Politics and Governance Regional Affairs Blog Post
Abraham Accords Bring Stronger Trilateral Ties for Israel, UAE, and Morocco
Normalization deals offer growing economic, security, and political ties beyond relations with Israel or even the United States.
Anna L. Jacobs May 10, 2021
Morocco and Israel sign agreements on direct flights, financial cooperation, visa waivers for diplomats, and water technology cooperation, Rabat, Morocco, Dec. 22, 2020. (AP Photo / Abdeljalil Bounhar)
Anna L. Jacobs
Non-Resident Fellow, AGSIW
The agreements to normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco come with many geopolitical, economic, and security benefits and risks. For all of these states, the U.S.-sponsored Abraham Accords offer expanded and valuable economic ties in various sectors, including trade, tourism, health care, and science and technology. They also offer greater access to some of Washington’s most influential political circles as well as more coordinated advocacy efforts for these countries. This is especially the case for Morocco and Sudan. The UAE and Bahrain already benefit from close geopolitical and strategic ties with the United States, but the Abraham Accords have helped to curry even more favor. They also have had the added benefit of good bipartisan politics in the United States given the strategic focus on Israeli security among both Democrats and Republicans.
Much analysis has emphasized how these deals represent an integral element of a new security alignment between Israel and Arab states that aims to create a firewall against expanding Iranian influence. As the United States seeks to prioritize other foreign policy issues, Gulf Arab states are looking for new security partners. While Qatar has invested in a greater economic and security partnership with regional heavyweight Turkey, especially since the 2017 boycott by its neighbors, the UAE and Bahrain are investing in stronger security and economic ties with another regional heavyweight that benefits from unrivaled influence in Washington – Israel.
Outside of the Gulf region, Morocco also secured big wins thanks to its deal to normalize relations with Israel – notably the United States’ recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara region. This has long been Rabat’s number one foreign policy priority, and Morocco has spent millions of dollars lobbying Washington for greater U.S. and international support for its position.
An overlooked element of these deals is the changing dynamics among the countries that have decided to pursue open relations with Israel. Growing economic, security, and political ties among these countries are also a significant feature of these agreements beyond ties with Israel or even the United States.
The Israel-UAE-Morocco Axis
As traditional close allies of the United States, Israel, the UAE, and Morocco have spent considerable time and resources on building strong connections in Washington with both Democrats and Republicans. Since the Abraham Accords were signed, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has advocated for legislation in Congress to further expand these deals to other countries, known as the Israel Relations Normalization Act of 2021, which was introduced by 18 Democratic and Republican senators in March. Historically, AIPAC has opposed arms sales to Arab states, but it surprised many when in December 2020 the group decided it would not oppose U.S. arms sales to the UAE or Morocco. AIPAC also advocated for Sudan to be removed from the state sponsors of terrorism list. Morocco’s foreign minister, Nasser Bourita, spoke at an AIPAC videoconference on May 6, the first time a Moroccan government official has spoken to the powerful advocacy group. This has been viewed by some as an effort to garner AIPAC’s lobbying muscle to ensure that the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. maintains the former administration’s decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.
Already, the American Jewish Committee has called on the Biden administration to honor the Abraham Accords’ “side deals” for both the UAE and Morocco. There has also been public relations support from Israel for its new partners. On April 21, the Israeli envoy to the United States and the United Nations joined the Emirati, Moroccan, and Bahraini ambassadors in planting an olive tree at the Emirati Embassy in Washington to highlight peace and climate change cooperation.
Beyond larger state-driven collaborative initiatives among Israel, the UAE, and Morocco, there is the added benefit of personal exchanges among Israelis, Emiratis, and Moroccans through tourism and educational exchanges. Daily direct flights were launched between Israel and the UAE in March, and Morocco has announced plans for starting its own direct flights to Israel after Ramadan ends in mid-May. Tourism is one of the most important sectors for both the UAE and Morocco, and growing Israeli tourism is considered a significant benefit of the normalization deals, especially since the coronavirus pandemic has negatively affected tourism in Morocco and the UAE. This year Israel opened a liaison office in Morocco as well as an embassy in the UAE. A plethora of deals have been announced between Israel and the other two countries since the normalization agreements were signed, with a special focus on trade, investment, educational opportunities, health care, and technology.
