• Alon Ushpiz

The Negev Forum is Already Transforming the Middle East

For the past two years, the Abraham Accords have laid the foundation for the establishment of a new framework for regional collaboration, led by Israel and its partners in the Middle East. The new forum simultaneously strengthens relationships between existing and new partners, and allows us to foster a better reality for the people of the region

The Negev Summit participants, March 2022 | State Department Photo by Freddie Everett (Public Domain)

When Sheikh Abdullah bin Ahmed al Khalifa, the Bahraini Undersecretary for International Affairs, came to Israel in August 2021, we made sure to set aside some time for our shared hobby: we are both amateur divers. Together, we set out to dive in the Mediterranean Sea alongside the grottoes of Rosh Ha’Nikra.


Every diver knows that when underwater, your diving partner is the person you depend upon. Diving together is an act of profound trust. And there is nothing quite like that dive we shared – in which your diving buddy is also your partner in peace – to illustrate the dramatic changes that are transpiring in the Middle East.


Upon joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1992, I sought to contribute to Israel’s security, prosperity, and political standing worldwide. During a thirty-year career spent in various positions serving in many countries, I have proudly witnessed Israel's emergence as an essential actor in the international arena, especially in the fields of science, food and water security, R&D, and technology.

Throughout my years of service with the Foreign Ministry, I have taken part in meaningful and interesting operations and proceedings, many of which unfolded behind the scenes. What facilitated them was Israel’s growing footprint in the international arena and the world’s gradual acknowledgment of its enormous potential.


One of the most meaningful activities I participated in was establishing and developing relations between Israel and the Arab Gulf countries, which have been managed discreetly by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other organizations since the 1990s. During this period, the Ministry’s envoys maintained a continuous presence in the Gulf region while operating covertly under false identities. They did so with the full knowledge of the local authorities, but without publicity, official recognition, or formal diplomatic status.

 

For years, those of us at the MFA who knew about our secret relations with the Arab Gulf hoped they could one day be revealed. Happily, that day has arrived

 

The Ministry's diplomats worked tirelessly under difficult circumstances – in near complete isolation and at great personal risk – to advance Israel's regional interests. In doing so, they laid the foundations upon which the historic Abraham Accords were signed two years ago. I have yet to come across any other foreign service that has successfully maintained covert diplomatic operations on a foreign partner’s soil for such a long period of time.


Only a select few of us at the Foreign Ministry’s headquarters knew about these missions and assisted in supporting them. Those of us who did all hoped to one day reveal these relationships and make them official. Happily, that day arrived two years ago.


The Regional Importance of the Abraham Accords

In the summer of 2020, the leaders of the Arab Gulf states courageously decided to publicly formalize their decades-long covert relations with Israel. They did so out of concern for the interests of their states and the wellbeing of the people in the region. This breakthrough materialized in the historic signing of the Abraham Accords in Washington, D.C. on September 15, 2020.


After years of private meetings and discreet collaboration, it was impossible not to be moved by the sight of the countries’ leaders signing the agreements on the White House lawn. The U.S. leadership, a key player in this historical process, demonstrated its willingness to invest, lead, listen, and push forward. These acts reaffirmed its deep commitment to Israel and the Middle East.


The signing of the agreements kicked off efforts to strengthen cooperation between the signatory countries in a wide range of fields, from diplomacy and security through to the economy, academia, and more. The Accords brought together nations and peoples who had finally put aside their differences and came together to address shared challenges and opportunities. Chief among these concerns remains the growing regional influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Still, one must not sweep aside the many other opportunities for a better and more prosperous Middle East that made the agreements possible.


The significance of the Abraham Accords cannot be overstated: they represent the most dramatic geopolitical development in our region since the peace accords between Israel and Egypt in 1979, and between Israel and Jordan in 1994. The peace accords with the Gulf states may nevertheless usher in a new model for peace in the Middle East, one built upon strong, open, and warm relationships among the peoples, rather than interest-based relationships between political leaders.

 

In the past two years, Israel has signed more than forty separate agreements with our new partners, and dozens more are being drafted

 

The agreements provide a stable foundation for expanding cooperation with our new Arab partners for peace and invigorating relations with our traditional ones, all while strengthening the alliance of pragmatic Middle Eastern countries against Iran and its allies. That all this activity takes place so openly, while the governments and civil sectors of the signatory countries engage with one another directly, is an exciting development that should not be taken for granted.


