Following the UAE and Bahrain’s full normalisation of ties with Israel, speculation has run rampant over which Arab country might be the next in line to follow suit.
In a White House ceremony, last Tuesday, that was observed by the whole world, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Foreign Ministers from the UAE and Bahrain signed their US-brokered bilateral agreements, and a document dubbed the “Abraham Accords”.
The recent accords mark a significant geopolitical change in the Middle East, which is expected to leave both Iran and the Palestinians isolated. Several Arab countries are believed to be close to following in the UAE’s and Bahrain’s steps, including Sudan, Kuwait, Oman, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, among others.
US President Donald Trump revealed that there are between seven and nine countries ready to normalise ties with Israel. When asked about Saudi Arabia, he said that he expects that it would follow suit, “but in the right time”.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows added that “five more countries are seriously considering reaching a normalisation deal with Israel”.
Many Arab countries have, for years, quietly maintained ties with Israel, but the recent pacts will offer rich opportunities for these countries.
In the case of both Oman and Sudan, Omani Ambassador to the US Hunaina Al-Mughairy attended the White House ceremony, alongside Sudan’s deputy Ambassador. Many have predicted that their attendance might be a “tacit approval” that they are very close to a similar move.
Sudan seeks to have its name removed from the US list of state sponsors of terror, and end its ongoing economic crisis. In August, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Khartoum for discussions on “deepening the Sudan-Israel relationship”, among other issues.
On 20 September, the Sudan Sovereignty Council Chief Abdel Fattah El-Burhan and a delegation of ministers and experts from the country flew to Abu Dhabi, to take part in discussions with US and Emirati officials. The discussions covered a range of topics, including support for Sudan in the transitional period, and writing off US debts on Sudan, among other related issues.
Last month, the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs parted ways with its spokesperson, over his remarks that Sudan is looking forward to signing an agreement with Israel. He indicated that the agreement would normalise ties between the two countries.
For Oman, it has welcomed the two accords between the UAE and Bahrain with Israel. It added that the country hopes the “new strategic approach that some Arab countries chose will contribute to bringing about a peace based on an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands”. It added its hopes that the agreements would lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
The Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) southern-most member has not issued any statements regarding its potential normalisation of ties with Israel. The latter’s Intelligence Minister, however, said in August that Oman may join its fellow GCC states in doing so.
Earlier in 2018, Netanyahu visited Oman for meetings with Oman’s late Sultan Qaboos, during which the two sides discussed “ways to advance the peace process in the Middle East”.
Oman has maintained its neutrality in the region, and maintained friendly relations with global powers that play signifcant regional roles, including the US and Iran. With this in mind, some analysts doubt the country would formalise its ties with Israel.
Kuwait is also believed to be one of several Arab countries that are widely being touted as looking to normalise ties with Israel. This follows President Trump saying, last Friday, that “Kuwait is excited about a lot of things that are happening the Middle East, about the two accords signed between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain”.
Trump also noted, “I think they will end up very quickly a part of it.”
The US President’s remarks came after he awarded the US Legion of Merit, Degree Chief Commander, to Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad al-Sabah.
Although Kuwait has yet to comment on the subject, it has previously said it will continue to uphold its firm stance against normalising relations with Israel.
Anything is possible
Khaled Elgindy, Senior Fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said that it is currently impossible to say who may or may not be next.
“We can only go by what these countries say publicly, and if I’m not mistaken all of the countries that have been touted, namely Oman, Kuwait and Sudan, have said that they would not normalise with Israel before Palestinian statehood is achieved,” Elgindy said, “Then again, Bahraini officials had said the same, so anything is possible.”
He added, “They do not advance the goal of Israeli-Palestinian peace, nor are they intended to, as at the regional level, very little will change, since both the UAE and Bahrain already had fairly well-developed relations.”
Bahrain became the second Gulf country to normalise relations with Israel after the UAE. Both countries followed Egypt and Jordan, who signed peace treaties in 1978 and 1994, respectively. Mauritania established diplomatic ties with Israel, although it fully cut off its ties with Tel Aviv in 2010.
The recent pacts have been viewed as a lifeline for Trump and Netanyahu. Elgindy said the timing of the formalisation of ties between the two Gulf countries and Tel Aviv most likely has to do with the domestic political situations in both the US and Israel.
“Both Netanyahu and Trump are facing domestic pressure and unrest over their handling of the COVID-19 crisis, as well as various levels of corruption,” Elgindy said, “The agreements give them a much-needed boost, especially going into the 3 November US election.”
The UAE will benefit on many levels from its normalisation of ties with Israel. It, in particular, seeks to acquire the world’s most advanced warplane, the F-35. Although Trump has given the thumbs up to the sale going ahead, Netanyahu has voiced his opposition to the move, as Abu Dhabi’s acquisition of the F-35 could challenge Israel’s technological dominance in the Middle East.
A further issue has come up relating to the annexation of Palestinian lands, which the Israelis agreed would happen on the UAE’s normalisation of ties with the country. Netanyahu, however, later announced that he had only agreed to delay annexation in the occupied West Bank, as part of a normalisation deal with the UAE but those plans remain “on the table”.
