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Abraham discord

7 min

Why and how have Middle Eastern states recently pursued regional rapprochement? In what ways do historical divides still manifest themselves? How have the terrorist attacks by Hamas against Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza impacted cooperative dynamics in the region?

The fear of regional conflagration looms large as Israel continues its military campaign in Gaza © Mena Today 

Why and how have Middle Eastern states recently pursued regional rapprochement? In what ways do historical divides still manifest themselves? How have the terrorist attacks by Hamas against Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza impacted cooperative dynamics in the region?

The Middle East was experiencing a remarkable trend of rapprochement in recent years. The Abraham Accords stand out, as they enabled unprecedented warming of relations between Israel and four Arab states. 

These agreements seemed to be part of a pragmatic foreign policy shift, prioritizing deescalation and stability in the region, which attracted increased involvement of external powers. Middle Eastern leaders seized the opportunity by creating and joining several cooperation frameworks. 

They aimed to diversify relations in light of the perceived retreat of the US and reap the benefits of Chinese offers.

However, the terrorist attacks by Hamas against Israel on October 7, 2023, and the ensuing war shook the region, possibly rupturing this trend. 

In one day, the terrorist group killed over 1,200 people and abducted around 240 more. Israel’s ensuing military campaign to destroy Hamas, which uses civilians as human shields, has devastated infrastructure in Gaza and resulted in an estimated death toll of 22,000 Palestinians by early 2024. 

The fear of regional conflagration looms large as Israel continues its military campaign in Gaza while Iranian proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq intensify their attacks on Israeli and US troops. The war thus risks dashing the tentative hopes for rapprochement in the Middle East. 

Fragile Cooperation

The pre-war wave of regional rapprochement marked a major foreign policy shift in the Middle East. The 2020 Abraham Accords constituted unprecedented normalization of relations between Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Brokered by the US, the Accords aim to enable regional integration, while also forming part of a containment strategy against Iran.[3] The US additionally facilitated negotiations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, during which Riyadh demanded US support for a civilian nuclear program and binding US defense commitments.[4] Similar to other negotiations in the region, these talks sidelined the plight of the Palestinians.

They were halted after the recent outbreak of war between Hamas and Israel.

Saudi Arabia and Iran reached a milestone deal in March 2023, which reactivated diplomatic, economic, and security ties between the traditional rivals. 

This deal was brokered by China, although experts argue that the Saudi government only allowed Beijing to finalize the deal to capture US attention. 

Middle Eastern powers also revitalized existing regional cooperation frameworks. 

For example, the 2021 Al-Ula Declaration ended the Saudi-driven blockade against Qatar, which allowed for renewed ties between Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), although it had not resolved the issues leading to its blockade. 

Another example was the readmission of Syria into the Arab League in 2023, despite the ongoing civil war and the war crimes committed by Syrian President Bashar al-al-Assad's regime.

The Middle East was receiving increased attention from external powers, especially in the form of invitations to join transregional cooperation frameworks. 

In August 2023, BRICS members invited six states to join, including Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. 

This expansion is largely seen as part of China’s strategy to increase its presence in the region, which it has further pursued by inviting several Middle Eastern countries to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Russia also maintains a presence in the region, particularly through close ties with Syria and Iran as well as OPEC.

However, the US remains the region’s central security provider, with more than 57,000 troops deployed there. The US also initiated the I2U2 Group in 2021, bringing together India, Israel, the UAE, and the US to address issues such as energy security. 

Meanwhile, European countries have courted Middle Eastern states, and included them as the central node in the India–Middle East–Europe Economic Corridor. 

These diverse frameworks allow Middle Eastern states to flexibly cooperate with external powers without having to choose sides

The geopolitical rivalry between China and the US has played a central role in this remarkable shift in the Middle East.

Despite its continuous military presence and diplomatic engagement, Middle Eastern states perceive the US to be retrenching and shifting focus toward the Indo-Pacific. 

China has intensified its efforts to enhance economic cooperation with the region from where it obtains around half of its oil imports; it became the largest trading partner of the GCC in 2020.

Middle Eastern states perceive cooperation with China as particularly attractive, since Beijing does not call for domestic reforms.

This trend of transactional cooperation is the product of pragmatic choices to bypass political divides in pursuit of economic gains.

It has generated immediate results for Middle Eastern countries; for example, the UAE benefitted from the Abraham Accords in increased bilateral trade with Israel, a boost in tourism, and being able to acquire Israeli strategic air defense systems. 

However, the escalation of war in Gaza demonstrates that regional cooperation remains inherently fragile, as historic friction is left unaddressed and conflicts can easily flare up.

