with Israel.
The complaints against Qatar from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain – centered around Doha’s Al-Jazeera network and foreign policy orientation vis-à-vis Turkey and Iran – reflect the “monarchical unity” goal of the GCC’s founding charter (1981). A rift between opponents of normalization (Qatar, Iran and Turkey) and states supporting it (UAE, Bahrain) has contributed to a growing perception of Israel as a strategic ally in the broader region. Turkey’s profile as a key protector of Palestinians under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, exemplified by his threat to close his country’s embassy in Abu Dhabi following the Abraham Accords, has added to the forces driving Israel and Arab Gulf States closer.
To capitalize on these developments, Israel’s Foreign Ministry launched an Arabic-language @IsraelintheGulf Twitter channel as part of its regional Public Diplomacy efforts (the account went silent in 2014 but was re-launched as a “virtual embassy” to the Gulf countries in 2019). In 2015, Israel established a diplomatic-level mission to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) headquartered in Abu Dhabi, its first openly established representative office to the international organization located in – although not accredited to – the UAE.
Efforts to consolidate these unofficial ties gained traction when U.S. President Trump asked his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, to spearhead Middle East policy. In October 2018, Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Oman for talks with Sultan Qaboos as the first Israeli leader to formally visit the Sultanate in 22 years. A year later, Israel announced it had accepted Dubai’s invitation to be one of 192 countries operating pavilions at the World Expo now scheduled to open in 2021.
These winds of change were already publicly manifested in April 2018, when Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud had stated in an interview with The Atlantic magazine that Israelis have the right to their own land, and that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia shares interests with the Jewish State. In October 2019, Israel’s Foreign Minister at the time Israel Katz announced that the Trump administration and Israel had been in discussions about a “non-aggression” initiative with unnamed Arab Gulf States. At about the same time, Israeli cabinet ministers visited the UAE while Katz met with his Bahraini counterpart in Washington. At a subsequent US-organized Warsaw summit to discuss Iran and other Middle East issues in February 2019, Netanyahu met again with senior Arab officials, posing for photos with Foreign Ministers from Oman and Yemen.
On January 28, 2020, President Trump presented his peace plan for resolving the Middle East conflict. The ambassadors of the UAE, Bahrain, and Oman attended the White House announcement. Six months earlier, Manama had already hosted the “Peace to Prosperity” economic conference, convened by Jared Kushner, to unveil the economic elements of Trump’s “deal of the century.” Bahrain’s then Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmad Al Khalifa gave an interview to Israeli TV Channel 13, calling for open communication with the Jewish state. He concluded: “Israel is part of this heritage of this whole region, historically. So, the Jewish people have a place amongst us.”
The Window of Opportunity: Suspended Annexation, the COVID-19 Pandemic, and Shared Strategic Objectives
While these developments facilitated the fruition of the Abraham Accords, a more immediate opportunity to break with the past came from Netanyahu’s agreement, in August 2020, to suspend plans to annex parts of the West Bank in return for normalization of relations with the UAE. The decision followed a Hebrew-language opinion edition published in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth by Yousef Al Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador in Washington, warning that annexation would undermine the quiet progress Israel had made with Gulf Arab States. “In the UAE and across much of the Arab world, we would like to believe Israel is an opportunity, not an enemy,” Al Otaiba wrote, adding, “We face too many common dangers and see the great potential of warmer ties.”
At this juncture, the interrelated crises of the COVID-19 outbreak and oil price rout had placed severe economic pressure on Gulf Arab governments and the private sector across the MENA-region. As a regional trade, tourism and transportation hub, the UAE’s economy is estimated to suffer a deeper contraction in 2020 than first estimated. GDP is estimated to shrink 5.2 percent, compared with a previous forecast for a decline of 3.6 percent, according to the country’s Central Bank. Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the two economically dominant Emirates, have to cope at least temporarily with falling oil and housing prices, a depressed tourism industry, and an interruption in the supply for foreign labor.
