The Abraham Accords one year on: A missed opportunity for Biden?
By Dr Sanam Vakil, Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House, 15 September 2021
In the context of deep uncertainty about US commitments in the region and with a myriad of potential flashpoints, failing to engage with the Abraham Accords is a missed opportunity for the Biden administration.
15 September 2021 marks the first anniversary of the Abraham Accords, the agreements that normalized ties between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain. At the time, the accords were portrayed as a barter ending Israeli annexation of the West Bank in exchange for normalization of ties with the UAE.
The Trump administration viewed them as a model for outsourcing regional security that would allow the US to prioritize its interests beyond the Middle East, a tectonic regional shift brokered by the United States. However, only Morocco and Sudan have so far followed suit and signed normalization agreements with Israel.
Reflecting the partisan nature of the issue, the Biden administration has not sought to broaden these relationships, focusing instead on its immediate goals of rehabilitating the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA), ending the Yemen war and pulling out of Afghanistan. While supportive of the accords, Biden views them as a Trump legacy and has focused on the bilateral rather than trilateral nature of the agreements, making their broader regional impact harder to assess. With US priorities clearly focused on domestic issues and geopolitical tensions with China, its Middle East partners are in a state of flux. It is in this vacuum that the accords could begin to bear fruit, albeit without direct US guidance.
Timing was an important motivating factor behind the Abraham Accords. Before the 2020 US presidential election, the UAE and Israel – both small states with broader regional ambitions and the primary drivers of the accords – were concerned about future pendulum swings in US Middle East policy and correctly anticipated that a Biden victory would mark a clear shift away from Trump’s approach. They feared that a Biden administration would likely be more vocal about human rights concerns, would attempt to restrict arms transfers and seek to revive the Iran nuclear agreement. Although unlikely, there were also concerns that the Biden administration’s review of arms sales might jeopardize the UAE’s $23 billion F-35 fighter and drone and munitions package put together by the Trump team. Banding together provided an opportunity for the UAE and Israel to coordinate more closely with each other while also working with Washington.
Both countries sought to build on years of quiet behind-the-scenes cooperation but were also deeply motivated by the unpredictable shifts in US Middle East policy they have witnessed throughout both Republican and Democratic administrations. The UAE and Israel share a number of concerns – such as Iran, Islamist extremism and growing uncertainty about the future of US strategy and commitment to the Middle East – and the Abraham Accords have the potential to help them assert their interests more effectively, both in the region and in Washington, while also benefiting from broader regional ties and soft power.
Over the past year economic and diplomatic ties have flourished between the signatories along with increased tourism and people-to-people exchanges, particularly between the UAE and Israel. There have been investments in a number of different sectors, such as medical, financial, ports and gas. To highlight the level of ambition, the UAE has announced it wants to increase its trade with Israel to $1 trillion by 2031 from its current level of around $650 million. As both countries invest in cyber, AI and technology, greater collaboration in these fields should also be expected, offering greater economic advancement and potential for regional security cooperation. Intelligence sharing in the cyber realm is already underway and greater cooperation on drone technology to counter similar Iranian and Turkish advancements is also anticipated. Revealing a darker side of this increased cooperation, Israeli cyber firm NSO has sold its Pegasus surveillance technology to the UAE and other Gulf Arab states.
It is important to note that while they face the same security threats, the UAE and Israel have used different tactics to manage them. Iran and its role in the region is a key security concern and both countries worry that a renewed JCPOA will further embed Iran’s regional reach. For Israel, advancements in Iran’s nuclear programme is the main threat, while the UAE is primarily concerned with Tehran’s missile and drone investments and support for proxy groups. In response to Iran’s actions in June 2019, Abu Dhabi quietly recommenced its outreach to Tehran to protect itself against future instability, but the accords now offer the UAE some deterrence. Israel, on the other hand, has continued to directly engage in grey zone activities, such as inflicting direct damage to Iran’s nuclear facilities and attempting to reduce Tehran’s regional influence. Balancing and leveraging these tactical differences will be critical to how this relationship evolves.
Palestinian factional politics has also created cleavages among the Gulf countries, with Qatar providing significant financial aid to Hamas in Gaza, while the UAE – long frustrated by the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas – has hosted Mohammed Dahlan as a potential leader-in-waiting. These differences were further exacerbated during the 11-day Gaza conflict earlier this year. Gulf Arab criticism of Israel’s crackdown on Palestinians tested the accords and led to the UAE registering its disapproval independently. The UAE was also not at the helm of conflict management in Gaza – leaving Egypt and Qatar to help facilitate a ceasefire with Hamas while the UAE worked behind the scenes– but Abu Dhabi will likely have greater influence on the Palestinian issue over time.
Above all, the UAE and Israel share concerns that the continued US military drawdowns will leave a wider security vacuum. These doubts have only been reinforced by the messy US departure from Afghanistan and will likely further strengthen their existing security and intelligence sharing regarding regional challenges. In the context of such deep uncertainty about America’s regional commitments and with a myriad of regional flashpoints, failing to engage with the accord partners on these critical issues is a missed opportunity for the Biden administration.