On 14 September, the UAE and Bahrain opened diplomatic relations with Israel, joining Egypt and Jordan as the only Arab states to have done so. Much of the discourse analysing the sudden leap toward normalisation focuses narrowly on the role of Iran, envisaging the Abraham Accords as a Middle Eastern equivalent of the Entente Cordial. Certainly, Israel and Bahrain and to a lesser extent the UAE all consider Iran a fundamental security threat; they have covertly shared intelligence on the matter for years. Yet, this alone provides an insufficient explanation.
Instead, economic and political considerations have driven Bahrain and the UAE to break ranks with their Arab counterparts. Both wish to legitimise existing clandestine trade and investment ties in order to further capitalise on access to Israel’s preeminent technology sector. Normalisation may also pay dividends in Washington, manifested in increased arms sales, investment and possibly security guarantees. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who fashions himself as a strongman capable of forcing adversaries to accept the reality of Israel’s existence, can claim success ahead of possible early elections in 2021.
Some Arab states may still follow suit: Sudan is a leading contender, but Oman might choose to forgo its reputation for neutrality too. Other Gulf countries, though, are unlikely to embrace Israel. To Saudi Arabia’s ailing King Salman and in Kuwait’s quasi-democratic system, the risk of being accused of betraying the Palestinian cause remains a potent obstacle. Qatar wishes to avoid the ire that normalisation would draw from its close regional ally Iran, alongside Hamas and Turkey.
Donald Trump is expected to market the Abraham Accords as a major foreign breakthrough ahead of the November election, having claimed with characteristic overstatement to have personally delivered “peace to the Middle East.” In reality, the current flurry of diplomatic announcements represent a formalisation of existing relationships rather than a substantial shift in regional geopolitical realities.
This article first appeared in the Axco Flashpoints newsletter, which provides monthly analysis on emerging risks and geopolitics from our Global Risk Intelligence and Data (GRID) team. You can sign up at https://www.axcoinfo.com/axco-flashpoints-signup.aspx