Shortly after the signing of the Abraham Accords, Israel opened diplomatic missions in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which reciprocated in kind. During the past two years, the countries’ leaders have forged strong ties, as is evidenced by the many mutual visits by heads of state and multilateral events such as the tripartite summit of the leaders of Israel, Egypt, and the UAE in Sharm el-Sheikh in March 2022. In addition, Israel’s President and the Prime Minister have spoken with their Emirati counterparts on numerous occasions, while Israeli, Emirati, and Bahraini ministers have conducted mutual visits.


The political leaders’ activity is supported by a close relationship forged between our respective professional bureaucracies. In the past two years, more than forty separate agreements have been signed, and dozens more are being drafted. So far, Israel has sealed twenty-four governmental agreements with the UAE, and last March it signed the "Joint Warm Peace Strategy” with Bahrain, a road map for promoting bilateral relations in the upcoming decade. These agreements have laid the infrastructure for stable relationships between the governments. Equally importantly, partnerships have also formed in numerous aspects of civil society, including in the media and among hospitals, universities, and private businesses, along many others.


A Supra-Regional View: The Negev Summit

In recent years, the changing landscape of the Middle East has brought like-minded nations together to create a new regional architecture and establish effective mechanisms for cooperation. Building on this progress, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, currently also serving as Israel’s Prime Minister, convened the historic "Negev Summit" in Sde Boker in March 2022. The summit hosted the foreign ministers of Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, the UAE, and the U.S., who agreed on establishing a new regional framework to promote stability and security and enhance cooperation.


There have been precious few times in my three decades as an Israeli diplomat when I felt that we were making history. The Negev Summit was such a moment for me. The arrival of the foreign ministers of five countries, some of whom were stepping on Israeli soil for the first time, constituted a landmark in Israel's foreign affairs.


Following the Negev Summit, the six participating countries established the "Negev Forum,” which operationalizes the initiative and is responsible for ensuring its continuity. The Forum aims to promote diplomatic and economic cooperation and bolster people-to-people dialogue. Furthermore, it strives to take advantage of sustainable economic opportunities to eradicate poverty, reduce development gaps, protect the environment, improve food and water security, and increase tolerance among the local cultures.


I had the honor of chairing the Steering Committee that convened in Manama, Bahrain, in June 2022 and leading the efforts to consolidate this unprecedented framework for multidisciplinary regional cooperation. Thus, for the first time in its history, Israel is now working alongside a variety of friendly Arab countries to jointly promote regional stability, security, and cooperation.


Developments in Security

For years, security ties with the Arab Gulf countries were a well-kept secret. Now, at long last, they have been brought into the open.


Although security and strategy are still largely conducted outside the spotlight, since the signing of the Abraham Accords, mutual visits by senior security officials have become almost routine. Since September 2020, the signatory countries have participated in several high-level multinational security events. These include the Emirati Air Force Commander’s arrival at the Blue Flag aerial exercise in Israel in October 2021; the Israeli Air Force Commander’s participation in the Dubai Air Show the following month, where he led a military and commercial delegation; and recent visits by the Israeli Chief of Staff and Chief of Police to Morocco.


In September 2021, I accompanied Foreign Minister Lapid on a visit to the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Manama, Bahrain. We met with Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, Commander of the Fifth Fleet, and discussed the threats posed by Iran’s activities and those of its proxies in the Gulf region, as well as the importance of cooperation in maintaining regional stability.


Additionally, in November 2021, Bahrain, Israel, the UAE, and the U.S. held a naval exercise in the Red Sea, and Moroccan anti-terrorism troops arrived in Israel in the summer of 2021 for the first time to take part in an international exercise. Moreover, since the signing of the Accords, there has been an ongoing dialogue for promoting cooperation between the signatories’ defense industries.

Foreign Minister Lapid during his visit at Fifth Fleet headquarters in Manama, September 2021 | U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Dawson Roth (public domain)

The Economic Angle

Economic ties are a central pillar of the relations between Abraham Accords nations. From September 2020 to the end of 2021, the volume of trade between Israel and the UAE reached $1.1bn, excluding services and investments. In 2022, bilateral trade already reached almost $1bn by May and is expected to cross the $2bn threshold by the end of the year.


Israeli and Emirati companies have also signed hundreds of deals during the past two years, primarily in the fields of food security, water, alternative energy, cybersecurity, and health. Another important landmark was the establishment of a $100mn bilateral R&D fund, which has been approved by both governments.


Despite the setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism between the UAE and Israel is reaching new peaks, with more than half a million Israelis having already visited the Gulf country. Roughly forty weekly flights by seven Israeli and Emirati carriers connect the two countries, and according to estimates, mutual tourism is expected to grow.

