As President Biden begins his engagement with our closest allies and partners in the Middle East, there is an opportunity to build on the momentum of the Abraham Accords to advance U.S. interests and leverage the emerging bonds among our closest regional partners. American leadership was a necessary (though by itself insufficient) condition to the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and will remain essential to building cooperative relationships between Israel and other formerly hostile powers. Biden should expand on this inheritance from the Trump administration, not try to move beyond it.
The alignment of our regional partners and allies in both the economic and security domains will ensure that the legacy of the Accords incentivizes other states to normalize relations with Israel and forge new economic and security partnerships to meet the myriad challenges posed not only by Iran, but also by the malign influence of China and Russia.
Following the announcement of diplomatic normalization between Israel and the UAE in August of last year, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco quickly followed suit. What motivated this move? Certainly, the threat from violent extremism and Iran animated the members, but so too did the promise of cooperation and recovery from the pandemic’s impact on their economies.
How can the U.S. capitalize on this momentum to persuade other countries to join and expand the Accords? The first step is to establish trust. This begins with cooperation on security threats that preoccupy the region’s leaders. In addition to restating joint commitments to counter violent extremism, we should ensure close collaboration to address the regional threat from Iran and its surrogates. The State Department can rapidly affirm the interagency review that approved of arms sales providing our regional partners with the tools required to combat shared threats, recognizing that both Russia and China would be happy to fill the void without restrictions.
Next, we should expand scale. Discussions should be advanced incrementally and can include the commencement of international flights, the opening of commercial offices, and reducing trade restrictions. It can also include establishing representation for the Accords’ members not already in the Gulf Cooperation Council to provide a multilateral forum for collaboration. Recognizing the steps taken by Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994 warrants their inclusion and a corresponding review of our security cooperation to ensure we remain their preferred partner.
We must also expand scope. The initial focus on economic, cultural, and social issues was intentional, but was always to meant to expand and address the complex security issues faced by its members, including the regional threats from Iran, violent extremism, and Chinese and Russian malign influence.
In this context, the foundational work to establish a regional security architecture to share the burdens and make effective use of the region’s capabilities warrants consideration. This would increase interoperability, expand compliance with international law through integration of forces and the principles to which they adhere, and reduce the commitment of U.S. resources. Perhaps most important, it would serve to constrain and reverse the concerted efforts of China and Russia to expand their influence over a region that has the potential to afford them both clients for strategic-weapon sales and the corresponding relationships that undermine our interests.
Finally, the U.S. should lead efforts to institutionalize. Moving beyond the current cluster of bilateral or trilateral arrangements, the U.S. should help establish a secretariat among the Accords’ members (including Egypt and Jordan) to accelerate developments, provide a forum to expand membership, and organize these activities under a single umbrella.
Conducting bilateral discussions can be complicated but can be pursued more effectively in some instances within a multilateral forum. The U.S. can consider appointing a special envoy to elevate the profile of the secretariat and signal its importance to existing and future members. This mechanism should continue to align strategic investment tools such as the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and Export-Import Bank (EXIM), which both played critical roles in securing and implementing the Accords.
Without U.S. leadership, the historic agreements would not have been concluded; absent sustained investment, they will fail to achieve their potential. This would constrain the region’s economic recovery from the pandemic, undermine any negotiation with Iran, erode support for counterterrorism cooperation, open a door to Russian and Chinese malign influence, compromise regional stability, discourage essential cooperation, and provide an opportunity for ISIS’s and al-Qaeda’s resurgence.
Naturally, the inverse holds if we seize the opportunity that the region’s historic transformation offers. We could build upon it to enhance regional stability, security, and trade and the opportunity of a U.S.-led regional security architecture built to safeguard an economic foundation that will endure, reducing our costs while constraining our adversaries.
The Abraham Accords constitute the beginning of a regional evolution requiring American leadership to ensure its growth and development. The alignment of our regional partners and allies in both the economic and security domains constrains Iran, but equally important, it limits the malign influence of China and Russia, both of which oppose us and neither of which recognizes Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (the principle that Israel must have more and better weapons than its neighbors). They will also continue to manufacture and exploit fissures among the U.S. and its regional partners if we fail to seize this historic opportunity in the region to advance America’s interests with significantly fewer resources and more capable partners, integrated like never before. Though he’s unlikely to admit it, Biden received something of a gift from the Trump administration with the Accords. What comes next is up to him.