Despite Israel’s success in luring small Arab states like the UAE and Bahrain away from the Arab fold to sign the Abraham Accords and normalize ties with Tel Aviv, the main objective was to catch the “big fish”—Saudi Arabia. Yet, now more than ever, the chances of achieving this appear far from likely, at least any time soon.
Hours after Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain signed the so-called Abraham Accords in September 2020, former US President Donald Trump said he believed that Riyadh could follow Abu Dhabi’s lead. He told reporters that he had spoken with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and he felt that the kingdom would follow suit. Later, a senior Israeli official boasted that former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Saudi Arabia and met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in November 2020. This signaling an apparent breakthrough in the relations between the two countries and a potential acceptance of Israel in the region. Although the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, denied that the Crown Prince met with Netanyahu in the Kingdom, it was clear that the Trump administration was pressing the Saudis to normalize ties with Israel.
The signing of the Abraham Accords between two Gulf countries and Israel was supposed to teach the region an important lesson: that “long-standing animosities can be set aside when greater national interests are served by making peace.” Yet pundits who circulate such sugar-coated rhetoric usually ignore the fact that there are Palestinians being denied their very basic rights by Israel and suffering under brutal occupation.
Now that almost a year has passed since the Abraham Accords were signed, the prospects of Saudi Arabia or other major Arab countries joining the Accords are bleak. The once hopeful atmosphere in Washington, and in Israel, has faded, as winds have started to blow regional dynamics in different directions.
The Abraham Accords were largely seen by many Arabs as a “slap in face” to the Palestinian struggle.
Unsurprisingly, the Abraham Accords were met with Palestinian condemnation and were largely seen by many Arabs as a “slap in face” to the Palestinian struggle. Adding another blow to the future of the deals, just a few months after the agreements were signed, President Trump – who attempted to force the unwanted Accords on the Palestinians – lost the US presidential election. The eruption of the conflict in May 2021 in Gaza, the West Bank, and other Israeli occupied territories made things even worse. The inhumane treatment, home demolitions, and evictions of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli Occupation forces gave the Palestinians a renewed sense of unity and garnered them greater Arab and international support.
Amid the overwhelming support for the Palestinians and increasing public resentment towards Israel, many Arab governments found it extremely difficult to extend their hands to the colonial state. In fact, the main idea behind the Abraham Accords was to stress the “importance of maintaining and strengthening peace in the Middle East.” But the recent flare up of hostilities in the West Bank and Gaza, coupled with Israel’s blatant violations of human rights, “embarrassed” Israel’s Arab allies. It certainly made Saudi Arabia, and many other countries in the region, think twice before embarking on any normalization with Israel.
The Biden Administration and Saudi Arabia’s Stances
The arrival of the new Biden administration to the White House earlier this year, signaled a new US foreign policy towards the Middle East, and one that would not necessarily be similar to that of the previous administration. The close relations between Trump and the UAE, in particular, were not viewed positively by the new administration in Washington. News reports recently revealed that the present US State Department “discouraged” their officials from referring to the deals as the Abraham Accords, and instructed them to use “normalization agreements” instead.
Furthermore, despite being envisaged at encouraging – among other things – “commerce to inspire humankind” and at bringing “nations closer together,” Saudi reaction to the prospects of the Accords has not been anywhere near what the Trump administration and Israel had hoped for.
In fact, it was reported in early July 2021, that Saudi Arabia revised its customs policy unilaterally. The UAE authorities were informed that the Kingdom decided imports from UAE free zones, as well as products made in Israel or by a country controlled wholly or in part by Israeli investors, will no longer benefit from the preferential tariffs offered to members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The ruling came just a few days after the visit of Yair Lapid, Israel’s Alternate Prime Minister, to Abu Dhabi. The Israeli government was hoping to increase its trade with the GCC through Abu Dhabi.
Israel’s Appeal to the National Interests of Arab States
Israel has been able to gain the support of some Arab countries based on their fear of the danger posed to their national interests by countries such as Turkey and Iran. Israel also tried to exaggerate the threat that these countries could pose to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, using the contentious regional ambitions of Iran, for example, to its advantage. However, changes in the political atmosphere in the region have made it more difficult for the Israeli arguments to gain leverage.
Changes in the political atmosphere in the region have made it more difficult for the Israeli arguments to gain leverage.
Indeed, despite a relatively long period of tense relations with Saudi Arabia, Turkey sent its Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to Riyadh in May to mend the ties with the Saudis. This attempt at reconciliation also followed the Israeli-Palestinian clashes at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. To further enhance the relations between the two countries, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke over the phone with the Saudi King. The two leaders discussed means of enhancing bilateral cooperation and finding solutions to impending regional problems.
Similar political overtures from Iran have been witnessed in recent months. In April, Senior Saudi and Iranian officials held a number of meetings in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, aimed at easing the tensions between the two countries. Reports have suggested that further meetings between the two regional powers could take place. In another sign of regional de-escalation, the UAE and Bahrain sent congratulatory messages to the new President of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, in June after his election win.
The Future of the Abraham Accords
Since coming into office in January, the Biden administration’s stances towards the Middle East have already resulted in major US foreign policy changes. Although these shifts are still yet to be finalized, it has become clear that the Abraham Accords – which the former Trump administration wanted to impose on a number of Arab countries – will face serious challenges.
It seems that Saudi Arabia is playing a crucial role in putting the stick in the Accords’ wheel.
It seems that Saudi Arabia is playing a crucial role in putting the stick in the Accords’ wheel. Moreover, any hasty normalization agreement with Israel – without the latter abiding by international law or guaranteeing the respect of human rights for the Palestinians – would be disastrous to countries in the region, at this point. If more Arab governments choose to close their eyes to the Israeli atrocities committed against Palestinians, it will undoubtedly be a recipe for more public backlash.
Thus, the countries in the region that have embraced the Abraham Accords should be worried about future popular discontent at home. History has proved that neither the United States nor Israel came to the rescue of corrupt or unpopular Arab regimes when their citizens revolted against them. While achieving economic interests is important for any government, without respecting the will of the people, no such government can hope to stay in power for long.