Waseda University in Tokyo
Gulf Research Fellow
European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin
European Leadership Network in London
Arab Center Washington DC
On October 21, 2020, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) hosted a webinar titled “UAE-Bahrain Normalization with Israel: Regional Implications and Gulf Reactions.” Speakers discussed the reactions of Gulf Arab governments and citizens to the United Arab Emirates-Bahrain normalization deal with Israel as well as the regional implications and global impact of the agreement. The event featured Abdullah Baabood, Visiting Professor at Waseda University in Tokyo; Cinzia Bianco, Gulf Research Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin; and Jane Kinninmont, Impact Director at the European Leadership Network in London. Khalil E. Jahshan, ACW Executive Director, served as moderator.
Abdullah Baabood began by noting that although any move toward peace in the Middle East should be welcomed, it is misleading to refer to the normalization agreements between the UAE and Bahrain with Israel as a peace deal. Even though the Gulf Arab states historically supported the Palestinian cause to varying degrees, the UAE and Bahrain were never in a state of war with Israel. According to Baabood, a true peace deal would have required the Palestinian leadership’s involvement to address issues of sovereignty. So long as the occupation was unaddressed, he said, there would be a risk of future conflict. Any reference to the Abraham Accords as a peace deal is a misnomer, he concluded, adding that the agreements formalized implicit, unofficial relations between the Gulf Arab states and Israel that had already been accelerating since the Arab Spring. Baabood explained how normalization was part of the Gulf Arab states’ increasingly ambitious—yet reactionary—activity in the region, largely within the context of the proxy conflict with Iran and rivalries among Gulf Cooperation Council members. In short, normalization with Israel—a highly developed regional power—was a means of advancing these states’ foreign policies while also giving the embattled leaders of Israel and the United States—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Donald Trump—a way to divert attention from domestic pressures. Baabood concluded by addressing which, if any, Arab state would be next to normalize relations with Israel. He said that a deal with Saudi Arabia would carry substantial weight in the Arab and Muslim worlds, but it is that very role and reputation that may preclude the Saudis from explicit normalization with Israel. Qatar was also unlikely to be next despite its role as an interlocutor between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Moreover, he did not believe that Kuwait would normalize relations given its stated commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. Finally, despite Oman’s support for normalization, Baabood did not believe it would join the UAE and Bahrain soon since the new sultan does not want to jeopardize security amid the precarious economic situation in his country.
Cinzia Bianco explored European reactions to the Abraham Accords, particularly how normalization was celebrated by the policy-making establishment though criticized for not advancing peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Although the European Union, which restated its commitment to the two-state solution, was reluctant to endorse the deals, the geopolitical dimensions and implications of normalization were absent from the policy debate in Europe. She explained that normalization sought to change the alignments that had been built along the geopolitical “fault lines” in the Middle East, particularly those that arose following the Arab Spring. Apart from the proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Bianco pointed to the rivalry between the UAE, on the one hand, and Turkey and Qatar on the other. She said the UAE has determined that Iran has been weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic and the US-led ”maximum pressure campaign,” prompting the Emiratis to offer alternatives to regional players if Iran had to scale back its support of proxies and allies. Bianco also explained the UAE’s normalization with Israel as an attempt to sway the Israelis to a more favorable position with regard to containing Turkey, since Israel has been reluctant to support such efforts. In addition to Turkey’s successful intervention in Libya to curb the advance of UAE-backed forces led by Khalifa Haftar, Turkey has taken a stronger position on issues relating to energy and maritime borders in the eastern Mediterranean, an area that has become increasingly important for the UAE as evidenced by its side deals with Israel. Such agreements seem economically and politically neutral on the surface, Bianco said, but they seek to redraw the “geopolitical infrastructure” map. She pointed to several possibilities: first, a pipeline connecting the UAE’s energy reserves to the eastern Mediterranean through Israel; second, Emirati access to the strategic Haifa port, which serves as a nexus in China’s Belt and Road Initiative; third, underwater data-transmitting cables connecting Asia and Europe; and fourth, a railway connecting the UAE to Israeli ports, which would bypass two strategic maritime systems (the Red Sea, including the Suez Canal and Bab al-Mandab strait, and the Persian Gulf, including the Strait of Hormuz).
Jane Kinninmont focused on the impact of the Abraham Accords on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how they may affect the peace process. She discussed the motivations of the Gulf Arab states and Israel in trying to reach these agreements. Kinninmont stated that over the past decade there has been an increase in informal communication between several Gulf states and Israel as they have faced regional threats and interests. This rapprochement has only intensified as countries like the UAE and Israel find themselves advocating for the same issues in Washington and for the role, they believe, the United States should play in the region. Kinninmont explained that although the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain had framed the normalization move as ultimately helping to bring peace between Israel and Palestine, she said that neither of these Gulf Arab states consulted the Palestinian leadership before participating in the accords. Consequently, this separate deal with Israel has left many feeling that the two Arab states have bypassed the Palestinians, especially since peace would more likely be achieved in the region if they had been included in negotiations. In fact, she added, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had already decided to back away from formal annexation due to internal considerations, so the UAE gave him a graceful way to save face by tying it to normalization. Kinninmont stated that this lack of regard toward Palestine is not only a subtle bypass of Palestinians but an explicit act of discounting the Palestinian national project and has only confirmed Netanyahu’s belief that Israel does not need to make peace with the Palestinians in order to make peace with the Arab and Muslim worlds. She also noted the generational differences in Gulf states regarding regional priorities: the Palestine issue is important for the generation that witnessed the Nakba and the periods of persistent violence against Palestinians, whereas the newer generations came of age during the wars in Syria and Iraq. Kinninmont emphasized that the UAE-Bahrain normalization with Israel has ultimately had a negative effect on prospects for a two-state solution or a meaningful resolution of the conflict.