Simmering Tensions

The Hamas terrorist attacks have drawn the world’s attention back to divisions in the Middle East that experts had long warned about. Beneath the surface of rapprochement, tensions have continued to simmer. 

High military spending testifies to the precariousness of regional stability. 

Middle Eastern countries spent an average of 3.9 percent of their GDP on defense in 2022, compared to the global average of 2.2 percent. 

Six ranked in the top ten biggest relative defense spenders worldwide. 

Additionally, the UAE’s defense figures are estimated to be at 4 percent of its GDP, and while Iran claimed military expenditures of 2.6 percent of its GDP in 2022, the real numbers are likely significantly higher. 

European and US arms exports reinforce this dynamic, as, for example, over 40 percent of US arms exports and 34 percent of French ones went to the Middle East between 2018 and 2022.

Iran’s expansionism and the efforts to contain it are shaping the region. Tehran’s influence is based on two pillars: proxies and threats to develop nuclear weapons. It maintains an “axis of resistance” in the form of a network of state and nonstate actors in Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. 

Iran aims to push the US out of the region, not least to weaken US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.US officials believe that Iran was “broadly complicit” in the Hamas attacks on Israel but say they do not have concrete evidence of direct involvement. 

Furthermore, Iran-backed militias have launched drone and missile attacks on Israel and US troops as well as on commercial vessels in the Red Sea, threatening global trade.

The international community has failed to effectively contain Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, in part due to former US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, leaving the regime close to enriching uranium to weapons-grade fuel.

Saudi Arabia is spearheading efforts to contain Iran, a goal unaltered by the recent restoration of diplomatic relations between the countries.

Saudi Arabia aims to counter Iranian-sponsored Houthis in Yemen, and to emancipate itself from the US, the kingdom’s top defense supplier and traditional ally.

Saudi Arabia hence ramped up its defense expenditures by 16 percent in 2022 alone and doubled down on domestic arms production.

The UAE also aims to contain Iran, because it considers political Islam, as promoted by Tehran, a threat to domestic and regional stability. 

The UAE therefore joined the blockade of Qatar, due to the latter’s friendly relations with Iran and tolerance of militant groups such as Hamas and the Taliban. 

Qatar has long leveraged its links to Islamist groups, aiming to present itself as a broker on both the regional and global stage.

The Middle East is further divided over relations with Israel. While some governments, such as Egypt, made peace with Israel, populations in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Arab countries remain largely pro-Palestinian.

Yet their leaders had recently sought to deepen ties with Israel’s high-performing economy and arms industry. In 2022 alone, 24 percent of Israel’s defense exports went to the Abraham Accords signatories. 

Iran, however, remains committed to Israel’s elimination and claims to uphold the Palestinian cause.

Its support for Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon has allowed it to maintain an indirect but menacing presence at Israel’s borders.

The growing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the UAE is becoming another defining tension of the Middle East, despite their common antipathy against Iran. On the one hand, this is playing out economically, as both plan to diversify their traditionally oil-dependent economies. 

This has left them competing for international investment in the same sectors, as, for example, Saudi Arabia aims to replace the UAE as the region’s financial hub. 

On the other hand, competition between Abu Dhabi and Riyadh is playing out across a series of conflicts. In Yemen, after the UAE initially fought alongside Saudi Arabia, the two countries ended up supporting opposing anti-Houthi factions. 

In Sudan, both countries are fueling a proxy war. 

And in Somalia, their conflicting ambitions threaten the country’s stability. Thus, while recent rapprochements had bypassed the region’s divisions, intractable conflicts and pervasive mistrust remain.

Rapprochement Ruptured?

The war between Hamas and Israel is putting the pursuit of pragmatic cooperation – without resolving underlying tensions in the Middle East – to the test. Whether rapprochement will resume once hostilities have ceased or whether this trend was ruptured remains unclear. 

The war has revived pro- Palestinian sentiment in many Arab populations, requiring leaders to walk a fine line of appeasing their citizens while not severing ties with Israel and risking to further destabilize the region.

Much will depend on whether Iran and its proxies further escalate the conflict on different fronts. The Houthi threats to global trade in the Red Sea have already prompted strikes by the US and UK against Yemeni targets in January 2024. 

Much will also depend on how Israel conducts operations in Gaza and whether it can significantly alleviate the plight of the civilian population, with US President Joseph Biden cautioning the Israeli government against “indiscriminate bombing.” 

A credible and inclusive plan for a long-term political settlement and the governance of Gaza in the aftermath of the war will be crucial. Finally, much will depend on whether and how external powers and regional players use their influence to prevent a conflagration. 

By Amadée Mudie-Mantz and Sophie Witte, MSC


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