On September 15, 2020, at an official ceremony hosted by President Donald Trump at the White House, the Abraham Accords were signed by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani respectively. In the three years since the accords were signed, Israel and the UAE have deepened their ties in several areas such as trade, defense, technology, and energy. However, the outbreak of the conflict in the Gaza Strip, has put the UAE, and other signatories to the Abraham Accords, in an uncomfortable position. How will the UAE balance its profitable relationship with Israel amid the recent developments in Gaza?
The origins for the UAE’s current foreign policy began with the outbreak of the 2011 Arab Spring when the UAE adopted a more muscular and interventionist foreign policy. It was one of the regional actors that called for the blockade of Qatar in 2017, supported anti-Assad groups in the early stages of the Syrian civil war, and has been the primary sponsor of the secessionist Southern Transitional Council group in Yemen. Over the last several years, its strategy has shifted towards using diplomacy and soft power to cultivate closer political and economic ties with other regional actors and establishing a regional order based on networks instead of alliances. The UAE has also adopted a more transactional attitude towards its neighbors, with a focus on mutual benefit. This differs from the previous approach held by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed’s, or MBZ as he is popularly known, predecessors that prioritized stability above other factors.
As one of the most influential politicians in the Middle East and a leading proponent of normalization with Israel, MBZ has been widely seen as the architect of the accords. In a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, MBZ stated that the accords were “to send a clear message to the world and the region that we are striving for peace.” He also acknowledged that while the peace accord could be seen as a slight against the Palestinians, he justified signing the accords by stating that “every decision has risks, undoubtedly, and we live in a complex region. But the rewards are an incentive, and the outcomes we will achieve together are far greater than the drawbacks.” The operative phrase to remember in this comment is “rewards.”
The economic benefits of the UAE’s recognition of Israel have certainly been substantial. As expressed in a 2023 research paper by Chatham House, “the synergies between the two countries across a broad range of sectors, including finance and investment, education, healthcare, technology, energy, agri-tech, food and water security” have allowed for a smoother economic integration between Israel and the UAE. In March 2023, the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), Israel’s first free trade agreement with the UAE came into effect, which eliminated tariffs on 96% of trade between the two countries, and is expected to increase bilateral trade from USD 1.2 billion to over USD 10 billion by 2030.
The accords have also allowed for greater integration of the energy markets in the region. In September 2023, Israel’s energy minister, Israel Katz, met with the chief executive of Emirati energy firm Masdar to advance a tripartite deal between Israel, the UAE, and Jordan. Under the proposed agreement, two projects, Prosperity Blue and Prosperity Green, the UAE will fund the construction of a 600 MW solar plant in Jordan that will provide energy to Israel, and in return, Israel will export 200 million cubic meters of desalinated water per year to Jordan. These projects will help address Jordan’s water needs, while also expanding Israel’s clean energy network.
The fundamental problem with the Accords, however, is that they were drafted to allow the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states by sidelining the Palestinians, since all previous attempts had been tied to the condition that any deal with Israel must be accompanied with a resolution to the Palestine Question. And while the UAE has criticized Israeli policies at times, some have expressed skepticism about the sincerity of the Emirati officials towards the Palestinians. With the recent escalation of the situation in the Gaza Strip, countries that have recognized the state of Israel, including the UAE, have been placed between a metaphorical rock and a hard place.
When the current conflict first broke out, the UAE announced a USD20 million humanitarian aid package for the Palestinians, while also calling for an immediate ceasefire to the conflict and the protection of civilians. On October 16, it was reported that MBZ was in contact with Arab and non-Arab leaders to find a resolution to the conflict and called for all sides to abide by international humanitarian law. The fact that MBZ has been the only leader to reach out to Netanyahu to discuss the issue highlights just how precarious the situation has become for Arab leaders that have established relations with Israel. At the same time, the UAE has maintained diplomatic and economic ties with Israel by emphasizing that “we don't mix the economy and trade with politics”. Emirati political commentator Abdulkhaleq Abdullah succinctly described this political dynamic arguing that "Israeli politics are definitely difficult and there are a lot of ups and downs. But the Abraham Accord is a strategic decision, it will continue despite whatever goes on in Israel”. For the foreseeable future, it seems that the UAE is maintaining an observer position and waiting for the conflict to subside before it can start discussing diplomatic solutions with the Israelis and Palestinians.
