This final chapter considers the challenges in not only maximizing the benefits of the Abraham Accords, but also ensuring their sustainability. The chapter also makes recommendations on how the accords can help to create a co-operative regional security framework.
This paper has shown how shifts in the regional and international landscape, particularly after a decade of conflict and COVID-19, have fostered increased regional cooperation and integration among Middle East states. The signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020 has prompted an unprecedented groundswell of economic, bilateral and multilateral engagement between the signatory states. Such collaboration is a critical stepping-stone that can help to embed de-escalation, increase understanding between countries, reduce mistrust and, above all, promote local management of regional security. Moreover, the bridges being built by Israeli–Emirati normalization can, in time, be transformed into a collaborative regional security structure that can manage and mitigate conflict.
The accords have, despite initial criticism, proved durable and prompted significant economic and political progress. Yet it is important to draw attention to a series of interconnected challenges that could slow or spoil these positive regional dynamics.
The Iran problem
Tensions with Iran are a critical component of the Israeli–Emirati relationship. Unlike in past years, Iran’s obstructionist role is driving regional states to deepen their engagement. ‘Iran’s destabilizing regional activities is a common denominator for many MENA states that is forging cooperation’, argued one analyst. But, although both countries remain aligned in their broader view of Iran as a regional threat, tactical differences over how to contain Iran’s activities are apparent. While the UAE’s national security strategy remains focused on pushing back against regional disruptors, the UAE has shifted its approach to concentrate on developing defensive capacity. The return of the UAE’s ambassador, Saif Al Zaabi, to Tehran, despite continued provocations from Iran, is a clear illustration of the UAE’s changed position. One interviewee characterized the UAE’s approach as ‘a realistic one because in terms of security, the UAE knows that they are defenceless against Iran; the last thing they want is a confrontation with Tehran’. Emirati leaders are also concerned that any direct confrontation between Israel and Iran could impact the UAE’s economy and security, by prompting an increase in Iranian attacks across the Gulf. Given this desire to avoid antagonizing Iran, direct diplomacy, economic engagement and incentives will likely guide the UAE’s strategy for managing Iran, accompanying the broader strategy to build defensive capability.
The Israeli political establishment has been uncomfortable with the UAE’s diplomatic outreach to Iran and instead hopes to build a more united anti-Iran front. At the same time, Israeli interviewees acknowledged that Israel would not provide direct military support to defend the Persian Gulf. ‘There is alignment in threat perceptions but there are differences between defence and offence here’, reflected one policymaker. However, foreshadowing increased military cooperation and defensive capacity-building, Israel has fast-tracked military exports to the UAE since the accords, ‘with more in the pipeline to come’. With capacity-building still a work in progress, both sides continue publicly to demonstrate caution and signal a slower pace of strategic cooperation.
Iran’s dispatch of drones to support the Russian war effort in Ukraine has raised concern throughout the region, as well as prompting a heightened Western response through the imposition of further sanctions on Iran. Israel is also believed to have been behind a drone strike on a military facility in Isfahan. For Iran, the war in Ukraine is a testing ground for its capabilities that allows it to project further influence and show that sanctions and diplomatic isolation have failed to curb its technological advance. Iran also gains from increased economic and strategic support from Russia. In January 2023, reports indicated that Iran was to upgrade its air fleet and acquire 24 SU-35s from Russia. This acquisition would be Iran’s first major upgrade since 1990, foreshadowing the potential for further military cooperation between it and Russia. Other Middle East states are deeply concerned by these ties and the potential for a deeper military partnership. At the same time, the Western criticism of Iran’s missile and drone programme is seen in the region as ‘better late than never’ support for the threat faced by regional states.
From Iran’s perspective, normalization between Israel and the UAE was not unexpected. It has long been aware of, if not monitoring, the close, security-based cooperation between Israel and the Gulf Arab states. Iran sees Israeli–Arab normalization as a counter-offensive against its own regional influence. Perceiving Israel as trying to encircle it, Iran has tried to establish ‘red lines’, including limiting ‘Israel’s military presence in the Persian Gulf’. One analyst argued that ‘Tehran will do what it has always done and look at opportunistic threat management as a strategy. It will move slowly until it finds opportunities to pressure or gain leverage’. As such, Iran has so far reacted to normalization by embracing dialogue over confrontation with Gulf Arab states, but it also continues to use the threat of instability through its proxies in Yemen or its ballistic missile programme to divide regional states. The visit of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council secretary, Admiral Ali Shamkhani, to the UAE in March 2023 sought to build on this approach of outreach and engagement. The announcement that month of Saudi–Iranian reconciliation might further reduce tension around the region, but time and confidence-building measures are needed for this rapprochement to impact other conflicts. The UAE’s engagement with the Assad regime in Syria is viewed through this prism. Rather than seeing restoration of ties as negative, Iran is pleased by the prospect of the relegitimization of Assad, as his political survival would vindicate its support for Assad. Although Arab states normalizing with the Syrian regime believe that such a course will limit Iranian influence, Iran views the situation differently, believing its economy would benefit from any increase in Arab state investment in Syria.
Conversely, Iran also sees Israel and the UAE’s embrace of Turkey as directed towards a broader policy of encirclement. Turkish military activities in Azerbaijan, northern Iraq and Syria have led to increasing tensions between it and Iran. In the past, both sides have managed to compartmentalize points of contention in pursuit of economic ties. For the time being, Iran sees Erdogan’s domestic weaknesses ahead of the 2023 elections in Turkey as playing in its favour. Iran, like Israel and the UAE, will see a regional recalibration towards Turkey in a different light should Erdogan fail in his re-election bid. Until then, because trust in Erdogan is so limited and expectations remain high that he could still win re-election, Israeli and Emirati outreach to Turkey will remain limited and tactical.
Iran is conscious that Israel and other regional states, with their proximity to Iran’s borders or places of influence within them, have the potential to stoke dissent among the Iranian population. The outbreak of protests that began in September 2022 has seen Iran target the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq with repeated missile and drone strikes. These strikes are designed to stem potential outside support for the protests that have spread throughout the country and to restore deterrence as a mechanism for control. Iran has blamed external actors for fomenting the protests and, in another effort to push back against what it sees as outside interference, has increased its threatening rhetoric. Iran’s IRGC commander, Hossein Salami, warned Saudi Arabia against further meddling and supporting diaspora-run opposition media, foreshadowing a possible acceleration of tensions. As part of the bilateral agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both sides have committed to respect sovereignty and reduce regional interference. Following this agreement, regional states should take the opportunity to continue to build channels of dialogue and, in absence of Western-led efforts, to arrive at compromises and agree thematic areas of cooperation.
Iran is conscious that Israel and other regional states, with their proximity to Iran’s borders or places of influence within them, have the potential to stoke dissent among the Iranian population.
With the revival of the JCPOA being far from certain and Iran’s nuclear programme advancing to unprecedented levels, recent de-escalatory regional security dynamics should not be taken for granted. Israeli and Iranian ‘grey zone’ operations continue unabated, while the January 2023 US–Israel ‘Juniper Oak’ military exercises were intended to show the ‘collective readiness and interoperability of forces as well demonstrate preparedness to confront threats’. In this climate of accelerating nuclear tensions, limited direct diplomacy with Iran and global attention on the war in Ukraine, there is concern that escalation could happen quickly and further risk regional security.
In such a scenario, the Emirati relationships with both Israel and Iran could provide an opportunity, enabling the UAE to act as an important interlocutor that sets clear red lines and ‘uses partnerships to send messages to Tehran’. This would establish a new security paradigm in the region in which a major Arab state joins Israel in managing tensions with Iran. In the meantime, while tactical divergences between Israel and the UAE over Iran remain, and Western states have no clear future strategy beyond sanctions, the UAE has an opportunity to use its relationship with Iran to play an important diplomatic bridging role.
State nationalism has gained in import across the region – and particularly among the Gulf Arab states – and surpassed the appeal of pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism. Furthermore, regional leaders have expressed displeasure with the Palestinian leadership’s ‘failure’ to reach a peace deal with Israel or at least their continuous missing of opportunities. For example, leading Gulf Arab political figures, such as former Saudi ambassador to the US Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, have openly criticized the Palestinian leadership and argued that it is no longer deserving of support. But in the push for normalization, the Palestinian issue cannot be ignored. While it may no longer dominate Middle East affairs, the issue will remain divisive until Palestinian statehood is achieved.
