With the signing of the Abraham Accord, India, the UAE and Israel will discover that they have more common cause than they had envisioned in the pre-Covid era - and that the historic agreement has opened up enormous commercial opportunities for the shared prosperity of West Asia.
“When two strategic friends come closer, it opens up lots of opportunities.” That's exactly how Indian External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar described the outcome of the historic Abraham Accord - which normalises relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. When details of the Abraham Accord were announced in August, India became one of the first countries to welcome the deal between the UAE and Israel, both key allies in West Asia. “India has consistently supported peace, stability and development in West Asia, which is its extended neighbourhood. In that context, we welcome the full normalization of ties between UAE and Israel,” Indian foreign ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava told journalists on August 14.
Since then, things moved at a rapid pace and last week, the Accord was sealed and signed by Israel with the UAE and Bahrain (the latter Arab nation also agreeing to full normalisation of relations) under the watchful gaze of US President Donald Trump - whose administration brokered the deal. Trump presided over a South Lawn ceremony at the White House where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of the UAE and Bahrain signed the general declaration of principles the White House has named the Abraham Accord, after the biblical father of three monotheistic religions, as well individual agreements between Israel and the two Arab states.
“After decades of division and conflict, we mark the dawn of a new Middle East,” Trump declared, while Netanyahu suggested that more nations would follow: “This day is a pivot of history. It heralds a new dawn of peace. This peace will eventually expand to include other Arab states, and ultimately it can end the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all.”
Indeed, the Abraham Accord has not only dramatically disrupted the geopolitical and economic trajectory of West Asia, but actually set the stage for a realignment of the Middle East. By aggressively promoting “hot peace” in the region and concurrently creating opportunities for wide-ranging trade, business and development agreements, the accord opens up an era of enormous economic and commercial opportunities for India as well.
“The UAE-Israel agreement may be a purely bilateral deal, but it has highly multilateral implications - including for India with important interests in the Middle East. New Delhi has a friendly and growing relationship with Israel, and it tends not to get dragged into the Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry because - unlike Pakistan - it doesn't have very deep or very poor relations with either country,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at Wilson Center.
As elaborated in the texts of the agreements, Israel and the UAE will open embassies and establish other new diplomatic and economic ties - including tourism, technology and energy. In addition, Israel and the UAE are finalizing the groundwork for commercial air travel between their countries for the first time.
Thanks to the dynamic economies of both the UAE and Israel, the agreement also offers major scope to strengthen cooperation in vital sectors such as defence, cybersecurity, space science, healthcare, food security and financial services. According to Abdulla bin Touq Al Marri, UAE's Minister of Economy, the country is looking at least eight trade and economic agreements, including double taxation and a free trade agreement with Israel, at a later stage. According to Israel's deputy chief economist Lev Drucker, the country's finance ministry sees the potential for annual bilateral trade starting at $2 billion and building up to $6.5 billion once cooperation matures.
With the fog over the emerging re-alignments in the region officially lifting, this is therefore a lucrative opportunity for India to strengthen its strategic partnership with Israel and the UAE - which have in the recent years emerged as major pillars of New Delhi's recalibrated relationship with the West Asian region.
“The UAE has developed a reputation for pursuing a proactive and diversified foreign policy that stresses pragmatism over religious ideology; shuns extremism and envisions a stable and moderate region that prioritises youth and prosperity,” according to Dr N. Janardhan, senior research fellow for the Gulf-Asia Programme at Emirates Diplomatic Academy. “In a post-Covid, multi-aligned, technology-driven world, the UAE, Israel and India, along with the United States, will likely find that they have more common cause than they might have envisioned just a few months ago,” he wrote in a column for Outlook.
India's growing tactical and strategic synergy with the UAE will be pivotal in ensuring that those common causes translate into meaningful action and unlock immensely beneficial opportunities for Indian, Israeli and Emirati businesses and commercial establishments.
Over the past few years, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has expended considerable diplomatic capital in improving ties with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in general and the UAE in particular - and ridding those relations of the binaries of energy/Pakistan. Thanks to those efforts, the ties have deepened to include energy security, defence cooperation, intelligence-sharing and counterterrorism, cybersecurity and agritech. In 2015, Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the UAE in 34 years and has visited the UAE three times in the past five years, while Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, was the chief guest at India's Republic Day celebrations in 2017.
This growing bonhomie is buttressed by Dr Jaishankar in his new book, The India Way - Strategies for an Uncertain World, where he lists the UAE among the five countries that India must concentrate on while conducting its foreign policy. India and the UAE, he wrote, have a “fast growing relationship,” adding: “The UAE is central to India's extended neighbourhood. We see the UAE on the crossroads of international trade. As Singapore is in the East, UAE is in the West. It is a relationship where the highest leadership of both countries have invested goodwill and energy. As a result, you can see the transformation during the last five years.”
That transformation will definitely weigh in as the UAE and Israel forge closer ties that mirror India's own relations with each of them.
India and Israel, for instance, signed an agreement in July to expand collaboration in dealing with cyber threats against the backdrop of vulnerable digital infrastructure amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Separately, the UAE and Israel announced a strategic agreement focused on clinical research on vaccines and treatment delivery related to Covid-19. “These separate agreements could evolve into a multilateral strategy, for example, if they were to intersect with the UAE-India agreement in 2018 to explore telemedicine and tele-education projects in Africa. The network could be further tied into Japan's India-backed 'Asia-Africa Growth Corridor,'” said Dr Janardhan.
Similarly, there are major areas of convergences when it comes to start-ups. While the UAE has swiftly emerged as one of the world's most attractive ecosystems for start-ups, with more than a third of start-ups in the Middle East and North Africa based in the country, Israel already enjoys a robust reputation as the Start-Up Nation and the sector makes up more than 40 per cent of the country's exports, while India has seen a mushrooming of tech start-ups and MSMEs under the Make in India scheme.
The synergy between these technology powerhouses also extends to the agriculture sector, where the UAE and India have recently focused on infrastructure development and food security to develop “farm-to-port” logistics solutions in the aftermath of Covid-19, while Israel's innovation with agritech and hydroponics is famed the world over. From security cooperation, counter-terror intelligence and cybersecurity to banking and finance, education and aviation, there are thus opportunities galore to lay the foundations for a strategic and economic breakthrough in the region - a place that has now become India's geopolitical backyard.
Of course, there will be challenges as this new troika cement their relationship in the coming months. “The UAE-Israel deal will deliver another blow to US-Iran relations. It ensures (especially if the Trump administration returns for a second term) the continuation of harsh US sanctions on Iran that in recent years have compelled India - a close and growing partner of Washington's - to scale down its energy imports from Tehran, formerly one of New Delhi's top foreign suppliers,” said Kugelman of Wilson Center.
But just like the Abraham Accord enables the UAE and Israel to enhance their strategic autonomy, these are issues that can well be handled by India and its partners setting their own priorities and will never become a hindrance to the shared prosperity of West Asia.