A Year After Their Signing, Here's How the Abraham Accords Changed the Middle East

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A United Arab Emirates guard standing during the opening ceremony for the new UAE embassy, in Tel Aviv last month.
A United Arab Emirates guard standing during the opening ceremony for the new UAE embassy, in Tel Aviv last month.Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP

The ultra-Orthodox students from Modi’in Ilit, all wearing black hats and white shirts, perfectly matched Yusuf Mohamed’s all-white kaffiyeh and black agal. But he still stood out.

As he walked alongside the endless rows of students at a yeshiva in this Haredi settlement in the West Bank, he stumbled across a small group engaged in heated debate about the complexities of kosher slaughter. “I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between our religions,” Mohamed says.

He was one of the first Bahrainis to ever visit Israel, as part of a June 2021 delegation organized by Israel-IS – an Israeli NGO that seeks to pair up young Israelis who recently completed their army service with young peers from all over the world to promote Israel. And he won’t be the last, after the signing of the normalization agreement between the two countries last summer.

“Before the Abraham Accords, Israel felt like a taboo subject,” says Mohamed, 20, a hospitality management and tourism student at the Vatel Business School in Al Jasra. “But since the signing of the accords, it’s become clear that Israel shares similar political and economic interests to the kingdom of Bahrain. Peace and normalization should be the focus as we step toward a better future for our generation and the next one to come.”

The normalization agreement has endured – and survived – two major tests as it marks its one-year anniversary: the 11-day flare-up between Israel and Hamas in May; and a new U.S. administration following Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump last November.

Foreign policy issues such as peace in the Middle East have been supplanted on the Biden administration’s list of priorities by the COVID pandemic, rebuilding the country’s economy and infrastructure, and facing climate change. Consequently, the $3 billion Abraham Fund – established to promote economic cooperation in the private sector after the formal signing of the Abraham Accords last September – was suspended indefinitely last month as the White House reevaluated its expenditure priorities.

Then-President Donald Trump and then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with UAE and Bahraini government ministers at the Abraham Accords signing in Washington last September.Credit: Andrea Hanks / Official White House Photo

‘Out of touch’

Despite these setbacks, fruits are emerging from the normalization agreements signed between Israel and Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Morocco in 2020. Trade between Israel and the UAE is expected to reach $1 billion by the end of the year. The Bahraini and Israeli governments have also inked new trade and economic cooperation deals, and Moroccan-Israeli commerce is expected to grow rapidly.

In late July, two Israeli airlines launched their first direct commercial flights from Tel Aviv to Marrakech. And a month after visiting the UAE, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid met with his Moroccan counterpart, Nasser Bourita, last week to inaugurate Israel’s diplomatic mission in Rabat and to reaffirm economic ties between the two nations.

According to Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the conservative-leaning think tank American Foreign Policy Council, the Biden administration’s decision to deprioritize building on the Abraham Accords “is deeply unfortunate, because an expansion of stability and prosperity is a net benefit both for the region and for the U.S. – irrespective of how it came about. By its failure to support and nurture ‘normalization,’ the White House is showing that it is out of touch with the new context that now exists in the region,” he says.

“This is all the more remarkable because it has been happening during a global pandemic, which has disrupted travel and commerce,” Berman continues. “It’s useful to remember that the early contacts that ultimately culminated in last year’s accords were built around shared concerns about Iran. Those concerns persist, and there is a great deal of quiet (and not-so-quiet) coordination happening today on the Iran file.”

While the Abraham Accords might not be a top priority for the White House, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum says that the signatories to the normalization agreements are now taking matters into their own hands.

“The momentum is huge, and the countries involved are building the normalization from the bottom up,” says Hassan-Nahoum, 47, who is of Moroccan descent and had just returned from the unveiling of the Israeli-Moroccan Chamber of Commerce in Jerusalem when she spoke with Haaretz.

Fleur Hassan-Nahoum speaking at the inauguration of the Israel-Morocco Chamber of Commerce in Jerusalem last week.Credit: Sara Davidovic

“It would have been good to have a multibillion-dollar Abraham Fund, but the fact that there isn’t a fund isn’t stopping the momentum of the Abraham Accords,” she says.

In addition to being Jerusalem’s deputy mayor, Hassan-Nehoum co-founded the UAE-Israel Business Council in June 2020 – a 3,000-member network of businesspeople and public sector professionals consisting of Emiratis, Israelis, Moroccans and Americans. “We actually created the council before we even knew there would be normalization,” she explains. “We wanted to create an infrastructure for this kind of under-the-radar normalization and ‘warm’ peace, to prepare to usher in the official era of normalization — we just didn’t think it would happen so fast,” she says.

