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Three years on: Abraham Accords progress, Saudi membership elusive

Editor's ChoiceThree years on: Abraham Accords progress, Saudi membership elusive


Three years ago, something extraordinary happened. On 15 September 2020, a small group of people gathered on the South Lawn of the White House to sign a document that would have been considered impossible only a few years earlier. Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were signatories, with President Donald Trump present as a witness.

Symbolising a shared Abrahamic heritage, the document contained the Abraham Accords, a series of agreements aimed at normalising diplomatic and economic relations between Israel, and Arab and Muslim-majority countries. It represented a significant diplomatic breakthrough in the Middle East, marking the first time that multiple Arab States have officially recognised Israel’s right to exist.

On 22 December 2020, a few months after the inaugural agreement, Morocco “opened a new era in relations between the Kingdom of Morocco and the State of Israel”, when it also joined the Accords. They were extended yet again on 6 January 2021 when Sudan joined. Now there were four nations plus Israel.

So why did these countries decide to drop long-standing resistance to relationships with Israel? The simple fact is that the Accords were not only about Arab countries’ agreement with Israel but also an agreement with Washington in order to gain some kind of reward from the United States. The prize for Rabat was US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. For Sudan, it was Washington abolishing its status as a “state sponsor of terrorism”. There was also the small matter of a $1.2 billion US loan to help the Sudanese government clear the country’s debts to the World Bank. Bahrain had in 2005 abandoned its boycott of Israel in exchange for a free trade agreement with the US. The subsequent signing of the Accords increased cooperation in the fields of technology, health, and agriculture. The UAE, on the other hand, obtained not only trade advantages but also perceived the Accords as a means of bringing together US regional partners, all of whom shared the same concerns about radical Islamic groups and Iran’s activities.

For Israel, the Abraham Accords were a big win. Normalisation with Arab countries was a way of ending its isolation and finally creating pathways to regional integration, as well as opening doors for private-sector elements that were well-positioned to take advantage of the resulting bilateral trade and commercial opportunities. And it’s certainly worked. From virtually zero in 2019, Israel’s total trade with the UAE zoomed to $2.5 billion in 2022. In March this year, the two signed the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, a free trade pact which reduced or removed tariffs on about 98% of goods traded between them. The aim was to catapult the value of non-oil bilateral trade to over $10 billion within five years. In just the first seven months of this year, trade between Israel and the UAE had surpassed $1.85 billion. Trade with Bahrain, by comparison, was just $8.5 million in the same period.

Israel officially opened its embassy in Bahrain at the beginning of this month, after Israel’s Security Authority signed an agreement with Bahrain’s central bank on fintech liaison. Six hundred Israeli and Bahraini companies recently connected, according to Startup Nation Central at their conference in Tel Aviv last week, to mark three years of the Accords. A new project was also announced to employ Bahraini workers to help fill jobs in Israel’s rapidly growing tech sector.

Almost as soon as the Accords were signed, Israeli citizens took advantage of their new freedom to travel. In December 2020 alone, fifteen daily nonstop flights began from Tel Aviv to Dubai and more than 40,000 Israelis enjoyed the 3.5-hour flight using the services of three Israeli airlines and an Emirati carrier. The floodgates had opened; this figure has now risen to over a million since the signing of the Accords, with more than 200 weekly flights currently between the UAE and Israel. Travel between the two countries also received a major fillip with the agreement to allow travel visa-free for those travelling for purposes of business or tourism.

But few Arabs have taken advantage of the new freedom to travel, something which remains a challenge for Israeli tourism industry. The influx of holiday-making Arabs keen to see the Holy Land simply hasn’t happened. Compared to the 2.7 million tourists visiting Israel from elsewhere in the world last year, Arab visitors numbered just 26,400. Of these, 5,100 were from Egypt and 1,600 were Emiratis. Bahrainis, said Israel’s tourism ministry, were “too few to count”. One reason is the Arabs’ continuing anger about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Polls say that the share of Emiratis who view the Abraham Accords favourably dropped from 47% when they were signed to 25% at the last count.

Israel’s Palestinian problem also figures largely in its failure to woo Saudi Arabia into normalisation. In the Accords, Israel contracted not to annex large swathes of the West Bank, but did not agree to territorial concessions. The current ultra-right-wing element of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition government, determined to increase settler presence on the West Bank, is not making things easy for any rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, as reported recently in the Washington Post, President Joe Biden is desperate to attract Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he is known, to sign the Abraham Accords and normalise relations with Israel. This has become a central focus of the Biden administration’s policy in the region.

For his part, MBS is mindful of the wishes of his father, the ailing King Salman bin Abdulaziz, a long-time advocate of Palestinian statehood, who is said to be opposed to diplomatic openings with Israel. Saudi analysts say that MBS has decided he won’t even consider discussing the Accords while the King is alive.

Normalisation with Saudi Arabia, however, certainly figures highly in Jerusalem. During a visit to the White House last month, Israeli President Isaac Herzog thanked the US “for working towards establishing relations between Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a leading nation in the Muslim world”. During his address to Congress, Herzog said “we pray for this moment to come”.

Herzog and Netanyahu might have to pray for a considerable time, as it remains unclear what a potential Israeli-Saudi normalisation deal would entail. In late July, the New York Times said Biden was pursuing a plan that involves giving Saudi Arabia NATO-like guarantees and helping the Gulf kingdom kick-start a civilian nuclear programme.

Not helping, of course, is Israel’s continued expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. During recent months, Palestinians have been hit by the deadliest wave of Israeli military violence in years. In the past, the possibility of normalisation with Arab countries was seen as a form of leverage that could be used to extract concessions from Israel towards the creation of an independent Palestinian state. But for as long as ultra-nationalists such as finance minister Bezalei Smotrich, himself an illegal settler in the West Bank, and national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, also an illegal settler, are calling the shots in Netanyahu’s government, it’s difficult to see how any progress can be made.

Saudi Arabia’s membership of the Abraham Accords, therefore, may have to remain a distant dream.

John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.

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