Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Understanding the Wave of Normalization in the Middle East
Understanding the Wave of Normalization in the Middle East

Understanding the Wave of Normalization in the Middle East

Recent developments in the Middle East signify major, and positive, changes in regional dynamics and balances. Four Arab countries—the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco—have established, or are in the process of establishing, diplomatic relations with Israel; other Arab and Muslim countries are reportedly considering following suit. In addition, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt lifted the embargo they imposed on Qatar in June 2017 and restored normal relations with it. These processes are driven by regional imperatives, but also heavily influenced by, and reinforce, political developments in both the United States and Israel.

The Normalization Wave

On September 15, 2020, in Washington, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and U.S. President Donald Trump signed a “Treaty of Peace, Diplomatic Relations and Full Normalization.” On the same date, Netanyahu, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, and Trump signed a “Declaration of Peace, Cooperation and Constructive Diplomatic and Friendly Relations.” The three countries also signed the more general “Abraham Accords Declaration.” These agreements were followed rapidly by substantive negotiations on bilateral issues. Direct flights were quickly instituted (Israelis flocked to Dubai, one of the few destinations open to them during COVID-19), and businessmen and academics immediately began to collaborate.[1]

Normalization with the two Gulf States was a result of improvement in bilateral security and political and economic relations with Israel over the past decade. The decisions were based on shared interests in checking Iran’s influence, as well as Turkey’s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s, in the region and in creating a regional alignment to compensate for a diminished U.S. appetite for engagement. Normalization with the UAE also led to Israel’s suspending plans to annex the Jordan Valley and West Bank settlements, promised by Netanyahu in the 2020 Israeli elections and supported by the February 2020 Trump Peace Plan. The normalization process was vigorously encouraged—and rewarded—by the Trump administration, led by presidential advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Speculation—fed by unnamed Israeli and American officials—immediately surged regarding the imminence of normalization of relations with Israel by Saudi Arabia. A widely reported “clandestine” visit by Netanyahu to Saudi Arabia during U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo’s November 21-22 visit there reinforced these rumors.

These dramatic diplomatic developments were followed by President Trump’s October 23 announcement that Sudan would normalize relations with Israel as well. Israel’s process with Sudan began in February 2020, a month before Israel’s third elections, with a meeting in Uganda between Netanyahu and General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s transitional Sovereign Council. However, the issue became a focus of disagreement between the military and civilian components of the Sovereign Council, and “hung fire” until October. It is still a source of discord within the transitional government and among the population. There have so far been no concrete steps towards normalization (apart from allowing overflights to and from Israel), though Sudan did formally sign the Abraham Accords (a mostly symbolic move) on January 6, during a visit by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

Morocco was next, with President Trump tweeting news of a normalization accord with Israel on December 10: the official agreement was signed during a trip to Rabat by Kushner and Netanyahu’s National Security Advisor Meir ben Shabbat on December 22. This development was less dramatic: Tens of thousands of Israeli tourists visit Morocco via Europe each year, and the two countries have long-lasting security and diplomatic ties. Morocco downplayed the significance of the move (which has raised public criticism), stressing that it is but a renewal of an existing, but dormant, relationship (both states still hold properties in each other’s territories, which served as their official liaison offices between 1994-2001), and is aimed at strengthening ties with the sizeable Moroccan-origin community in Israel.[2]

Turkey has been signaling—despite criticism of the Arab normalizations—its own ostensible desire for rapprochement with Israel. The Turkish hints seem to be largely due to broader concerns that the incoming Biden administration will take a harder line towards Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Ankara’s desire, like other regional players, to use the Israel “card” to preemptively improve its political position in Washington. Concerns about being shut out of the Eastern Mediterranean gas bonanza, in the face of the rapidly concretizing Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, as well as recent tensions with Iran, may play a role here as well. Israel for its part continues to view Erdogan’s Turkey as a strategic challenge in the Eastern Mediterranean and Gaza (it stresses the continued activity of Hamas operatives in Turkey). It has reacted coolly so far to the mostly insubstantial hints of a change in Turkish attitudes, and will take great care not to harm its deepened strategic cooperation with Greece and Cyprus (not to mention the UAE and Saudi Arabia).[3]

Re-Normalization in the Gulf Cooperation Council

Parallel to the normalization with Israel, and with similar political and geopolitical rationale, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain—and, more reluctantly, the UAE and Egypt—decided to re-normalize their relationship with Qatar and end the three-and-a-half year embargo. The rapprochement was announced at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in al-Ula on January 6; Saudi Arabia had already announced its intent to open its border (the only land egress Qatar has) some days before. Kushner attended the al-Ula summit, and the Trump administration took credit for the development. However, Kuwait (as well as Oman) had been working on repairing the rift in the GCC for some time and came fairly close before last year’s GCC summit (it was reportedly thwarted by UAE opposition, which seems to have weakened this year).

The driving factor seems to be Saudi understanding that the embargo failed to achieve its purposes. It did not, as expected, cause Qatar’s economy to collapse or bring Doha to abandon its support of the Muslim Brotherhood.[4] It did, however, entrench Qatar’s ties with Iran, which provided its only marine and air access (providing Iran with an annual 100 million dollars in overflight fees), and with Turkey, which provided a deterrent to what at one point seemed like the possibility of Emirati/Saudi military steps. The ongoing volatility in the Gulf is also reported to have deterred foreign investment in Saudi Arabia’s program to develop and diversify its economy. In addition, blockading Qatar, the site of the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, was, like the war in Yemen, unpopular among both political parties in Washington. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi seem to wish to “clear the decks” (though many underlying issues and tensions between them and Qatar persist, and could still re-erupt) and shorten lines of potential policy conflict before the new American administration, which has spoken of a reassessment of relations with Saudi Arabia, assumes office. Re-normalization in the Gulf might also in the medium-to-long term encourage a formalization of Qatar’s relations with Israel (the two states already cooperate on issues related to Gaza).

The Politics of a Dramatic Policy Breakthrough

The normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain are, as noted, the result of significant shared interests and developing ties between the sides over the past decade, as well as of American cajoling. The currently incomplete deals with Sudan and Morocco were, to a much greater extent, bilateral between these countries and the Trump administration, which presented normalization with Israel as an American demand and interest. The quid pro quo offered in exchange for willingness to begin normalization with Israel was in both cases, largely American. In the Sudan case, the sweetener was the long-awaited removal from the state sponsors of terrorism list, as well as the release of multilateral and bilateral aid; in the Morocco case, recognition of Rabat’s sovereignty over the Western Sahara (not recognized by the United States and most of the international community since Morocco took over the territory in 1975, after Spain withdrew) and (similar to the UAE case) a large arms deal. Israel reportedly had little to do with the recent stages of these two sets of negotiations, though the idea of exchanging normalization with Israel for U.S. recognition of Moroccan claims is reported to have originated with Israeli/Jewish interlocutors.

The willingness of Netanyahu to work hand-in-glove with the Kushner peace team, and even to partially “sub-contract” Israel’s regional policy to Washington, is a function of the close, even symbiotic, relationship between his administration and that of Trump. Each side pursued novel and highly visible (though not always tangible) diplomatic gains that would not only erase vestiges of historic hostility and increase cooperation in the region, but also benefit both itself and its ally in their respective electoral campaigns. These efforts have continued even after the U.S. election, with the two administrations seemingly cooperating zealously to present Biden with a set of faits accomplis.

In this last minute push to codify the changes in Middle Eastern dynamics, they were aided by their Arab interlocutors’ interest in taking some contentious issues “off the table” while Trump was still in power and “banking” some pro-Israeli good will with Congress and pro-Israel advocacy groups. All the Middle East players well understood, and encouraged to the utmost, the Trump team’s last-minute desire to ensure a legacy of success in foreign policy (in view of a paucity in other regions) and utilize it fully to extract some last minute, but historic, gains.[5]

Jordan and Egypt—the United States’ and Israel’s long-standing Arab allies—feel marginalized and irrelevant in view of Washington and Jerusalem’s concerted search for “paradigm-bending,” splashy developments over the past year. There was little consultation, no use of their good offices, and little consideration for the impact on their regional and domestic positions (normalization is extremely unpopular among the public in both countries, unlike in the much smaller Gulf states) in Washington and Jerusalem’s pursuing the now-defunct “Trump Peace Plan” with the Palestinians and the subsequent wave of normalization. While Amman is relieved by the end of the Qatari embargo (it has strived to have good ties with both sides), Cairo seems to have some reservations. This step, like Egypt’s recent talks with the Government of National Accord in Tripoli may indicate a desire to display to the new American administration the positive role it can play in the region (as well as its resurgent desire to reclaim its leadership role, at least in the Western Arab world and Africa, from Abu Dhabi and Riyadh).

