The US is on the sidelines of a historic transformation in the Middle East
On Dec. 13, an Israeli Prime Minister visited the capital of the United Arab Emirates to meet with its de-facto ruler for the first time.
Historic in its own right, Prime Minister Bennett’s trip took place within the context of a seismic political realignment underway in the Middle East that is happening despite a marked lack of American engagement. This is a tragic missed opportunity, and the United States must embrace the role it has played in bringing about this change, or we will be left behind.
A little over a year ago, with bipartisan support from Congress, the Trump administration brokered the Abraham Accords, in which the UAE and Bahrain became the first Arab states to normalize relations with Israel since Jordan did so in 1994. By January 2021, Morocco and Sudan had joined the group, and the U.S. could proudly claim to have tripled the number of Arab states fully recognizing Israel within just five months.
The Biden administration initially, while paying lip service to the Abraham Accords, made it clear that it had no interest in furthering the political integration of the Middle East — instead, focusing on seeking a renewed Iran nuclear deal. The administration’s rhetoric on the accords has improved lately, but the palpable momentum from a year ago has been lost.
Yet the Middle East is moving on with or without us. As Bennet’s visit to the UAE highlighted, the Abraham Accords are alive and well, and could not have come together at a better time. The Abraham Accords opened a flood of investment, with bilateral trade between Israel and the UAE increasing ten-fold to $874.5 million in just the first ten months of 2021. Dozens of memoranda of understanding have been signed, negotiations over a free trade agreement have begun, and the Emirati Minister of Economy has predicted a staggering $1 trillion in trade between the two countries within the next decade. Commercial flights now crisscross the skies between Abu Dhabi, Tel Aviv, Manama and Marrakesh.
This economic integration has now extended to Jordan, an earlier beneficiary of a peace treaty with Israel, with the signing in November of a trilateral water and energy deal. The UAE will build a solar power plant in Jordan to export energy to Israel for $180 million a year, and in return, Israel will send 200 million cubic meters of water to Jordan. Israel is thereby able to further its clean energy goals while applying its expertise in desalination to help address Jordan’s looming water crisis. The unsettled resolution of a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians continues to complicate relations between Israel and Jordan, but warming regional ties have allowed the two neighbors to seize a win-win opportunity to address existential water and economic challenges.
Nor are the benefits of the accords merely economic. In November the United States, Israel, Bahrain and the UAE conducted a joint naval exercise for the first time, in the Red Sea. That same month Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz flew to Morocco to sign an agreement laying the foundation for security cooperation, intelligence sharing and arms sales. This agreement builds on a cultural affinity between Israel and Morocco that long predated the Abraham Accords: Morocco has long boasted a tolerant attitude toward its historical Jewish population, and today some half a million Israelis claim Moroccan descent.
Even outside of the Abraham Accords there are remarkable political developments taking place. In another diplomatic breakthrough of the Trump administration that went almost entirely unnoticed, the rift between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors was resolved on January 4, 2021. This years-long rupture had debilitated the Gulf states in addressing multiple regional challenges, from Libya to Iran, and its healing has allowed Qatar to play the mediator in yet another diplomatic spat: that between Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The Middle East that existed just five years ago is no more. Iran’s belligerence can no longer be denied, China’s and Russia’s predatory ambitions are clear, and Israel’s neighbors increasingly see that they have more interests in common with Israel than opposed. Together Israel and its neighbors are tackling climate, economic, and security challenges because of the Abraham Accords.
The Biden administration has a choice now, and it’s an easy one. The U.S. can choose to push on the open door of further regional integration by incentivizing other countries to join the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, Egypt and Jordan in fully recognizing Israel. Climate and security challenges will be met, Iran will be deterred, and economic prosperity will increase. Or the U.S. can let this happen without us, missing the opportunity to be part of one of the greatest diplomatic achievements of a generation.
Ambassador Mark Green, president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars served as USAID administrator from 2017-2020 and U.S. ambassador to Tanzania from mid-2007 to early 2009. Before that, he served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Wisconsin’s 8th District.
Hallam Ferguson is a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center. Previously he served as the senior deputy assistant administrator at the United States Agency for International Development from 2017 to 2021. Prior to joining USAID, Ferguson worked at the International Republican Institute from 2004 to 2017, conducting democracy and governance programming throughout the Middle East.