On September 8th, the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs hosted a virtual public event marking the second anniversary of the signing of the Abraham Accords, and their impact on the region. Moderated by the Atlantic Council’s Distinguished Fellow Ambassador Daniel B. Shapiro and Nonresident Senior Fellow Carmiel Arbit, the discussion explored the political and economic horizons for deepened regional integration. The event included an introduction by Dr. Ahmed Charai, Chairman and CEO of Global Media Holding and Atlantic Council Board Member, and a distinguished panel featuring H.E. Shaikh Abdullah bin Rashed bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Bahrain to the United States; H.E. Yousef Al Otaiba, Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to the United States; and H.E. Amir Hayek, Ambassador of Israel to the United Arab Emirates. The event was organized in partnership with the Jeffrey M. Talpins Foundation.
Status of Israel-Arab relations since the Accords
Since the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors have become far more integrated. In his opening remarks, Dr. Ahmed Charai discussed the growing ties between Israel and Morocco, citing the unique heritage of Morocco’s Jewish community. Bilateral relations have greatly expanded since the Accords, with trade between the two countries rising to $117 million, and goals to reach $250 million by next year. Similarly, cultural exchange initiatives are complemented by a nearly fourfold increase in Israeli tourism to Morocco. Enhanced security cooperation is also evinced through Israel’s participation in the African Lion 2022 military exercises organized by Morocco and the United States, and the signing of several defense Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) between the two countries.
Ambassador Hayek underscored the Abraham Accords as a “gamechanger” in the Middle East, leading, for the first time, to integrated regional cooperation. The Accords have begun to transform the Middle East into a powerful geostrategic and economic bloc. There has been a record $1.4 billion in Israel-UAE trade in the first seven months of 2022 alone and over 450,000 Israeli tourists have already traveled to the UAE. A joint $100 million Research and Development (RND) fund to foster deeper technological and private sector collaboration will help deepen ties over the long-term.
Ambassador Al Otaiba expressed his surprise at the rapid success of the Accords, emphasizing that the future success of Israel-UAE relations will rest less on politics and ideology, and more on private sector collaboration and increased people-to-people relations. He foresaw a multipronged approach to building stronger relations, citing the importance of bilateral and multilateral forums like the Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (CEPA), the Negev Forum and the Atlantic Council’s N7 Initiative. He emphasized the need to keep “look[ing] for ways to push the envelope… and think differently” about expanding regional integration efforts, including ideas like an Abrahamic free trade zone and the Jordan-Israel Prosperity Green project.
Ambassador Khalifa, who joined from New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue, similarly commented on how quickly relations are forging between Israel and Bahrain, referencing increased trade – now in the millions compared to pre-2020 statistics and estimated to increase. Bahrain has been leaning on the private sector to invigorate relations with Israel. Israel and Bahrain have signed over 40 MOUs, the largest being a defense agreement with significant multilateral implications for the region given the presence of the United States Fifth Fleet in Manama. In order for any community to thrive, there must be a fundamental element of security, which Bahrain is supporting through the Accords.
Turning to multilateral processes supporting the Accords, Ambassador Hayek and Al Otaiba both commended the Negev Forum as a convening ground for partner countries to leverage their comparative advantages to address shared regional challenges, such as food and water security, energy, health, and education. Ambassador Hayek reaffirmed his desire to see Jordan at the table in the near future and stressed the importance of integrating youth voices into these processes. In this regard, both underscored the instrumental role the private sector can play in tackling civilian challenges and supporting people-to-people relations, including business integration and regional cultural exchange, which cannot be done by governments alone. Ambassador Al Otaiba also praised the historic achievement of initiatives like the N7 in advancing regional integration among countries that have previously had little to no communication and spotlighted the I2U2 (India, Israel, UAE, and the US) as another multilateral forum that can channel regional cooperation for positive impact in the Middle East.
Ambassador Khalifa emphasized the Negev Forum as a framework ensuring the continuity of the Accords, tying their success to the delivery of tangible benefits for the people of Bahrain and other normalizing countries. When reflecting on future partner countries to the Accords, the panelists stressed that they must first produce results with existing Accords countries. The ability to attract prospective countries will rest on demonstrating first normalization’s contributions to regional stability and prosperity.
People-to-people engagement remains central to strengthening regional ties, with countries supporting access to direct flights to Israel, as well as cultural and youth exchange programs, and sporting events to engender mutual understanding and respect. Invigorated people-to-people relations will also have spillover effects for other industries, pushing further progress in trade, investment and innovation.
Ambassador Al Otaiba importantly noted the inclusion of Palestinians within the conversation. While the greatest criticism lobbied against the Abraham Accords has been its lack of focus on the conflict, he emphasized that the Accords are not a track for solving the Palestinian conflict but are rather intended to allow space and time for diplomacy between the two parties to address the two-state solution. Ambassador Hayek urged the need to build trust between Israelis and Palestinians before discussions about agreements. Rejecting a zero-sum mentality of the Abraham Accords, he expressed strong support towards bringing more parties into the conversation about normalization.
Knesset and international support
When questioned about the implications of a potential change in leadership following the election in Israel this November, Ambassador Hayek argued that the Abraham Accords enjoy universal support and acceptance within the Knesset, which would not be impacted by the elections. Ambassador Al Otaiba resounded the sentiment, stating that since 2020, he has worked with two Israeli administrations and the Abraham Accords have received continued support from both. Priorities set out thus far through the Negev and other processes are universally acceptable and should not encounter resistance from any new administration.
Panelists also encouraged support from other key partners, both from the public and private sectors, including those in Europe and Asia. While executive-level engagement is welcomed, all parties expressed their desire for more investment and private sector involvement within the region through the Abraham Accords. They warned however that continued progress can be endangered by politicization of the normalization process and stressed the need for continued advocacy at the highest levels of government to sustain momentum.
Yulia Shalomov is an Associate Director with the Middle East Programs.
Mariah Smith is a Program Assistant with the Middle East Programs.
Through our Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative, the Atlantic Council works with allies and partners in Europe and the wider Middle East to protect US interests, build peace and security, and unlock the human potential of the region.