Netanyahu and his political allies continue hinting that other Arab or Muslim states are poised to normalize relations with Israel in the immediate future. Oman, Qatar, and Indonesia, as well as more far-fetched candidates such as Djibouti, Niger, Comoros, and even Pakistan, are frequently mentioned. This is part of the Netanyahu’s electoral strategy[6] of deflecting attention from his legal tribulations and heavy criticism of his handling of the COVID-19 crisis in Israel by stressing the extremely significant foreign policy achievements,[7] and his proven ability to recast the “conventional knowledge” and prevailing narratives of regional conflict and relations (especially regarding the centrality of the Palestinian issue).

The electoral aspect of the normalization efforts may partially explain why they have been closely handled by his inner circle, especially Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen, Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer (Netanyahu’s long-term advisor), and National Security Advisor Meir ben Shabbat. Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, the leaders of his major coalition partner and (until recent weeks) his main political rivals, and their ministries were largely sidelined throughout the process. They were, for instance, blindsided by the announcements themselves, and by Israel’s acquiescence—at first denied, and then confirmed, by Netanyahu—to the massive American arms deal with the UAE, which sparked criticism within Israel over opaque decision-making. They also reportedly heard about the Moroccan deal only through the White House and were not informed of Netanyahu’s flight to Saudi Arabia.

Netanyahu’s image as a global leader and foreign policy savant may be even more important to him going into the March 2021 elections, his fourth electoral challenge in two years. He hopes to portray this image because there has been, for the first time, a fissure within his Likud party. Several Members of Knesset—including Higher Education and Water Minister Zeev Elkin, until now one of his closest allies—left the party to join former Education and Interior Minister Gideon Saar’s, who has sworn not to join a government headed by Netanyahu. This development, combined with increased support for the Yamina Party of former Education and Defense Minister Naftali Bennet, has created a significant threat from the right to Netanyahu’s continued rule. Netanyahu over the past few months has put much less emphasis on his personal relations with President Trump, a key component of his electioneering in the first three elections (April 2019, September 2019, and March 2020).

Whether all this positioning will help the Middle Eastern actors with the new Biden administration, and whether the latter will affirm all of the undertakings made by its predecessor, remains to be seen. From the perspective of Israel’s normalization in the region, substantial momentum may be lost in the next few months as the new administration settles in and develops its policies and as regional actors wait to see what direction they take. This momentum may be extremely hard to regain, and there could be a long wait for the next formal normalization.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

[1] It is reported that the Israeli Health Ministry was pressured by the Prime Minister’s Office and Foreign Ministry not to declare the UAE a “red” destination: this decision was reversed a few weeks later when the virus burgeoned among Israeli returnees from Dubai. Another interesting development was the purchase of the Israeli Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, long associated with anti-Arab sentiment, by a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family. Questions have since been raised regarding the Emirati prince’s bona fides.

[2] A Netanyahu visit to Morocco before the elections may play well with Israelis of Moroccan origin, a large community which has positive nostalgia regarding “the Old Country” and which tends to lean right in elections.

[3] It is worth noting, however, that Jerusalem and Ankara agreed on support for Azerbaijan in its recent war with Armenia, and some reports have Baku acting as an intermediary between them.

[4] Qatar does not seem to have acquiesced formally to the 13 demands made from it in 2017, which UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs now calls “a maximalist negotiating position.”

[5] Though Saudi Arabia will wait for the new administration to carry out any substantive, formal moves in its relationship with Israel, especially as the issue of formalization is still debated within the elite there, and may well not be settled until Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman—its primary advocate—ascends to the throne.

[6] This has included willingness to expose for political purposes, actions and ties unremarked on publicly in the past. For example, there were leaks regarding a possible visit by Netanyahu to Morocco just before the April 2019 election, which reportedly derailed clandestine contacts between the two countries, as well as of his meeting with Burhan just before the March 2020 elections, which caused a spat within the governing Council in Khartoum.

[7] Including, alongside the normalization process, the creation of an Eastern Mediterranean strategic and energy alignment, close relations with Russia, and the creation of a strategic partnership with India.