Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, the Jewish state was recognized by only two Arab countries by 2020: Egypt and Jordan. All this changed on 13 August 2020, when the Abraham Accords were concluded, which was a joint agreement between the State of Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the United States of America. Afterwards, the term was used to refer jointly to agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Morocco followed the example of these countries a few months later and signed a similar agreement with Israel on December 22 and on January 6, 2021 Sudan also agreed to normalize relations with Israel. The Accords were named after Abraham to emphasize the common origins of the faith, the common roots of Judaism and Islam, as both are Abrahamic religions that strictly adhere to the monotheistic worship of the God of Abraham.
How is the Abraham Accords now?
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid made history when he opened the country’s first embassy in Bahrain in late September. The minister’s one-day trip to the Gulf country was the latest step towards ratifying the Abraham Accords.
The UAE opened an embassy in Tel Aviv this year, and Israel inaugurated one in Abu Dhabi. Israeli Ambassador to Bahrain, Khaled Yousif al-Jalahma, arrived in Israel in August 2021. In addition, Israel and Morocco are committed to opening embassies in each other’s countries.
However, Sudan has lagged behind in the normalization process. Sudanese Foreign Minister Mariam Sadiq Al Mahdi told the UAE newspaper ‘The National’ that his country has no plans to receive an Israeli embassy in Khartoum, despite the fact that both countries have previously agreed to open such a diplomatic office.
The current attitude of the United States
The Biden administration not only seeks to improve relations between Israel and the four Arab states (UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan), but also wants to extend the Abraham Accords to other Arab countries. As U.S. Secretary Antony Blinken explained, the United States is currently looking for countries that want to join the agreement.
However, it is important to mention that the countries that have signed up to the convention so far have not necessarily been driven by a desire for peace, at least not in the case of Morocco and Sudan. Biden’s government will continue to provide the incentives Trump’s administration has given to Sudan and Morocco for joining the agreement. In the case of Sudan, this is linked to a USD 700 million aid package, while in the case of Morocco, Rabat’s supremacy over Western Sahara is recognized.
In contrast, Meir Ben Shabbat, the former chairman of the Israeli National Security Council, says there is a clear contrast between the attitude of the former and current US president in normalization efforts between Israel and Arab countries. He explained that the U.S. President Joe Biden is by no means as committed to the Abraham Accords as the Trump administration. Ben Shabbat made this statements at a virtual conference at the INSS (Institute for National Security Studies) in the last week of September, where he said this was just his own remark and did not explain what he was basing his opinion on, but presumably may be related to the Iranian conflict.
The Abraham Accords and Iran
Former Chief of the Israel Defense Forces, Gadi Eisenkot, who is currently an INSS staff member, spoke at the conference about the impact of the Abraham Accords on the Iranian issue.
He stressed the need for Israel and its allies to stand up to the Iranian threat as well as to global terrorist organizations such as ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. He said moderate Sunnis need to be strengthened in the fight to prevent Iran from taking nuclear weapons or gaining regional hegemony. Israelis say the region will be completely different if Iran achieves any of these goals.
We can say that Israel and its new Sunni allies have many common interests in Iran that have developed out of fear of the country, but view the threat to the Islamic Republic of Iran from a completely different perspective.
It is also an important fact that Tehran has launched several devastating attacks on the Saudi oil industry over the years. In addition, Sunni countries feel threatened internally by Iran because they have large Shiite communities. For example, approximately 60% of Bahrain’s population is Shiite, but in eastern Saudi Arabia, where there are large oil fields, there are also many Shiite Muslims, so Iran could threaten Sunni countries in the Gulf from both inside and outside. In contrast, for Israel, the nuclear issue is the central problem.
Attempts at normalization with other Arab countries
The coronavirus pandemic has significantly hampered the involvement of new countries in the normalization of relations. We mentioned earlier that Israel has declared its intention to normalize with Sudan. Although the latter process has begun, it has not been finalized to date.
