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CWA # 356, 4 October 2020

The Middle East
Bahrain and the UAE have normalized ties with Israel. Five reasons why

  Lokendra Sharma

Strategic convergence on Iran, an assertive Turkey and the fear of US retrenchment - have made UAE and Bahrain normalize ties with Israel. This has also set the easing and potential strengthening of the relations between Israel and the Arab world. 

In September, with the signing of Abraham Accords, the UAE and Bahrain normalized ties with Israel at a ceremony hosted by President Trump at White House. Why have these two Arab states done so? What are their motivations, and what do they stand to gain? What's next for the region?

The Threat of Iran
The primary factor is the shared threat of Iran among the Arab states and Israel. From Syria to Iraq to Yemen and elsewhere in the region, Arab states are pitted against Iran and its proxies. A regional Cold War has been brewing for many years now between the Shia Iran and the Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia. Israel, which has gone at war with Arab states many times in the past, also feels more threatened by Iran than any other state in the region. There is a strategic convergence between the Arab states and Israel. The Arab states, including, UAE and Bahrain, also understand that Iran, and not Israel, is the primary destabilizer in the region. Moreover, the normalization of ties only makes overt a relationship that had developed over the last two decades with behind-the-curtains intelligence cooperation. 

An Assertive Turkey
Second, the Gulf states, especially the UAE, are also worried about the increasingly assertive Turkey. Turkey is flexing its muscles in Libya, where it supports the UN-recognized Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). In contrast, the UAE supports the opposing faction of Khalifa Haftar's self-styled army. Arab monarchies also feel threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization supported by Turkey. There is also a fear of consolidation of the Turkey-Qatar-Iran axis in the Middle East. The still nascent, but emerging, Arab-Israel axis, can be seen as a response to it. 

The US Retrenchment
Third, the US retrenchment and pull back from the region and pivoting to the Indo-Pacific also compound the fears of Arab states. The UAE-Bahrain deal with Israel can be seen, therefore as a way of adapting to this altered landscape. However, even as the US is pulling back from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, it is not entirely clear if the fears of the US exiting the region is well-founded or just a matter of perception. There is also an arms sales angle to this deal. There are reports that post-deal UAE would be purchasing F-35s from the US. However, it has to be seen whether Israel would give up its resistance to such a sale as it wishes to maintain a qualitative military edge over others in the region.

Boosting the economy outside the hydrocarbons
Fourth, the Arab states, especially UAE, are attempting to diversify their economies by moving away from the traditional reliance on hydrocarbons. There are many complementarities between the economies of Israel and that of UAE and Bahrain, with mutual gains expected to flow post normalization. Israel has a technical edge in the field of technology, agriculture, desalination and also has a robust start-up ecosystem. Bahrain and UAE meanwhile have petrodollars and deep pockets for investments. Significant cross-border trade is expected to follow. 

The hidden role of Saudi Arabia
Finally, Saudi Arabia has been cultivating ties with Israel not-so-secretly for many years now. However, normalizing ties with Israel is not that easy for it as compared to other Gulf states. For decades there has been domestic propaganda against the Jewish people and the state of Israel. The Saudi public is not yet ready for such a dramatic shift in their state's position. Moreover, the internal power structure of the Saudi royal family wouldn't be easy to get by for the crown prince as yet. The crown prince is not expected to go forward with it until the ailing king is alive.

However, the crown prince is preparing the ground for normalization. The country's clerics have recently reduced their rhetoric against Israel and the Saudi officialdom has softened its stance. The move by Bahrain would not have come without approval from the Saudis. This is because Bahrain's royal family, which faced internal troubles during the Arab Spring of 2011, was rescued and helped by the Saudis and since then Bahrain has behaved like a client state of Saudi Arabia. The reduced domestic rhetoric when seen in tandem with the Saudi's apparent approval of Bahrain's move, suggests that Saudi preparing the larger climate of the Arab world for an eventual normalization of ties that it might itself undertake. 

So, what next? Will more countries in the region follow Bahrain and UAE?
Likely. There are reports that Oman and Sudan will normalize ties with Israel, most likely before the US presidential elections. Donald Trump has projected Abraham Accords as the 'Deal of the Century' and would certainly like to see more countries normalize with Israel to strengthen his election plank. However, it has to be seen whether negotiations, especially with Sudan, could be completed before November elections. Sudan's demand for removal from the US' list of state sponsors of terrorism as well as a sizeable economic package in return for normalization, are still under discussion. 

 


About the author

Lokendra Sharma is a PhD scholar at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru. 

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