• Gedaliah Afterman and Narayanappa Janardhan

The Abraham Accords Bring the Middle East and Asia Closer

The 2020 normalization agreements have opened new avenues for cooperation between the regions. Middle powers now collaborating through new frameworks on issues such as technology, sustainability and green-tech can expect to boost their regional standings – provided they steer away from the security sphere

The I2U2 virtual summit, July 2022 | Screenshot: White House YouTube channel

Middle powers across Asia and the Middle East have found themselves in recent months in increasingly difficult positions. Heightened international tensions between the United States and Russia over the invasion of Ukraine and between the United States and China in the Taiwan Straits have forced countries in these regions to reassess their strategic positions, due to their reluctance to choose sides.


Increasingly feeling the superpower squeeze, some middle powers have begun looking to new, issue-specific collaborations to secure their interests. Following the signing of the 2020 Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and several Arab and Muslim countries, one of these intriguing avenues now being pursued is the establishment of new Middle East-Asia cross-regional partnerships.


A central issue shaping inter-region relations is the fluctuating presence of the United States, which for over a decade is seen to be disengaging from the Middle East in favor of its “pivot to Asia.” Yet the 2022 Ukraine-Russia war has demonstrated to the U.S. that it cannot reduce its presence in the region without harming its interests.

 

The I2U2 group can serve as a useful model for shaping additional “minilateral” frameworks with the Abraham Accords at their core

 

One of the U.S.’ novel attempts at engaging with the region is the I2U2 group it established in October 2021 with India, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, one year after the signing of the Abraham Accords. In July 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden launched his visit to the Middle East with a successful virtual summit with I2U2 leaders, which included the announcement of several joint economic projects worth $2.33bn.[1]


New inter-regional partnerships, such as the I2U2 Group, provide a useful model for shaping additional “minilateral” frameworks with the Abraham Accords at their core, in the Middle East and beyond. Such agreements can empower middle powers, including Israel and the UAE, despite strategic differences between and among them.


A Changing Middle East

Traditionally an American sphere of influence, in recent years the Middle East is undergoing profound changes due to contemporary superpower tensions. The U.S. has experienced numerous failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, demonstrated a lack of resolve in Syria, and its regional dominance is widely perceived to have eroded. America’s shortcomings abroad were compounded by myriad domestic problems and the COVID-19 pandemic.


These weaknesses have helped China (and, in a different way, also Russia) to enhance their relations with the Arab world, arguably at America’s expense. Beijing’s growing role in the region, and in particular its evolving relations with Iran, Turkey, and the Arab Gulf states are consequential for the regional powers involved, including other Asian powers.


Recent global developments have demonstrated that some countries are exercising strategic autonomy to avoid becoming entangled in superpower rivalry. This became apparent in early 2022 when most U.S. allies and regional partners refrained from aligning with Washington on the issue of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While this harbors uncertainty and instability, these countries’ desire for strategic independence also indicates a growing appetite for cooperation between and among middle powers.

 

Recent geopolitical developments have arguably halted the U.S.’ slow disengagement from the Middle East

 

Another significant event that had important ramifications for the Middle East was the 2020 Abraham Accords. Regional powers, under U.S. stewardship, decided to normalize relations and substantially upscale their economic and strategic cooperation. Simultaneously, they also signaled their readiness to advance their interests beyond traditional alliances.


By cementing ties with the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, and rekindling older relationships in the region through the Negev Summit, the Abraham Accords present Israel with a unique opportunity to reinvent itself strategically – from an outlier to an influential regional player. The agreements also gel well with the UAE’s bid to complement its economic diversification policy with a diversification of its foreign policy, which relies on promoting ties with Asia, its main trading partner, and Africa.


Further, the accords facilitated a 10-year Bahrain-Israel bilateral plan called “The Joint Warm Peace Strategy,” which prioritizes collaboration in innovation, food and water security, healthcare, trade and investment, and education. It also helped clear the ground for the appointment of an Israeli military attaché to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, thus adding a new dimension to the regional security scenario.


These recent developments have arguably halted the U.S.’ slow disengagement from the Middle East. The Russia-Ukraine War has made Washington realize that despite its energy independence, it still needs Saudi Arabia and other energy producers in the region as alternatives to the Russian market.


President Biden’s visit to the Middle East in July had several goals. Besides reassuring allies about the U.S.’ steadfastness on Iran, Biden aimed to dispel the widespread notion that it is minimizing its regional footprint. He used the visit to try to reset his relationship with the leadership of Saudi Arabia, particularly Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud. Putting his criticism of the Kingdom’s human rights record on the back burner, the American president encouraged Saudi-Israel normalization and reviewed recent regional realignments, which are a direct consequence of perceived American ambivalence.


But in a quickly changing geopolitical landscape, Washington now has a promising opportunity to play an unconventional, yet effective, role in the region and beyond. By serving as a catalyst in the evolving Middle East-Asia cooperation initiatives, the U.S. can demonstrate to partners in the Middle East that its growing focus on Asia does not come at their expense.


Moving towards minilaterlism

With bilateralism inching toward a saturation point and multilateralism yielding limited results, in recent years the idea of “minilateralism” has been gaining traction in foreign relations.[2] Minilateral agreements are narrower – and usually informal and flexible – task-oriented frameworks, established to address specific problems by small groups of countries with converging interests.


The recent appeal of minilateral cooperation stems from several factors:


First, military prowess as a major determinant of national power is diminishing in the 21st century, with technology, connectivity, and trade becoming more important. This is evident in the recent success in forging the EastMed natural gas partnership between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus, in contrast with the lack of momentum to advance the agenda of larger security groupings like the Middle East Strategic Alliance and Middle East NATO.


Second, new contemporary relationships tend to be more short- and medium-term, agenda-driven partnerships and coalitions, rather than traditional long-term, open alliances.


Lastly, such partnerships are mostly rooted in economic pragmatism, rather than guided by political or security concerns: Multiple bilateral economic engagements risk creating a situation where countries with similar expertise and interests compete for the same share of the pie, whereas in a minilateral collaboration they could potentially benefit by pooling their resources.

A U.S. marine provides security for the United Arab Emirate Presidential Guard egress during a joint exercise in June 2022. Dealing with security matters could derail minilateral groups' progress | U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Benjamin McDonald (public domain)

Not a New "Quad"

In the Middle East, the Abraham Accords facilitated the expansion of the UAE-Israel-U.S. trilateral relationship into a semi-formal minilateral framework when its members invited India, a key partner of all three countries, to join them.[3] The I2U2 “Partnership for the Future”, which was formed in October 2021, a year after the signing of the Abraham Accords, focuses on the intersection of capital, technology, innovation, and market. The framework gathered steam after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine War, with a foreign ministers’ meeting in Israel in March 2022 and the virtual summit in July 2022.


It is worth noting that while the United States is the club’s chief unifier, the other three members are rising middle powers, with a combined GDP of about $4 trillion. India’s strategic ambition gels well with that of “Start-Up” Israel and ”Scale-Up” UAE. Together, the three can forge partnerships with or without U.S. involvement.


For example, during the first half of 2022, the UAE signed separate bilateral economic agreements with Israel and India. However, within a minilateral framework, they could work to promote shared interests and expertise in cooperation, rather than competing with one another. They can also expand their collaboration into other minilateral mechanisms with their partners, especially Japan and South Korea.

 

I2U2's economic agenda could allow it to develop at a rapid pace, in contrast with the Quad’s sluggish transformation

 

Some have referred to the I2U2 as the “New Quad” or the “Middle East Quad,” which is misleading. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, informally called the “Quad,” includes Japan, India, Australia, and the U.S. It has a predominant security overtone and aims to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific.


The I2U2 Group, on the other hand, targets neither China nor Iran, at least thus far, and focuses primarily on economic cooperation. Notably, any external pressure on this grouping or similar ones, to assume an anti-Iran or anti-China tone (or both) could derail progress since the India, Israel, Japan, South Korea, the UAE, and the United States all have different views on how to engage with Beijing and Tehran.


This sense of flexible pragmatism was evident when the members of the I2U2 indeed chose not to let their geopolitical differences subvert the scope for strategic economic partnerships (though this should not be mistaken as a willingness to forsake their security interests, as they perceive them). Instead, they focused on regional cooperation and developing joint solutions to regional and global challenges such as food security, space, green energy, and health tech.


Such an economic agenda could also hopefully allow the Group to develop at a rapid pace, in contrast with the Quad’s sluggish transformation. Quad leaders met for the first time in Japan in May 2022, approximately 15 years after the group’s formal establishment. The first I2U2 Summit, though virtual, took place in July 2022 – less than a year after it was formed.


The I2U2 virtual summit also birthed agreements to pool resources to modernize infrastructure, expand connectivity between Middle East countries, promote start-ups, advance low carbon development pathways for industries, find new waste treatment solutions, encourage the development of green technologies, and improve public health.


During the summit, the UAE pledged to invest $2bn to develop a series of integrated food parks in several Indian states to enhance food security. Furthermore, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency agreed to set up a $330mn hybrid renewable energy project in the Indian state of Gujarat. The U.S. and Israeli private sectors will offer innovative solutions to promote the projects’ sustainability.[4]


While this is an encouraging start, more can be done to strengthen the base of this partnership. Taking an out-of-the-box approach and building on the recently signed Israel-UAE and India-UAE comprehensive economic partnership agreements, the U.S. could either promote a UAE-India-Israel trilateral trade agreement, or even make it an I2U2 trade pact. Such steps could free existing bottlenecks caused by overburdening regulations, substantially expanding the already-growing trade volumes between and among the three.


