Gulf State Analytics reacts to the Abraham Accords

​19/9/2020

 

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel formalized full-fledged diplomatic relations on August 13, marking a watershed in Gulf-Israel relations. Less than one month later, Bahrain followed Abu Dhabi’s lead and signed its own “peace agreement” with the Jewish state.

At this point, analysts are busy debating the strategic significance of the Abraham Accords and how they may impact the Middle East’s geopolitical order. How will Iran and Turkey respond to this trend of more Arab states normalizing relationships with Israel? Are the chances good that Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia will also sign accords with Tel Aviv? What do these diplomatic agreements tell us about Washington’s influence in the region? Who are the winners and losers?

Gulf State Analytics has asked a group of its advisors and analysts to share their expert opinions. Their views are presented below.

 

Within the GCC, the UAE and Bahrain will likely stand alone in having formalized relations with Israel.

“It’s unlikely that the Bahrain-Israel and UAE-Israel deals will pave the way for the establishment of formal and official relations between Israel and any of the other four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, or Kuwait. Despite these countries becoming less focused on the Palestinian causes (especially in some quarters of the youth, such as in Saudi Arabia), popular opposition to normalization is still quite high throughout the Gulf.

“Qatar remains very aligned with Turkey and staunchly opposed to the UAE, so the leadership in Doha will probably capitalize on the narrative of ‘normalization as betrayal’. In Kuwait, the National Assembly has capitalized on hostility towards Israel to claim its place as the voice of the people. Its relative weight in policymaking made it difficult even to establish covert relations with Israel.

“The new Sultan of Oman, already treading lightly due to possible economic-related grievances would not risk such a controversial move at this time, despite the fact that we see indications that the UAE may be stepping in to support Oman financially, thus increasing its influence over the Sultanate. Muscat is eager to repair relations with the US, which were strained under the administration of Donald Trump, but remains wary of taking such polarizing moves. Of course, should Donald Trump win a second term, Muscat may have to re-think its position. But for the time being, Omani policymakers are also concerned about provoking Iran into thinking their decades-long relations are compromised.

“Saudi Arabia as a very large country and also a religious leader lacks the flexibility of the smaller GCC states on this issue. Riyadh would need specific enabling conditions at the international, regional and domestic level to move forward with normalizing relations with Israel. For instance, although Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has indicated his willingness to explore such options, he still needs to refer to his father, King Salman, who has instead invested decades of his political work to back the Palestinian cause. At the regional level, Riyadh is very wary of provoking further hostility from powers which challenge its status as a religious leader, Turkey and Iran. Finally, internationally, Riyadh would need significant incentives from the US in order to move forward with more confidence.”

Cinzia Bianco, senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics.

 

Abraham Accords will have a limited impact on geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East.

“The strategic significance of the UAE-Israel normalization agreement is likely to be the UAE’s acquisition of more advanced weaponry such as the F-35 that Emirati officials hope will give the UAE a form of ‘qualitative military edge’ over its peers in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia. There is less strategic significance in the Bahrain-Israel deal, due in part to Bahrain’s lesser regional profile and activism relative to the UAE, and because the specific aspects of the Bahrain-Israel deal are still being worked out. Emirati officials may also hope that the Abraham Accords elevate the UAE-US strategic partnership to a next level and position the UAE alongside Israel as the favored US partner in the Middle East—hence a reference to a strategic partnership component in the agreement.

“The US will continue to balance its relationships across the region, including with the UAE and Qatar as well as with NATO ally Turkey, and the Abraham Accords are unlikely, on their own, to greatly affect existing regional geopolitics, such as the rift in the Gulf or the regionwide schism between Turkey and the UAE, which is playing out in theaters as diverse as the Horn of Africa, Libya, and the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel similarly will actively seek to avoid getting sucked into regional geopolitics in the Gulf dispute, especially since Israeli leaders do value Qatari engagement and partnership on Gaza. The most direct outcome of the Abraham Accord might be on Turkey’s role in the region, if Israel and the UAE continue to work more closely together in areas such as the Eastern Mediterranean.

“Oman and Qatar currently have pragmatic working relationships with Israel on issues of mutual concern and are likely to feel there is little to no need to elevate or formalize these ties which are working well in their current form—unless there is significant pressure from the Trump administration or, in Oman’s case, from the UAE if tied to a package of financial assistance or support. Saudi Arabia may come under more significant and direct pressure from the White House to follow the UAE and Bahrain in normalizing with Israel, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may even want to follow Mohammed bin Zayed in doing so, but this is unlikely so long as King Salman remains on the throne and in the position of having the final say. Kuwait will continue to be the regional outlier in rejecting any form of open relationship with Israel, with two factors making it particularly unlikely that Kuwait might change its position—first, the illness and hospitalization of the Emir, and, second, the fact that Kuwait is approaching parliamentary elections, which would make any expression of support for normalization with Israel vulnerable to criticism from voters and rival candidates.”

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, advisor at Gulf State Analytics.

 


Bahrain and the UAE’s accords with Israel will push Turkey closer to Iran.

“The buffer zone that once existed between Iran and Israel is being removed as the later establishes a foothold in the Persian Gulf. Some of the Sunni Arab sheikdoms are now openly allying themselves with Tel Aviv. This development will push Iran and Turkey’s policies into further alignment, sweeping any differences that they may have under the rug. Both Ankara and Tehran have sour relations with UAE and Israel. There is now more opportunity for Iran and Turkey to further cooperate on regional issues, with Qatar aligning with them.”

Sina Azodi, advisor at Gulf State Analytics.

 

Washington’s retreat from the Middle East is critical to the Abraham Accords.