At the initiative of 300 prominent people in northern Iraq, a meeting was held at the end of September, where it was discussed that relations between Israel and Iraq should be settled and even Iraq could join the Abraham Accords in the near future. The conference took an interesting turn, as participants were threatened with imprisonment during the incident and the Iraqi leadership reacted extremely hostile to efforts to normalize relations.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted his support of the conference and for the normalization of ties between Israel and Iraq. “Hundreds of Iraqi public figures, Sunnis and Shiites, gathered yesterday to call for peace with Israel,” Bennett said: “This is a call that comes from below and not from above, from the people and not from the government, and the recognition of the historical injustice done to the Jews of Iraq is especially important.” The Iraqi government also issued an official statement in which Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kazim stated that the assembly “does not represent the views of the population and the Iraqi people, but only those who attended.”
The backbone of the reaction is not the average Iraqi citizen, but Iran and its Iraqi militias, who want to use the country as a platform for attacks on the Jewish state, the US and others. If Iranian influence had not been so strong in Iraq, it is not certain that they would have reacted so fiercely to the possibility of acceding to the Abraham Accords.
Israel is constantly looking for the opportunity to start the process of normalizing relations with other Arab countries, but another peace treaty is yet to come.
While Israel and the UAE have long recognized each other in business areas, including the diamond trade, as well as high-tech industries such as artificial intelligence, the convention has opened a much wider door for economic cooperation and investment.
An excellent example of post-agreement cooperation is the opening of the first overseas branch of the Abu Dhabi Investment Office in Israel. In addition, a number of kosher restaurants have been opened in the UAE to serve Jewish visitors.
In the economic field, in March 2021, the UAE announced the creation of a USD 10 billion investment fund in several sectors of Israel, including energy, manufacturing, water, space, healthcare and agricultural technology. Asher Fredman, CEO of Gulf-Israel Green Ventures, said: “ Seeing all that has been accomplished in the field of sustainability and seeing all the ideas being realized in a real-world situation is remarkable”, adding: “This partnership will only get stronger.”
Reflecting on the past year, former Bahraini Ambassador to the U.S. Houda Nonoo, said, “The signing of the Abraham Accords will no doubt be one of the biggest Middle East milestones in our lifetime.” Economic relations between Israel and Bahrain are still evolving, and according to estimates from the Israeli Foreign Trade Administration, there is potential for trade to reach the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Trade between Morocco and Israel is still relatively low, but it is likely to increase in the coming months after the two countries set up chambers of commerce and apply the agreements signed during Lapid’s visit.
Trade relations between Sudan and Israel are still quite limited. The main reason for this may be that their agreement has not been finalized.
Unsurprisingly, business relations between the UAE and Israel are significantly larger than those between Israel and the other Arab states in the agreement, as the initial motivation of the two countries was specifically related to trade potential.
Dubai and Israel were the first to establish direct flights in November 2020 by six different companies. In the first month, more than 67,000 Israeli tourists visited Dubai. Although this does not count as high passenger traffic, the numbers are likely to rise significantly following the coronavirus epidemic.
Bahrain and Israel have also launched direct flights, but have not yet exploited their potential, probably due to the pandemic.
Morocco has been on the map of Israeli tourists for years, mainly due to the long-standing relationship between the Jewish population of the two countries, but the first direct flight only landed on July 25, 2021 in Marrakech. In Tel Aviv and Marrakech, tens of thousands of Israelis applied for entry visas, but could not give it to everyone because they were not prepared for such a large number of applications.
The Abraham Accords can be said to have proved to be lasting. Common interests and motivations have proven to have a significant, positive impact on the peace-building processes that have begun in the region. The convention is a prime example of a type of cooperation that offers many promising and untapped opportunities. After a year, even if these agreements were not fully implemented, they had a noticeable impact on the Middle East, including geopolitics, the economy, tourism and people-to-people contacts.
Meszár Tárik (Eurasia Center, Hungary)