These extraordinary and acute shocks to Gulf economies and the need to support new flows of trade to thrive in the post-coronavirus world, kept the window of opportunity for Israeli-Emirati-Bahraini détente open while encouraging Arab Gulf States to reach out to Israel for information and assistance in the fight against the virus. As part of these efforts, the first commercial flight from the UAE landed in Israel, in May 2020, with emergency aid to help Palestinians battle the pandemic.
A further factor contributing to the development of relations between the parties is that they share a set of converging strategic objectives. From an Israeli perspective, the Sunni Arab Gulf States enjoy significant financial resources and geographical proximity to its archenemy, the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran, which the country views as the key threat to its existence. In this context, the Abraham Accords constitute a major step toward Israel’s reinforcement of its profile in the Middle East Region.
Given regional political upheavals and current intra-Palestinian divisions, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become less of a priority for most Arab states. Their preoccupation is with threats from Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, and they see Israel as an ally in these efforts. In this context, the Palestinians have lost their biggest ace in the hole: their longstanding regional power has been the ability to obstruct normalization before a final resolution of their own conflict with Israel. At the same time, the Abraham Accords provide Gulf Arab States with political leverage against Israel. In all likelihood, Israel will be pressured to make further progress on the Palestinian issue before additional Arab states move towards normalization.
More importantly, since the late twentieth century, Iran’s growing regional influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and more recently in Yemen has fueled GCC States’ and Israel’s suspicion of the Islamic Republic’s intentions and capabilities. The Arab Gulf States and Israel have felt under immediate threat ever since the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the so-called P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany) and Iran.
The Sunni opposition’s defeat in the Syrian Civil War, the ongoing Yemeni Civil War and an increasingly assertive and regionally influential Iran – located just 35 miles across from the UAE and the Strait of Hormuz – combined with the Trump administration’s lower profile and withdrawal of military presence in the Middle East, has left many traditional U.S. regional allies nervous.
The UAE, Bahrain and Israel have all showed a determination to halt the expansion of Iranian influence, manifesting itself as a “Shiite crescent” from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia, that King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein warned against over a decade ago. The normalization of bilateral ties with Israel – which holds the military power and political will to limit Iran’s global and regional influence – has become acceptable in view of these geopolitical realities.
The Abraham Accords: Trade and Economic Prospects
The Abraham Accords hold the potential of benefiting regional trade and investment relations in a range of business sectors, from aviation and finance to health and tourism. They pave the way for establishing direct flights, opening telecommunications links, establishing joint ventures, and bringing into the open commerce that has long been underground.
As part of the accords, the UAE will sign a number of trade and economic agreements, including double taxation and a free trade agreement with Israel. Emirati Minister of Economy Abdulla bin Touq Al Mari has termed these treaties a “dividend of peace” that will strengthen newly forged ties between the region’s two most innovative economies. While the new trade and capital flows will immediately benefit Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain, they also stand to have a significant spillover effect on the entire MENA region and broader global economy.
The Development of Israel-Gulf Trade Relations
Trade relations between Israel and the Arab Gulf states have slowly developed during the last 15 years. Government officials in Israel estimate that over 500 Israeli companies operate in the UAE at present and a more limited number in Bahrain. Among the most profitable of these partnerships is that of Dubai’s state-owned DP World and Haifa-based Zim Integrated Shipping Services, which has made a series of joint investments across Asia, Europe, and South America.
Before the formalization of trade relations, business was conducted via subsidiaries in third countries. Direct calls required overseas numbers while businessmen used foreign passports for commercial travel. With trade largely routed through intermediaries, reliable figures on existing trade levels are not readily available. The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, a United Kingdom nonprofit organization active in government advisory work, estimated in a 2008 report that Israel’s total trade with Gulf states amounted to about $1 billion.
These figures indicate that the accords hold the potential to spawn more opportunities than what has been termed a “cold peace” between Israel, Egypt and Jordan. These treaties produced limited economic dividends; political normalization never translated into economic, cultural, or people-to-people normalization. The World Bank reports that Egyptian exports to Israel measured about half a billion dollars in 2018, with imports under $115 million. Trade with Jordan remains even more limited with less than $80 million in either direction.
