A year has passed since the Abraham Accords were signed and Israel has thus far entered into partnerships with United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Morocco. And while other nations that make up this contentious region appear interested in reaping the advantages of working closely with the clearly accomplished Israel, there has thus far been no rush to enter into formal agreements. Hostilities from Hamas and the Hezbollah, unfortunately, have not in any serious way abated, which makes adding additional members to the list of signees somewhat difficult.
Internationally, the reaction to the accords have been strangely subdued. Perhaps this is because the leadership in both the United States and Israel changed since August 2020 and the vision of the new governments have not yet been fully defined. Moreover, it may be that the currently open question of what will be done about Iran may have a higher priority than broken arrows and commercial treaties. In any case, potential partners prefer the sidelines than center court, at least for the time being.
The potential benefits for all participants in these accords as well as for the entire region will ultimately prove to be enormous. Nonetheless, the response both here and throughout the world has been as if something expected finally arrived. The conclusion seems to be that it was only a matter of time before decades and even centuries of hatred and mistrust would be replaced by cooperation and partnership. Cynics might consider it to be no more than mere coincidence that this was taking place at a time when Mr. Trump was lagging behind in his bid for re-election and Mr. Netanyahu was facing the real possibility of spending some time behind bars due to the legal difficulties that still have not yet been resolved. Realists, celebrating the one-year anniversary of the accords, shrug at these suggestions and argue that Israel entering into normalization agreements with countries throughout the Middle East is worth celebrating, even with the probability of a hidden agenda. And, oh yes, both Trump and Netanyahu have been replaced.
Nonetheless, pundits, academics and editorial writers were working overtime since the news of an impending agreement first broke in an attempt to make heads and tails over what was transpiring. Rumors of small print in the agreement that provides for a Palestinian state, the Israeli promise to indefinitely table any notion of sovereignty and, most glaringly of all, the guarantee to provide UAE with regional military superiority were both screamed and whispered throughout digital and non-digital media outlets. At this point we know that UAE has been significantly strengthened and that sovereignty has indeed been put on the back burner. Otherwise, nothing much is going on.
Oddly, though, throughout the entire period in which the Abraham Accords was revealed to the public and signed off by the respective leaders no mention was made of how Game Theory might have impacted these landscape changing decisions. At a high level, this branch of economics involves the modeling of strategic interactions between two or more players in a situation governed by defined rules and outcomes. The importance of this subject is reflected by the number of academics who have received the Nobel Prize for contributions they’ve made to this field of study. Locally, this includes the Hebrew University’s Professor Robert Aumann who, in 2005, was the co-winner of the Nobel Prize for his work on conflict and cooperation. Better known, though, is Princeton’s Professor John Nash, the subject of the biopic A Beautiful Mind, in which the mathematics prodigy derived his advanced notions of game theory by observing the dynamics involved in campus barroom pick up attempts. How more practical and down to earth can you get?
Surely, then, game theory can be used to explain, to some extent anyway, how the pieces of Arab normalization with Israel fell into place and the give and take that was required by the participants. Insofar as I’m neither an economist nor mathematician, I’ll leave the equations, scenario simulations and probability modeling to others. I am, though, an enthusiastic game player and, not surprisingly, have given some thought to which conventional game our new addition, Bridging the Gulf: In Pursuit of Middle East Normalization, would be most similar and the personal qualities required for success.
Chess, obviously, comes to mind immediately, but is eliminated as a contender nearly as quickly. Chess – and Go, for that matter – is based on one-on-one confrontation whereas Bridging the Gulf involves multiple participants. In chess, moreover, everything is in complete view – the pieces, the board squares, the permissible moves; nothing is hidden and the only element of luck is when an opponent overlooks a strong move or makes a blunder. Complete openness and total transparency is hardly the playing field of Bridging the Gulf, and good fortune cannot be discounted as a factor.
Poker is a possibility, until you remember that bluffing is a key aspect of the game. Bluffing is most certainly critical in games of war and conquest, but should have no role in games involving global peace and prosperity. There would be no purpose for any of the Bridging the Gulf participants to bluff since mutually beneficial agreements are what everyone hopes to achieve, and in order to bear fruit, such agreements must be based on honesty regarding strengths and weaknesses. Carrots and not sticks are what this game is all about, and threats of any kind will result in penalties and lost turns.
The complexities and potential complications inherent in the game of Risk are definitely worth some attention. It’s not at all unlikely that alliances both in favor and against normalization with Israel will be formed over the coming months and years, and secret missions, a variation in some versions of Risk, might indeed be initiated to strengthen or sabotage partnership and cooperation agreements. Risk, though, is based on conquest through military conflict, with global hegemony the ultimate goal. Insofar as such an outcome – even within the geopolitical boundaries of the Middle East – is hardly the intended outcome – in principle, anyway – of Bridging the Gulf, Risk cannot be a model for this game.
Other popular, well know games are no less unsuitable. Monopoly, for example, is overly reliant on luck with little opportunity to control or predict the values of the many valuables. Bridge has some potential, but the rules can be confusing and frustrating, demanding that players understand the intricacies of bidding, auctioning, trick taking and scoring variations. In the game currently being played in Washington, the stakes are substantial, and I suspect the participants will prefer that the negotiations and obligations be based on the KISS principle – Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Scrabble, however, is a surprisingly suitable model for Bridging the Gulf. The game, in which up to four players can participate, involves three key components that are an integral part of the play – knowledge (in terms of vocabulary and spelling), strategy (effective board square control and well-planned combination of offensive/defensive moves) and luck (the letters you’ve selected and have to play with). These same aspects are currently part of Bridging the Gulf; the content may be different but the scope and substance is remarkably the same. Moreover, among equally matched players bluffing is rarely used, and penalties, similarly, are infrequently applied. We have in Scrabble, then, a game that requires the same personal characteristics – quick thinking, probability assessment, intelligence – demanded of Bridging the Gulf players.
Needless to say, the best of plans can go awry and what we hope will be a smooth, non-confrontational transition from regional hostility and wariness into a preferable form of global warming may wind up being bumpy and riddled with potholes. No problem. The ups and downs our region may be facing as the wrinkles of normalization strengthen out already have a game model: Chutes and Ladders.