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BAHRAIN AND THE UAE SIGN HISTORIC AGREEMENTS TO NORMALISE RELATIONS WITH ISRAEL

  • On Tuesday, 15 September, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) signed US-brokered agreements to normalise relations with Israel.

  • The agreements make official an open secret that Gulf Arab states and Israel have been increasingly developing relations in recent years.

  • It marks a new phase in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer seen as a major barrier for Israel to develop official relations, with countering Iranian influence appearing to take precedence over the Palestinian issue.

  • The agreements alone are not expected to have a major impact on the overall travel security risk in the UAE and Bahrain, though further regional developments should be monitored and travellers should avoid discussing the topic due to sensitivities.

  • Due to Palestinian anger over the deals, there is an increased risk of civil unrest in the West Bank and Gaza as well as Palestinian attacks against Israel in the wake of the signings.

  • In the longer term, developing ties between Gulf states and Israel, particularly with regards to security cooperation vis-à-vis Iran, risks the former becoming increasingly embroiled in regional tensions.

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Situation

On Tuesday, 15 September, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain signed US-brokered agreements to normalise relations with Israel, known as the Abraham Accords. The signings took place at a ceremony at the White House, where US President Donald Trump hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani. The Abraham Accords are expected to lead to the exchange of embassies, sharing of key expertise and the development of trade and tourism ties, as well as new defence deals.

The agreements mark the formalisation of increasing back channel ties between the Gulf Arab states and Israel in recent years. However, the deals are historic in that Bahrain and the UAE are the first Arab states in more than 25 years to give official diplomatic recognition to the Israeli state, after Jordan in 1994 and Egypt in 1979. Most Arab states, including Bahrain and the UAE prior to the Abraham Accords, had conditioned the establishment of formal relations with Israel to the creation of a Palestinian state and resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as outlined in the 2002 Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative.

The Abraham Accords signify that the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer an impediment for Israel to establish official ties, with countering Iranian influence in the region appearing to take precedence over the Palestinian issue. This is despite the UAE’s keenness to express its continued support for the Palestinian cause and drawing attention to its agreement being based on Israel suspending annexation plans in the West Bank, though it should be noted that the annexation plans have not been permanently ruled out. Additional Arab states are expected to follow in the path of Bahrain and the UAE, such as Oman, Sudan and potentially Saudi Arabia. As this takes place, it will reinforce the regional cleavage between those welcoming ties with Israel and those who remain vehemently committed to conditioning normalisation of ties on the establishment of a Palestinian state. This will similarly highlight the separation between those aligned with Israel’s strategy to counter Iranian influence in the region and those close to Iran.

Implications

In general, Arab populations view the normalisation of relations with Israel as highly controversial due to the absence of a resolution to the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Abraham Accords represents an increasing schism between Arab public opinion and the positions of their rulers across the region. In Bahrain, tensions have increased amongst segments of the majority Shia Muslim population who oppose the decision by their Sunni Muslim rulers. Protest action has taken place in restive northern villages outside of the capital Manama and further related action should be expected, particularly on Fridays or dates of significance.

The development has also provided new motivation for attacks by pro-Iran Shia militants, although Bahrain’s security capabilities will continue to mitigate the likelihood of major incidents affecting Manama or common travel locations. In contrast to Bahrain, no real resistance to the deal is expected amongst the Emirati population due to a lack of tolerance for dissent and the population not being prone to protest. Travel to the UAE and Bahrain can continue with the same level of security as before the announcements; however, developments should be monitored on a continual basis due to the potential for the security situation to deteriorate quickly. Travellers are also advised to avoid discussions on the topic of Israeli relations with Arab states, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, due to heightened sensitivities. This includes discussions both in-person and online.

The move by Bahrain and the UAE to formalise relations with Israel irrespective of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict has angered Palestinians, who see it as a betrayal by the two Arab states and a move that undermines their pursuit of independence. This has led to increased security concerns in Israel and the Palestinian Territories in the wake of the signings. Militants in Gaza have fired projectiles across the border into southern Israel whilst protests have erupted across Gaza and the West Bank. Lone-wolf style stabbing and vehicle-ramming attacks are also an increased risk amid the heightened tensions, predominantly in the West Bank and near Jerusalem’s Old City, with Israeli security forces being the primary target.

In addition, protests have occurred in cities globally where there is a significant pro-Palestinian support base. It should be noted that these unrest and security risks will again increase in response to key developments, such as the establishment of embassies and announcements by further states of normalisation deals with Israel. However, as evidenced by the differing domestic impact in Bahrain and the UAE, the security and unrest risks in Arab states that follow suit should be reviewed individually.

The Abraham Accords reflect a wider geopolitical development in the Middle East in which international relations have shifted from a focus on the Palestinian issue to countering Iranian influence, with the US’s key Gulf Arab allies forging an increasingly cohesive alliance with Israel versus Iran. Due to geographical proximity, heightening cooperation with Israel and the US risks the Gulf states becoming increasingly embroiled in regional tensions involving Iran. Developments should be monitored over the longer term, with the outcomes of the US presidential election in November and that of the Iranian presidential election in June 2021 likely to have an impact on these tensions. The most notable impact would come from a victory by US President Donald Trump followed by a hard-line candidate in Iran. Of note, the Abraham Accords have provided Trump with a key foreign policy victory ahead of his re-election bid on 3 November.