Mediated by the United States, the momentous agreement reached this August and signed September 15 between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (the so-called “Abraham Accords”) formally normalizes the relationship between Israel and the UAE, and it is leading other countries to follow suit.
In return for the UAE’s cooperation in diplomacy and other areas detailed below, Israel suspends plans to annex parts of the West Bank. But the potential benefits of this agreement go well beyond political considerations. According to the UAE’s ambassador to the US, Yousef Al Otaiba, the hope is for future educational and ambassadorial exchanges, reciprocal visas for tourists, students, and businesspeople, and greater cooperation in shipping, security, air travel, and telecommunications. Moreover, the agreement opens the door for the UAE to acquire F-35 jets, drone technology, and other military equipment which the US has until now allowed only to Israel, not to the UAE.
The very existence of the Abraham Accords represents a fracturing of the previous status quo, the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API), which was backed by Saudi Arabia and adopted by the UAE. A central provision of that agreement allowed for no normalization with Israel without a two-state solution and a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem. That the UAE is now willing to set aside those conditions, while simultaneously claiming to support Palestinian rights, speaks to increasing pragmatism among Arab countries vis-à-vis Israel.
In signing the Abraham Accords, the UAE becomes the third Arab country to normalize its ties to Israel, after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. The UAE is the first Persian Gulf country to do so.
The timing of the deal, which seemed arbitrary when President Trump announced it on August 13th, likely resulted from several factors. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, having struggled recently with a corruption scandal, seeks good press and to appear more competent than his political rivals.
Likely more decisive was Netanyahu’s threat of annexing territory in the West Bank. According to Ambassador Al Otaiba, in an interview with newspaper The National, “The UAE and Jordan [were] . . . concerned that annexation would lead to domestic unrest, would provide nefarious actors . . . with an opportunity to spread regional instability, and would make it strategically and politically impossible to continue their mutually beneficial relations with Israel.”
In an op-ed in the most significant Israeli Hebrew-language newspaper, Ambassador Al Otaiba confirmed that the UAE remains fervently committed to the Palestinian cause; they appear to have seen normalizing relations with Israel as their best hope of supporting Palestinians under current conditions and of checking Israel’s expansionism.
Of course, the UAE has another incentive to preserve calm in the region: they are endeavoring to become a more powerful regional player in energy and cyber and military technology—plans that would be frustrated by political upheaval and the end of mutually beneficial relations.
Responses to the accords from around the region have been mixed. Official supporters include Egypt, Jordan, Oman, and (most strongly) Bahrain. Saudi Arabia has remained noncommittal, but, according to Middle East scholar Hussein Ibish , “Saudi Arabia must be far more concerned about domestic political blowback as well as . . . rhetorical, and possibly even physical, attack from its enemies, from both inside and outside the kingdom.” The younger crown prince Mohammad bin Salman has shown himself friendlier to the West than his father, but his position on the Abraham Accords will be complicated by Saudi Arabia’s original commitment to the 2002 API.
Critics include Iran, Qatar, Kuwait, and Turkey. Palestinian leaders, for their part, have referred to the accords as “betrayal of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa, and the Palestinian cause.” And President Hassan Rouhani of Iran has complained, “The [UAE] thought that if they approached the Zionist regime, their security and economy would be ensured, while this is a wrong—100% condemned—act.” To date, such criticisms have not deterred either party from moving forward.
Recently, Kosovo and Serbia have begun working towards normalized relationships with each other and are including concessions to Israel. Serbia will be moving its embassy to Jerusalem, ignoring Iran’s claim that this violates international rules. Kosovo is recognizing Israel and beginning a process of diplomatic and economic normalization. Robert O’Brian, US national security advisor, claims that these inclusions “sho[w] the sort of momentum that’s coming,” which the UAE, US, and Israel hope to harness into further peaceful agreements. The first of those agreements has come in Bahrain’s explicit affiliation with the Abraham Accords. Bahraini representatives also signed the accords on September 15th, publicly affirming in a joint statement “the spirit of cooperation…where states focus on shared interests and building a better future.”
The Trump administration has achieved something historic in the Abraham Accords. The President has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. And the accords themselves reflect a new acknowledgement by Israel, the UAE, and now Bahrain of common interests and even a common humanity. As an official joint statement from Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Donald Trump auspiciously states, “all three countries face common challenges, and will mutually benefit from [this] historic achievement.”