One Bold Move, Different Scenarios
No matter how one reads the aftermath of the peace deal between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, there is one conclusion that seems to be undisputable: the so-called Abraham Accord will redesign the equation of power in the Middle East.
On August 13, 2020, the 45th American President, Donald Trump announced the agreement between UAE and Israel on normalizing their relations, as part of his administration’s plan in restoring peace in the region. The staging and timing of such announcement can be perceived as a “positive” foreign policy shock that is aimed to compensate for the internal policy glitches jeopardizing Trump’s Presidential candidacy in November 2020. However, this pact uncovered the secret affairs between Israel and the Gulf countries, imposing consequently new norms for the balance of power in the region.
The deal was welcomed by several countries, namely the European Union that considered that the deal has spared the region from a new war triggered by the attempt of Israel’s annexation of the West Bank. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said the UAE-Israel accord "benefits both and is important for regional stability". "Suspending annexation is positive step, plans should now be abandoned altogether," Mr. Borrell explained on Twitter. "EU hopes for resumed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on two-state solution based on international agreed parameters.” Countries like Oman, and Jordan welcomed the deal and found it as an incentive to end the occupation and meet the Palestinian people's right. Furthermore, Bahrain and Egypt supported UAE’s initiative in normalizing the relations with Israel, saying it will boost stability in the Middle East.
On the other side, Turkey and Iran harshly opposed the accord. Iran considered it as a “stab in the back” for the Muslim World, while Turkey is considering suspending diplomatic ties with UAE. Despite, the openness of certain Arab states to the deal, the general emotional sentiment of the Arab population is still opposing any type of cooperation with Israel before a fair arrangement for the Palestinians’ civil and human rights.
The Middle East as a whole surely is in need for any positive diplomacy. Hence, it is worth pondering about the effects of this deal on regional security and power relations.
A Scenario of Conflict
First, the accord might affect the brewing tensions in the “Muslim World” between the Sunni and Shiite camps in the region. Countries like Lebanon and Iraq, where the Gulf States and Iran are sharing the sphere of influence, are fertile lands for proxy conflicts and armed confrontations. The situations in Lebanon and Iraq are similar in many ways. Both countries have been witnessing for almost a year social unrests and political cleavages, but both also have been directly impacted by the rise of political Shiism led by Khomeinist ideological forces. Iran has been losing on the economic and military level since the withdrawal of the USA from the Nuclear Deal, in 2018. Compromising on Iraq and Lebanon would be considered as a defeat for Iran and would diminish the Iranian influence on the new negotiation terms with USA.
Second, although there is no evidence that suggest that, but the deal reveals undercover rifts between the Saudis and Emiratis. The tension between both countries started when UAE pulled its troops from Yemen and left the Saudi coalition. In striking this deal with Israel, UAE oversteps Saudi Arabia who traditionally speaks for the Muslim World, to open the doors for other Arab countries to join this endeavor of peace that received a western backing and an Arab reserved support. Saudi Arabia internal politics hinder the kingdom from advancing a bold move with Israel. The unsettlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in favor of the Palestinian’s cause might lead to a popular uprising or the emancipation of a cleric opposition in Saudi Arabia accusing the regime for the abandon of a supreme Muslim cause-something that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman cannot afford at the time being. Furthermore, Saudi’s silence on the agreement is raising multiple questions on the unity and leadership of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Scenario of Peace
As controversial as this deal is, the shift of power in the region might initiate new peace endeavors.
The ultimate challenge and most valuable accomplishment for the region remains the significant reduction of tensions with Iran and its proxies around the region. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has described the deal to be “shameful” and a “huge mistake”. However, there is a possibility that Iran will take into consideration the Emirati support during the coronavirus pandemic. UAE was one of the first countries to send humanitarian aid to help the Iranian government deal with the scale of the outbreak. In this respect, UAE might play the role, in the future, of mediator between Iran and USA to reduce tensions and contribute to establishing new terms for negotiations.
The ripple effect of the deal with Israel might influence the foreign policy behavior in the Gulf region. Countries like Oman and Bahrain have been sending signs about their openness to a peace treaty with Israel. Just like the Emiratis, both countries would be seeking agreements serving their bilateral interests with Israel and make public their relations that always existed under the table. Yet, potential new deals should re-direct the discourse of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It would provide leverage to the Arab states to re-establish peace under their own terms. Away from the Deal of Century fetish of Donald Trump, new agreements can contribute to the termination of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through the achievement of two states solution.
Speculations around the repercussions of the UAE-Israeli peace agreement remain imprecise. Yet, in light of what was discussed in this article, it is important to keep an eye on three major events and reactions that would change the political atmosphere in the Middle East:
- first, the American presidential elections in November 2020,
- second the Iranian presidential elections in 2021 and the possibility for hardliner’s comeback to power,
- and third, the reactions of other Gulf States and their policy choices in this regard.
A heated decade is awaiting the Middle East, indeed. The UAE’s bold foreign policy choice opens the door to major shifts in the regional order and relations of power in the Middle East. The Israeli-Emirati agreement does not only enclose a political understanding but also tries to answer questions on the fate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the prospect of regional economic cooperation, and the sustainability of the oil-weapon trade model.
About the Author
Yara Asmar is the Regional Strategy Manager at the MENA Regional Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF).