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HomeBlogThe Abraham Accords: Iceberg Surfacing for Peace and Security in the Middle East

The Abraham Accords: Iceberg Surfacing for Peace and Security in the Middle East

Image credit: The White House

By Assaf Orion

This article is published as part of IPD’s project and policy paper series, Deconstructing the Changing Middle East Security Architecture.

Abstract

The Abraham Accords were a formal manifestation of the true underlying reality in the Middle East, which until their signature was poorly represented by explicit diplomacy and declaration. Their main importance is recognizing Israel’s natural and self-evident role in the region, expanding the economic relations with it, and shedding light on the non-public security relations already in place, augmented by Israel’s move to US CENTCOM. Expectations that the Accords will translate into solid and formal security alliances are exaggerated and surely premature, yet much has been achieved on bilateral levels and with low profile, and much more can be attained. The keys to tapping the new potentials in the Middle East are a long-term Western commitment to regional partnerships, between regional and international partners and among themselves, adaptation of ways and means to current global challenges, including climate change and great power competition and supporting the growth of partners’ capabilities in accordance with their unique position and nature.

Background

On 13 August 2020, US President Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and UAE Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Zaid issued a joint declaration about the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between Israel and several regional countries.[1] In the following months, four Arab states established formal relations with the State of Israel, the first widening of the regional peace architecture since Egypt and Jordan signed their treaties of peace in 1979 and 1994, respectively.

The signatories of the Abraham Accords, the US, Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan thus showed that the agreements better serve their national interests than adhering to the historical dogma, maintaining that normalizing relations with Israel should only follow the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Accords were achieved after several historic and strategic trends had converged in the changing Middle East: a decade of regional turmoil (“Arab Spring”) sharpened domestic challenges and gave rise to Islamist threats and upheaval, as well as Jihadi terror, such as ISIS; Iran evidently became a main source of national and regional security threats to most Middle Eastern countries; the US was perceived as “leaving” the region, fatigued by long conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and amid its growing rivalry with China and later farther distracted by Russia’s war on Ukraine; Palestinian intransigence has eroded support for the Palestinian cause among Arab leaders, no longer willing to put the latter first at the expense of their own national interests; Israel is increasingly being recognized as a potential partner rather than an enemy, with its various resources answering regional needs; and finally, the Trump administration was willing both to suggest a new alternative strategic approach to the old paradigm (“Palestinians first, normalization later”) and to propose US benefits as part of the deal, such as F-35s for the UAE, recognition of Western Sahara as part of Morocco, and delisting Sudan as a supporter of terrorism. President Biden’s mid-July visit to Israel and to Saudi Arabia continued this strategic vector, emphasizing Washington’s effort to advance closer integration of the regional network, including Israel, seeking both to address regional challenges and to offset other powers’ influence, especially China and Russia, in the region.[2]

A view across the Gulf shows various approaches to relations with Israel on civilian issues: from the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco exchanging embassies with Israel, to Qatar’s activity with Israel short of diplomatic relations and Saudi Arabia opening its airspace to Israeli flights yet holding fuller relations till better conditions unfold.[3] This variety in approaches is relevant to both civilian affairs and security relations, where low and high-profile activities take place according to the partners’ sensitivities and policy preferences.

While most of the new relations are about the economy, tourism, people-to-people relations and diplomacy, much has been written and said about the security and defence aspects of the Accords, from describing them as a “bloc” against Iran, through discussion of a Middle East Air Defense (MEAD) Alliance and Middle East Security Alliance (MESA) and even a “Middle East NATO”. Israel’s move from EUCOM to CENTCOM under the updated Unified Command Plan (UCP) of the United States was another step towards stronger defence cooperation among America’s partners and allies in the region.[4]

The Abraham Accords: Assessing the Security Dimension

Against the multiple expectations for improved security and defence arrangements following the Abraham Accords, a reality check is needed, answering some of the following questions: how realistic are the expectations? How far can these cooperation vectors go, and under which frameworks? What are the supporting factors and what are the obstacles and impediments to their advancement? What does this mean for regional security, for the Western role in it and for the strategic competition among the great powers, regionally and globally?

It may be important to begin by acknowledging that security cooperation between Israel and regional countries has long preceded the formal Accords. Intelligence relations have historically served as low-profile but high-benefit channel for cooperation, away from the public limelight, followed by defence and military contacts and sales. The main drivers for security relations, among the geo-strategic aspects described above, were shared concerns about Iran’s multiple threats, growing demand for defence capabilities that Israel masters, and sufficient trust built by years of quiet exchanges.

