Dividends and caveats in Arab Gulf countries’ normalisation moves

For experts, the surprise was not the announcement of formal normalisation, but how quickly the process matured.
Monday 14/09/2020
A road is decorated with the flags of (L-R) the US, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Bahrain, in the resort city of Netanya in central Israel, on September 13. (AFP)
A road is decorated with the flags of (L-R) the US, the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Bahrain, in the resort city of Netanya in central Israel, on September 13. (AFP)

ABU DHABI –A new era for the Middle East will be charted Tuesday when the UAE and Bahrain sign agreements to recognise Israel, reflecting changes in strategic thinking in the Arab world.

The two Arab Gulf monarchies will join Egypt and Jordan — which brokered separate peace deals decades ago — as the only Arab states to formally recognise Israel.

A jubilant US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are to sign the so-called Abraham Accords — a reference to the common traditions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity — at a White House ceremony.

Alongside them will be foreign ministers from the two Arab Gulf states who will ink a deal that is expected to sketch out future collaboration among some of the Middle East’s biggest economies, stretching across security, business, energy and science.

The deals have illustrated the strategic shift in priorities in the region. The two Gulf nations are not natural allies of Israel, but see a common threat from Iran, which lies across a narrow strait from the island kingdom of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirate’s major cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Many Arab Gulf states have been quietly cultivating ties with Israel for years, but the normalisation deals have allowed those relationships to burst into the open, offering new opportunities as they try to repair economies savaged by the coronavirus crisis.

For experts, the surprise was not that formal normalisation was announced but how quickly the process matured. The sudden, quickening pace, they say, has more to do with Arab Gulf countries’ perception of their national security interests than a desire to move away from decades-old pan-Arab inhibitions regarding Israel. The old model of boycotting the Jewish state is seen as having failed to help them meet their own challenges at home or help the Palestinians achieve any of their national aspirations.

For Trump, the accord is a significant win ahead of November’s presidential election that he has revelled in, with the White House trumpeting his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize by a far-right member of the Norwegian parliament.

“Another HISTORIC breakthrough today! Our two GREAT friends Israel and the Kingdom of Bahrain agree to a Peace Deal — the second Arab country to make peace with Israel in 30 days!” Trump tweeted.

The US president said it was “so interesting” that he was able to announce the deal on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks by Islamist radicals against the United States.

Considering the deeply bi-partisan support for Israel in Washington, the normalisation moves give Arab Gulf countries the opportunity to score points not just with the current US administration but with any Democratic administration that would come to the White House were Trump to lose the November vote.

On Monday, Bahrain’s state news agency BNA reported that the Bahraini industry and trade minister and Israel’s regional cooperation minister discussed trade, industry and tourism cooperation between the two countries, which announced on Friday they would normalise relations.

Bahrain’s Zayed bin Rashid Al Zayani and Israeli’s Ofir Akunis spoke by phone.

Normalisation will “positively impact both countries’ economies,” the BNA statement said.

Palestinian leaders have called for protests against the “shameful deals” over fears their drive for a homeland is losing steam in the Arab world, which had held fast to a 2002 Saudi-sponsored initiative calling for Israel’s complete withdrawal from occupied territories. The best Arab governments could do for them after the normalisation announcements was reiterate their usual support for the Palestinian cause while describing the peace deal struck by Gulf nations with Israel as “internal matters.”

An Arab League meeting last week underscored new regional realities, as a resolution to condemn normalisation moves presented by Palestinian officials failed to pass.

Arab officials, including representatives from Gulf countries, still stress that they are committed to the Arab Peace Initiative and the project of ensuring a separate Palestinian state. Most of them believe normalisation does not have to contradict advocacy for Palestinian rights.

“The goal all our Arab countries seek, without exception, is to end the [Israeli] occupation and establish an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital,” Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said in a statement.

The fact that Bahrain has joined the UAE is a sign that Manama’s backer, Saudi Arabia, approves of the overtures to Israel.

That being said, Israel normalising ties with Riyadh would be a far greater coup than its rapprochement with Abu Dhabi and Manama.

The recognition is a huge step for Netanyahu, bringing the Jewish state closer to its goal of acceptance on the world stage, and the reaction in Israel has been effervescent.

“Both sides are thirsty for peace,” said Jerusalem’s deputy mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum.

In Arab Gulf states, response to the deals has varied from one place to the other. Support for normalisation in the UAE was more clear than in Bahrain. Iran-influenced protests in Bahrain are an example of the caveats that come with the peace deals: There is a level of resistance that is bound to manifest in the Arab region. How deep that opposition goes, however, will largely depend on Israel’s future moves, especially regarding the Palestinians, analysts say.

Israeli leaders have seemed reluctant to realise that a new dawn might have broken and that a radical change of perspective might be needed on their part.

Within minutes of the stunning announcement of UAE-Israel normalisation on August 13, there was a tussle over the terms of the deal, with the UAE saying that Israeli plans to annex Jewish settlements had been stopped and Israel countering that they were merely suspended.

There was also a testy exchange over the UAE’s long-held ambitions to buy F-35 stealth fighter jets — which the accord could make a reality — after Netanyahu said he opposes a move that could blunt Israel’s strategic edge.

But analysts say that despite the jarring optics, the UAE, with its highly pragmatic brand of foreign policy, is very much on board with a deal that will drive its goal of becoming a leading regional player.

Considering the lingering old reflexes and the decades-old divide between different political cultues, the new phase, observers say, could be marked with rows and misunderstandings as well as declarations of affection.

“It’s not like they’re oil and water cultures — but they are very, very different social and political cultures,” said Barbara Leaf, a former US ambassador to the UAE who is now a fellow at the Washington Institute.

As the two sides head into uncharted territory, the accord’s framework will give confidence in what to discuss and how, said Moran Zaga, a researcher on the Gulf at Haifa University.

“We’re going to see a boom in almost every field,” she said. “On a civilian level, science, culture, musicians performing here and there” along with endless business and diplomatic delegations exploring collaborations.

“We haven’t been talking about peace for the last 25 years, it was a word that wasn’t heard much in my lifetime. So this is something that Israelis are so enthusiastic about hearing again… it has given them a sense of hope.”