Ongoing Challenges Threaten the Abraham Accords’ Survival
When Israel’s President Isaac Herzog embarked on his recent visit to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, the Israeli media was flush with positive coverage focusing on the “warm peace” with Bahrain, underplaying the fact that Herzog was going there to address the challenges with the Abraham Accords.
Critics have pointed out that while Israel has made significant progress in its relationship with the UAE, progress with Bahrain and Morocco has been slower. Despite the positive trade relationship with the UAE, social visits by Emiratis to Israel are limited. Additionally, discussions about Israel in Emirati academic institutions are restricted, causing a discrepancy between the trade relationship and social trajectory.
The United Arab Emirates recently made headlines by including Holocaust studies in its educational curriculum, but this is not necessarily indicative of the long-term political relationship with Israel. In fact, recent opinion polls show a decline in support for the Abraham Accords in both Bahrain and the UAE.
Emirati policy circles have also been sending ominous messages. Political science professor Abdulkhaleq Abdulla from the UAE stated that the relationship with Israel is “not everlasting” and that the Emiratis would be willing to drop the relationship if their priorities change. The slowdown in the pace of the Accords has been ongoing, even before Binyamin Netanyahu returned to the Prime Minister’s Office.
The recent public warning from Qatar over the expansion of settlements in the West Bank may also be a factor in the situation. Qatar has been positioning itself as the primary supporter of the Palestinian cause, while also supporting a Muslim Brotherhood religious scholarly contingency. Qatar’s attempts to delegitimize reforms in Saudi Arabia and tie religion to the Palestinian issue and the Abraham Accords are among the factors impacting the regional dynamic.
There are others.
Bahrain, a small country that seeks protection and takes political cues from Saudi Arabia, has become a topic of concern for those hoping to normalize relations with Israel. Despite the optimism in the Israeli media, the topic of normalizing with Israel has become taboo in Saudi government circles.
The UAE, on the other hand, has set its sights on becoming the Singapore of the Middle East, positioning itself as a neutral trade hub that is open to multilateralism. This includes a stance of neutrality in the great power competition that include Russia and China, as well as a dismissal of the fight against extremist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Prof. Abdulla, who once fell out of favor with the Emirati authorities due to his connections with ex-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s circle and pro-Muslim Brotherhood leanings, has been entrusted with messaging about UAE-Israel ties. This shows that even individuals with his outlook are being reintegrated into the social fabric of the Gulf.
The fraught relationship between the UAE and the United States is another factor affecting the state of the Abraham Accords. The US has seen these accords as a crucial component of regional integration into the defense and security framework, but the Biden Administration initially shied away from the term. This was due to the effort to shift away from Trump Administration policies and the belief that such an alliance could discourage the Iran nuclear talks.
As a result, the relationship between the UAE and Israel ended up caught in the crossfire of tensions between the UAE and the US. The failed sale of the F-35 to the UAE put an end to the nascent air defense pact, and around the same time, the UAE normalized its relations with Iran for the first time since 2016, though it downplayed the restoration of diplomatic relations.
Despite these developments, President Joe Biden extended a White House invitation to UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan at the GCC summit, but the visit did not take place in 2022. This further highlights the challenges facing the Abraham Accords and the complex relationship between the UAE, the US, and Israel.
The relationship between the UAE and the US is currently fraught, with the two nations clashing over sanctions and the UAE’s position on Russia and China. While the US struggled with the Iran nuclear deal, the UAE upgraded its significant trade relations with Iran by restoring political channels. For now, the UAE seems willing to work with both Iran and Israel separately.
However, if tensions with the US continue, and Emirati defense and security needs, such as restoring the Houthi movement’s “foreign terrorist organization” designation, are not met by the White House, the UAE may turn toward Iran politically or drop out of the Abraham Accords. This is a possibility as the expansion of the Abraham Accords has been arrested for the past two years and there are no signs of new members joining.
On the other hand, the UAE has strongly condemned a recent terrorist attack on a Jerusalem synagogue, while the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps praised it. This shows a contrast in the stance of the two nations and gives reason for optimism in the future of the Abraham Accords.
Rumors about Saudi Arabia normalizing its relationship with Israel have been greatly exaggerated. The Saudi foreign minister has stated that normalization would only happen if a Palestinian state is established.
Oman has recently strengthened its stance against Israel by expanding its boycott law, which criminalizes contacts with the country. Other countries have not shown any signs of normalizing their relationship with Israel.
The future expansion of the Abraham Accords is uncertain. Iran and other extremist groups are trying to take advantage of the vulnerabilities in the accords and disrupt them.
The Biden Administration has shifted its focus from the Iran nuclear deal to countering Iran in the Middle East. However, past mistakes in the US’s relationship with its allies may undermine the policy reorientation and have a negative impact on the White House’s efforts.