Securing US interests

The I2U2 summit’s success is a significant landmark because it could encourage forming similar groupings in the future. Efforts to shape new minilateral partnerships with other I2U2 partners, such as Japan and South Korea, are already underway.[5]


Among a few promising ideas that could drive new minilateral arrangements is the establishment of a “Blue Economy Fund” by Israel, the UAE, and several partners in Asia. “Blue Economy” is an emerging concept for ocean governance that harnesses the economic potential of oceans in environmentally sustainable ways. It could positively impact global issues like carbon neutrality, green energy, and energy security, using AI solutions.[6]

 

By moving beyond the zero-sum game of superpower competition, the Abraham Accords provide an important opportunity to bringing Asia and the Middle East closer together

 

Another idea is designing an “Arabic chatbot” language tool for regional agriculture development that would help Middle Eastern farmers solve problems and improve their yields – ultimately reducing dependence on imports and augmenting regional food security. Since the private sector plays a leading role in advancing such cooperation, Track II plans are afoot to organize a series of cross-regional business forums starting in the UAE.


The United States could play a crucial role in advancing this agenda by expanding its Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) – which currently includes Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam – and inviting Israel and the UAE (as well as other Gulf Arab countries) to join. While clearly ambitious, such a move would send a clear signal in the Middle East and Asia that Washington is doubling its efforts to demonstrate that the Middle East remains vital to its foreign policy.


Failure to take such strategic initiatives, on the other hand, will exacerbate the perception of continued U.S. disengagement from the Middle East. It could also drive these middle powers to form more exclusive clubs that include China but not the United States. One such existing framework is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.[7] Such steps would further erode the U.S.’s relevance and influence in both regions.


Conclusion: Letting the region lead

Today, middle powers in both Asia and the Middle East are attempting to exercise strategic autonomy in unprecedented ways. While each of these countries will continue to pursue their national security interests individually, or in other frameworks, minilateral arrangements like the I2U2 are a promising path toward economic development and technology cooperation in a world in flux. However, these frameworks are likely to succeed only if they leave behind them the legacy focus on the security sphere.


Moving beyond war and peace and the zero-sum game of superpower competition, the Abraham Accords provide an important opportunity to advance a positive international agenda bringing Asia and the Middle East closer. Success would enable regional powers to maximize their cooperation and set an agenda focused on regional and global issues of joint interest.


India, Israel, and the UAE have already begun to carve out this new path for cooperation, and others may soon join. Simultaneously, it would allow “hyperpower United States”[8] to remain a relevant player in a changing region without ceding space entirely to China, in what is already a multipolar, “multi-networked,” and “multiplex” world.

 

Dr. Gedaliah Afterman is head of the Asia Policy Programme, Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at Reichman University (IDC Herzliya), Israel.


Dr. Narayanappa Janardhan is Senior Research Fellow, Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy, Abu Dhabi, and Non-Resident Fellow, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.



Notes:

[1] Asit Ranjan Mishra, “UAE, US to invest $2.3 billion in India under the framework of I2U2,” Business Standard, 15 July 2022. https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/uae-us-to-invest-about-2-3-billion-in-india-under-the-i2u2-plans-122071401335_1.html

[2] Aarshi Tirkey, “Minilateralism: Weighing the Prospects for Cooperation and Governance,” ORF Issue Brief No. 489, September 2021, Observer Research Foundation. https://www.orfonline.org/research/minilateralism-weighing-prospects-cooperation-governance/

[3] Kabir Taneja, Ed., “The New US-Israel-UAE-India Minilateral in a Changing West Asia,” ORF Special Report No. 169, November 2021, Observer Research Foundation. https://www.orfonline.org/research/the-new-us-israel-uae-india-minilateral-in-a-changing-west-asia/

[4] These food parks will integrate climate-smart technologies to conserve water; employ renewable energy sources (wind and solar), complemented by a battery energy storage system; and reduce food waste. The project is expected to help India improve its stakes as a global supply chain hub in the food and renewable energy sectors. The renewable energy project particularly would help India meet its climate and energy target of 500 megawatts of non-fossil fuel capacity by 2030.

[5] Narayanappa Janardhan, Gedaliah Afterman, Mohammed Baharoon, and Il Kwang Sung, “Time to incubate a UAE-Israel-Korea partnership,” Gulf News, 7 July 2022. https://gulfnews.com/opinion/op-eds/time-to-incubate-a-uae-israel-korea-partnership-1.89050840.

Seeking to expand the scope of the Abraham Accords, the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy and the UAE’s Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy have been leading pathbreaking Track II initiatives towards exploring such partnerships with leading East Asian countries.

[6] Gedaliah Afterman, Mohammed Baharoon, Narayanappa Janardhan, “Is a Blue Economy the Future of Mid Eat Asia Partnerships?" The Jerusalem Post, 3 August 2022. https://www.jpost.com/opinion/article-713873

[7] https://rcepsec.org/

[8] Tunku Varadarajan, "The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy’ Review: The Ascent to Hyperpower," The Wall Street Journal, 28 June 2022. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-four-ages-of-american-foreign-policy-review-the-ascent-to-hyperpower-11656454270