“In terms of the Palestinian issue, it [the pact] represents a clear setback for the goal of Palestinian statehood, by removing one of the few items of leverage the Palestinians had with regard to the Israeli occupation, which was an effective veto over Arab normalisation,” Elgindy said, “Israel will now have even fewer incentives to end its occupation or respect Palestinian rights.”
The Secretary-General of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) executive committee, Saeb Erekat, commented on the UAE and Bahraini pacts with Israel, saying that they are “peace in exchange for protection”.
In a statement released following the agreements, the Palestinian Presidency said that these accords “will not achieve peace in the region as long as the US and the Israeli occupation do not recognise the right of the Palestinian people in establishing their independent state”.
It is just an announcement to ties already exist
Mostafa Kamel El-Sayed, Professor of Political Science at Cairo University, said that “the normalising of ties between Bahrain and Israel is consistent with an approach in several Gulf states, except for Kuwait, to establish ties with Tel Aviv, which is a known fact”.
“This pact is just an announcement to a relation that took multiple forms in the previous time without having a formalisation,” El-Sayed said.
He added that the accords signed by the UAE and Bahrain have nothing to do with the Palestinian Cause. Speaking on the UAE-Israel deal, he said that Israel’s suspension of its plans to annex the West Bank was used to justify the agreement. This turned to dust, however, once the Israeli Prime Minister noted he was not willing to abandon the plans.
“In the case of the Bahraini accord, the Palestinian cause was not mentioned despite the GCC country’s remarks said that such an accord would contribute in establishing peace, and that it is committed to the two-state solution,” El-Sayed said, “In fact, in both cases, and other future cases, the main motivation to this approach is the idea that Israel could be a supporter to the Gulf states in confronting the expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East.”
He added, “These agreements significantly impair the Palestinian situation, which was dependent on the support of the Arab states.”
El-Sayed also said that the Bahraini accord is a translation of the Israeli principle that says “peace in exchange of peace”, meaning that peace with the Arab states should not be linked to either the solution of the Palestinian Cause or the ceding of lands occupied by Israel.
He added, “There are concerns in Bahrain over Iranian influence, because the majority of its citizens are Shia Muslims, with the rulers feeling that the Iranian influence could be a problem for the future of Bahrain.”
“I believe that such an accord, instead of contributing to enhancing the security of Bahrain would, in fact, increase the tensions between it and the Iranian government which view this agreement as directed essentially against it and not related to peace in the Middle East,” El-Sayed said, “This is especially as neither the UAE nor Bahrain have ever had an armed conflict with Israel in the past.”
He also said that he believes that the already unannounced existing ties between Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar with Israel will remain unpublicised. He added that, despite its strong tries with Israel, Oman is unlikely to be the next country to formalise ties with the country, due to its remaining keen on keeping strong ties with Iran.
Regarding Sudan, El-Sayed said, “When the political composition in a country includes multiple parties, it is difficult to proceed in the direction of normalisation with Israel. I believe it will not be easy for military leaders in Sudan to impose their will on other parties.”
It is worth mentioning that El-Burhan met with Netanyahu during a trip to Uganda in February this year. During the meeting, Netanyahu announced that Israel and Sudan were working towards normalising ties.
For Saudi Arabia, the situation is a lot harder to gauge, despite the country having opened its airspace to Israeli flights and the communications between the intelligence services of thetwo countries.
“I believe it will not take the approach of normalising ties with Israel due to its position in the Muslim World,” El-Sayed said, adding, “I also think that other countries would take the same approach [as Saudi Arabia], even Qatar which is keen on friendly ties with Iran and Turkey, as both condemned these accords.”
“For Kuwait, it takes an independent position and supported the Palestinian people, so I rule out that it would normalise ties with Israel,” El-Sayed concluded.
An Israeli-Gulf front against Iran?
The pacts of fully normalising ties between Israel on the one hand, and the UAE and Bahrain on the other, have been viewed as establishing a front against Iran, which is seen as a regional threat by the GCC, Israel and the US.
However, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, said that the pact is not directed at Iran, specifically.
“Iran is one issue but not the only area of common interest,” Elgindy says, “In the end, these are bilateral agreements involving UAE/Israel and Bahrain/Israel and are intended to serve the interests of these countries and their regimes.”
Meanwhile, El-Sayed added, “The collation against Iran already exists and includes other countries, not just the UAE or Bahrain, and the accords are an official declaration aboofut this collation.”
Nicholas A Heras, Director of Government Relations at the Institute for the Study of War, said, “These agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain continue a process whereby regional actors are taking their security into their own hands.”
Heras added, “Israel has high-end capabilities for intelligence gathering on Iran and the regional activities of Iranian proxies that are very useful for front-line Gulf states that sit across the Gulf from Iran.”
He also noted that the Israelis have been wooing Gulf states for several years, building the foundation of their relationship using pragmatic concerns. These are related to their mutual concerns related to Iran and its regional activities that threaten Israel and Gulf Arab states.