It has become commonplace to read that younger generations in Arab states no longer attach the same significance to the Palestinian Territories as their predecessors, and are more consumed with domestic matters such as jobs, housing and supporting families. However, surveys highlight the continued relevance of the Palestinian issue among all generations in Arab countries. For example, the majority of those surveyed for the 2019–20 Arab Opinion Index (about 80 per cent) considered the Palestinian cause to be relevant for all Arabs, and not Palestinians alone.
Given the heightened and prominent debate around colonialism not only within academia, but also in popular global discourse, the characterization of Israel as a ‘colonial state’ resonates strongly. Indeed, there is a discernible and palpable anti-imperialist (for which, read anti-US) sentiment that attributes the region’s turmoil to US overreach in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. The same sentiment holds the UK first and the US second responsible for establishing, nurturing and supporting Israel. In fact, younger generations in the Middle East, as well as second- and third-generation migrants in North America and Europe, are arguably more engaged with Palestinian affairs. As a result, the issue has regained currency over the past decade.
As mentioned earlier in this paper, the Palestinian Territories and the sanctity of Jerusalem are still important issues for certain regional states, including Kuwait and Qatar. The latter has been the most vocal regional state in criticizing Israel’s wars against Gaza and also the most generous in helping rebuild that territory.
The UAE, meanwhile, has created a dilemma for itself on this issue. Its full embrace of the Abraham Accords was considered by Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank to be a betrayal of their cause. Recent polls of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank indicate that only six per cent favoured normalization with Israel; and only five per cent of Egyptians and Jordanians support peace with Israel. Furthermore, UAE’s influence among Palestinians has already been suffering, because it views Hamas as an enemy and severed ties with the PA some years ago as a result. The PA – and especially its president, Mahmoud Abbas, and his supporters – have never made their peace with MbZ’s efforts to promote Abbas’s rival Mohammed Dahlan, whom they believe has influenced the UAE’s decision to normalize.
Recent polls of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank indicate that only six per cent favoured normalization with Israel; and only five per cent of Egyptians and Jordanians support peace with Israel.
Conflict between Israel and Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza is a recurring event. Consequently, the UAE could become the target of Arab anger if it is unable to distance itself from Israel’s actions, which have become more hostile under the new, ultra-right Netanyahu government. For example, national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s provocative visit to Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in January 2023 – reminiscent of late Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s visit in September 2000 – brought widespread condemnation among Arab leaders. Moreover, calls from finance minister Bezalel Smotrich (also the minister in the defence ministry in charge of civilian affairs in the West Bank) in March 2023 for Israel to ‘wipe out’ the Palestinian town of Huwara in the West Bank following the killing of two Israelis will only serve to complicate relations.
While the Israel–UAE relationship will likely survive periodic increases in violence, it is unclear how it could withstand Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank or a new intifada. At the very least, the partnership would come under extreme pressure and the UAE would be forced to put it into ‘deep freeze’. The UAE would also rely on the US to manage tensions between Israel and Arab states over the Palestinian Territories and rein-in provocative Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza. Such pressures would not create a domestic fissure in the compact between the UAE’s state and society or lead to mass protests, but it would affect the UAE’s reputation in the region and could have a material impact on its relationships with other Arab states. High-level diplomatic visits, akin to AbZ’s visit to Israel, would be unlikely to be repeated. A visit by Netanyahu to Abu Dhabi, planned for January 2023, has already been delayed. In this context, ultra-right-wing Israeli politicians must weigh the value of increased regional integration against their desire for territorial expansion that would undoubtedly provoke regional opposition and end any prospect of expanding the Abraham Accords.
Expanding the Abraham Accords
To date, normalization with other, major Arab countries has not followed the Abraham Accords. Progress on this will be key to achieving the broader Israeli goal of overt regional coordination Israeli policymakers have long been courting the Saudi leadership, seeing normalization with Saudi Arabia as the ‘big ticket’. Recent statements from Israeli foreign minister Eli Cohen have indicated that, for Israel, expansion of the accords is a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’. However, while it is broadly supportive of the accords, Saudi Arabia has yet to take steps to formally join.
