By Arab News
By Ibrahim Shukralla*
The UAE and Israel’s economic relationship has developed enormously since the Abraham Accords were signed in 2020. And the two countries last month signed a free trade deal to usher in a new chapter in their relations after a decades-long boycott by the Arab state.
The comprehensive economic partnership agreement aims to increase the current $885 million annual bilateral trade to more than $10 billion over the next five years. If this target is reached, Israel will become one of the UAE’s top trading partners in the region. Based on the 2020-21 figures, this would mean Tel Aviv surpassing Abu Dhabi’s bilateral trade with major partners such as Pakistan ($8 billion) and Egypt ($3.6 billion).
But this is more than a business deal, this is the facade of a new Middle East: Trade-centric, pro-diplomacy, less confrontational and more explorative of committed partners, as the US is taking steps back and projecting a leadership crisis in the region.
Old foes throughout the region are engaging, shaking hands, negotiating and doing business. From Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visits to the UAE and Saudi Arabia to top-level security and trade meetings between Iran and the UAE, moving to the Gulf reconciliation and the Egypt-Turkey rapprochement, as well as the Saudi-Iran normalization talks — what seemed to be an extremely hostile Middle East over the past decade is slowly cooling down.
As the Biden administration has decided to withdraw and focus less on the Middle East, these countries have stepped up to fill the gaps themselves. The chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan encapsulated the leadership crisis facing the Middle East’s countries, thus solidifying a realization that political balancing with other superpowers, such as Russia and China, has never been needed more.
The Saudis and Emiratis have taken more of a neutral stance on the Russia-Ukraine crisis, even though they support the end of bloodshed and call on both parties to comply with international law and its principles. The US wants a stronger stance, but its regional allies want stronger security guarantees and commitments toward them and the Middle East at large.
Last December, the UAE said it had suspended talks with the US to buy up to 50 F-35 fighter jets — a deal that the Trump administration had approved but President Joe Biden had temporarily stalled. One week before deciding to suspend the deal, Abu Dhabi agreed with France to buy 80 Rafale jets and 12 Caracal helicopters.
Two months later, and as the UAE encountered several Houthi militia attacks, it announced a joint defense agreement with Paris to “confront failed terrorist attempts,” in another sign of America’s regional decline. French Defense Minister Florence Parly said her country would provide military support and assist its strategic partner in protecting its airspace against any attempted attacks.
“The challenges show the nature of the positions that are relied upon. In this context, the distinguished French position in its support for the UAE is highlighted, to be added to the positions of brothers and friends,” Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE president, posted on Twitter. “As usual, the UAE deals with the transient terrorist challenge wisely, based on its solid national defense capabilities and broad global solidarity.”
Now, as inflation in the US is at a 40-year high and oil prices have hit $120 per barrel, Biden is to visit Saudi Arabia next month and meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Gulf Cooperation Council. He hopes to persuade the Gulf leaders to pump more oil to reduce the economic damage domestically (first and foremost) and internationally. Perhaps he is finally realizing his abandonment of the region showed a lack of judgment.
Global inflation, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the nuclear negotiations with Iran and the lack of engagement in the region all highlight the decline of American hegemony in the international order during the current administration.
Yes, the new Middle East is cementing a pathway in coordination with new and old partners and other major global players, including Washington. But the US has left a significant gap, in which others are also entitled to play a role if the interests of the parties involved overlap.
In what looks almost like a post-American world, the real challenge in the international relations context — at least in the Middle East — revolves around trustworthiness. For a region that controls about 30 percent of global oil production and also has religious prominence, as well as vigorous political and economic influence, a new Middle Eastern order has always been inevitable.
- Ibrahim Shukralla is a Dubai-based Emirati journalist. He has interviewed many heads of state and high-profile political and sporting figures. He holds an MA in media, culture and communications from New York University in the US. Twitter: @shukralla