For someone with a such a personal and professional interest in the future of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region – cf. my bio, my book “A New Development model for the MENA region”, published in French in 2019 with a foreword by Former WTO Managing-Director and current President of the Paris Peace Forum Pascal Lamy), and my 12-sessions long seminar on the MENA economies delivered every year at Paris-based SciencesPo University – it would have been difficult not to comment the ground-breaking normalization deals between Israel and two Arab states, namely the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s, the history of the Middle East could be described as a constant ebb and flow between outbursts of chaos, fragmentation and armed conflicts on one side and bouts of hope and optimism on the other side. It is impossible to analyse the present or to foresee the future of this region without understanding the deeply rooted conflicts and rivalries that have shaped its precarious equilibria. One could be tempted to follow Charles de Gaulle, the French General and Statesman, who has written in his War Memoirs that he “flew to the complicated Orient with simple ideas”. Indeed, the Orient or the Middle East – an expression forged by British Foreign Office strategists in the late XIXth century – has always been complicated.
On the ground, De Gaulle practiced a balanced policy in relation to the Arab/Israeli conflict, which was welcomed by the Arab grassroots and elites while provoking occasional tensions between France and Israel. For the record, French-Israeli tensions culminated in 1969 during the so-called “Cherbourg Project” or “Operation Noa”, when Israeli navy forces led by retired rear-adrmiral Mordechai “Mokka” Lemon deceived the French authorities and managed to retrieve the military vessels that Israel had previously ordered from France and that had been sequestrated in the French port of Cherbourg, following an arms embargo decreed in 1967 by De Gaulle on Israel in the wake of the Six-Day war.
Fast forward to September 2020 and here we are watching the Abraham Accords being signed on the White House lawn between Israel and a small but influential Arab nation closely associated with Saudi Arabia. Perhaps Donald Trump does not possess the statecraft qualities of Charles De Gaulle but he claims to possess the Art of the deal. “I try to learn from the past, but I plan for the future by focusing exclusively on the present.” wrote Trump in the book. The deal is hailed as a diplomatic achievement for Donald Trump in the run-up to the US presidential election. In a way, the Emirati/Israeli rapprochement – followed shortly afterwards by Bahraini/Israeli state normalization – is a bigger prize for Trump than the failed “Deal of the Century” between Israel and the Palestinians attempted by Trump’s son-in-law and special adviser Jared Kushner. The deal has also been hailed as a personal triumph for Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest standing Prime Minister of Israel, whose strategy of fait accompli is validated by the deal. Finally it is an astute diplomatic Maneuver for Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and de factor leader of the UAE.
The normalization deals bring into the open the existing cooperation over security issues between Israel and the GCC states. For many commentators and analysts, the deals are first and foremost centered on security. In an opinion piece for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Dr. Amin Tazi writes that its all about the delivery of F35 fighter jets to the UAE: “Cooperation between Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem on shared threats could have been enhanced without overt normalization, but a US-mediated opening of normalized relations suggested several key benefits that made it worthwhile to the UAE. The most immediate of these potential benefits is the sale to the Emirates of F-35s.” The deals also opens a host of long expected business opportunities for private investors and for sovereign wealth funds and state-backed companies across the three countries.
These opportunities range from port management and shipping (cf. the joint bid by Dubai’s DP World alongside Israel’s DoverTower in the privatisation of Haifa port, one of Israel’s two main sea terminals) and air transportation (with Emirates Airlines / Etihad Airlines poised to gain more than El Al Airlines, which is far less competitive on long haul flights) to tourism, energy – including solar energy and water desalinisation – and desert agriculture – leveraging on Israel’s recognised expertise in this field – and last but not least in the digital economy. Indeed, it is easy to imagine the remarkable synergies that can be derived from increased capital and talent pooling between the Start Up Nation and the oil-rich Arab states that need to transform their economy away from their dependence on hydrocarbons. As a sign of other upcoming partnerships, following the peace accord, the UAE’s Mohamed bin Zayed University of AI (MBZUAI) and Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science signed an agreement to advance the development and use of AI.
History does not move in a linear fashion. It often advances through hiccups, unforeseen events and unexpected outcomes. The Question of Palestine remains the elephant in the room of the Abraham Accord. As Elham Fakhro writes in a piece for the International Crisis Group (led by Robert Maley, the former Special Adviser for the Middle East of Presidents Obama and Clinton): “in striking a deal over the heads of the Palestinians, the agreement does little to contribute to a lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and arguably reduces the prospect of one.” It is difficult to see how these piecemeal bilateral normalization deals would usher a New peace and prosperity era at the regional level without involving a broader regional security cooperation framework, as the one proposed by Eman Ragab in this essay for the Cairo Review.
The likely reaction of Iran, Syria and Iraq’s schiite religious and political establishment – the so-called “Shitte Crescent” – to the announced accord is to consolidate their alliance and to enhance their cooperation with China and Russia. The two major powers had a muted reaction to the deals. As Samuel Ramani writes in a comment for The Middle East Institute, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not endorse the deal and instead released a statement emphasizing that the Middle East’s stability depends on resolving the “Palestinian problem.” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesman Zhao Lijian did not explicitly answer a question posed to him about the Israel-UAE normalization but rather emphasized China’s unwavering support for Palestinian self-determination.
In my book, I develop an alternative vision for the MENA region that would see the Arab League nations and the three non-Arab powers of the region (Israel, Turkey and Iran) cooperating together and transforming the Middle East into a thriving hub of technological progress, cultural tolerance, inclusiveness and sustainability. This may look like a utopian dream but the rationale behind this vision is quite simple: in an increasingly Multipolar world, the MENA region must build its own geopolitical relevance or it will remain a beacon of endless conflicts and a playground for another “Great Game”. This time between the United States and China.
If you want to dig deeper, here is a succinct reading list:
- Five reasons why Israel’s peace deals with the UAE and Bahrain matter (“Long story short” or all you need to know on the subject in less than 5 minutes, by BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen)
- A Brave New Middle East? Top Experts Delve Into Israel-UAE-Bahrain Accords (A review of the UAE/Bahrain/Israel deals by Scholars and Experts in a special survey for HAARETZ, the leading Israeli newspaper)
- Israeli business seeks new chapter in UAE trade after historic deal (An FT business-focused review of the Israel/UAE deal)
- Shifting Dynamics of the Mideast Pushed Israel and U.A.E. Together (A New York Times analysis and investigation into the months long secret negotiations leading to the UAE/Israel deal)
- The UAE and Israel: A dangerous liaison (A critical perspective on the Agreements by Marwan Bishara, a Palestinian journalist and top political analyst at the Doha-based news channel Al Jazeera)
- China: America’s hidden target in Trump’s ‘historic’ Israel-UAE deal? (The United States is actively seeking to leverage its pivotal role in establishing diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE to intensify its resistance to China’s Belt and Road interests in the Middle East, Horn of Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, writes Tom Hussain in this article for The South China Morning Post).