With Gaza ceasefire, Israel-Gulf ties can get back on track
Almost two weeks of fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip led to relative quiet regarding Israel-Gulf ties, and fueled anti-Israel protests in the region and around the world. This kind of conflict was inevitably going to happen at some point after the Abraham Accords, if only because Hamas and Israel have clashed almost every year for various reasons.
This round of fighting brought with it a different paradigm. In the wake of the Abraham Accords there were key questions about the role that Abu Dhabi might play regarding future peace issues. In part it backed the normalization agreements, according to its statements, to prevent Israeli annexation of the West Bank. This was part of a long process, but that issue provided a key reason for when and why to normalize. The first months of normalization saw large numbers of Israelis go to Dubai and saw key conferences take place in which Israeli companies came publicly for the first time. From GITEX to GISEC, IDEX and others, there was a buzz around Israelis being able to do deals in the Gulf and vice versa.
However, the Covid crisis led to a downturn in visits by 2021 and this coincided with other controversies, such as discussions about a possible trip by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the eve of Israel’s March elections. In addition rumors about expansion of the Abraham Accords to include more countries did not pan out.
On the positive side the new UAE Ambassador to Israel arrived and new flight routes were inaugurated with the UAE and Bahrain. Jewish religious celebrations took place in the UAE and Bahrain, including the unveiling of a newly refurbished synagogue. Visa issues, which had been fast-tracked in November 2020, still needed to be sorted out. This was supposed to happen by the summer of 2021. The conflict in Gaza brought with it an increase in scrutiny about the Israeli peace deals with the Gulf. A sampling of articles shows many commentators, particularly in Western media, felt that this could be a setback for normalization. One article said the conflict had “rattled” the recent peace era. There was harsh criticism of the former US administration’s peace plan. Much criticism was directed at Jared Kushner. In an article looking at this issue, Reuters showed both the criticism in the Gulf now circulating about Israel and the positive notes. “The UAE and Bahrain argued that their agreements would ultimately benefit the Palestinians, including because Israel had promised to abandon plans to annex West Bank territory.” Others noted that Arab states in the region were split on criticism of Israel. It is no small matter that Hamas and Iran both emphasized that this was part of the goal of the recent conflict in Gaza. Iran’s media especially has argued that the conflict was designed to create controversy over normalization with Israel and create a setback on this front. The conflict lasted from May 10 to May 12 but in fact included incidents prior to May 10 that helped fuel tensions. In general at the Israel Gulf Report we saw a rapid downturn in stories and coverage and major public events relating to Israel-Gulf ties during this period. Back in early May Jared Kushner and others had announced the founding of a new organization linked to the Abraham Accords. “Jared Kushner and other key officials involved in the Abraham Accords said this week they are founding a new institute called the Abraham Accords Institute for Peace. It will include UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba and Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Ambassador Shaikh Abdulla bin Rashid bin Abdulla Al Khalifa who currently serves as Bahrain Ambassador to the United States and non-resident Ambassador to Canada,” we noted.
While the conflict brought focus on how durable the normalization agreements are and how much the US and others will invest in the next step, there have been many positive signs. On May 17 Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, spoke about the situation. They discussed “means for easing tension and solidifying the international efforts being made to put an end to the acts of violence in Israel and Palestine and to reach comprehensive and sustainable solutions thereto.” This means that despite the conflict, the Accords will not be derailed. The UAE has a role to play in potential involvement as well in the post-conflict arena, but that will depend on many factors. People to people meetings continue to anchor and cement Israel-Gulf ties. For instance Dr. Majid al-Sarrah met with Ellie Cohanim in Miami in mid-May.
In other news, the US-UAE Business Council and the Arizona Commerce Authority have a virtual event on May 26th. They note “this 60-minute interactive session will feature H.E. Hazza Alkaabi, U.A.E. Consul General in Los Angeles; Alan Davis, Chief Executive at Raytheon Emirates; Kevin O'Shea, Senior Vice President, International Trade, Arizona Commerce Authority; and Danny Sebright, President of the U.S.-U.A.E. Business Council.” Other events are also coming up. A Cyber week on July 19 at Tel Aviv University. GISEC is on may 31 and Arab Health on June 21.
At the same time DMCC noted that it had impressive results. DMCC has shown great interest in Israel and the diamond trade, as well as other commodities. They note that “DMCC – the world’s flagship Free Zone and Government of Dubai Authority on commodities trade and enterprise – welcomed 216 new businesses to their Free Zone in April 2021, the highest recorded number for April in 7 years. Q1 2021 was also the free zone’s best performance in seven years.”
On May 23 the UAE updated its “green list” of countries according to Covid protocols. These now include the US, Israel, Azerbaijan, Germany, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Spain, Hong Kong, Japan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and others. Read more here. Israel looks to relax its last Covid restrictions in June as the country tries to return to normal. In the UAE job creation continues to grow. Coexistence messages continue as well.