How long will the UAE be able to maintain such a position is unclear. While Emirati officials can hold out in the short term, the longer the conflict drags on and casualties mount, the harder it will become for the Emirati government to justify its overt relationship with Israel. While this does not mean that the UAE will reverse its recognition of Israel, it will have to rethink how it portrays this relationship to the rest of the Middle East moving forward. This could involve suspending projects with Israel, take a more proactive role in mediating the conflict, and even publicly denouncing Israeli actions in the Gaza Strip. It will also have to acknowledge that any further development of ties with Israel will not be able to proceed without incorporating the concerns of the Palestinians and the necessity of continuing to find a concrete path forward to a lasting resolution between the Palestinians and Israelis.
Joe Boueiz is currently an intern at IFI, within the International Affairs Cluster.
The sudden, surprising and deadly attack launched by Hamas outside Gaza on the night of Oct. 7-8 may have shifted the Middle East as a whole into a dynamic that, in many respects, seemed to be moving away from lately. For more than two years, the region had been oscillating between tensions — some of them old, others new or renewed — and rapprochements — most of them transactional and cynical, but with a clear trend towards de-escalation, from Syria to Yemen, via the Iranian-Saudi detente.
What's happening today in Gaza can be described as a “breakthrough phenomenon.” A breakthrough and a tipping point too, perhaps, and undoubtedly a refocusing on a nagging issue that was drifting into oblivion: The issue of Palestine.
As is often the case in these situations, the same question arises again and again: How confined or contained will this conflict remain, and when and where will the famous "unicity of theaters" we hear more and more about come into play? Of these, it is of course Lebanon that is emerging as the main candidate for the status of second front.
The conflict between Hamas and Israel comes at a time when Lebanon is in the midst of a full-fledged socio-economic and political collapse, drifting towards a state of long-term chaos, a sort of enduring ungovernability with security institutions slowly melting. The system exploded, and nobody knows how long it will take for the country to recover.
Given the speed at which the situation is evolving, one shouldn’t dare to venture into any bets as to whether a second front to the Hamas-Israel war will be opened in Lebanon. There have, and will be, some skirmishes on Lebanon’s southern border. However, these skirmishes are the language that Israel and Hezbollah know and use well but remain contained. I am “optimistic” of the fact that Lebanon will stay at bay, and for at least three reasons.
The first one is technical. Hezbollah knows that given the situation in Lebanon, it would be extremely risky and costly to embark on a full escalation. The situation today is different from 2006, during the July Hezbollah-Israel war. Internally, Hezbollah doesn't have the domestic support it used to. The economic situation is disastrous, and Hezbollah couldn't take the burden of responsibility for completely destroying the country if a war were to break out. At the same time, Israel would be in a difficult place if it opens two or three fronts, noting that the Lebanese front is anything but easy. So it will not be a replica of 2006. Therefore, both parties have an interest in keeping the situation limited to the exchanges we’ve seen so far.
The second reason relates to the energy equation in the East Mediterranean. Regardless of our opinion on the maritime delimitation and the gas exploration in the south, this is creating a strong deterrent to conflict. Both parties do not want to endanger what is now becoming physical infrastructure (including platforms in Qana and Karish) and no one is ready to take the risk of blowing this up. Hezbollah was very clear in the past months, saying that any conflict would involve the maritime installations of Israel in the South. It is doubtful that anyone would endanger this that easily.
Finally, the third reason is geopolitical. If Hamas's actions in Gaza aim to torpedo or derail the rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf States by putting the Palestinian question on the table again – saying that if this isn’t addressed, nothing else can be done – then it is in the interest of the allies of Hamas, Hezbollah at the forefront, not to engage in the war. In other words, let Hamas and Palestine be at the center stage and not intervene.
For all these reasons, it is fair to say that Lebanon will remain a side show, some minor fire and rocket exchanges notwithstanding, but it will remain limited overall. In the eventuality that Israel engages in a full offensive on Gaza, with the possibility of seeing Hamas be eradicated as a result. Att that point, Hezbollah and Iran would reassess their involvement.
However, the automatism of opening a Lebanese front may well remain relative. Withs tensions heating up in the West Bank, a much more nebulous use of a platform for operations in southern Syria, actions by Iraqi groups against the American presence, the choices are now more open than before. For once, perhaps to Lebanon's advantage, it is this very "uniqueness of theaters", but also their multiplicity, which, paradoxically, could spare the country from being the only mailbox for the conflicts surrounding it.
This was originally published as an Op-Ed in L'Orient Today on October 13, 2023, in English and French.