The Quad of West Asia: New Developments, Old Problems

Introduction

The signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020, through which Bahrain and the UAE normalised ties with Israel, was a significant development which analysts believed had the potential of altering the geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East. In December 2020, Morocco also signed an agreement for normalising relations with Israel, while in January 2021, Sudan followed suit. The 2020 accords, which many believed was more about symbolism than substance, drew criticism for ignoring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (the events of May 2021 clearly reiterate this point) and overlooking other complexities of the region.

Hailed by the Biden Administration

The Abraham accords, which have been dubbed as one of the significant achievements of the erstwhile Trump Administration, were welcomed by Biden (who was then not President) and have been hailed by him and by senior officials within his administration repeatedly. Commenting on the Abraham Accords at the one-year anniversary, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said: “Today, a year after the Accords and normalization agreements were signed, the benefits continue to grow.”

Israel opened a consulate in the UAE in June 2021, while the UAE opened a consulate in Tel Aviv in July 2021.

Abraham accords and UAE-Israel ties

The accords have also given a boost to economic ties between both the Emirates and Israel (Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said that bilateral trade between both countries had surpassed $600 million in June 2021, less than a year after signing of the Abraham Accords). In the past year alone there has been a significant jump in Israeli tourists visiting the UAE (Israel, on its part, is also trying to woo tourists from the UAE). In October 2021, the Foreign Ministers of the US, the UAE, Israel, and India met and discussed potential areas of cooperation – specifically trade, infrastructure, technology, and maritime cooperation. This grouping has even been dubbed as a new ‘Quad’ in West Asia. US State Department spokesperson Ned Price, while commenting on the thrust of the meeting, said that the four countries:

discussed expanding economic and political cooperation in the Middle East and Asia, including through trade, combating climate change, energy cooperation, and increasing maritime security.

UAE’s outreach to Iran and its impact on UAE-Israel ties

While improving ties with Israel, the UAE has also been reaching out to Iran (economic ties between both countries remained robust even in the midst of tensions). Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said, in a telephonic conversation last month with UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, that Tehran attached great importance to its ties with the UAE and that it was important to give a boost to bilateral economic linkages.

National Security Advisor of the UAE, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, led a high profile Emirati delegation to Iran on December 6, 2021 and met with his counterpart, Admiral Ali Shamkhan (the Iranian National Security Adviser), as well as Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, and discussed bilateral and regional issues. This visit came days after the Vienna talks pertaining to the revival of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action)/Iran nuclear deal had broken down on December 3, 2021 (both the US and several EU countries had blamed Iran for its rigid approach). Dr Anwar Mohammed Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE’s president, said that Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s visit to Iran:

comes as a continuation of the UAE’s efforts to strengthen bridges of communication and cooperation in the region which would serve the national interest.

While the UAE is a key player in the Middle East and could play an important role in talks pertaining to the Iran Nuclear deal, both Israel and the US would be watching the attempts by the UAE to reach out to Iran. Many analysts argue that the Emirates could show lesser interest in getting other Gulf countries to normalize relations with Israel (Saudi Arabia, arguably the most influential country in the Arab Gulf, has also stated that it could not normalize ties with Israel without a sustainable resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict).

UAE-China-US trilateral

Another important point to bear in mind is that there have been differences between the US and the UAE after the former alleged that China was building a military installation inside the Khalifa port, not far from the capital city of the Emirates, Abu Dhabi (this construction was halted after discussions between senior US officials and their UAE counterparts).

The UAE shares close strategic ties with the US (the latter has 3,500 of its troops based at Al Dhafra air base, which is 30 kilometres from Abu Dhabi), but the sale of fifty F35 stealth fighter planes (worth $23 billion) has been delayed for a number of reasons: Abu Dhabi’s use of Huawei 5 technology, the presence of China at strategically important points, and the offer of military technology by Beijing to the UAE. The agreement for the sale of F35s to the UAE had been signed during the Trump Administration.

The UAE has the ability to reinvent itself and this has stood it in good stead in the economic sphere; it will now need to recalibrate its foreign policy and keep it in sync with the geopolitical developments in the Middle East (the geopolitical landscape of the region has changed significantly ever since the signing of the Abraham accords). Its biggest regional challenge will be to maintain cordial ties with Israel and Iran, and at a global level ensuring that its strategic ties with the US do not get impacted by its cordial ties with China. In the midst of all the challenges and complexities, the UAE could leverage its ties with Iran to reduce tensions between the West and Tehran.

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