“The signing of the peace accords between Israel, UAE, and Bahrain illustrate a new diplomacy and new alliances of regional powers in the Middle East. As Washington retreats its footprint in the Middle East region, Abu Dhabi and Manama understood it was an opportunity to enhance its own security with normalization of relations with Israel. The significance of the UAE and Bahrain’s peace accord with Israel is multifold: On one hand, they are officially allied to counter Iran’s influence and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen; and on the other hand, it sets the stage for a strategic environment of cooperation in commerce, military, intelligence, medical, and foreign direct investments. Especially for Bahrain it was a deal that couldn’t be ignored because Bahrain’s economy is in crisis; its international credit rating was downgraded in August, but because its gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is too high, Manama can’t request foreign assistance to boost the economy.

“As much as is attention is focused on containing Iran’s regional power, simultaneously this alliance is interested in curtailing official and unofficial support for the Muslim Brotherhood via Turkey and Qatar. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt have aggressively attempted to suppress the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood, however with Qatar and Turkey’s direct investments in Gaza’s Hamas, and with the Islamists in Libya and Syria, MB Islamists still maintain a robust presence. The UAE and Bahrain both understand they do not want to contain Iranian regional power while enhancing Turkey’s influence in the Levant and North Africa region. Under President Erodgan, Turkey has historically sought to find ways to be influential in Arab countries by using the Palestinians, the invasion of Iraq, or working against Gulf countries’ war in Yemen. With official diplomatic ties with Israel, Turkey’s multilateral relationships—and geopolitical interests—enable Ankara to be active in northern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, etc. and now Abu Dhabi (and allies) can counter their activities in the region.

“Kuwait is a staunch supporter of the Palestinian struggle to gain an independent homeland so they will probably not join anytime soon. While active in the past with the Iranian nuclear deal, Oman will be neutral at this time to focus on developing its own infrastructure, economy, and employment opportunities. Qatar, like Turkey, is heavily critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians while also deeply involved in emboldening Hamas’ political presence. Qatar and Turkey’s alliance to support Islamists will be even more aggressive. Saudi Arabia is the regional superpower which will wait for the ripe time to move forward. In other words, the UAE-Bahrain-Israel peace accords will need to mature on multiple fronts before the Saudis commit to coming to the table.”

Qamar-ul Huda, senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics.

 

Arab states’ “peace deals” are about preserving the Middle East’s ‘status quo’.

“The UAE and Bahrain’s recent agreements to normalize relations with Israel are intended to improve coordination between these countries on numerous dossiers. These issues include countering the perceived Iranian threat and advancing Emirati, Bahraini, and Israeli interests in three bodies of water: The Mediterranean Sea, Persian Gulf, and Arabian Sea. Those in the Middle East who advocate that more Arab states formalize relations with Tel Aviv seek to preserve the region’s status quo. Within the UAE, there is optimism about the ways in which the Abraham Accords can contribute to technological advancements, stronger security, and more long-term prosperity.”

Shehab Makahleh, senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics.

 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the big winner.

“One of the most significant aspects of Israel’s normalization of relations with the UAE and Bahrain is the fact that Israeli right-wing nationalists’ expectations of gaining sovereignty over the West Bank have vanished. Concomitantly, Netanyahu’s strategy of managing the Palestinian conflict rather than ‘winning it’ has prevailed. Netanyahu emerges as more centrist because Israel’s loudest critics of diplomatic accords have come from the far right, upset over the loss of an opportunity to fully annex the West Bank. For the Palestinians, the normalization of Israel’s relations with these two Gulf states are a huge blow which could be fatal to their aspiration of ever achieving statehood.

“The UAE and Bahrain’s leaders can sell the accords as a victory at home, framing Israel’s agreement not to annex the West Bank as a concession made to Abu Dhabi. Bahrain, however, risks potential unrest, given its majority Shiite population, which Iran can stir up. Riyadh cannot yet afford to formalize ties with Israel and ‘betray’ the Palestinians. The Saudis are still the guardians of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. Handing Erdogan’s Turkey another opportunity to present itself as the true protector of the Arabs/Muslims is too risky for the kingdom.”

Alessandro Bruno, analyst at Gulf State Analytics.

 

Saudi Arabia is using the Bahrain-Israel accord as a ‘test’.

“For decades, leaders of GCC members have viewed Iran as a greater threat than Israel, which has led to clandestine relations between their monarchies and the Jewish state. Yet in the case of Saudi Arabia, relations with Israel will probably remain somewhat clandestine because the oil-rich country is unlikely normalize its relations with Israel considering the kingdom’s custody of Islamic holy sites and Riyadh’s history of supporting the Palestinian struggle. Even if Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has made remarks suggesting his openness to normalizing Saudi-Israeli relations, the more conservative leaders—like his father, King Salman—show no signs of change. Permitting Bahrain to formalize diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv might be the farthest the Saudis can go, at least for now. The move on Manama’s part can be understood as a ‘Saudi test’ which gives Riyadh the chance to see what happens next and to move accordingly down the road.”

Enrica Fei, analyst at Gulf State Analytics.

 

After the UAE and Bahrain, other GCC members are moving cautiously vis-à-vis Israel.

“Normalization is not off the table for any of the GCC countries. Oman suggests it is in a more advanced stage in terms of developing this plan and may well follow the UAE and Bahrain’s examples. The others, however, might prefer to wait and see how the region and the Arab world react to it because of the risks that stem from geopolitical and religious centrality (Saudi Arabia), the role as defender of the Palestinian cause (Kuwait and Qatar) or because of an active pro-Palestinian political sphere domestically (Kuwait).”

Marco Túlio Lara, analyst at Gulf State Analytics.

 

Featured image: The White House