Hassan-Nehoum also co-founded the Gulf-Israel Women’s Forum, which includes a sprawling network of Israeli, Emirati, Saudi and Egyptian women all bound by a desire to create lasting business partnerships across the Middle East and a better future for the next generation.

The normalization agreements forged between Israel and its new Gulf allies have been largely driven by a mutual animosity toward Iran and the prospect of lucrative economic cooperation. “All of this would have been unimaginable five years ago,” says Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Trump wanted to develop a strategic relationship with the Emirates and Saudis, and it worked. They made over what was covert – and that took no small doing. I think these accords are keepers, but none of them will resolve the enduring headache for the Israelis of what to do with the Palestinians,” he adds.

The crew of Israel's first commercial flight from Tel Aviv to Marrakech, after touching down in Morocco last month.

Miller notes that much of the impetus behind these normalization agreements has been driven by the transactional nature of the triangular relationship between Jerusalem, Washington and the Gulf states.

“It’s arguable whether or not there would have been an Abraham Accords without Washington’s participation and the sale of F-35s [to the UAE],” he says. “Would there have been an Israeli-Moroccan normalization without a change in U.S. policy in the Western Sahara?” Miller asks, referring to the Trump administration’s recognition of the disputed territory as Moroccan.

A greener Middle East?

Advocates of the Abraham Accords say they helped solidify regional partnerships to build a greener Middle East, especially between Israel’s innovation capabilities and the UAE’s world-leading advances in sustainable urban living.

For Asher Fredman, CEO of Gulf-Israel Green Ventures, “The UAE-Israel partnership can play a major role in advancing the technological and sustainable development of the entire Middle East. The goal should be to establish platforms and joint ventures which will enable Israelis and Emiratis to co-develop the next disruptive technologies for the region and the world,” he says.

An event at the virtual UAE-Israel business leaders summit 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

There are a number of synergistic opportunities between Israel and the UAE in areas ranging from energy and water to agriculture, AI and health, and Fredman expects Israeli-Gulf deals in green technology to exceed $500 million over the next five years.

Miller, who was a former Middle East negotiator in previous Republican and Democratic administrations, believes that the Emirati and Israeli relationship offers the greatest example of political and economic change. He adds that the Israel-UAE dynamic has seemed to compress in a year what the Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Jordanian relationships – signed in the late 1970s and mid-’90s, respectively – took decades to cultivate.

“Israel and the UAE are each roughly $400-billion economies,” he says. “The UAE exports certain things the Israelis have to import. And with Israel’s tech and startup capacity, the UAE offers a real opportunity for Israel to get a foothold not just in Europe and East Asia, but in North Africa and the Middle East.”

Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and senior vice president at the Middle East Institute in Washington, echoes this view, adding that the opening of Gulf space and access to landing rights at Emirati international airports has made Asia –especially India and China – far more accessible for Israeli tourists and businesspeople.

As for a potential expansion of the Abraham Accords to more Muslim-majority countries, experts and stakeholders remain cautiously optimistic. “The continued support for the Abraham Accords by the Biden administration on the diplomatic level, the strong bipartisan support for the accords in Congress and the increasingly clear mutual benefits of normalization with Israel will lead three or four additional Muslim countries, including Oman and possibly Saudi Arabia, to join the circle of peace over the next two or three years,” Fredman speculates.

For Hassan-Nahoum, the Abraham Accords have complemented her deputy mayoral role for foreign relations, economic development and tourism. “Tourism, for me, means I want to help create a new era of Muslim tourism to the holy city of Jerusalem, and I’m currently working on bringing R&D jobs from the Gulf to East Jerusalem,” she says. “My vision is that East Jerusalem will become the R&D hub for the Middle East, because we have Israeli-trained Arab programmers who speak Arabic, Hebrew and English.”

A memorandum of understanding signing ceremony at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, last week between Israeli and Bahraini institutions.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

The Trump administration offered a litany of incentives to normalize relations with Israel. Whether the Biden administration is willing to offer similar carrots to potential Arab partners remains to be seen. At the same time, diplomatic, trade and cultural relations appear to be developing independent of the United States’ input.

Israel’s involvement at Expo 2020 Dubai later this year is a case in point. “Israel’s participation is extremely important,” says Malki Shem Tov, CEO of creative visual solutions company AVS, which was chosen to design and construct the Israeli Pavilion at the event. “It’s a unique opportunity to deepen and develop business, diplomatic, tourism and cultural cooperation between Israel and the UAE, and is an important platform to build on this peace between people and not only governments.”

Malki Shem Tov, creator of the Israeli Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai.Credit: AVS

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