Informal, intelligence-based engagement between Israel and Saudi Arabia has been happening quietly for decades, primarily directed towards managing mutual regional threats. MbS is believed to be more inclined to normalize ties with Israel than his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, but has made progress on Palestinian statehood a condition of any such step. ‘As custodians of the two Holy Mosques, the kingdom has a bigger regional role and responsibility that must be recognized… thereby normalization will require a clear quid pro quo’, stated one interviewee.
Like the UAE, Saudi Arabia has been deeply frustrated by US geopolitical prioritization over regional security commitments. These sentiments have been deepened by the war in Ukraine, which has led to a growing divide between Saudi Arabia and the US. Biden’s July 2021 visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia was an attempt to demonstrate his administration’s endorsement of regional integration. This enabled greater formal cooperation, including Saudi participation in the RSC.
As part of a behind-the-scenes negotiation, the Biden administration has been supporting efforts to bring Israel and Saudi Arabia closer together. In July 2022 Saudi Arabia agreed to allow civilian overflights from Israel through Saudi airspace. Under the agreement, Israeli Arabs will also be permitted to fly directly to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj religious pilgrimage, rather than entering Saudi Arabia via Jordan. A third part of the agreement saw the transfer of sovereignty over the Tiran and Sanafir islands in the Red Sea from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. Beyond this, Saudi Arabia is linking normalization to security guarantees from the US, along with support for a Saudi civilian nuclear programme. The latter could be difficult for Israel to accept.
Together, these steps and the discussion around them signify positive momentum. But, as one analyst suggested, Saudi Arabia, ‘when it is ready, will not likely sign onto the Abraham Accords with its smaller neighbours. Its size and stature suggest that it will need its own deal with Israel and one that showcases its influence’. For the time being, as the Israeli government faces a domestic political crisis and as tensions with the Palestinians rise, the momentum behind normalization has reduced. Saudi Arabia’s minister of state, Adel al-Jubeir, further commented that ‘peace comes at the end of this process, not at the beginning’.
Other Gulf Arab states including Oman and Qatar have – despite their long-standing quiet engagement with Israel – also declined formal normalization. Qatari cooperation is seen by Israel as valuable in managing ties with Hamas, while Israeli participation in the Oman-based Middle East Desalination Research Center has been ongoing for over two decades. However, secret talks between Israel and Qatar to increase Israel’s diplomatic presence in Doha during the 2022 football World Cup fell apart over the Israeli insistence on making public a planned conversation between then Israeli prime minister Lapid and Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. After delays that also saw the Omani Shura Council propose to expand legislation that would ban contact with Israeli entities and individuals, originally proposed in 1972, Oman agreed to open its airspace to Israeli flights in February 2023. The decision ultimately reveals the progress under way within the region towards Israel’s integration, but also demonstrates the domestic and regional sensitivities that require mediation and management.
Normalization agreements have cemented ties between Israel and the UAE, and their new relationship is here to stay. But ebbs and flows to their relationship should be expected. Pressure points and challenging regional scenarios, including a new Israeli conflict with the Palestinians or a flare-up of tensions with Iran, are likely to cause public disagreement. As with Israel’s recent tensions with Egypt and Jordan attest, regional crises could also lead to a deterioration in relations.
While not posing an obstacle to the top-level relationship between government and business leaders, political and cultural asymmetries between Israel and the UAE have yet to reach the people-to-people level. For example, Emirati openness to the Abraham Accords has also not yet translated to an increase in the number of UAE citizens travelling to Israel. More work needs to be done to build stronger relationships at population level and to improve public perceptions of Israel across the region. Political steps to reinvigorate Israeli–Palestinian talks could perhaps shift negative perceptions. Without Israeli progress on Palestine, people-to-people contact between Israel and Arab countries will not flourish.
It is also worth noting that the Israeli and Emirati political systems continue to operate at different paces. The civil society and media landscapes in both countries are not in alignment. One example of potential sources of tension emerged April 2021 when an Israeli woman, Fidaa Kiwan, was arrested and sentenced to death in the UAE for drug possession. In March 2023, she was fully pardoned in what Israel described as a ‘special gesture’. Trust and cultural understanding will take time to develop, but are essential components of stronger economic and security partnerships.
Geopolitics and the US dimension
The Middle East since the signing of the Abraham Accords is experiencing an important period of transition that offers agency, activism and opportunities. However, the transition comes also with friction. The war in Ukraine has become an added challenge and complication for MENA states. With geopolitical competition accelerating, those states have been trying to navigate a weakened but still influential Russia and US–China polarization. The US and Europe regard support for Ukraine as a democratic necessity and have been deeply disappointed by the unwillingness of Middle East partners to take sides. Reflecting the gaps, MENA states too have been equally discouraged by the US’s prompt actions to support Ukraine compared to the US response to their Iran-related security challenges.
The Middle East regional environment is also beset with its own specific challenges that include not only Iran, but uncertainty in Yemen due to the collapse of the March 2022 ceasefire and wider concerns over food and supply-chain insecurity.
While Russia’s forces in Ukraine have not lived up to expectations in terms of its success, regional states have continued to hedge their bets. Iran’s close ties with Russia – evidenced by sales of drones to Moscow and stronger economic and security cooperation – confirms the view that Iran will continue its destabilizing regional role. Further sanctions and attempts by the EU, the UK and the US to contain Iran are supported by Israel, the UAE and other US partners in the region, but such actions do not provide immediate security solutions. Regional competition within the GCC continues to impede crisis management.
The poorly managed OPEC+ announcement of cuts to oil production in October 2022 shows that, despite President Biden’s visit to the region, differences with the US still exist. Regional states are putting their national and economic priorities first. Reflecting the limits of the US position in the region, MbZ’s October 2022 visit to Russia shows that the UAE is prepared to follow a nuanced but assertive foreign policy. In this context, the maintenance of ties with Russia is seen as a useful way of checking Iran’s regional adventurism.
While the US is equally frustrated that its efforts are being unacknowledged, it should heed the grievances of regional partners such as the UAE and provide sustained diplomatic engagement to broaden and build regional diplomatic and security cooperation.
At the same time, regional states are ever more aware that close relations with the US are the only security guarantee on offer. In the post-COVID-19 era, China remains inward-looking and uninterested in Middle East adventures. With the US and China seemingly set for a long-running geopolitical confrontation, MENA states are keen to avoid being caught in the middle. The multitude of comprehensive strategic partnerships signed between regional states and China has not yet translated into a stronger strategic interest on the latter’s part, leaving states still reliant on the US for support on regional security. China’s role in the 2023 Iran–Saudi reconciliation deal will not lead to an immediate Chinese security role in the region.
In absence of any regional resolution to the threat of Iran, or progress in US talks over rejoining the JCPOA, both the role of the US and the bipartisan nature of US engagement continue to be critical for its regional partners. Interviewees repeatedly mentioned that consistent, aligned US support is needed to bring all countries and their leaderships together.
The Biden administration eventually adopted this way of thinking and now supports normalization. In a marked shift away from military deployment, the US is seeking to enhance its position through broader regional engagement and economic and security-based bilateral partnerships. The CENTCOM-led RSC is a unique opportunity for regional states to cooperate on intelligence-sharing and, over time, build up to technology- and systems-integration to manage missile and drone threats. But consistent and deliberate US investment over an extended period is needed to achieve that goal. As one interviewee stressed, ‘the US should not aim too high from the beginning. Lower-level collaboration and cooperation can build up to greater integration’.
The US establishment has come to see an ‘enhanced defence architecture stitched by multiple conversations and frameworks as better than what the US can do on its own’. This strategy certainly reduces the burden on the US to manage a singular dialogue, but also lends support to regional processes and allows for CENTCOM to develop a broader RSC. However, there is no guarantee that this initiative will come to fruition and the RSC cannot be seen as a remedy for dealing with Iran’s nuclear programme or its regional activism.
With no short- or medium-term security solutions in sight to manage regional stability challenges, the US remains the essential security partner behind the Abraham Accords and the broader multilateral processes under way in the Middle East. For the region to benefit, and for the international community capitalize on the potential for regional transformation, deeper consistent alignment, coordination and support are urgently needed from the US government and from its European partners (including the UK). Moreover, this support must be bipartisan and cross-institutional. Regional states, recognizing the changed geopolitical landscape, also bear responsibility to work collaboratively. Without such deliberate efforts by all stakeholders, the current de-escalatory dynamic could easily unravel and the opportunity to shape a new Middle East will be lost.