The Abraham Accords are a groundbreaking step in warming Arab relations with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu went as far as to describe it as, “a pivot of history. It heralds a new dawn of peace.” It was a significant policy switch for the United Arab Emirates. The Arab world had long refused to make any formal relations with Israel as part of the Khartoum Resolution in 1967, agreeing to have no peace, no negotiations, and no recognition of Israel until the Palestinian conflict was resolved. If anything, the conflict has only gotten worse from a Palestinian perspective, so why the change in policy from the UAE? The Gulf nations have a lot to gain from exchanging technology, trade, and tourism with Israel, but the military tensions and the shifting power struggle in the region are the main motivating forces of the agreement. This does mean that the United States can continue to soften its military presence in the Middle East, and work with Arab countries as partners against rival influences rather than as the sole protector of the region.
Content of the Accords
The Abraham Accords do hold significant economic gains for Gulf countries. The agreement specifically names cooperation in the spheres of “health, agriculture, tourism, energy, environmental protection, and innovation.” This does mean that flights and tourists can move between the countries, and journalists can get access to previously restricted areas. Economic leaders can also benefit from mutual investment and technological knowledge to enhance their competitive edge in the world economy.
In addition, the agreement focuses on creating opportunities for cultural education and interpersonal interactions in order to encourage mutual understanding. Since the signing of the agreement, interest in Hebrew and Jewish culture has surged and, consequently, the UAE has announced the opening of the Education Hebrew Institute in January of 2021 to teach Hebrew at all proficiency levels. Furthermore, Morocco announced the addition of Jewish history and culture to the school curriculum.
What may be more interesting than what is included in the agreement is what is not: The Abraham Accords do not explicitly mention a solution to the Palestinian conflict, potential weapons sales to the signatory countries, nor existing relations with Iran. The UAE stated that they hoped the agreement would lead to improved negotiations between Palestine and Israel, and the end to Israeli encroachment onto Palestinian lands. In contrast, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, agreed to freeze additional settlement efforts, but never said settlements would be abolished, or that they would not be resumed in the future. It is apparent that Palestine has fallen from its position as an essential priority for the UAE, and strategic concerns have taken precedence.
On the other hand, Israel has historically been opposed to large-scale weapons sales to the Gulf, but nothing in the agreement mentions any limitations on the Emirati military. In fact, weapons sales seem to have been an informal incentive to get the Emiratis to agree to the deal. The United States recently agreed to sell the UAE $23 billion worth of F-35 fighters and Reaper drones with little to no pushback from Israel.
The absence of Iran from the deal is compelling, because of the shared interests the UAE and Israel have in defending against Iranian influence in the region. The countries are clearly enhancing their military and security cooperation in a way that does not openly provoke or call out Iran as a threat. This helps the UAE avoid direct confrontation with Iran, while allowing them to build strategic alliances that enhance their security. The strategic gains are high for Israel as well. In a conflict with Iran, Israel’s military is quite far away, compared to the UAE, which is just a short flight across the Gulf.
Shifting Security Concerns
The UAE is facing increased pressure from Iran and its affiliates, as well as from Qatar and Turkey. At the same time, they see that the United States may not be as supportive of a partner as it used to be, and they need to rely on other relationships for security. US inaction after a Houthi drone strike on Saudi oil refineries was a terrifying example of this. It appeared that Gulf interests and security would be completely unprotected if US interests were not involved. The Gulf would be incapable from deterring Iran alone, since Iran does not back down from confrontation with Gulf states, like it normally does with the United States, as shown by Iran’s lack of significant action in response to the death of Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani.
To counteract lower US support in the region, Gulf states have significantly strengthened their own military capabilities. Military spending in the Gulf has risen from $82 billion in 2013, to $103 billion in 2019, and is expected to rise to $110.86 billion by 2023. As part of this military buildup, Saudi Arabia created a state-owned military company, and intends to spend 50% of its military funding on locally produced equipment and weaponry. In mid-November 2020, Egypt, the UAE, Sudan, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia participated in joint military exercises to improve military cooperation and the use of advanced weaponry.
US Policy Goals
Despite the recent reductions in US military support that have troubled traditional Gulf allies, the overall outcomes may be positive for US foreign policy in the Middle East. Israel is not nearly as isolated from allies, and it will have partners in militarily strategic positions against Iran. As more Arab countries begin cooperating economically, diplomatically, and militarily with Israel, the US can transition from being the sole provider of security to a valued military partner.