Whether you are right-wing or left-wing politically, it’s difficult to see the Abraham Accords as anything but a big step forward for diplomacy and peace in the Middle East. The Abraham Accords, a joint statement of cooperation between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, as well as between Israel and Bahrain, signed on September 15, 2020 on the South Lawn of the White House, signifies the biggest step forward in the normalization of relations between Israel and Arab countries since Israel’s treaties with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994. More good news followed. Soon thereafter, in December 2020, Morocco agreed to normalize relations with Israel and on January 6, 2021 Sudan did as well. While Israel and the United Arab Emirates had already conducted business before, particularly in the diamond industry, this commitment to a deeper cooperation opens the door to what Daniel Aschheim, the Consul for Public Diplomacy at the Consulate General to the Midwest, called in our recent interview “a multilateral collaboration in numerous mutually beneficial industries, including science and technology, health, and travel and tourism, which has enormous promise for all countries involved and for the Middle East region by and large”. The Abraham Accords, Aschheim further indicated during the course of our conversation, achieves the following important goals:
- It provides a mutually beneficial collaboration against the security threat posed by Islamic extremism as well as against the destabilizing role of Iran and its support of various radical Shia groups, such as the Houthi tribesmen in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria
- It helps promote the diversification of the economy and clean energy strategies, which the Persian Gulf countries, formerly heavily reliant on the oil and natural gas industries, are trying to encourage in the region (such as the UAE’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development)
Based on further independent reading on the subject (not on a statement by Daniel Aschheim), I would add a third point:
- It helps stimulate the economy and create more private sector work for natives of Gulf countries, which may eventually go a long way in mitigating the security perceived threat by many Arab citizens due to their countries’ heavy reliance on foreign labor
To unpack each of these assertions, let me offer a little background about the region. The Persian Gulf includes 6 Arab Sunni Muslim monarchies: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (or UAE), Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait. As Rori Miller concisely puts it in his book Desert Kingdoms to Global Powers: The Rise of the Arab Gulf (Yale University Press, 2016, Kindle edition), these kingdoms transitioned from “pearls to petroleum, poverty to prosperity” in the second half of the twentieth-century, becoming “increasingly important players in the regional and global economy” (33). Nowadays these Middle Eastern countries “are bustling centers of international commerce and finance and they aspire to turn their home region into a global hub between East and West” (34).
Diplomat Daniel Aschheim witnessed this vibrant economic activity first-hand, when he and his wife Elisa recently visited Dubai on their honeymoon. He stated that twenty years ago or so, when people thought of the Gulf Countries they thought of wealth coming from oil. What the young couple saw nowadays, however, was a diversified, booming economy in many sectors: real estate, tourism, education, research and development, which are all areas that are very important to Israel as well. In the UAE, for example, oil and gas contributed in 2018 only 26 % of their economy while international trade and tourism are of primary importance. Likewise, Bahrain was one of the first Gulf countries to invest heavily in banking and tourism, becoming an international hub for the world’s financial institutions.
To these positive points emphasized by Aschheim, I would add a qualification made by scholars that focus on the complexity of economic factors in the region. As Rori Miller explains in Desert Kingdoms, while native citizens take pride in their region’s economic expansion and success, some fear that their own cultures could be eclipsed by the influx of foreign experts and labor. There’s a delicate balance that the rulers of each of the Gulf countries attempt to reach as they lead their countries into the foreground of global markets while still striving to maintain stability and respect for indigenous traditions. Miller aptly depicts this balancing act:
“It is an enormous task to build a modern economic system in a society in which some citizens see their loyalty as owing more to religious or tribal structures than to the nation state… Gulf rulers face complex and at times contradictory challenges from stakeholders at home and key players abroad. At home they have to navigate a middle way between those who embrace globalization and ‘Western Values’ as the price that must be paid to achieve sustainable development and those who fear that such progress is not worth the loss of local culture, religious identity and traditional values” (Desert Kingdoms, 51-52).
The very political structure of the United Arab Emirates reflects this fusion of tradition and modernity. The UAE is a federal constitutional monarchy made up of seven tribal sheikhdoms. The President and Prime Minister, elected by the Federal Supreme Council, reflect the most powerful cities in the country. Usually, a sheikh from Abu Dhabi becomes President and a sheikh from Dubai becomes Prime Minister. While women in Gulf Countries acquired the right to vote relatively late (Oman in 1994, Qatar in 1999, Bahrain in 2001, Kuwait in 2005, UAE in 2006 and Saudi Arabia in 2011)—by now in UAE half of the members of the Federal National Council that holds elections every four years are women.
The UAE’s system of justice also reflects a blend of modern legal codes and traditional values. Its Federal Court system is divided into three parts: civil law, criminal law and Sharia law, which determine both the criminal code and family law. While Sharia law still holds a lot of influence, the country has modernized some of its codes. For instance, in 2020, the UAE decriminalized alcohol and lifted the ban on unmarried couples cohabitating and banned honor killing.
The balance between modernity—perceived as Western influence—and tradition is not easy to maintain because there are opposing sociopolitical forces in the Gulf countries that pull them in different directions. The pull by powerful conservative religious and tribal leaders towards safeguarding native traditions has to do with what Mehran Kamrava calls “perceived threats to culture and identity” stemming from the influx of foreign experts and labor, which make up most of the population in several GCC countries. As Kamrava explains in Troubled Waters: Insecurity in the Persian Gulf (Cornell University Press, 2018, Kindle edition), “Being a very small minority in one’s own country, as Emiratis and Qataris are in their countries, is quite unsettling. The feeling of being besieged is often seen as an existential threat, a perceived human security threat of the highest magnitude” (Troubled Waters, 513). Indeed, Kamrava elaborates, this threat has very real demographic justifications: “Across the Arabian Peninsula, non-nationals constitute significant portions of the total population, ranging from extremes of 88.5 to 85.7 percentages in the UAE and Qatar, respectively, to a low of 32.4 percent in Saudi Arabia. In at least four of the six GCC, nationals are minorities in their own countries” (Troubled Waters, 998).
Over the past decade, several Gulf Cooperation Council countries have instituted measures that will significantly reduce their dependency on foreign labor by offering nationals an incentive to work in the private sector. While public sector jobs in the region tend to come with higher salaries, more prestige, more job security and better social benefits than private sector jobs, an increase in the quality and benefits of private sector jobs would offer an inducement for nationals to join the work force, thus reducing the GCC countries’ reliance on foreign labor. This would also has the benefit of creating more employment opportunities for the young, who make up roughly 50 percent of the population in several GCC countries, and who, some fear, may become prone to extremist influences in the absence of sufficient employment opportunities.
As Daniel Aschheim stated during our conversation, collaboration with Israel can be beneficial to the GCC countries by helping enhance opportunities in tech jobs, finance, research and development, real estate and other areas. This, in turn, would contribute to greater economic diversification and stability in the region.
I would add to Aschheim’s point a further potential benefit that addresses some of the aforementioned issues identified by Rori Miller and Mehran Kamrava: the fear of excessive dependency on foreign labor as well as the overreliance on public sector jobs by the native populations of the Gulf Countries. In my estimation, economic diversification could allay some of the justified fears of GCC citizens related to being (or becoming) a minority in one’s own country, as their countries become less dependent on foreign labor and hire more and more native citizens in private sector jobs.
To return to Daniel Aschheim’s optimistic assessment, which I share, the Abraham Accords holds immense promise both economically and politically. This fruitful and mutually beneficial collaboration is a win-win situation for Israel and its new GCC allies and a stabilizing force in the troubled waters of the Middle East.