Yet these complementing elements fall short of the various “alliances” envisioned since the Accords, due to several strategic factors.[5] Politically, the Gulf States vary on interests, agendas and priorities in general, and tensions between them run deep, as could be seen in the yearslong crisis between KSA, UAE, Bahrain and Qatar. Strategically, their perception of Iran’s threat differs – among themselves and compared to Israel, as do their appetite for risk and their national capabilities and strategic cultures. The willingness of these parties to fight for each other is doubtful or limited. The war in Yemen exposed the limits of cooperation even among Arab coalition members, as the UAE gradually left the fighting, leaving its Saudi partners alone against the Houthis and their Iranian backers. The F-35 deal, which may have been cancelled by the UAE, reflected the Gulf States’ position between the great powers, and their reluctance to ditch their economic relations (alongside 5G communications and arms acquisition) with China to allow advanced US defence systems security.

The Current State of Play

Reportedly, since the Abraham Accords and Israel’s move to CENTCOM, several naval exercises were held in the Red Sea[6], and an Israeli Navy officer is positioned in Manama, Bahrain, as a liaison to NAVCENT but probably also to the Bahraini hosts. In 2021 Iranian drones were shot down on their way to Israel – two in neighbouring countries by IAF F-35s[7] and in 2022 two over Iraq by USAF jets[8], reflecting already active and effective regional security arrangements. Following the Houthi drone attack on the UAE, Emirati cargo planes were reported in Israel, probably as part of relevant air defence systems transfers.[9] The Israel Defense Forces’ Chief of the General Staff had been hosted by Chairman Dunford in a chiefs of defence meeting before the Accords, but now these meetings are easier for the Arab partners to attend. A regional Chiefs of Defense meeting was held in June in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt[10] and another took place in Israel in mid-September.

Architecture also matters. Experience shows that the wider the participation, the shallower the cooperation and slower the progress, as parties hesitate to be exposed before their neighbours, managing the risk through need-to-know partnership and deniability. Bilateral ties are the most conducive to intimate exchanges and cooperation, and the addition of even a close third partner is not always for the best. On the other hand, multilateral fora sometimes allow actors to mitigate public exposure by joining a larger group, enjoying the legitimacy of larger numbers.

The Path Forward: Policy Recommendations

Strategically, while the US focus remains on China and Russia as the main challenges, the Middle East is still a vital region for global security and a theatre for competition between great powers. The US would do well to re-posture its military presence in the region, allowing it to pursue its interests in it through a different force footprint, lowering cost and risk. Western allies’ contributions can be adapted to the new US posture, although they, too, are constrained by great power challenges in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. 

To be able to shift some assets elsewhere, building partner capability and capacity is a key factor in potential load-sharing. Not all partners are equal, but many of them enjoy unique advantages. Israel can play a larger role in intelligence support, logistics and even some offensive operations, as in building partner capacity in the region and beyond. In fact, Israel has already been striking ISIS targets in the region, helping its neighbours and saving anti-ISIS coalition efforts. Other partners may be less eager to engage in offensive operations, but their assets can supplement or complement Western in-theatre assets. Western partners can play a larger role in promoting regional partners’ national capabilities and cooperation between them.

Iran’s ballistic missiles, drones and cruise missiles are an evident threat to many regional actors. Regional air defence as an integrated system is a tall order, due to the technical, security and geographic dimensions of such integration. Yet lower steps of synergy, as mentioned, are already in the works. Intelligence can provide indications for threats and forward and long-range radars can give earlier warning and deeper awareness, with US CENTCOM as the integrating agent in a regional architecture. On air defences, one may envision a gradual growth of regional capabilities and interconnectivity. US and Israeli systems already protect some partners’ skies, as can be inferred from reported THAAD and Spider systems in the Emirates and more can be provided down the road. Deeper into the future, Israel’s advances on laser-based air defence systems may be boosted by Gulf funding and US production, augmenting the multi-tier defence architecture already in place. Gulf resources may also fund common ammunition reserves under CENTCOM stewardship, to include precision arms, such as JDAMs and missile interceptors for use in case of emergency.

Security improvements along the Abraham Accords may seek to widen the regional perspective to include an Indian Ocean element, as can be seen in the political-economic I2U2 Quad between India, Israel, the US and UAE. They can also seek to strengthen the peace architecture in the region, including by integrating the Accords’ signatories in peacekeeping and peacemaking efforts. As Israel recently concurred to Saudi control of the Tiran and Sanafir Islets’, handed over by Egypt and covered by the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, Gulf countries may contribute to the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in Sinai, bolstering one of the most successful peacekeeping missions in the world.[11] Additional contributions may seek partners’ and signatories’ support to further build Palestinian security forces’ capability in advancing counter-terrorism, self-governance and improved conditions for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the future.

