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.