Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
Opinion Editorials, October 2020
The Abraham Accords bring several US allies closer and recognise that the threat posed by Iran is a greater driver than their historical antagonism Should the US liberalise the sale of its most advanced military equipment to the region, Beijing would lose a key selling point for its own arms sales
The Abraham Accords signed by the United Arab Emirates, Israel and Bahrain are momentous for the Middle East. The UAE and Bahrain are the first Gulf countries to agree to normalise relations with Israel and only the third and fourth Arab countries to do so, after Egypt and Jordan.
But in the wake of the pomp of the signing ceremony, attention has moved beyond symbolism and towards more practical matters. Chief among them are the geopolitical effects of the agreements.
US President Donald Trump was eager to advertise the agreement as evidence of his administration’s skill in bringing estranged partners to the table, and suggested that it may lead to peace in the Middle East. This is perhaps a little optimistic, but there are likely to be two immediate consequences.
First, the rapprochement between Arab states and Israel will naturally ease tensions between these two sides (although not between Israel and Palestine ). Second, and perhaps just as important, is that these countries have effectively agreed to overcome their differences to focus on their shared strategic goals and threats.
Why can't Iran and the US get along?
Chief among them is Iran . In effect, therefore, the agreements bring several US allies in the region closer, and recognise that the threat posed by Iran is a more substantial driver than their historical antagonism. But the effects are unlikely to be limited just to the region. With the China-US rivalry coming to define the international order, the Abraham Accords could also prove to be a key development on this front.
Part of this may be owing to how the agreements affect arms sales to the region. The US has, since the 1960s, maintained a policy called “qualitative military edge” when it comes to arms sales in the region.
Although never clearly defined in US strategic documents, the policy seeks to ensure Israel can sustain a credible military advantage over its neighbours that will effectively deter any regional rival and, if necessary, allow for battlefield dominance in conflict.
It is important to view developments such as the Abraham Accords increasingly through not just a regional lens, but a global one as well
The US has ensured that even as it supplies its Arab allies in the region with billions of dollars worth of equipment, it has reserved the most advanced technology for Israel. The US has held back what military personnel might call its “Gucci” kit, from F-35s fighter aircraft to unmanned combat aerial vehicles. Unable to buy this materiel from the US, Gulf Arab states have turned to other suppliers with no such restrictions, chief among them China . Beijing has secured deals to sell its CH-4 drones to Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and its Wing Loong series to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Riyadh even agreed with China in 2017 to develop a manufacturing facility in Saudi Arabia to build licensed CH-series UAVs.
Rare look at Chinese unmanned drone in flight during emergency communication drills
Chinese drones lack the capability of their US counterparts, but they are far cheaper and, more crucially for Middle Eastern states, freely available for purchase.
But with the Abraham Accords, this situation is likely to change, as the rationale for the qualitative military edge policy is called into question. The UAE has already argued publicly that there should now be no political barriers to its procurement of advanced platforms, particularly the F-35 fighter jet.
The Trump administration appears to be receptive to this view, with the president saying in mid-September he would have “no problem” with such a sale.
While technical solutions might need to be found to appease Israel and ensure that the UAE’s F-35 is less capable than the Israeli version, it is nonetheless a significant step towards normalising arms sales to the US’ Arab allies. Media reports suggest the UAE is also seeking MQ-9 Reaper UCAVs and other major platforms, even as the F-35 has captured most attention.
The Abraham Accords will therefore have a direct effect on China’s influence in the Middle East. Should the US liberalise the sale of its most advanced military equipment to the region, Beijing would lose a key selling point for its weapons.
Regional states are still likely to seek to hedge their suppliers somewhat to avoid being reliant on a single state, but the oil-rich Gulf states will almost certainly prefer the more advanced US platforms to their lesser Chinese versions.
Saudi Arabia’s then-deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman with Xi Jinping as the Chinese president greets arriving members of the Saudi delegation during a 2016 meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing. Photo: AFP The US countering growing Chinese influence i n a strategically vital region is not just a side-effect of the agreements, but a key motivator for them. The fact that Donald Trump was already supporting the idea of a large arms sale before the agreements were even signed suggests that it was a key consideration for all parties in the process.
Should Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden win the election in November, his administration is likely to be warier of supplying advanced weapons systems to some Gulf allies, particularly Saudi Arabia.
But the geopolitical rivalry between China and the US will endure, as will the competition for influence across the globe, and particularly in strategically vital regions like the Middle East.
For this reason, it is important to view developments such as the Abraham Accords increasingly through not just a regional lens, but a global one as well.
Christian Le Miere is a foreign policy adviser and founder of Arcipel, a strategic consultancy
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