Structurally, with the abovementioned supporting factors and obstacles in mind, it is wiser and more practical to make the main advances on bilateral (Israel-Arab, US-Arab) channels, expanding to trilateral when useful, and progressing to multilateral when possible.

Conclusion

The Abraham Accords were a formal manifestation of the true underlying reality in the Middle East, which until then was poorly represented by explicit diplomacy and declaration. Their main importance is by recognizing Israel’s self-evident role in the region, expanding economic relations with it, and shedding light on the non-public security relations already in place. Expectations that the Accords will translate into solid and formal security alliances are exaggerated and surely premature, yet much has been achieved on bilateral levels and on low profile, and much more can be done. The key to tapping the new potentials in the Middle East is a long-term Western commitment to regional partnerships, adaptation of ways and means to current global challenges and supporting the growth partners’ capabilities in accordance with each of their unique position and nature. Expanding multiple bilateral partnerships to trilateral, quad-lateral and multilateral frameworks has the potential to improve regional capabilities to protect against common threats and relieve US forces to face more pressing strategic challenges elsewhere.

Brigadier General (Res.) Assaf Orion is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Israel and the Liz and Mony Rueven international fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He formerly served as head of Strategic Division in the IDF General Staff’s Planning Directorate (2010-2015).


Endnotes

[1] U.S. Department of State. “The Abraham Accords.” August 13, 2020. https://www.state.gov/the-abraham-accords/

[2] Biden, Joe. “Joe Biden: Why I’m going to Saudi Arabia.” The Washington Post. July 9, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/07/09/joe-biden-saudi-arabia-israel-visit/

[3] Ben-Shabbat, Meir and Aaronson, David. “The Abraham Accords, Two Years On: Impressive Progress, Multiple Challenges, and Promising Potential.” INSS. August 15, 2022. https://www.inss.org.il/publication/abraham-accords-two-years/

[4] Orion, Assaf and Dekel, Udi. “Winds of Change: Israel Joins the US Central Command Area.” INSS. January 20, 2021. https://www.inss.org.il/publication/centcom/

[5] Abu-Ghazleh, Muhammad. “A Middle Eastern NATO Appears Necessary, but Not Yet Possible.” The Washington Institute. July 18, 2022. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/middle-eastern-nato-appears-necessary-not-yet-possible-0

[6] NAVCENT Public Affairs. “U.S., Israel Begin Maritime Exercise in Red Sea .” U.S. Central Command. August 1, 2022. https://www.centcom.mil/MEDIA/NEWS-ARTICLES/News-Article-View/Article/3113137/us-israel-begin-maritime-exercise-in-red-sea/

[7] Fabian, Emanuel. “The Times of Israel.” IDF says its F-35 jets intercepted 2 Iranian drones ferrying arms to Gaza last year. March 6, 2022. https://www.timesofisrael.com/idf-says-f-35-jets-intercepted-iranian-drones-destined-for-gaza-last-year/

[8] Kubovich, Yaniv. “Iranian Drones Downed Over Iraq Were en Route to Strike Israeli Targets, Officials Believe.” Haaretz. March 21, 2022. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2022-03-21/ty-article/.premium/officials-iranian-drones-downed-over-iraq-were-headed-to-strike-israeli-targets/00000180-5bc7-dee0-afd6-7bdfeb130000

[9] Ahronheim, Anna. “Eight heavy transport aircraft belonging to UAE landed in Israel in past two weeks.” The Jerusalem Post. April 30, 2022. https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/article-705478

[10] Gordon, Michael R. and Cloud, David S. “U.S. Held Secret Meeting With Israeli, Arab Military Chiefs to Counter Iran Air Threat.” The Wall Street Journal. June 26, 2022. https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-held-secret-meeting-with-israeli-arab-military-chiefs-to-counter-iran-air-threat-11656235802

[11] Assaf. “UAVs and the Abraham Accords: New Horizons for Sinai Peacekeeping.” The Washington Institute. January 13, 2021. https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/uavs-and-abraham-accords-new-horizons-sinai-peacekeeping

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  

Panelists:

Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security

 

Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.

Panelists:

Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 

Panelists:

Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 

 

Panelists:

Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.

 

Panelists:

Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor