2023 Research and Study
- publication date:2023/09/19
What is the Abraham Accords: Israel and Jews for UAE and Bahrain
MEIJ Commentary No.2
Kenichiro Takao, Executive Research Fellow, MEIJ
To Whom Do the Abraham Accords Apply?
On August 13, 2020, approximately three years ago, an agreement to normalize diplomatic relations between the UAE and Israel was announced. A month later, on September 11, Bahrain also announced an agreement to normalize relations, and after the formal implementation of the agreement at a signing ceremony in Washington on September 15, Sudan and Morocco followed suit. It was perhaps around this time that the “Abraham Accords,” which initially referred to the normalization of diplomatic relations between the UAE and Israel, started being used as shorthand for a team comprising Israel, the United States, and some Arab Islamic countries.
These countries who established new diplomatic relations with Israel, notably the UAE and Bahrain, were cautious about how to approach the Abraham Accords because formal relations with Israel have been considered taboo among Arab countries. Indeed, Egypt and Jordan have suffered the stigma of being labeled “traitors” in the past for normalizing relations with Israel, which also served as a pretext for Islamic extremists to target them.
Another reason for their caution was that the leaders of the United States and Israel at the time, namely, President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu, persistently advertised the Abraham Accords as their own achievements. President Trump hailed the Abraham Accords as a historic achievement during his run for re-election in the November 2020 presidential election, while Prime Minister Netanyahu continued to emphasize the significance of the Abraham Accords as a regional epoch-making event.
There are undeniable merits to formally encouraging trade and technological cooperation with Israel, which is an advanced country in terms of defense, security systems, and IT. Nevertheless, it is understandable that the UAE and Bahrain would feel less than happy about the United States and Israel taking credit for decisions that were by no means risk-free. They wanted to avoid the creation of a narrative that frames the Abrahamic Accords as a betrayal of Palestine and an attempt at currying favor with Israel and the United States.
What Was Gained from the Abraham Accords?
Under these circumstances, the UAE and Bahrain needed to declare the normalization of diplomatic relations with Israel as an active decision of high public interest. Emblematic of this is their argument that opening channels to Israel, rather than isolating the country in the Middle East, is a way to achieve a breakthrough in the Palestinian situation and reduce tensions across the region. Additionally, on the economic front, they highlighted the benefits of starting trade with this country with which they had previously lacked formal relations. In truth, no particular effect can be seen with regard to the first argument. Since the Abraham Accords, neither has armed conflict between Israel and Palestine subsided nor have the UAE and Bahrain prevented or mediated in armed conflict; rather, armed conflict has intensified and become prolonged in 2023. The responses of the UAE and Bahrain to this have been the same as before, namely, initially criticizing Israel and announcing financial and humanitarian assistance to Palestine.
At the same time, frequent reports emerge about drastic changes with regard to the mentioned economic aspects. With the start of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with Israel in April 2023, the UAE will be handling more than 96% of its tariff items in trade, with legislation related to digital trade being developed alongside. On the other hand, Bahrain is focusing on strengthening its economic and defense ties, and a memorandum of understanding on security cooperation was signed between the two countries during the then Israeli Defense Minister Gantz’s first visit to Bahrain in February 2022.
This coincided with a joint military exercise of the United States Fifth Fleet, headquartered in Bahrain, in which Israel also participated. From Bahrain’s perspective, the Abraham Accords validate the country’s raison d’être as a supporter of the US military presence in the Middle East and as a platform for Israel-US military cooperation.
Will the Abraham Accords Spread?
In terms of trade and technological cooperation, you would expect a considerable impact, since it would start at a point of no formal relations. Regarding this, however, it was important that not only Bahrain and the UAE, but also Israel and the United States, which mediated the Abraham Accords, actively disseminate information. Israel in particular wanted to elaborate on the practical benefits of joining the Abraham Accords, using them to appeal to other Arab countries.
Nevertheless, there have been no indications that the Abraham Accords team will expand. Currently, Saudi Arabia is the top priority of Israel and the United States. It is the self-proclaimed leading country of the Arab-Islamic world, has a strong influence at the regional and international levels as a driving force of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), OPEC, and OPEC+, and has a rivalry with Iran, of which Israel is most wary (as is the United States, when it comes to countries in the Middle East). Yet, Saudi Arabia, as the leader of the Arab-Islamic world, proposed its 2002 peace plan (Israeli withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, meaning a two-state solution) as an uncompromising principle. This clarified that any normalization of relations with Israel would depend on Israel’s willingness to make concessions with regard to the Palestinians.
Nevertheless, Israel and the United States have occasionally referred to the possibility of Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords and are making efforts to not let this topic be disregarded. For example, when Saudi Arabia permitted inaugural flights between Israel and the UAE to pass through its airspace in September 2020 and when it allowed US President Joe Biden to visit Saudi Arabia directly from Israel in July 2022, Israel and the United States highlighted these as the first steps toward normalizing relations. Moreover, before the 2023 Hajj, Israel likewise sought to encourage Saudi Arabia’s moving toward joining the Abraham Accords by saying that Israeli Muslims would be able to travel directly to Saudi Arabia.
However, this ultimately never materialized, with both Israel and the United States simply stating that Saudi Arabia gaining early entry into the Abraham Accords is “not impossible” but “difficult.” The examples of the UAE and Bahrain imply that an essential part of having Saudi Arabia join the Abraham Accords is to devise a narrative that frames it as a wise decision for Saudi Arabia itself. If Israel and the United States cling to a narrative that claims they convinced Saudi Arabia to change its mind, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to take this step. Furthermore, considering the existence of Iran, Israel branded the Abraham Accords as significant in terms of improving the security environment. In light of this, Saudi Arabia’s agreement to restore diplomatic relations with Iran in March 2023 has presented a new obstacle for Israel.
Why the Jews?
Incidentally, the Abraham Accords brought about another change in the UAE and Bahrain. This change has to do with the position of Jews in the two countries. Historically, Jews in Arab countries have tended to be linked to the stigma of “the Zionist entity” (a derogatory term for Israel). After the Abraham Accords were implemented, they have suddenly started garnering positive interest for facilitating practical benefits and as a group of people suited for the two governments’ policy goals under the slogan of tolerance.
There is nothing complicated about the practical benefits. Especially in the UAE, since the Abraham Accords, attention has been directed toward the economic effects of Jews, such as consumption by inbound Israeli tourists and an increase in restaurants with Kosher certification (Jewish dietary regulations). By contrast, tolerance policies are a bit more complicated. This is because Middle Eastern countries, especially since the 2000s, have been working to contain Islamic extremism under a policy slogan of “tolerance” (“moderation,” “middle way”). At the same time, these countries have made efforts to highlight their cultural diversity, not limited to Islam. However, the UAE and Bahrain, which are not obviously “developed countries” in terms of their dynastic civilization, lack the kind of cultural mosaic possessed by countries built on multi-layered civilizations, such as Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. In this sense, Jews have the potential to play a valuable multicultural role in the UAE and Bahrain.
The UAE’s first Kosher grocery store opened in Dubai in December 2022. They mainly sell products imported from Israel and the United States (photos by the author).
This potential affords the UAE and Bahrain the opportunity to craft a narrative of being a tolerant multicultural society. Needless to say, since both countries have large numbers of foreign workers, they also have Christians and Hindus from South and Southeast Asia. Considering this, why are the Jews so important? This is largely because of the turning point that was the Abraham Accords, but it is likely also because Judaism has been viewed negatively until now. The two governments may be hoping that their complete reversal by now accepting previously shunned Jews will lend additional persuasiveness to their tolerance slogan.
Allow me to introduce two initiatives meant to visualize Jews and the acceptance of them.
The first is the establishment of the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC), headquartered in Dubai, in February 2021. I have summarized its organizational structure and concrete activities elsewhere, but as the title “Gulf” suggests, the AGJC is supposed to be a kind of umbrella organization for Jewish communities in the six GCC member countries. However, the countries heading this initiative in practice are the UAE and Bahrain. The reason for this can be seen in the current situations of Jewish communities in the different countries. The UAE has the Jewish Council of the Emirates (JCE), established in 2019, and Bahrain has the House of Ten Commandments, the oldest synagogue in the GCC countries, which means that they had already created spaces for Jewish organizations, history, and life prior to the establishment of the AGJC.
Especially in Bahrain, the Nonoos, who are descendants of Jews who emigrated from Iraq in the 1880s, have produced an AGJC president (Ebrahim Dawood Nonoo) and a Bahrain Board member (Houda Nonoo), who had previously served as a member of Upper House of Parliament from 2001-2006 and an ambassador to the United States (2008-2013), respectively. There are, so to speak, Jews who have become part of the establishment. Considering this, the participation of the UAE and Bahrain in the Abraham Accords takes on a different appearance.
Another important initiative related to the Jews is the construction of the Abrahamic Family House (AFH) in Abu Dhabi in February 2023. Housing a mosque, a church, and a synagogue, places of worship for the three religions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, respectively, the AFH was built on the foundation of the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” signed by Pope Francis and Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayeb in February 2019. The UAE government has identified the completion of the AFH as a milestone in its policy of tolerance and coexistence.
The AFH, which opened its doors to the public in March 2023, now holds religious services on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. At the same time, its location in the Cultural District of Al Saadiyat Island, known for the Louvre Abu Dhabi, suggests that it is not entirely meant to be a place for everyday religious practice. It is a milestone that demonstrates the progress of the government’s intentions rather than the current state of UAE society.
AFH entrance (top) and inside the synagogue (photos by the author).
What is the purpose of the Abraham Accords?
In the above discussion, I introduced some of the various positions that different countries have tried to adopt and use regarding the Abraham Accords. As mentioned above, the team is looking to expand further. It seems that Israel and the United States as well as the UAE and Bahrain have the expectation that their “standing out in a bad way” will be ameliorated by this.
As far as Israel is concerned, there are two factors underlying its drive to approach Saudi Arabia right now. The first is the restoration of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as mentioned previously. The loud statements about Iran being a potential threat from the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Mossad (Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations) in recent times likely stem from a desire to keep the Arab countries vigilant against Iran.
The other factor is how Netanyahu’s January 2023 judicial reform proposal sparked domestic protests by various segments of society. The Israeli government appears to try to moderate criticism of the administration by directing its citizens’ attention abroad, especially to security issues that have an impact at home, emphasizing a narrative of the government taking on the great challenge of normalizing diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.
Yet, perhaps seeing into these intentions, Lapid, the leader of the opposition party Yesh Atid, which opposes the proposed judicial reform, and Gantz, a former defense minister who co-chairs the “Blue and White” alliance with Lapid, have been distancing themselves by saying that they will not support Netanyahu’s government just because of the normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia. Alternatively, if this situation continues, Israel and the United States may end up greatly indebted to Saudi Arabia if it joins the Abraham Accords.
-  The only result that the UAE has achieved regarding Israel was the postponement of Israel's planned annexation of the West Bank when the normalization agreement was announced.
-  UAE’s Ministry of Economy, “UAE-Israel Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement” (https://www.moec.gov.ae/en/cepa_israel, accessed August 18, 2023).
-  Israel signs security cooperation agreement with Bahrain,” Al-Monitor, February 3, 2022 (https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/02/israel-signs-security-cooperation-agreement-bahrain, accessed August 18, 2023).
-  TAKAO Kenichiro, “Exposing the Tradition: Tolerance and Coexistence with Jews in the Contemporary Persian Gulf,” ORIENT: Journal of the Society for Near Eastern Studies in Japan, vol. 58, pp. 37-50
-  “Lapid, Gantz said to reject possibility of joining Netanyahu coalition for Saudi deal,” The Times of Israel, July 31, 2023.