Media and commentators have hailed the Trump-brokered agreement signed by Israel with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain as historic.
The agreement is historic insofar as “it’s the first open acknowledgement of Israel’s hitherto secret alliance with Arab Gulf nations and the willingness of the Emiratis and Bahrainis to ‘normalize’ relations is a major breakthrough for Israel”, as Haaretz put it.
It is also a personal success for both Trump and Netanyahu. Both leaders are currently very much weakened in their own countries, and for them this is a needed success. Though its impact on both men’s political future remains uncertain.
On the US side, in particular, this marks the triumph of the transactional approach adopted by the Trump administration in its first term, during which the President repeatedly made clear how much he values the old equation Arab money for US arms sales.
But most of all, it is a success for the UAE. Not only and not so much because of growing possibilities for economic cooperation. These possibilities already existed, via dual nationals and front companies registered outside Israel. The normalization serves the interests of the UAE in the sense that it paves the way for a further growth in its regional role. As the UAE has emerged over the past decade as an increasingly influential player in regional politics, the quid pro quo offered by the deal seems to fit into this trajectory of growing assertiveness and edification of the ‘UAE model’. In particular, the military equipment, advanced weaponry and intelligence sharing the deal promises to bring about, contribute to this. Normalizing Abu Dhabi relations with Israel makes it easier for the US to reduce restrictions on the selling of sophisticated weapons that would reduce Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region. Furthermore, openly establishing a relationship with Israel represents for Abu Dhabi an investment similar to a life insurance in its relations with the US. Whatever the next four years – and beyond – may bring about, a closeness to Israel increases Abu Dhabi’s standing in Washington. Should Trump be reelected, we can expect an even closer cooperation between Abu Dhabi and Washington, particularly in terms of selling of advanced weaponry. Should Biden win the presidency, normalizing relations with Israel gives the UAE credit also with the Democrats, who have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the UAE-Saudi intervention in Yemen.
What this agreement is not
As it represents a transaction that serves the bilateral interests of the parts involved, there are many things this agreement is not.
- It is not a peace deal. No conflict existed between Israel and the two Gulf countries. Bilateral relations were already extensive (if not official) for years. Despite the rhetoric displayed at the White House event, it’s not with the Gulf states that Israel has been at war since 1948.
- It is not a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and not even progress towards it. The Palestinians are not part of this at all. The UAE is a regional heavy weight, while Bahrain is basically a Saudi satellite state: neither have the leverage to bring about a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Qatar, the UAE’s regional rival, is in a much better position for doing this, but the rift dividing the GCC since June 2017 makes this option highly unlikely. Nor can they automatically gather more consensus across Arab states to help reach that kind of settlement. Saudi Arabia, for the time being, and other key Arab nations don’t appear to be ready to normalize relations with Israel.
- It is not a major shift in the Middle East fault lines. It merely reflects (and reinforces) the status quo without making any real changes, as It does not substantially change the anti-Iran and anti-Turkish front mainly represented by UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel. The U.S. backing to this front is not a novelty. The Turkey-Qatar duo remains embattled but unscathed.
- It is not progress towards a more stable and peaceful Middle East. Sectarian and political divisions are heightened by this agreement. The “Arab street” is likely to be angered by the way Palestinians were excluded, and this may fuel unrest. This unrest may bring about a new wave of repression, which of course does not contribute to regional prosperity and stability. The fault lines mentioned above are going to be further entrenched. The UAE aggressive foreign policy and interference/intervention in conflicts across the region (Libya, Yemen, and increasingly in the Eastern Mediterranean) appears emboldened. Its military force could be further strengthened by coming arms deals with the U.S. and Israel. As a result, its regional rivals like Turkey will feel more insecure, enabling them to paint this sense of external threat as the legitimation for further assertiveness and intervention in the region.
- It is not progress towards democracy for Arab nations. Emiratis, Saudis, Egyptians and other Arab autocrats were not in favor of the Spring 2011 popular movements (Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya), and even less of the most recent ones (Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan). In fact, they have been the opponents of democracy, which they fear would promote political islamists (particularly the Muslim Brothers), and they are systematically supporting authoritarian and counter-revolutionary forces across the region, both politically and militarily.
- Not only it does not represent a progress towards democracy for Arab nations: It represents a defeat for international law and for the countries which still abide by it. By further celebrating survival of the fittest as a principle and fait accompli as a method, the agreement gives another free pass to Israel for its violations of international law.
This sequence of arguments should bring us to reconsider the meaning of words such as ‘peace’, ‘stability’, ‘security’ and ‘prosperity’, as they are increasingly misused today. Of course the Middle East needs peace, prosperity, and stability, but in order to achieve them it is imperative to address the root causes of conflict, stagnation, and instability. This means undertaking a serious effort aimed at restructuring and reforming governance (primarily, but not exclusively, of the security sector), creating more inclusive and transparent state systems and political institutions, dismantling rent systems, just to name a few. And most of all this means brokering actual dialogue processes and peace agreements that envisage confidence-building measures rather than an increase in the purchases of military equipment.
As made clear above, this agreement does not entail a vision for actual regional peace and prosperity. Integration and cooperation, as opposed to containment and exclusion, have throughout history proven to be more lasting sources of stabilisation and pacification. Indeed, the example of the 1970s Helsinki process, which reduced tension between the Soviet and Western blocks, is a good example of how multilateral engagement can lead to meaningful economic cooperation and political dialogue. Common goods such as peace and security cannot be achieved without or against significant parties and actors. So, while many may see this normalization of relations between Israel and the two gulf countries, brokered by the Trump administration, as historic, it lacks the elements to be defined as a peace agreement.
The views expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily represent those of the organization the authors work for