Moreover, Morocco has invoked concerns about Iran’s growing influence in North Africa. In 2018, long before the normalization deals were announced, Morocco seemed to try and gain favor with the administration of President Donald J. Trump, Israel, and Gulf states by breaking off diplomatic ties with Iran. This was around the time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a scathing speech about Iran’s nuclear program aiming to convince the United States to leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and the United States withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal shortly afterward. Morocco’s foreign minister even gave an interview to conservative media outlet Breitbart to emphasize that Iran and Hezbollah were trying to arm the Polisario, a group fighting for the independence of Western Sahara.
After the normalization deals were announced in the summer of 2020 between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, the two Gulf states became the first two Arab states to open consulates in the Western Sahara city of Laayoune, a display of support for Morocco’s sovereignty over the disputed territory. This announcement was made in November 2020, and Morocco signed a deal to normalize relations with Israel about a month later.
Since the normalization deals with Israel were announced, Moroccan and Emirati officials have met to expand cooperation between the two Arab countries in strategic sectors, including defense and business, as well as to strengthen diplomatic ties. Economic and diplomatic relations between the UAE and Morocco were generally strong before the normalization deals: For example, the UAE was already Morocco’s second largest source of foreign direct investment after France. But it is likely that the shared strategic focus on expanding security, economic, and geopolitical ties with Israel will lead to further bilateral coordination between the UAE and Morocco. The decision of each country to join the Abraham Accords reflects different, unique priorities, but the agreements also demonstrate shared security concerns about the region, while additionally opening up channels for deeper economic and defensive cooperation among the Abraham Accords countries. For Morocco and Sudan, another key element is greater influence in Washington through the larger lobbying networks utilized by regional powerhouses like Israel and the UAE.
Risks With the Abraham Accords
While much analysis has underlined the benefits of the Abraham Accords for the countries involved, there are also risks and potential downsides. Perhaps most significantly, public opinion surveys across the region reveal a strong resistance to normalizing relations with Israel, so these governments may run into challenges addressing this gap in support among their respective citizens.
Many analysts have suggested that these deals may reduce the potential for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Palestinian chances for statehood. Emirati officials have stressed that their agreement with Israel was aimed at preventing Israel’s formal annexation of parts of the West Bank, which is already a de facto reality for Palestinians living there. Morocco’s king, Mohammed VI, is the head of the Al-Quds Committee, within the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which supports the establishment of a Palestinian state. Many Moroccans took to social media with hashtags like “normalization is treason.” Protests against the deals with Israel were planned in Rabat and Casablanca, many of which were prevented by security forces.
Moreover, Netanyahu ran into trouble trying to use these deals for domestic political gains in Israel. For example, in the run-up to the Israeli elections in March, the UAE canceled Netanyahu’s visit, which would have been the first of its kind, because his office leaked the plans before the elections in a move that was viewed as trying to use the Emiratis and the Abraham Accords to support his reelection bid. In response, Anwar Gargash, diplomatic advisor to UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan and former minister of state for foreign affairs, tweeted, “From the UAE’s perspective, the purpose of the Abrahamic Accords is to provide a robust strategic foundation to foster peace and prosperity with the State of Israel and in the wider region. The UAE will not be a part in any internal electioneering in Israel, now or ever.”
There are both benefits and risks surrounding this new strategic alignment between Arab states and Israel. Recent violence between Israeli police and Palestinians around Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem exemplifies some of the political risks associated with an Israeli-Palestinian conflict that remains unresolved and the echoes from that conflict that are still likely to reverberate regionally. The UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan condemned Israel over the clashes, demonstrating the residual impact of the conflict in normalizing states, despite their newly formed ties. Public reaction in the Middle East and North Africa to the recent violence also underscores the widespread anger against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and the possibility of public outcry against at least some of the governments in the region that decided to normalize relations with Israel.
The Abraham Accords pose political risks for Middle Eastern and North African governments that could be triggered in the future. For now, the UAE and Morocco are betting that the geopolitical, economic, and security benefits of greater ties with Israel and the United States outweigh the potential costs related to public opinion and the Palestinian cause. The additional component of stronger trilateral ties among Israel, the UAE, and Morocco, along with greater bilateral ties between the UAE and Morocco, shed light on the growing geopolitical influence and multilateral cooperation of Abraham Accords countries.
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Anna L. Jacobs is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a consultant with the Shaikh Group’s Track II “Dialogue for Mutual Security in the Middle East” initiative.
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