Recently, the Kingdom of Bahrain joined the United Arab Emirates in normalizing their relations with the state of Israel. The nine-page Abraham Accords, which formalized the agreement is expected to establish “peace” between these two Arab countries and Israel. Despite the optimism, however, the agreement is unlikely to fundamentally alter the Middle East’s geopolitical order and could even further institutionalize existing fault lines in the region.
A Void in the Gulf Region Filled by New Powers
For years, many factors including the perceived Iranian and Turkish threats, trade, investment and Israel’s advanced technology have been pushing Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states (with the exception of Kuwait) closer to Israel. Yet, the normalization constitutes a major geopolitical variable in the equation which has largely been ignored, and that is the question of Washington’s commitment to Middle East security. As Washington seeks to reposition itself to East Asia to counter the rise of China, Arab capitals have been increasingly skeptical of U.S. reliability. In this context, the GCC member-states have been vesting in closer relationships with a host of “alternative powers,” chiefly Russia and China. In the emerging multipolar world, where the United States is no longer the absolute hegemon, Israel is likely to play a more critical role in the security calculations of the Middle East.
As a consequence of the disastrous U.S. disastrous invasion of Iraq, more Americans from all parts of the political spectrum have grown increasingly opposed to Washington’s “endless wars” in the Middle East. It was in this context that President Barack Obama pledged but ultimately failed to withdraw American forces from the region. His hands-off approach to foreign policy, coupled with his realization that Iran must be a part of regional security calculations put many of America’s regional allies at unease about Washington’s commitment to their security. President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about pulling the United States out of the region and the recently announced reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq have only increased uncertainties about U.S. influence in the region. The expected reduction of the U.S. commitment to the Middle East leaves the UAE and Bahrain particularly nervous about the possibility that their adversaries will quickly fill the power vacuum in ways which Abu Dhabi and Manama see as dangerous. While the Emiratis’ main concerns pertain to Turkey and Iran, Manama is almost solely worried about Iran because some Iranian hardliners still hold territorial claims over Bahrain.
With the signing of these two new “peace deals,” the UAE, Bahrain, as well as Saudi Arabia will work to establish a more robust security partnership with Israel. The visit paid by Israel’s intelligence chief Yossi Cohen to the Emirates last month was about enhancing Israeli-Emirati security and military cooperation which will probably entail Israeli weapons companies exporting their weaponry to Arab countries. As James Stavridis, a retired United States Navy admiral, wrote, “The new [Gulf-Israeli] coalition could create advanced early warning systems against Iranian missiles; a connected command and control network for missile defense; naval operations in the Red Sea, northern Indian Ocean and Gulf; shared military technology; and a regular exchange of intelligence.”
Pressure on the Gulf Region
The odds are good that Iran and Turkey will see Israel’s ascendancy as an outside actor in the Persian Gulf as a threat to their security interests. Gulf State Analytics’ Maysam Behravesh and Hamidreza Azizi explained, “Now the UAE-Israel normalization, which among other things spells systematic security cooperation and intelligence-sharing between the two partners against their common adversary, threatens to breach Iran’s natural buffer with Israel.”
More ominous for Tehran is the likelihood that Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait, under U.S. pressure, will be pressed toward normalizing their relations with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords noted that “this peace will eventually expand to include other Arab states, and ultimately can end the Arab-Israeli conflict once for all.” Oman has so far welcomed the agreement; nevertheless, such a move could be devastating for Tehran, as Oman is one of the very few Arab countries that has maintained close relations with Iran.
Meanwhile, as the result of Qatar’s blockade by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, it is difficult to imagine any rapprochement between Doha and the blockading states. Tehran is betting on the institutionalization of the GCC divide to result in a continuation of cooperative Qatari-Iranian relations, at least for the foreseeable future. Amid the crisis, while Tehran politically distanced itself, it sent planeloads of food to Doha to assist the blockaded tiny state. Ankara too sees the blockade of Qatar as basically a guarantee that Doha will continue relying heavily on the Turks for protection vis-à-vis Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Within this context, Doha will continue working closely with Iran and Turkey to weather the siege. Qatar’s post-2017 foreign policy makes it unlikely that Doha will be involved in any Israeli role in the Persian Gulf’s security architecture, despite Qatar’s keenness to pragmatically engage Israel in its own ways, particularly in relation to the humanitarian aid to Gaza.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has seemingly been unhappy with Qatar’s stance in the region. In 2017, President Trump accused Qatar of funding “radical ideology,” and tweeted “[Saudis] said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!” Later President Trump changed his position and hosted the Qatari emir praising Doha as a partner in combating terrorism. Even more recently, a day after the signing of the Abraham Accords, the U.S. Department of Justice ordered the AJ+ platform on social media—associated to Qatar-funded Al-Jazeera TV—to register as a Foreign Agent. This happened despite recent efforts by Qatar in hosting negotiations between Trump’s administration and the Taliban to help Washington end the longest war in its history. This illustrates Washington’s pressure on Doha to adopt a foreign policy that is further in line with Trump’s vision of the Middle East.
While officials in the United States, Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain are busy hailing the “peace” which the recently signed accords with Israel will supposedly bring to the Middle East, there is good reason to fear the opposite effect. Put simply, one should expect the further militarization of the already unstable Persian Gulf, which in turn will serve to increase the risks of a calamitous military confrontation in this critical body of water. That is not to say that either party is seeking war. Nevertheless, the security dilemma imposed by the militarization of the region increases the likelihood that inadvertent mistakes quickly turn into a disastrous conflict.
In the years ahead, the Gulf region will enter a new phase of instability and insecurity since another major player in the Middle East is expected to enter the geopolitics of the region. This will probably result in another level of rivalry between the Gulf states. The competition on intelligence, cybersecurity, military, and economics of the Gulf will also heighten. Additionally, with Israel’s normalization with Manama and Abu Dhabi, the region’s militarization and the chances for clashes between the different opposing political agendas, in the Persian Gulf and beyond, will increase.
Dr. Khalid al-Jaber is the Director of MENA Center in Washington D.C. Previously, he served at al-Sharq Studies & Research Center and as Editor-in-Chief of The Peninsula, Qatar’s leading English language daily newspaper. Al-Jaber is a scholar of Arab and Gulf Studies, and his research focuses on political science, public diplomacy, international communications, and international relations. He has published scholarly works in several academic books and professional journals, including the World Press Encyclopedia, Sage, and Gazette.
Sina Azodi is a Non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and a visiting scholar at Institute for Middle East Studies, the George Washington University. He is also a Ph.D. Candidate in International Relations at University of South Florida. Follow him on Twitter @Azodiac83.