 

Israel’s trade with Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco is also on the rise, demonstrating how the Accords have also led to improved ties with our traditional peers

 

There has also been an increase in the volume of trade with Bahrain since the signing of the Abraham Accords. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics put bilateral trade in 2021 at $6.5mn, not including services and tourism. However, it’s estimated that there are additional business relationships worth millions of dollars that are currently underway and have yet to be reported.


In February 2022, the volume of trade with Bahrain increased by 400% in comparison with the same period last year. The main areas of interest between Israel and Bahrain include FinTech, food and water security, health, cybersecurity, and homeland security, as well as the construction, chemicals, and raw materials industries.


It is important to note that the partnerships with the Gulf are not just limited to the Middle East. Since senior officials in the Emirates expressed interest in cooperating with Israel on economic projects in Africa, work is now well underway in both countries to map the regions and fields relevant to the joint activity.


Israel’s trade with other partners is also on the rise. Between 2021 and 2022, trade with Morocco, Egypt, and Jordan increased by 84.1%, 43.2%, and 82.6%, respectively. This trend demonstrates how the Accords have improved ties with our traditional peers.


Beyond bilateral cooperation, the Abraham Accords have created new opportunities for cooperation with non-signatory states. An especially noteworthy collaborative framework is the I2U2 group. In October 2021, Foreign Minister Lapid convened a meeting with his counterparts from India, the UAE, and the U.S., during which they agreed to establish a joint working group for technologies and infrastructure, with an emphasis on the areas of food security and renewable energy. During U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel in July 2022, the four I2U2 partners held a hybrid leaders’ summit. Israel can truly feel proud to be a member of such a prestigious club.


The Abraham Accords have enabled other opportunities for regional collaboration as well. One such collaboration that merits special mention is the tripartite energy and water agreement between Israel, Jordan, and the UAE. As part of the comprehensive “Prosperity Green & Blue” agreement, signed in November 2021, Jordan will build a solar field in the coming years to supply “green” electricity to Israel, who will in turn construct a new desalination plant to supply water to our eastern neighbor.


Civil Society Relations

Inter-religious tolerance, people-to-people ties, and civil society relations are among the cornerstones upon which the Abraham Accords were founded. In the past two years, Israeli, Bahraini, and Emirati higher education institutions have signed several agreements for cooperation. These include the exchange of lecturers and students, joint research, and more.


Israeli civil society organizations such as "Sharaka" and "ISRAEL-is" are currently initiating activities and promoting dialogue between young leaders from the three countries. Moreover, International Holocaust Remembrance Day was commemorated in Bahrain through a series of activities – such as "Zikaron Ba’Salon" (Hebrew for “memories in the living room”) – together with German, local, and international partners.


Finally, although Israel was invited by the UAE to the "Expo 2020 Dubai" exhibition well before the signing of the Abraham Accords, there is no doubt that the peace agreement between the two boosted the significance of Israel’s participation in the event. The Expo, which was held for the first time in the Middle East, ran for six months between the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022. It received tremendous exposure, with more than twenty million visitors and approximately 200 participating countries.


The Expo represented a unique branding opportunity for the State of Israel, which set up an impressive national exhibition that showcased the activities of sixteen government ministries. Approximately two million people, most of them from the Middle East, visited the Israeli exhibition.

 

Together with the United States, Israel’s indispensable strategic ally, we must turn our gaze beyond the borders of the Middle East

 

Conclusion

The agreements we have forged together with our new partners lay the foundations for a long-term relationship. Now, it is up to us to move forward responsibly and deliberately.


The viability of the process hinges on each party’s commitment to its success, as well as maintaining the ambition to integrate additional countries and expand the so-called "club." At the same time, it is important to maintain a careful balance between working together on "soft" issues – such as food and water security, economy, R&D and innovation, energy, communications, and social connectivity – and the need for security cooperation in the face of imminent challenges that threaten regional stability.


Furthermore, it is important to stress that the Abraham Accords have contributed greatly towards strengthening Israel's relations with its veteran partners Egypt and Jordan. It seems that the international community’s embrace of the Accords has encouraged the leaders to publicly display the fruits of peace with Israel.


Now, together with the United States – Israel’s indispensable strategic ally – we must turn our gaze beyond the borders of the Middle East and work to invite other important countries, such as India, to join us in creating new opportunities and initiatives. We must continue to focus on our joint efforts and diligently manage the differences and disagreements that may occasionally surface, without ever allowing them to disrupt the "Spirit of the Negev."

 

Alon Ushpiz, born in 1966, has served as Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs since June 2020. He joined the Foreign Service in 1992 and has held numerous positions in Israel’s embassies in Tokyo and Washington, and previously served as Israel's Ambassador to India.