In contrast, one of the main reasons for the normalization between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain – which does not involve any territorial disputes or major grievances to be settled – is greater economic and technological cooperation. The Israeli Finance Ministry’s deputy chief economist, Lev Drucker, sees a potential for more substantial trade levels between the countries, starting at $2 billion and building up to $6.5 billion once cooperation matures. Moody’s Investors Service (August 2020), citing Israeli Ministry of Economy and Industry estimates, offers more conservative projections that normalization could value Israeli exports to the UAE at $300-$500 million a year, constituting 0.4 per cent of its total exports; UAE investments in Israel could reach $350 million a year, about 1.9 per cent of inbound foreign direct investment.
A combination of factors offers the potential to boost trade and economic cooperation:
Future Business Potential
Which business areas hold the potential to further trade between the parties? The Abraham Accords list 16 areas of Israeli-UAE collaboration, including environment, agriculture, and water and food security, as well as more strictly commercial areas such as civil aviation, tourism, energy, science, and technology. Israel and Bahrain signed an additional eight memoranda of understanding (MOU) on October 18, 2020, regarding the promotion of cooperation in economy and trade, civil aviation, finance, telecommunications, information technologies, postal services, agriculture, and foreign affairs. Some immediate developments suggest a number of future business possibilities in these fields:
While not exhaustive, the examples above illustrate the trade potential and future business possibilities made possible by the Abraham Accords. The relative parity between the Emirati dirham – currently trading at $3.67 42 (October 30, 2020, with the Bahraini dinar at $2.65) – and the Israeli new shekel, trading at $3, should further facilitate the development of bilateral trade.
Historical maps of the Middle East used to portray the region as the center of the world. For decades, this ancient part of the Silk Road – facilitating trade, economic, cultural, political, and religious links between the East and West – was cut off due to political disagreements, inter- and intra-state conflicts and a culture of distrust that threatened international peace and security.
It will take time before we can fully assess all opportunities and challenges presented by the Abraham Accords. However, most can agree that, just as the fall of the Berlin Wall of 1989 constituted a pivotal event in world history – marking the fall of the Iron Curtain and a change of international relations – the accords, reflecting the tectonic political, economic and strategic shifts in the region of the last decade, hold the potential to mark the dawn of a new era in the Middle East.
As evidenced by this report, intensified trade between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain can help provide the glue to ensure the three-way accords – with their potential for previously unimaginable alliances and opportunities for both Arabs and Israelis – are a success. This argument is reinforced by a recent World Economic Forum report (2020) suggesting that greater economic integration, reduced regulatory barriers, and freer movement of people and capital could result in a doubling of GDP in the Middle East within a decade – that projection did not account for the inclusion of Israel in such movements.
As the Middle East peace train moves forward, the most pressing question today is not whether, but when another country extends and receives a hand of peace. Though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved, the herald of a warm peace among Israeli, Emirati, and Bahraini citizens can bring hope to all the children of Abraham. The Abraham Accords hold the potential to serve as the foundation for a comprehensive peace process across the entire region by demonstrating the tangible, real-world benefits of people-to-people ties, trade, commerce, and mutual cooperation.
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 Despite the lack of formal relations, Israel and Qatar have ongoing bilateral cooperation relating to the transfer of aid to the Gaza Strip, driven by the joint objective of transferring humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. Israel has an interest in seeing Qatari aid – which amounts to more than a billion dollars since 2012 – continue given its view that improvements in the humanitarian situation might help delay a future military confrontation with Hamas. From Qatar’s perspective, the transfer of economic aid strengthens its regional strategic position while contributing to enhance its ties to the U.S. administration. Qatar gains further bargaining chips in the intra-GCC dispute and an amount of leverage vis-à-vis Israel. See Yoel Guzansky, “How GCC Conflict Impacts the Gulf Response to Israeli Annexation”, Fikra Forum, The Washington Institute, Washington, DC, July 1, 2020, accessed October 22, 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/fikraforum/view/GCC-Conflict-Gulf-Israel-Annexation-Middle-East and Giorgio Cafiero, “Would an Israeli embassy ever open in Doha?” Doha News, August 17, 2020, accessed October 22, 2020, https://www.dohanews.co/would-an-israeli-embassy-ever-open-in-doha.
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